Thursday, October 12, 2006

Looking To The Stars - Stan Lee Meets Dr. Strange - A Review

How is it that a story can be three things at the same time?

I ask this because I read the new Stan Lee Meets Dr. Strange book this week and I find myself puzzled by the second story in that collection. Written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Mark Bagley, the story is both a commentary on modern Marvel, a tribute to the old Stan Lee Tales of the Marvel Bullpen stories and a big upraised middle-finger to every Marvel Critic everywhere.

The plot focuses on The Impossible Man – the weird little green alien with reality altering powers who made life interesting for The Fantastic Four every once in a while. He shows up at the Baxter Building ready to cause mischief, only to find a laid-up Johnny Storm. Johnny explains that the rest of the team is gone – Ben has fled to Europe because of the Civil War between the superheroes in America.

Still looking for someone to play with, The Impossible Man teleports to the Avengers Mansion. Or rather, what WAS the Avengers Mansion. A helpful T-shirt vendor (selling “Not Like This!” memorial Hawkeye shirts) fills IM on what happened to The Mighty Avengers – namely that Scarlet Witch went crazy, blew up the mansion and killed Hawkeye. “And Ant-Man, but nobody seems to care about him,” the vendor notes sheepishly. After a quick glance at the top of the eyesore of a New Avengers base, The Impossible Man moves on to Xavier’s School.

The Impossible Man then spends a goodly while conversing with a random Asian female student. “Who cares?” she says when IM asks who she is. “I’ll be dead in six issues anyway!” IM is filled in on why exactly Sentinels are patrolling the grounds, why there are so few students and indeed, why there are a lot less mutants. Disgusted, The Impossible Man continues on to the Marvel Comics offices, where he is bumped from editor’s assistant to editor’s assistant.

If the idea of Tom Brevoort begging Mark Millar to turn in his Civil War script on time or Joe Quesada showing everyone the clip of him on The Colbert Report for the hundredth time is funny to you, then you’ll love this little section. (Tom Brevoort’s To-Do list includes “Listen to Ed Brubaker babble” and “Take It All Out on Dan Slott”) Not much happens concerning the plot, save that The Impossible Man cares only about talking to Stan Lee himself. And eventually, one of the aides tells him that Stan no longer works in New York – he’s out in Hollywood.

One quick trip later and IM is at the back of a line of other Marvel Comics characters who have complaints about how the company is being run without Stan Lee’s influence. Eventually, after a small fight scene, IM gets to speak to the Man himself. And Stan assures his creation that change is a part of life and comics and that people are always going to complain about change and life and by extension, comics. He notes how much hate mail he got over changing the team make-up of The Mighty Avengers when all of the original team left, leaving Captain America to lead a team of three reforming criminals in Avengers #16. He also notes slyly that he got more than a few complaints about a certain character being a rip-off of Mr. Myxlplyx.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This story is very funny in parts. The scenes in Marvel Comics offices are a nice tribute to the old stories Stan Lee wrote about what was going on in the Marvel bullpen. And this story does articulate most of the complaints that many critics of New Marvel quite well – ironic given that this story was written by the man responsible for so many of the big changes (and arguably, big problems) with the modern Marvel Universe.

At first, that was enough. I was amused by the story and I was glad to see that Bendis could poke fun at himself a little bit. His writing is hit or miss with me most of the time but even if I don’t like a writer’s writing I can usually at least respect them if they can laugh at themselves. And then I reread it to see if I missed any sly in-jokes in the panels – and that’s when it hit me.

There’s not a negative word to be said about any of the writing itself! Just the changes.

Now believe me, I understand the need for change and drama in comics as much as anyone, I’m a Kyle Rayner fan, for crying out loud! But there is a world of difference between the fanboy belly-aching about how all change is bad and the fanboy who says “Well, I think there could be a good story told about Peter Parker revealing his real identity to the world – I just don’t think THIS is a good story.”

Reed and Sue having marital strife? Ben leaving the Fantastic Four? The Avengers having a bunch of new misfit members? All of those stories have happened before and things turned out fine! So yes, people DO need to stop whining about that. But when remodeling a home, there is a world of difference in complaining about the new color of the kitchen and in complaining about the termites destroying the foundation.

Those of us who have questioned Tony Stark’s fall to the dark side, Reed Richards’ apparent indifference to Sue’s leaving him and killing off a no-name hero (and an Black hero at that) just to prove a point – those people, who are respectful in their questions, deserve answers.

What Bendis has done in this story is attempted to equate reasonable criticism with whiny trolling in an effort to dismiss both. In short, the story is a metaphor with Impossible Man playing all critics everywhere and Stan Lee as the voice of reason, according to Brian Michael Bendis.

And that is the most insulting part of this tribute book. For all his faults, Stan Lee has never tried to silence or dismiss his critics. Whenever talking about his past and some of the more questionable elements of how he has done business, he has always told his side and his side alone and left it for people to decide for themselves. In every print and tape interview I’ve seen, I have never seen him say a bad word about Kirby, Ditko or any of the other creators who felt they had been cheated by “The Man”.

When Stan Lee kids himself, there is something sincere in it. Consider the stories he wrote in the two “Stan Lee Meets-“ books so far. In the first, he promoted merchandising in order to get Peter Parker to stay Spider-Man, pointing out all the people – t-shirt makers, toy-makers and such- whose livelihood would be ruined without Spider-Man, not mentioning himself though he certainly did think about it. In the second, Stan Lee derides merchandising as he goes to visit Stephen Strange and finds out that the Sorcerer Supreme has taken to selling t-shirts and guided tours of his home in order to make ends meet.

Anyone here remember the musical Music Man? Stan Lee is our Harold Hill. Yes, he has an aura of questionable integrity barely concealed by a slick smile and a “trust me” wink. But when Stan tells a story or even just introduces a story, not only do you believe that the band and the instruments are real - they actually WERE real. He may have been a con-man but he his heart was in the right place when you got right down to it.

Stan mocked himself and his friends in his writing but never with any malice. The hobbyist themselves were rarely a target. And even on the rare occasions he has made fun of some of the scarier sects of Fandom, it has always been in a concerned and dare I say loving way, like his famous cameo in Mallrats.

Any hint of that love is absent from this tribute story. It is skillful, yes. It parodies the tone of Stan’s older works quite well, yes. But the wink to the camera isn’t there. The “don’t worry – it’s all a gag” smile is absent. The man who was once the heart and soul of Marvel Comics is truly gone.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

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