Who is the most important person in Marvel Comics history?
Several audience members responded to Mark Waid’s question by shouting back “Stan Lee!”
No, the Eisner Award-winning “Daredevil” writer told the crowd gathered for a panel about Marvel’s 75th and the Man Without Fear’s 50th anniversaries. But they were close: It’s Lee’s wife Joanie, Waid said.
In 1961, Lee “was starting to feel burned out” after 20 years and about 10,000 issues of various genre stories under the direction of publisher Martin Goodman, said Waid, an expert on comics history, and was looking to do something else with his life.
“It was his wife Joanie,” Waid continued, “who said … ‘If you’re done with comics and go away and do something else, at least take one last shot and do something that you really want to do… And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.’”
Lee gave comics that last try, with artist and frequent collaborator Jack Kirby, and it worked. Big time: “Fantastic Four” No. 1 arrived and ushered in what’s been called the Marvel Age of Comics.
Waid was speaking alongside Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada and “Amazing Spider-Man” and “Silver Surfer” writer Dan Slott in a panel that was equal parts history lesson and easy Sunday afternoon conversation.
The publisher traces its roots back to the publication of “Marvel Comics” No. 1 in 1939 by Goodman’s Timely Comics – an issue that featured Namor the Sub-Mariner and the original (and android) Human Torch – and Captain America came along in 1941, but superhero books had fallen out of fashion in the 1950s.
Marvel as the public knows it today was born when Lee and Kirby sent quarreling scientific colleagues Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm into space and straight into cosmic rays that transformed them into Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing.
“You cannot imagine the shockwave,” Waid said of the Fantastic Four’s debut. “We take it for granted … but back in 1961 this was like nothing anyone had ever seen. Where were their superhero costumes? Where were their masks? Where are their secret identities? … Why do they all hate each other? Why is Ben Grimm an angry man?”
Quesada added: “These were heroes with problems. They weren’t matinee idols. They were real people.”
Perhaps no House of Ideas hero is more real than the bedeviled blind boy turning 50: Matt Murdock, who continues to combat injustice by day as an attorney and by night as a heightened-senses-enabled vigilante despite enduring personal tragedy after personal tragedy.
“The thing about Daredevil I really love,” Slott said, is “he’s one of the most messed up Marvel characters…. You get the radioactive thing on the eyes. Your father dies — that’s just horrible. Your mother’s the nun who ignores you…. Everything about him is messed up.”
The panel noted the formidable talents that have worked on the protector of Hell’s Kitchen over the years – from Lee and artist Bill Everett (whose had a blind daughter, though whether that influenced the character’s creation is unclear); to Wally Wood, who changed the costume from the early yellow-red-black color scheme (which Quesada termed “court-jesterish”) to the iconic solid red; Gene Colan, who had a long, admired run as DD artist; Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli, whose dark, martial-arts-influenced mid-1980s work introduced Elektra; and Ann Nocenti and John Romita Jr., who in the late ‘80s involved Matt Murdock in more social issues.
“Daredevil’s” fortunes flagged in the 1990s, however, and the series was near cancellation, Quesada said, when he and fellow Event Comics co-founder Jimmy Palmiotti were negotiating with Marvel to handle some of its titles. Quesada said a condition he insisted on was that the deal include Daredevil.
The Quesada-drawn “Guadian Devil” arc in 1998, written by filmmaker Kevin Smith, revived the Man Without Fear’s fortunes, and led to a string of talented storytellers handling the hero: David Mack, the team of Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev, and Ed Brubaker.
“In 50 years, I don’t know that Marvel has had a more consistently well-drawn, well-written comic,” Waid said.
And these days, that tradition is in the hands of him and artist Chris Samnee, who has also won an Eisner Award for his work on “Daredevil.” Their run has recently found Matt admitting in court that he is the costumed hero (even after wearing a shirt that read, “I’m not Daredevil”), being disbarred in New York, and moving to San Francisco, where he’d practiced law once before.
Waid plans for the team to hold onto Daredevil for a while: “Chris and I have both been very blatant that they’re going to have to pull that book out of our cold, dead hands,” he said.
Conversation turned, of course, to the upcoming “Daredevil” live-action series for Netflix.
Quesada, who’s been on location for filming, didn’t disclose details (despite Waid’s prompting and audience whooping and applause) beyond that the cast is “phenomenal,” “it has the feel and grit of Hell’s Kitchen” – and everyone will love it.
Typical hype from an executive? Waid suggested that’s not the case, telling the audience that Quesada had made a personal call to him late one night just to express excitement about the production.
“That was an off-the-record conversation,” Waid said, “and he was every bit as enthusiastic as when he just talked about it. It’s not showmanship. If Joe says it’s really good, I believe it’s really good.”
Soon, actor Charlie Cox will be answering the question, “What’s it like to be Daredevil?” But it’s already something that occupies Waid’s mind.
“Not one single day goes by writing ‘Daredevil’ when I don’t at some point find myself somewhere asking myself, ‘How would Matt perceive this situation? How would he see it? What would he be smelling?’ … Matt has an ocean in front of him, there’s nothing for his radar sense to ping off of – what is that like, deafening silence? I think about this constantly.”
Slott added, referring to Matt’s ability to hear heartbeats: “What’s it like to live in a world where you know when somebody is lying to you? Whether a friend or a lover or your enemy. What if you lived in a world were you knew the truth all the time?”
Another issue, Waid said: “Daredevil is one of the few superheroes whose superpowers are getting less impressive and less effective every year we go on in the 21st century…. Every time you see Matt do something amazing with his super-senses, I want to try to counterbalance that with a moment then that he doesn’t know what floor of the hotel he’s on.”
The panelists also discussed what initially got them hooked on Marvel Comics. Slott said it was that the heroes sometimes lost, noting an issue of “Daredevil” where the title character loses a fight to Namor. Waid said Peter Parker’s choices in life felt more real than Superman’s (though he has memorably written Man of Steel stories). Quesada talked about Lee’s feature Stan’s Soapbox and captions and editor’s notes that directly addressed readers in a conversational style; and he recalled the first comics he ever read – the 1971 “Amazing Spider-Man” issues in which Peter’s pal Harry Osborn has a drug problem.
Quesada’s father had seen Stan Lee talking about the issues (which defied the Comics Code Authority rules) on the news and bought them as a way to teach his son to not abuse drugs.
“I never did drugs,” Quesada said, “but I did get addicted to comics — so it may have cost him more money in the long run.”
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