Stan Lee And The Set Of All Possible Comic Books

Like so many people, I too am saddened to hear that Stan Lee has passed away. While the Marvel Comics characters and artwork have long captivated my imagination, I was never as big a fan of comic books as others. Since I’m not really a part of that world, I’ll leave the more important eulogizing to those from whom it would be more genuine.

There is one aspect of Stan Lee’s professional work, however, that resonates with me more than all the others, and it’s something that I haven’t seen others really discuss in depth; at least not from a conceptual standpoint. I’m talking about Lee’s greatest innovation, the concept of a “Marvel Universe,” in which all characters existed and played roughly by the same set of rules. This development enabled characters to interact with each other as the storylines demanded, without the writers’ having to create elaborate sub-plots to introduce, say, Spiderman into the Swamp Thing storyboard. This created “one big Marvel Comics story,” and any particular comic book you may have read was a part of that over-arching story. It’s something that has been copied throughout the sci-fi and fantasy genres. Both Star Wars and Star Trek have pulled off something similar, enabling them to merchandise books, video games, and other off-shoot media that contain wholly original stories that nonetheless hold equal appeal to the fanbase as “canonical” stories. From a business standpoint, it’s a shrewd move that means selling more stuff to more hungry fans. From an artistic standpoint, though, it’s nothing short of incredible.

Why? Because writing one great story is an amazing thing that most of us never accomplish; but creating a world in which every imaginable story can exist simultaneously is a stroke of genius. That’s what Stan Lee accomplished.

Lee wasn’t of course, the first one to do this. I first became aware of this notion years ago, while reading the Wikipedia page for Conan the Barbarian. It’s a fascinating entry in its own right, if you’re into that sort of thing. But this in particular struck a chord with me:
In February 1932, Howard vacationed at a border town on the lower Rio Grande. During this trip, he further conceived the character of Conan and also wrote the poem "Cimmeria", much of which echoes specific passages in Plutarch's Lives.[3][4] According to some scholars, Howard's conception of Conan and the Hyborian Age may have originated in Thomas Bulfinch's The Outline of Mythology (1913) which inspired Howard to "coalesce into a coherent whole his literary aspirations and the strong physical, autobiographical elements underlying the creation of Conan".
And later:
"The Phoenix on the Sword" appeared in Weird Tales cover-dated December 1932. Editor Farnsworth Wright subsequently prompted Howard to write an 8,000-word essay for personal use detailing "the Hyborian Age", the fictional setting for Conan. Using this essay as his guideline, Howard began plotting "The Tower of the Elephant", a new Conan story that was the first to truly integrate his new conception of the Hyborian world.
Conan the Barbarian has endured across generations for going on 100 years, from the pulp fiction age, to the comic book age, to the movie age, and beyond. To some, he seems a silly character, but the reason a character like that would prove so enduring is thanks to the comprehensive conceptual effort that was put into creating him. Robert E. Howard didn’t just write some good stories, he “coalesced into a coherent whole his literary aspirations,” and established a fictional setting that would form the basis for all Conan stories ever written and published. Howard invented a history, a geography, a religious mythology, and so on, all in service of his Conan character.

To be as clear about this as possible: First, Howard conceived of a world, then he wrote just one story inhabiting that world, then he established an entire universe for his future work, then he created a body of literary world that has endured for generations. It’s not just that Howard wrote some good stories or created a good character, it’s that he put in the effort in advance to create a literary universe that formed the conceptual basis of all his stories, and stories that additional authors would write in the future, as well. That’s the innovation.

Nor was Howard the first to ever do such a thing. One of his contemporaries, a favorite of mine named Edgar Rice Burroughs, did something similar many times over with his Mars series, his Venus series, his Pellucidar series, and his Tarzan series. J.R.R. Tolkien did it. C.S. Lewis did it. And so on.

I think one of the reasons the death of Stan Lee is going to hit our culture so hard is because there are so few artists today who are interested in creating a conceptual world for their work to inhabit. Lee was ninety-five years old. He was one of the last artists of our time to have built such a world. The only modern author I can think of who has even come close to this is J.K. Rowling, who is also not coincidentally lauded for her complex storytelling. There are few others.

Certainly, this sort of thing has long since fallen out of vogue in the music world. A great pop artist, it is said, will evolve with the times. The notion that a composer of music gets to invent his or her own rules, and compose a musical universe according to those rules, went out of fashion with the modern composers of the mid-Twentieth Century. Many painters have a style in which they work, but how many of them have a consistent set of conceptual rules that unifies their entire body of work? Not since, again, the mid-Twentieth Century have we seen anything like that.

Conceptually complex art is a thing of the past, and Stan Lee was a part of that tradition. There was once a time when creative artists would aspire to that complexity, would infuse future works with elements from their past works in the name of conceptual continuity. These efforts elevated the artist’s work from being a one-off pretty picture or nice story to serving an over-arching universe that the consumer could enter and exit as they saw fit. Maybe you only really liked Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats, and not his London Symphony Orchestra. But those with a greater hunger for what Zappa did can explore both albums and more. That’s why they call it “Zappa’s Universe.”

So the death of Stan Lee takes us one step further away from a world in which artists create the set of all possible things, rather than just one single thing. Our artistic consumption will flatten out a little bit. The range of our artistic consumption will get a little shallower. We’ll miss him, but we won’t realize it until a few more Marvel movies come out without his input and introduce things to the Marvel Universe that don’t seem quite right. We’ll wonder why they don’t fit. We’ll grow bored and move on.

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