“Let the Vapors of the Vishanti keep you out of the sight of man! Let Hoggoth’s mystical hosts keep you from ever coming back!
You may not have read those immortal lines before, but fans of superhero comics can probably identify the author instantly. Stan Lee, who died yesterday at age 95, wrote like no one before him, or, despite his massive influence, no one else.
Although he initially became famous as a comic book writer, Lee’s writing is perhaps the least celebrated aspect of his career and legacy. He’s mostly known as the co-creator of blockbuster characters like Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor, and Fantastic Four, even though he probably had less involvement in them than his collaborating artists Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. Lee was also known for acting as editor and public face of Marvel after 1971, a role that naturally led to his numerous cameos in the blockbuster Marvel films. He himself became virtually an iconic property, better known as a kind of art, rather than an artist.
But he was also a remarkable artist, albeit a very strange one. The Marvel method that Lee helped develop was a collaborative process, in which artists like Kirby and Ditko would turn a loose story idea into pencil art. Then Lee would fill in the dialog boxes. As a result, Lee’s words weren’t exactly necessary for the story; instead, they functioned as a mixture of semi-redundant explanations and bombastic filigree.
Lee is perhaps most famous for his use of the third person; his monsters and supervillains were constantly shouting their own names: “No one can escape Kraa! Now you must pay the price for defying my will! “” Never again will mortal eyes gaze upon the hideous face of Victor Von Doom! “And of course the most famous of all,” Hulk smashes! “All of Lee’s are bigger than… The figures in life were obsessed with their own brand.
Excessive self-promotion was a charge often leveled at Lee, and part of the greatness of their dialogue was the way enormity was so transparently understood. Ditko and Kirby reveled in images, characters, settings, and far-reaching conflicts. Lee’s dialogue, set alongside some of the best comic book images ever created, wasn’t amazing on its own. But he let readers know what it was anxious to amaze them, who loved to amaze them, that he was right there in ALL CAPS, breaking and defying and carrying the exclamation points and melodrama. (“Someday I’ll show you! <> Someday you’ll regret it!”) Lee’s dialogue was not as self-aware, but rather resolute, determined, United Nations-knowledge He grabbed every available polysyllabic word and environmental alliteration and turned it into 12. How else could it compete with that dire crunch of Kirby or the stunned Ditko Brobdingnagianness?
The astonishing heyday of Lee’s art was probably the fantasy fantasy hangover he wrote as a complement to Ditko’s cosmic acid escapes in his classic collaboration on the original Dr. Strange comics in the 1960s. Ditko envisioned Strange’s mystical adventures in a frenzy. Jackson Pollock’s semi abstract patterns and lines around strange demons with fiery heads and an unlikely hat. Lee, meanwhile, jumped onto the mumbo-jumbo with both feet and a collection of other appendages as well.
His Dr. Strange writing featured the usual exclamation marks and bombardment, but on top of that, he placed nonsensical words and phrases that were half HP Lovecraft, half Dr. Seuss. “By all Hoggoth Hosts, I command you, awesome Agamatto, let your all-seeing eye open before me!” “The sinister seraphim fear me not, Demon! Not while the powers of the Eternal Vishanti are mine to command!” Even civilians are caught in the stream of dogs. In one panel, Dr. Strange’s astral form passes through an airplane, and a passenger asks his companion: “Did you just feel a sensation of earthly cold, like the icy wind passing by?” His seatmate prosaically replies: “Why yes! The plane must be loaded!
Those kinds of laughable juxtapositions are not a mistake; they are a feature Lee’s most memorable speech bubbles teeter between speech, poetry, and outright doggerel. It’s Shakespeare, it’s a publicity song, it’s a dark, cowardly spell. More than anything, he’s filled with Carny’s pure joy at his ability to amaze, amaze, and entertain.
Lee’s carny trick was a transparent trick, but that’s part of the fun. He never stopped trying to wow his audience, sure we’re eager to be wowed. “I, the dreaded Dormammu, will feed you endless mystical power when you need it!” Bellowed Lee. And it was true. Along with Ditko and Kirby, he kept turning the crank, and those gloriously bombastic words spread alongside those even more gloriously bombastic images. For the most part, Lee went from writing a long time ago, but appreciating his contributions to comics and the importance of his story, his old speech bubbles are worth checking out, where despite the tumultuous turn of time, the mystical energy it still flows as infinitely as ever.