Just Imagine Stan Lee’s Relevant
DC Comics’ series of Just Imagine . . . one-shots written by the legendary Stan Lee answers the question of whether Lee still has what it takes to write comics. The short answer is: Yes. The long answer is: So what?
Stan Lee created (or helped create) innumerable characters for Marvel Comics in the 1960s, starting with the Fantastic Four and proceeding to such icons as Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the X-Men. Lee was spurred by the success of rival DC’s already-established superheroes such as Batman and Superman. However, Lee found those heroes to be insufficiently complex and, thus, hard to root for; so, he created heroes who were more flawed and sympathetic. Now, in the Just Imagine books, Lee gets his shot to write the heroes who drove him and in the style that revolutionized the form. The wellspring of the heroes hasn’t changed—Batman is still a vigilante, Wonder Woman is still a product of old magic, Superman is still an alien freakball—but, otherwise, Lee follows his fancy. And, as if we didn’t already know, Stan Lee’s fancy is an all-terrain vehicle.
The series starts with Just Imagine Stan Lee’s Batman, which pairs Lee and old-school artist Joe Kubert. In Lee’s retelling, the hero, Wayne Williams, is a young, street-wise African-American whose run-in with a hood gets him framed and imprisoned. While behind bars, Williams channels his anger into bettering both his body and his mind. A jailbreak offers the opportunity for Williams to rebuild his life and gain revenge on his foe via technological aid from another ex-con and inspiration from Williams’ old cellmate - a bat.
With Lee and Kubert at the helm, Just Imagine . . . Batman could have been published 50 years ago - and, had it been, it might still be running today. Simply put, it works. The plot unfolds with assurance over several years and backdrops. The characters possess enough nuance to illuminate, but not enough to blind (for example, Williams starts as the disillusioned son of a slain cop). And charming details abound (for example, to assemble his bat costume, Williams relies on the sewing skills that he picked up while in stir).
Two particular facets of the book radiate brilliance. The first is Lee’s dialogue, a vastly underrated knack of his. Lee’s ear for speech hasn’t diminished with time - the sentiments expressed by his characters are wise, earnest, preposterous, but they all manage to be both recognizably human and lightning-stroke vivid. (One example: When the hero visits a run-down hotel, the man behind the barred window says, “You got ex-con written all over ya! Five bucks a night . . . pay in advance or git lost!” Of course! What else would he say?) The second spark is Kubert’s art. It never feels forced, yet it’s always complete. Seeing Kubert’s art is like slipping into a pair of old jeans and finding $5 in one pocket and a half-eaten sandwich in the other, and the person who ate the sandwich was you, recently. So everything comes together.
Unfortunately, the thread frays with the next volume, Just Imagine . . . Wonder Woman, in which Stan Lee joins forces with new-school artist Jim Lee (no relation), one of the mavericks who founded Image Comics in 1992. Here, the art binds Stan Lee rather than frees him. Jim Lee’s art straddles the line between grit and grandeur . . . and ends up achieving neither. With their orange-peel smiles and flickering fluorescent eyes, his characters are sterile when they hit the page, and no amount of Stan Lee’s patented chromosomal mixing can restore their fecundity. As a result, they require a plot with the subtlety of a whipped-cream codpiece.
And, incredibly . . . Stan Lee obliges. His story for Just Imagine . . . Wonder Woman still bears traces of the cellophane in which it was wrapped. Good Girl hates Bad Man. Bad Man gets Incredible Power. Good Girl gets Incredible Power of her own. Good Girl fights Bad Man. Good Girl wins! Party at Good Girl’s place!
And that’s it. It’s nothing but gist. The most suspenseful thing about Just Imagine . . . Wonder Woman is watching the page numbers build. All that’s missing is a pronunciation guide for the two-syllable words.
And, banish the thought that Lee isn’t faking his recidivism: The pitch is too dear to be accidental. As proof, we need offer no more evidence than the closing line, uttered by the newly employed heroine: “My job is to help the most attractive man I’ve ever met find . . . myself!” Here is the classic Image hero: a child (usually female) who is graced by awesome power - and remains a child. Sure, she has been through a meat grinder, but, at the end of the day, she’s still a 16 year-old in cybernetic pasties. Stan Lee has been doing his reading.
Grown-ups retake the stage in the third book, Just Imagine . . . Superman, ably drawn by veteran artist John Buscema. The premise is breathtaking: An intergalactic jackass named Salden gets flung across untold spans of space and time and crash-lands on our dirtball of a planet. Thanks to the greater gravity of his homeworld, Salden is naturally imbued with the qualities of the original DC Superman, such as fantastic speed and keen vision. However, this isn’t our familiar paragon of altruism - in fact, it takes all of Salden’s super-strength to breathe the same air that we do, disgusted as he is by our gullibility and primitiveness (at one point, he jeers at our skimpy English alphabet). Salden fights crime not so that Earthlings can live in peace, but so that the nations of the world can devote more of their budgets to space travel so that he can go home!
Sadly, Lee makes his first missteps of the series here. First, he spends too much time tracing the course of Gorrok, a criminal from Salden’s homeworld who traveled with him to Earth and whom Salden is pursuing. And then, rather than developing Gorrok into a villain on par with the original Superman’s homeworld foe, General Zod, Lee sets Gorrok as second fiddle to a mysterious cowled doofus who inhabits the side story building through each book. Nevertheless, the jerky Superman is a great character - how can you not love a hero who moans, “I’m marooned on a planet of clowns”? Lee likewise excels with his Lois Lane, a go-go Hollywood agent who regards Superman’s cape as unrealized ad space. An editorial nudge toward these characters would have allowed Just Imagine . . . Superman to reach the heights of Lee’s Batman.
Other volumes in the Just Imagine . . . series are slated, but Lee has made his point. However, the results are as frustrating as they are refreshing. Stan Lee’s notebooks probably pale only to those of Da Vinci, and yet we readers are blessed with his byline, what, once a year? Every storyteller is silenced eventually by force; the tragedy is when storytellers silence themselves by will. Here’s hoping that the impetus of this writing catapults Lee out of his well-earned contentedness into a regular gig. Speech bubbles never had it so good.