"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
Much of my childhood was spent spellbound in the Marvel Universe, immersed in a mythos hatched largely in the mind of writer and editor Stan Lee in the early ’60s. New York City was where the superheroes lived. It was one of those childhood truths, a Big Apple bustling with vibrantly costumed superhumans. Spider-Man lived in Queens, the Fantastic Four in Midtown and Doctor Strange down on Bleecker Street.
It was important that Lee’s heroes lived in the real world, and not in Gotham City or Metropolis, because they were real people. That is, Marvel Comics imagined how real people might act if they suddenly gained superpowers — confused, conflicted and not necessarily eager for the responsibility. They were a departure from that straight-arrow hero of the Golden Age, Superman. The next age belonged to Marvel. And Stan Lee ushered it in with his creations.
The Marvel Age brought its own sensibility and vernacular, expressed by characters who developed through their adventures instead of merely bouncing over tall buildings in a single bound from one escapade to the next. Marvel’s heroes were tragi-bombastic, beset by every variety of psychological affliction, but usually smart-assing their way through it. Lee invented the vocabulary and the attitude of the modern superhero, placing his characters and their complex stories in a vivid, literary landscape. Lee was also a principal architect of the modern comic book, a major signpost in popular culture and one of the great American art forms of the 20th century.
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Stanley Lieber was the teenage cousin of the wife of Martin Goodman, owner of Marvel (then Timely) Comics. He entered the family business in 1939, one year after the debut of Superman, in Action Comics No. 1 (a copy of which sold at auction in July for $46,000). Lieber’s first writing for the company was a piece of prose in Captain America No. 3, a two-page text filler that qualified comic books for inexpensive mailing rates. He signed it “Stan Lee,” he later recalled, “because I felt someday I’d be writing the Great American Novel and I didn’t want to use my real name on these silly little comics.” Lee worked with editor Joe Simon and one of the giants of the industry, artist Jack Kirby, of whom Lee once said, “He never drew a character who didn’t look interesting or excited. In every panel there was something to look at.” But within three years, Simon and Kirby, who had created the successful Captain America serial for Timely, left the company for the competition, DC Comics.
The rival publisher had a fleet of new superheroes, including Superman, Batman and the Flash. They protected their secret identities and never wavered from their battle with evil. The characters caught on, and comics became the ideal medium for their adventures. But to some, including Lee, the DC heroes were as flat as their exploits were predictable. Of Superman, Lee once said, “He was never very interesting to me, because I was never worried about him. And if you’re not worried about the jam your hero is in, there’s no excitement.”
At age 20, Lee became Timely’s editor and chief writer. With his literary aspirations and his youth, he resisted the typical comic-book heroes, with their bland invincibility and adolescent subordinates. Lee was an underdog himself, but he felt readily able to fill Simon’s heroic shoes. Luckily for the industry, he had the ambition to match his imagination. His new pen name would become the most recognized in the history of comics.
By the ’60s, however, the newly renamed Marvel Comics — and much of the comic-book industry — teetered on the edge of extinction. Jack Kirby returned to the company that year and, lore has it, found Lee sobbing while movers took the furniture out of Marvel’s offices. Rival DC had managed to score a hit with a new team of superheroes, the Justice League of America, headed by the Man of Steel himself. Goodman, Lee’s boss and cousin-in-law, demanded a response from Marvel, and, born of necessity, a long artistic flowering began.
Debuting in 1961, Fantastic Four No. 1 was a masterful step forward in comic-book evolution. Like the JLA, it too was a team of heroes: a super-stretching Mr. Fantastic, an Invisible Girl, the Human Torch and an orange monstrosity called the Thing. A statement Lee made about the Torch, a character brought back from an earlier Marvel era, summed up his new philosophy: “The original Torch had been an android, so I made the new Torch a human being.” In other words, also Lee’s, “I tried to give them more authenticity by making them more realistic … Who do you know who has a really perfect life? I mean, I don’t care how rich the guy is, how handsome the guy is, how sexy his wife is. There’s nobody who doesn’t have a hard time. I mean, when we were doing those books, Kennedy seemed to have a perfect life, and he got shot. Everybody has problems, and everybody has secret sorrows.” The Thing’s appeal lay in his mix of rage and self-pity, his grandiloquent Brooklynese and self-deprecating humor. He was a Shakespearean invention compared with his contemporaries.
The Fantastic Four revived Marvel’s fortunes, revitalized the industry and revolutionized the form. “Nearly all modern superhero comics have drawn and continue to draw on the first 80 or so issues of the Fantastic Four for inspiration and material,” comics historian Robert Harvey writes in “The Art of the Comic Book.” Just a few years earlier, the industry, publishing far more horror, adventure, western, mystery and love comics than tales of superhumans, had almost collapsed. Soon DC and Marvel produced nothing but superhero comic books, and — ZOK! — sales went through the roof for the entire industry. “Without Stan Lee, there wouldn’t be a modern comic-book industry,” Bill Liebowitz, the owner of Golden Apple, a big Los Angeles comic-book store, told the Dallas Observer. “He really is to comics what Elvis Presley and Col. Tom Parker were to music.”
Lee had considerable help from Kirby, who is worshipped today in comic-book circles as one of the first artists to realize the form’s potential with his continuous, panel-to-panel action. To crank out enough product, the dynamic duo created an efficient method: Lee would supply the characters and rough plot ideas, letting artists flesh out the scenes, which Lee then scripted. He met Kirby’s skills halfway with his vivid dialogue and story lines that stretched out over several issues. Kirby’s art transformed Lee’s story ideas into dramatic action; Lee embellished the action with colorful verbiage, writing captions and speech balloons laced with mocking irony. Their process, known as the Marvel Method, was necessary because of Lee’s prolific pace, but it soon became an industry norm.
Lee went on a superhero-creating rampage, adding new characters to his family of flawed heroes — the Hulk, a wandering brute baffled by civilization, and the X-Men, genetic mutants with weird powers. “In those days, if you gave him something, no matter what, he was adept at placing balloons, at using dialogue, at heightening the characterizations,” Gil Kane, an artist who apprenticed with Kirby, once said of Lee. “He wrote one book a night for 10 years. Not only was it easy for him, but it was also the best thing that happened to comics.” In 1963, Lee unveiled what would become his most enduring character in a throwaway book called Amazing Fantasy No. 15, the pre-ordained final issue of the series (a mint-condition copy of which now commands $27,500 from collectors). Billed as “the hero that could be you,” Spider-Man was just a regular science nerd, until he was bitten by a radioactive arachnid. (Lee’s heroes, unlike DC’s, were of the atomic age; countless superhero powers are derived from run-ins with nuclear radiation.) The comic broke down a wall, allowing you into the interior life of a superhero whose alter ego, Peter Parker, was a fragile teenager stuck in a tragicomedy of unrequited crushes, peer rejection and money problems. Its intimacy connected to readers where they lived and opened the imagination up to the idea of a superhuman in the real world. The change was a revelation.
If Spider-Man altered our orientation toward power in subtle ways, then two of Lee’s next works hit the Zeitgeist head-on. In 1964, Captain America, the hero who at one time had put Timely into the top rank of comic publishers, was resurrected. Instead of modernizing him, Lee and Kirby explored him as he was; frozen since an Arctic plane crash in 1944, he had little comprehension of the modern world, no loved ones, no purpose. The Cap, a melancholy anachronism, foreshadowed the fading influence of the World War II generation. Also in 1964 came Doctor Strange, a practitioner of White Magic, whose tales offered a vision of the ambiguity of good and evil. (“It is as I suspected! He is evil, true … but only by our human standards!” he says of his enemy, Dormammu, in Strange Tales No. 127. “According to his own lights, he has his own moral code!”) The mysticism of the comic caught on with budding hippies, who saw Strange as a hallucinatory endorsement of psychedelia. (Lee would later prove them wrong with a Spider-Man anti-drug series.) The Doctor and his creator became a college cult; a 1965 psychedelic rock happening in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury was called “A Tribute to Dr. Strange.” Francis Ford Coppola reportedly hoards a huge stash of the comics.
Around the same time that novelist Ken Kesey was asserting that Marvel had as much to say about life as any contemporary literature, Lee initiated a wave of black superheroes. The list included the Black Panther, the Falcon and Luke Cage, who got his own title in 1972. Lee maintains that he didn’t have the civil rights movement in mind, just diversity. “I had a lot of friends who were black and we had artists who were black,” he once said. “So it occurred to me … why aren’t there any black heroes?” But the Black Panther — king of a secret, underground African kingdom that just happened to be the most highly industrialized, scientific country in the world — showed that, in the Marvel Universe, color was something that came between the lines, not the characters.
The Silver Surfer, a futuristic being assigned to warn Earth of its impending doom at the hands of the galaxy-swallowing Galactus, was another perfect hero for ’60s college students and the pop-culture intelligentsia. Cursed to wander in Earth’s atmosphere lamenting his lost freedom and bemoaning the folly of humankind, the Silver Surfer was Lee’s surrogate philosopher: “Why is there so much hatred and bigotry? Why do we hate people who seem to be different than we are instead of enjoying the variety? It was so perfect for me … it was so easy to have him say the things that I would like to say because he was from another world. He had just arrived here on Earth and he was viewing mankind with fresh eyes, and he could react.”
By the early 1970s, thanks to the strength of Lee’s characters, Marvel was the dominant comic-book publisher. Fast behind his heroes, Lee became a cultural icon in his own right. He lectured at colleges (where students would ask if the Silver Surfer was modeled on Christ) and served as Marvel’s emissary to the entertainment and media worlds. Lee moved into the publisher’s seat in 1972. He began writing less (today he is said to script about a book a year), and comic books began coming out from under his long shadow.
As a pre-teen comics reader in the mid-’70s, I was familiar with Stan Lee from his byline, his column (“Stan’s Soapbox”) and especially the slick, smiling, sunglassed comic-book portraits of him by his artists, which gave him a superhero’s confident gloss. I was lucky enough to get my hands on 1971′s Incredible Hulk No. 144, featuring Doctor Doom, one of the later serials to bear Lee’s name as editor. Said to have been an inspiration for Darth Vader, Doom wears a mysterious iron mask and dark green hood and shoots rays from his hands. He wanders Manhattan with diplomatic immunity, because he is the sovereign of a country called “Latveria.” Doom’s objective is generic — he wants to rule the world — but he is a living, breathing character whose methods, eloquence and need make him compelling.
Like all Marvel’s stories, this Incredible Hulk story fit into a larger epic tale. But the beauty was you could just pick it up, read its encapsulated form and be equally transfixed by the script and art: In one panel we see Hulk’s back, his left leg and arm dominating the foreground; Doctor Doom, temporarily fallen, looks up at him and says, “Fool! A moment’s respite is all I need and then –” But Hulk interrupts: “Don’t talk … just go, before Hulk changes his mind!” Despite the exclamation mark, there is poignant resignation in Hulk’s words. The superhumans would live to fight another day, a Sisyphean struggle of good against evil that never ended precisely because the boundary between them was so blurred.
Lee’s stamp was there, in the rich characterization as well as the lyricism. By then, of course, it had permeated the entire industry. But in the decades since, as Marvel has struggled, comics have slipped into an insular obscurity. The art is sophisticated, but the stories seem to lack heart. Many of today’s comics subscribe to a “more is more” ethos — more muscles, more action, more color — at the expense of character and narrative. In a 1998 interview with cartoonist Jules Feiffer in Civilization, Lee lamented this: “Unfortunately, there are some artists who concentrate more on drawing impressive illustrations than on telling a story in a clear, compelling way … I feel today’s books lack cohesion.”
As Lee’s direct editorial influence was waning, new characters were emerging outside the Marvel empire. Artists began generating new comics and new story lines for independent publishers like Image and Dark Horse. Many artists had formerly worked for Marvel, like Todd McFarlane, who created a breakthrough character named Spawn for Image Comics. The alternative publisher quickly gained about 15 percent of the market; most of that, it was estimated, came from Marvel’s share. While Marvel published the lucrative tie-in comics for the first “Star Wars” trilogy, upstart Dark Horse took over the privilege in the ’90s for a whole slew of spin-off “Star Wars” stories as well as the recent and upcoming prequels.
As reader interest in comics has declined (with the exception of a speculative boom brought on by collectors, which peaked in ’92 and later crashed), Marvel has seen its market share shrink from 70 percent in the 1980s to less than 50 percent today. The cash-strapped company’s decline, after a long supremacy, is akin to George Lucas going bankrupt after making the first “Star Wars” trilogy. But Marvel’s hard times may say more about the uniqueness of Lee’s achievement and his ability to connect with his times than it does about his role as publisher, which gradually became honorary. In 1981, Lee began overseeing Marvel’s animated television and live-action movie projects on the West Coast. After infamously protracted legal entanglements, Spider-Man and the X-Men are headed to the big screen in the next year and a half. Finally entering territory successfully mined by DC’s Superman and Batman movie serials, Lee just might hand Marvel one more lease on life.
Now 76, Lee is Marvel’s chairman emeritus. He sees the Internet as the comic playground of the future. This fall, his new site promises stories with brand-new characters, told in an original multimedia style. And this week his new company, Stan Lee Media, began trading on the NASDAQ exchange. Lee’s stake is estimated to be worth about $25 million, and he’ll retain ownership of his new characters for the first time in his career.
Lee is a modern myth-maker. Unlike Tolkien, his mythology exists in an imagined present. Unlike Lucas, his characters are deep and existential. Lee’s vision is at least as humanistic as it is magical: “I have always personally felt that all of us, every living being, gets one shot at life. You know, we’re here once then we’re gone as far as we know, and why the hell not enjoy it as much as possible,” Lee once said. “Why not be nice to our fellow man? We’re all in the same boat, we’re all taking a journey to nowhere, and why not make it as pleasant for all of us as we possibly can?” It may be a far cry from Truth, Justice and the American Way, but so is the world outside the comic-book panels.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)