“Let the Vapors of the Vishanti drive you from the sight of man! Let the mystic Hosts of Hoggoth prevent you from ever returning again!”
You may not have read those immortal lines before, but superhero comics fans can probably instantly identify the author. Stan Lee, who died yesterday at age 95, wrote like no one before him — or, in spite of his massive influence, anyone since.
Though he initially became famous as a comics writer, Lee’s writing is perhaps the least-celebrated aspect of his career and legacy. He’s mostly known as the co-creator of hugely successful characters like Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, and the Fantastic Four, even though he probably had less input into them than his collaborating artists, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. Lee was also known for acting as the publisher and public face of Marvel after 1971, a role that led naturally to his numerous cameos in the gigantically successful Marvel films. He became virtually an iconic property himself, best known as a kind of art, rather than as an artist.
But he was a remarkable artist, too, albeit a very odd 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 penciled art. Then, Lee would fill in the dialogue boxes. As a result, Lee’s words weren’t exactly necessary to the story; instead, they functioned as a mix of semi-redundant explication 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: “None can escape Kraa! Now shall you pay the price for defying my will!” “Never again will mortal eyes gaze upon the hideous countenance of Victor Von Doom!” And of course, most famously of all, “Hulk smash!” All of Lee’s larger-than-life figures were obsessed with self-branding.
Excessive self-promotion was a charge often leveled at Lee, and part of the greatness of his dialogue was the way it so transparently grasped for enormity. Ditko and Kirby reveled in larger-than-life images, characters, settings, and conflicts. Lee’s dialogue, nestled there beside some of the greatest comics images ever created, wasn’t astounding on its own. But he let readers know he was eager to astound them, that he loved astounding them, that he was right there in ALL CAPS, smashing and defying and ladling on the exclamation points and the melodrama. (“Someday I’ll show them! <<SOB>> Someday they’ll be sorry!”) Lee’s dialogue wasn’t so much self-aware as it was resolutely, determinedly, un-self-aware. It grabbed every polysyllabic word and ambient alliteration available and turned it up to 12. How else could he compete with that calamitous Kirby crackle or dumbfounding Ditko Brobdingnagianness?
The amazing apogee of Lee’s art was probably the reams of fanciful balderdash he wrote as a complement to Ditko’s cosmic acid-scapes in their classic collaboration on the original Dr. Strange comics in the 1960s. Ditko visualized Strange’s mystic adventures in a rush of pulp Jackson Pollock semi-abstract patterns and lines swarming around weird fire-headed demons and improbable headgear. Lee, meanwhile, jumped into the mumbo-jumbo with both feet and a collection of other appendages as well.
His Dr. Strange writing featured the usual exclamation points and bombast, but on top of that, he ladled nonsense words and phrases that were half H.P. Lovecraft, half Dr. Seuss. “By all the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, I command thee, awesome Agamatto, let thine all-seeing eye open before me!” “The Sinister Seraphim hold no terrors for me, Demon! Not so long as the powers of the Eternal Vishanti are mine to command!” Even civilians get caught in the eldritch undertow. In one panel, Dr. Strange’s astral form passes through an airplane, and a passenger asks his companion, “Did you just feel a cold unearthly sensation — like a chill wind wafting by?” His seatmate prosaically responds, “Why yes! The plane must be drafty!”
Those kinds of giggle-worthy juxtapositions aren’t a bug; they’re a feature. Lee’s most memorable speech bubbles totter on the edge between speech, poetry, and outright doggerel. It’s Shakespeare, it’s an advertising jingle, it’s some dark and dastardly spell. Most of all, it’s filled with a carny’s pure joy in his capacity to wow, astonish, and entertain.
Lee’s carny gimmick was transparently a schtick, but that’s part of the fun. He never stopped trying to wow his audience, secure in the knowledge that we’re eager to be wowed. “I, the dread Dormammu, shall feed you endless mystic power as you need it!” Lee bellowed. And it was true. Along with Ditko and Kirby, he kept the crank turning, and those gloriously bombastic words kept sprawling out beside those even more gloriously bombastic images. Lee largely moved on from writing long ago, but in appreciating his contributions to comics and the importance of his history, it’s worth revisiting his old speech bubbles, where, in spite of time’s tumultuous turning, the mystic energy still flows as endlessly as ever.