In addition to being America’s only rock ’n’ roll magazine, CREEM happens to be the world’s best rock ’n’ roll magazine—and, it could be argued, the world’s most masturbatory. Because we like ourselves a little too much, every now and again, we’re going to review past CREEM pieces in a series called CREEMAINS. Expect the most deliciously spoiled CREEM, like our conversation with Robert Duncan about his 1975 Springsteen profile, or here, in our re-evaluation of CREEM’s 1973 feature on Marvel Comics. Lap it up! And check out more from the CREEM archive, here.
CREEM's April 1973 issue is designed to look like a comic book. The cover, illustrated by John Romita Sr., features the superhero Spider-Man in front of an oversized vinyl record backdrop, facing away—like a rockstar with the proportional anxiety of a Doors frontman—from a rapturous crowd. He’s dangling via ropes of cross-hatched spider silk, over a stage devoid of instruments, plus one Boy Howdy looking on. The CREEM mascot’s solitude indicates that he has either been abandoned by his band or, worse, is performing stand-up; the sentient booze bottle’s patented grin of deathless pleasure is fixed upon the web slinging' teen-vigilante above.
Howdy, having just gotten used to sharing the spotlight with famous musicians, is now forced to share what was presumably a pretty big night with a fictional, arachnidal gymnast best known for a tendency to wisecrack about trauma, toying with the affections of the newspaper boss’s secretary, and a general inability to provide a stable environment for the aging aunt who raised him. (At least, that’s how he was best known in 1973.) The subliminal desolation of the magazine cover is hammered home by the two actual musicians who are advertised on the cover, each in electrified speech bubbles with bold comic book lettering in the Marvel style: Alvin Lee, who apparently is not someone Lester Bangs made up, and Gary Glitter.
In the 1973 CREEM cover story, effusively titled “...And Now Spider-Man And The Marvel Comics Group!,” Mike Baron uses somewhat less flowery language than my own to convey both a sincere appreciation of comic books as an artistically valid medium and an inescapable suspicion that, once again, the money men and hucksters were about to fuck things up.
In his overview of the company, centered around an interview with its leader and Boy Howdy-esque hype man Stan Lee, Baron starts off with appreciation. He’s coming in as a fan. Recounting Marvel’s pre-WW2 origins as Timely Publications, he doesn’t shy away from the hyperbole of calling the creative renaissance that began for the comics industry with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s early ‘60s creations, “the Marvel Age of Comics.” He is, however, briefly disappointed when the lobby of Marvel’s new Madison Avenue office doesn't resemble the Avengers Mansion.
“Lee’s forte has always been establishing strong characters through dialogue,” Baron notes. “On the comic page, no line can seem too outrageous or cliched. Somehow, the very medium precludes dramatic excess and a sentence that would seem offensively melodramatic on stage is reduced through the magic of comic art to a forceful, natural statement on the comic book page.”
This kind of slavish praise, based on either fear of fan bases, fear of losing access to Jeremy Renner, or having tapioca for brains, is the rule rather than the exception here in 2022. But in 1973, treating comic books as worthy of adult approval was rare. And even more rare was thoughtful critique. This was stressed to me by the biographer Abraham Josephine Riesman, author of True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee.
“The thing that impressed me is that there had been an explosion of coverage of Marvel, and of comics in general, because comics were tackling relevant issues,” Riesman told me via phone interview, after I’d cold-emailed her to ask her thoughts on “...And Now Spider-Man And The Marvel Comics Group!”
She'd already read the story years ago as one of many archival sources for her book. “And yet when comics were written about, they were generally written about like they were this silly thing. There was always this tone of ‘This is stupid. You shouldn’t even be paying attention to it. But I found it interesting, so here you go,’ as opposed to this article which said, ‘It’s not all laughs. It’s not all fun and games in comics. It’s a system that kind of sucks, that's soul sucking…’”
She adds, “I don’t care if you take comics seriously as a product, but the industry is something that needs to be reckoned with. And the industries that have modeled themselves on it...”
In his CREEM essay, and in affable CREEM style, Baron is game for such reckoning. He wrote of Marvel Comics: “...the art often seems secondary to the commercial aspects, with those vulgar ads breaking up the story more and more frequently every year; the stories themselves have become shorter, and numerous Cassandras are predicting the death of comics."
He continued, “It would be a shame to lose them now that they’re just beginning to realize their unbounded potential.”
Mike Baron’s gift for both prophesy and understatement can’t be stressed enough. He wrote his overview three decades before the Walt Disney Company acquired Marvel Comics' parent company, Marvel Entertainment, for $4 billion. He wrote the essay four decades before Marvel Comics settled the lawsuit brought against it by the estate of Jack Kirby, the artist most responsible for Marvel’s existence and success, for an undisclosed amount.
1973 is also a half-century before Martin Scorsese—the director of the CHUD prequel, After Hours, and a number of films about Italian-Americans and the free market—pointed out something similar and made Guardians of The Galaxy soundtrack-adorner James Gunn’s cartoon monocle pop out. Hell, a half-century is almost as long as the last Avengers’ movie.
Set aside the admittedly low hanging fruit of Marvel’s cinematic pursuits (which, full disclosure, this author consumes as avidly as anyone, despite firmly believing that they share the collective blame—along with Beck, pop-punk, pornography, and the ‘90s in general—for turning us into a nation of thirty-year-old skateboarders). And yet, it’s equally impressive how, as Riesman puts it, “CREEM was ahead of the game,” in terms of addressing some of Marvel’s less obvious oligarchic foibles.
Here’s an example: the question of comic book creators owning their own original art didn’t become a “cause celebre” until at least the 1980s, as Riesman explains.
But Mike Baron’s 1973 piece tackles it head on, while discussing the decline in quality of the art in Conan the Barbarian caused by a dispute over ownership between Marvel Comics and 23-year-old illustrator Barry Windsor Smith, who penciled the first 20 issues of the comic. He writes, “Since there is some disagreement as to whom finished art truly belongs (the penciller merely pencils, the inker merely inks, the letterer letters), Marvel prudently settles the question by appropriating all.” A perfectly dry summation of the inevitable resolution of any such conflicts that might come up within Marvel’s system of production.
And if Mike Baron doesn’t overtly condemn Stan Lee, he’s more than happy to provide whatever rope Marvel’s publisher might need.
“Look at it this way,” Smilin’ Stan Lee tells Baron, on the topic of artistic ownership, “that original art is much like diamonds and the diamond market. Do you know how many diamonds the big mines have salted away down in South Africa? If they were to release all those diamonds at once, their value would be virtually nothing. It’s the same with the original art. This way if a fan gets some piece of original art, he will look upon it as being much more valuable, much more desirable, than if the art were everywhere. I think that the art should be hard to get; it should be something of an adventure.”
When reminded of Lee’s quote, Riesman laughs. “That was fucking unbelievable. I read this article years ago when I was doing the research initially and I forgot about that detail and can’t believe I didn't use it in the book.”
“It’s very typical of Stan,” she continued. “Stan would very often make these jokes that were, not to get too Freudian, very revealing.”
It’s also worth noting that Mike Baron, who would go on to write comics himself, some of which were pretty fun at the time, has most recently authored a graphic novel entitled “Thin Blue Line,” a FOX News-endorsed copaganda about how Black Panther is a communist. Or something. So it’s possible that, rather than intending for Stan Lee’s own words to damn him, Baron instead thought the analogy was a fun one. Hard to say. Riesman and I both agree that at least Baron wasn’t an idiot in 1973, so good for him.
If Mike Baron doesn’t overtly condemn Stan Lee, he’s more than happy to provide whatever rope Marvel’s publisher might need.
If “...And Now Spider-Man And The Marvel Comics Group!” has aged poorly at all, it’s not the early critique that’s off. It’s the scale. A bit like how, in the face of all the hijinks Thanos would eventually get up to—like when he killed off half the universe—Marvel Universe superheroes probably found the earliest criticisms of the genocidal space-monster (such as Iron Man saying “Villains like Thanos may be strong, but they’re cheap. Once defeated, they are only…junk!”) a bit passé. In the same vein, Baron couldn't have known that Marvel Entertainment, LLC would eventually slurp an entire generation of movie-goers’ brains out through their noses—and in the process, make the rest of us shudder in Lovecraftian horror every time we hear the phrase modern mythology. When discussing either Thanos or Marvel's anti-human tendencies, it's important to grant a bit of retroactive slack.
“CREEM was so wise to give you a sense of the kind of cultish approach to loving a product that Stan was really actively trying to engender,” Riesman explains. “Whether he started it you can argue about, it may have been more organic, it was probably a conflux of his efforts and the way culture was going in whatever way that works. But Stan was very consciously trying to… as soon as there was any sense the company that became Marvel was going to take off with these superhero stories, he was like ‘We need to sell this. This needs to become a fandom.’”
Eventually, Marvel Entertainment, LLC slurped out an entire generation of movie-goers’ brains out through their noses—and in the process, made the rest of us shudder in Lovecraftian horror every time we hear the phrase modern mytHOLOGY.
As a final bit of CREEM prognosis (CREEMgnosis), Mike Baron’s essay elicited a fair amount of reader feedback, via July 1973's letters to the editors section, none of which concerned itself with the author’s systemic anxieties. The readers were more concerned about nitpicking about super powers (such as Pete the Geek writing from Memphis to say, "Hawkeye, the “archer supreme,” no longer grows to the height of ten feet. That was long ago when he was Goliath") and defending their preferred comic book company's honor, more than such tedious issues as any creator owning their own labor. This too, Riesman points out, was as per design, a design that would gain fruition in the larger culture, till the fruit pretty much took over.
“That’s one component of what I mean when I say that a lot of the rest of the world has adopted the comics strategy, or strategies from the comics industry,” Riesman says. “That was a way that you built fandom. It was not exclusively comics that was building fandom, but it was a huge locus point for fandom. Fandom can be a beautiful thing but it can also lead to this reflexive ‘You insulted the leader of my tribe, now I have a blood feud with you.’ It still exists like that. That is how all media companies, how every brand tries to get people to feel about their brand… Comics were doing that [first.]”
Or, as Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben famously said, “With great power comes the necessity to write letters to the editor about how much DC Comics suck.”