Recently I’ve been reading Sean Howe’s terrific Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. The broad outlines of the history of the company -- its origins in 1939 as part of Martin Goodman’s pulp magazine empire, its rise to dominance of the field beginning in the 1960s under writer and editor Stan Lee and his co-creation (with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other artists) of now famous characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men, the company’s declaration of bankruptcy in the 1990s, its rebound and recent incorporation into the Disney empire -- have been recounted before. But Howe’s book gives us a wealth of fascinating details (fascinating not only from a comic book geek point of view, but from a business point of view) that you won’t easily find elsewhere.
But it’s one of the already well-known aspects of the story that prompts this post. Overworked as he was supervising the entire Marvel line, Lee often did not write complete scripts for his artists, but would instead give them a general idea for a story and have them flesh out the details of the plot as they saw fit. After receiving the penciled pages from them, Lee would then write the captions and dialogue. This came to be known as the “Marvel method,” and with certain artists -- Kirby and Ditko being the paradigm cases -- it was enormously successful.
Indeed, it would famously lead to controversies over how much Lee actually contributed to the writing, with Kirby and Ditko partisans complaining that he has received too much credit for work that was largely theirs. Yet it is also well-known that the work Kirby and Ditko each produced on their own often fell short of the standard set by their collaborations with Lee. In particular, the dialogue and characterization one found in a Kirby or Ditko solo effort could sometimes be painfully inept.
In an earlier post I had occasion to discuss how Ditko’s devotion to promoting Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy played a role in his departure from Marvel, largely ruined his career, and certainly ruined much of his later work. (That post was also about Wally Wood -- Wood’s own conflicts with Lee are discussed in Howe’s book too.) Ditko’s Randian superhero Mr. A featured in stories whose characters were devoid of characterization, mere talking heads whose function was to spout either stilted, logorrheic expressions of Objectivist philosophy or (in the case of the villains) crude caricatures of its opposite. (You can find samples hereand here.)
Where Ditko’s dialogue was boringly didactic, Kirby’s could be ludicrous to the point of unintentional comedy. You’ll find some samples here, here, and here. (An instant classic is: “What? What? I say ‘Bull-Chips’ in your cereal, sir!” But the No-Prize probably goes to: “Don’t rattle your gonads in my ears! Mama nature doesn’t give a damn!”)
There is a clear sense, then, in which Ditko and Kirby were simply not the writers Lee was. And yet it would, equally clearly, be wrong to say that they were bad writers, full stop. For the characters and scenarios they came up with, their pacing and plotting of the stories, and their sense of how to lay out the images on a page so as to guarantee dramatic effect and clarity of storytelling, were absolutely crucial to the success of the comics. So what gives?
A clue can be found in, of all places, the work of economist and political philosopher F. A. Hayek. Developing Gilbert Ryle’s distinction between “knowing how” and “knowing that” and Michael Polanyi’s notion of “tacit knowledge,” Hayek argued that much of what we know -- especially where cultural, moral, and social knowledge in general is concerned -- is not consciously or explicitly entertained and is indeed impossible to articulate in its entirety. Rather, it is embodied in customs and habits of action that are learned more by imitation than via “book learning.” Consider the knowledge one has of how to comfort a hurt child or the bereaved, how to charm a potential suitor, how to convey confidence via one’s mannerisms, what sorts of discussion topics are inappropriate at the dinner table or in church or in front of strangers, or what is appropriate with respect to touch vis-à-vis relatives, friends, acquaintances, strangers, or members of the opposite sex. Acquiring such knowledge is more like learning how to ride a bike than it is like memorizing a list of facts for a test. It is the sort of thing one just “picks up” or “has a feel for” -- or not, in the case of the socially inept.
Hayek addressed the theme repeatedly, perhaps at greatest length in his rich essay “Rules, Perception, and Intelligibility” (reprinted in Hayek’s Studies in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics). That essay includes a section which contrasts the imitative learning of speech with the way that “gestures, postures, gait, and other movements and… facial expressions” are learned by imitation in such a way that the “observed movement is directly translated into the corresponding action, often without the observing and imitating individual being aware of the elements of which the action consists or… being able to state what he observes and does” (p. 47). Hayek writes:
Our capacity to imitate someone’s gait, postures, or grimaces certainly does not depend on our capacity to describe these in words…
Imitation is of course only one particularly obvious instance of the many in which we recognize the actions of others as being of a known kind, of a kind, however, which we are able to describe only by stating the ‘meaning’ which these actions have to us and not by pointing out the elements from which we recognize this meaning. Whenever we conclude that an individual is in a certain mood, or acts deliberately or purposively or effortlessly, seems to expect something or to threaten or comfort another, etc., we generally do not know, and would not be able to explain, how we know this. Yet we generally act successfully on the basis of such ‘understanding’ of the conduct of others. (p. 48)
Hayek is describing ordinary imitative learning of movements, gestures, etc. of which we are all capable, but there are those who have a special capacity for this sort of learning, such as actors. And as with the rest of us, the “tacit knowledge” an actor has of how to convey meaning through movements, facial expressions, and the like is by no means necessarily correlated with a capacity to articulate that understanding in words. Indeed, it is amazing how inarticulate even some of the very best actors can be when they are not rehearsing words written by others in the context of a performance, but instead holding forth on public affairs, giving a speech, or giving an interview. (Clint Eastwood’s painfully bizarre speech at the Republican National Convention last year provides a vivid recent example.) Acting and the like provide examples of the kind of knowledge which is embodied, which manifests itself in “know how” rather than in words.
I would submit that the knowledge a good artist has is like this, and that this accounts for the otherwise odd dichotomy between the mastery comic book artists like Ditko and Kirby had of the various aspects of visual storytelling, and their ineptness as wordsmiths. Kirby’s ability to make you feel the impact of a punch thrown by Captain America, and Ditko’s to make you feel the bizarre contortions into which he would put Spider-Man’s body, are like the actor’s ability to generate the desired emotions in the audience. In both cases it is knowledge that comes out in movements -- in the actor’s face and posture, in the motion of the artist’s arm, wrist, and fingers. Knowing how something will play on the page is like knowing how it will play on the stage -- the artist, like the actor, shows it rather than says it.
Writing a narrative or dialogue is, by definition, not like that, or not entirely anyway. Of course, a good writer has a “feel” for dialogue, a “sense” of what ways of phrasing something will work, and so forth. But what he settles upon is always some way of articulating and describing a thought, a sensibility, a feeling, an action -- exactly the sort of thing Hayek says “know how” does not involve.
The talents are different in kind. Lee had the one, Ditko and Kirby the other. It took both kinds to build the company whose story Howe so skillfully articulates. (With almost no illustrations at all -- in a book about comics! -- but you can find those on the book’s companion website.)