JOAN LEE: THE MARVELOUS MUSE

by Richard Worth

The story goes that Stan Lee was dragging his feet on Marvel’s latest bid to catch up with the Distinguished Competition. He was becoming bored with the monster-matinée mags he made with Kirby and uninspired by the sci-fi parables he produced with Ditko and now his bosses had tasked him with making a book to rival DC’s newest hit, Justice League.

Stan wasn’t one for superheroes. They were too perfect, too unflawed, and too unfit for the hyper-dramatised, purple prose that was Stan’s hallmark. He moped and complained about his artistic integrity, as writers are wont to do, boring all around him until his perpetually patient wife finally told him to get on with it.

As Lee remembers it,

“Why don’t you do one book the way you want to do it? The worst that’ll happen, he’ll fire you, but you want to quit anyway. At least you’ll have gotten it out of your system.”

For us True Believers, it’s easy to imagine that Uatu the Watcher, the cosmic being tasked with observing the truly significant events of Earth, was being present for this conversation. In that simple suggestion, Joan Lee helped to create not only, the first family of Marvel, The Fantastic Four, but everything that would follow. Not just the cavalcade for costumed crime fighters, but that Stan Lee style of storytelling and a new approach creator and fan interaction. She was the muse of the Marvel Universe.

Joan Lee passed away on July 6th, age 93. She is survived by a cultural phenomenon, a daughter, and a husband.

When Leo Baxendale passed I wrote about knowing so little about someone who had such a large impact on my life. With Joan, it’s slightly different. I’d watched Stan lovingly talk about her in interviews, seen their charming interaction in documentaries and sat transfixed as she guided Spidey through the trails of super-heroism as Madame Web in the 90s animated series.

I’m certainly not the first to point to the “What if…” story of how Joan helped to create the Marvel Universe. Particularly listening to Stan tell it, it’s a fun, giggly story of serendipity framed through a loving relationship. And it’s that relationship that got me thinking.
Stan is an old romantic and I can’t help but think that his relationship with Joan must have permeated his stories. Stan’s characters were so groundbreaking because they had real responsibilities and relationships, and essentially because they were flawed. Aside from her obvious impact on the comic’s world, Joan must have had a more subtle influence on Stan’s work right?

Joan Lee passed away on July 6th, age 93. She is survived by a cultural phenomenon, a daughter, and a husband.

Is Reed Richards an expression of guilt for Stan’s overworking, and Namor an avatar for the jealous passion he has for his wife? Is the soft hand of Betty Ross on the Hulk’s shoulder, Joan’s calming influence on Stan life? Is Joan Mary Jane Watson, the confident and beautiful girl next door who Stan might never be good enough for? Is she Alicia Masters, the woman who sees past the monster Ben Grimm is on the outside and loves him for who he is on the inside?

There are hundreds of articles online about Joan Lee right now and rightly so. So many in fact, I almost didn’t bother to write about her. I moped and complained, I’ve nothing new to say, I won’t make the deadline (thanks for the extension, handsome and wonderful editorial team), who I am to write about a subject like this, I’m too busy etc. Eventually, these excuses bored my girlfriend, Beth. “You’ve obviously thought about this a lot. It’s an arts article and you love comics. Why would you not?”

 

As Beth berated encouraged me, the anecdote of Joan’s role as muse came back to me and this article demanded to be written. Now, I’m under no assumption that this article will be as groundbreaking as the Marvel Universe, but hopefully, I can say something important if not a little saccharine about art.

No artist is an island. This might be a poorly appropriate phrase but I think it’s true. Inspiration, incentive, and impetus come from those around us. Those we love and those who love us play a role in the formation of our art. If art is truth presented as lies, it’s the truth of the relationships we have that with wrap in pretty fiction. What an audience receives is an attempt at a concentrated, purer, better structured, less complicated version of human interactions. The stories we tell contain elements of our relations and small, shining slivers of the people involved in them. The trials and triumphs, the introspection and investigation, and the cruelties and considerations that we use to write, paint, and play stem from a silent and hidden collaboration with the characters of our lives.

Stan “The Man” Lee, collaborated with a lot of amazing people in his career, Jack “The King” Kirby, “Sturdy” Steve Ditko, and so on and so forth. But his life was a collaboration with one woman. Joan Clayton Boocock, a hat model from Newcastle who’s changed culture more than we’ll probably ever know and be able to appreciate.

Featured image via NadaSurferTube clip above

 


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