Whenever I stumble down a particular comics rabbit hole that involves digging through my longboxes, I always feel like an archaeologist retracing steps through history.
I took such a journey during my recent and ridiculously excessive Spider-Man revisitation, which I talked about on Twitter. In between catching up with Peter Parker's escapades during the Swingin' Seventies, I paid attention to the Bullpen Bulletins, and all the breathless and hilariously shameless self-promotion Marvel crammed into a single page. Those blurbs quickly dissipated from memory, but what stayed with me were the words inside the real highlight of that page: Stan's Soapbox.
For those who may not remember or those too young to recall, there was a time when Stan Lee, the face of Marvel, had a regular mini-column that was printed in each Marvel comic. From 1967 to 1980, the Soapbox was a place where Stan could and would address everything from continuity confusion to bigotry. It was a place where he would drop in self-congratulatory plugs about events such as the infamous Carnegie Hall event, "A Marvel-our Evening With Stan Lee" … and even offer up thanks to Los Angeles first responders who battled devastating brush fires.
They were his Vanity Cards, much like Chuck Lorre's post-credits notes at the end of an episode from one of his three dozen TV shows. It's also where he spoke to me, and every other comics fan out there. Stan's gift was being able to make the words in his column feel as if they were directed at YOU. And only you. The Soapbox helped cement Stan Lee as comics' ultimate ambassador. Whatever you think of the man and his position in the ultimate story of comics, that point is not to be argued.
When I say they'll never be another Stan Lee, it's not just hyperbole or me Stanning, er ... Stan. It is unfathomable to picture any single figure having such influence over comics again, simply because the industry has changed too much for it to happen again.
Where there were but a few publishers, now there are dozens. And we have Kickstarter. The comics audience has spread out with so many different books available to read. Social media too has changed the game. Comics pontificating now mainly occurs on Twitter and Facebook.
But the soapbox should still matter, no matter the platform or format. Comics needs a unifying spot, a water cooler for fans to gather around and debate, bicker, and geek out over. Someone should bring it back. Given our multiplatform existence, maybe it needs to be a hybrid of a regular column, a YouTube video and convention panel (whenever we can get back to attending cons). For the sake of this column, let's say this new Soapbox would be hosted by an independent website not directly affiliated with any comics publisher.
Whatever the format, the person who does it needs to be someone who can be an ambassador to comics in the way Stan was. There are many creators out there who do a great job of regular tub-thumping for comics. And I'm fully aware that this is very much pie-in-the-sky thinking that a new version of the Soapbox can be made that would have a scintilla of the reach and impact that Stan's did. But I'm a glass-is-half-full type of guy, so go with me here.
There are several worthwhile candidates out there, for certain. Kevin Smith's name is often mentioned in discussions about this. He clearly knows and loves comics and certainly has the ability to reach a wide audience. But to be the face of comics, you need to work in comics. And Smith doesn't, at least not regularly enough.
Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and Brian Michael Bendis are three that come to mind. Anyone who's attended one of his convention panels knows McFarlane has the showmanship, and his independence grants him a special level of "I can say whatever the hell I want" that certainly would come in handy for comics commentary. But his aversion to Marvel and DC books the past 30 years leaves him a fairly big blind spot.
Liefeld's passion for comics remains unmatched. The guy bleeds ink, and his experience gives him a great perch from which to pontificate, but his brutally honest takes (as those who follow him on Twitter know) may be too polarizing for a role like this. As for Bendis, he certainly has the credits for it, and like McFarlane and Liefeld, he's worked at both DC and Marvel and walked the creator-owned path. That's invaluable experience. But he's under contract at DC at the moment. Something tells me the corporate structure there wouldn't be conducive to a column that at times could point a harsh light at the industry at large.
Who else is out there to try and fill Stan's shoes? Here are five potential candidates.
The first name on this list may be the most obvious. Few people working in comics have the cachet Lee has. Doubt that? Look at how much money he's helped raise for comics shops who have been hurt by the pandemic. His 50 sketches have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for shops through BINC (Book Industry Charitable Foundation), and he recruited heavyweights such as Frank Miller, Walt Simonson and Bill Sienkiewicz to aid the cause. No one else but Lee could have pulled this off. It's exactly the type of action Comics' Ambassador would be expected to do.
As publisher of DC Comics, he's in the perfect position to launch his own Soapbox. He also has a great platform. His Twitter and Instagram accounts have hundreds of thousands of followers. Lee's position within the industry and his vast experience means his words will carry weight like few others would. But would he want to court controversy, which is almost inevitable with a column in today's world? And would DC/Warner Bros. be OK with DC Entertainment's Chief Creative Officer/Publisher putting potentially controversial opinions out there? And would Lee even be interested in putting himself in that position? I'm not sure.
With a long list of hit comics, both work-for-hire and creator-owned properties, there's no doubt Mark Millar has the street cred to offer regular industry observations. Much like McFarlane, he has an affinity for the spotlight that would make Stan Lee proud. When he plugs one of his Netflix books, it's like he's channeling Lee's clever balance of enthusiasm and shamelessness that works just right. Like Liefeld, Millar is a major comics fan who has absolutely zero problem with speaking his mind and dropping some gas and a match on a bridge or two. When he was in charge of Millarworld, I would say the Scotsman was an ideal choice to be a comics ambassador. But he's a Netflix executive now. Much like Jim Lee, would the corporate structure he exists in now allow him to do more than just offer some sharp criticisms on Twitter?
Having none of the corporate restrictions that impact our first two candidates, Simone seems like a no-brainer choice. She's put in the work, is a proven talent, has a diehard fan base, and knows and loves the business. Also, she's been doing this for years already. First on the legendary 'Women in Refrigerators' list she helped create, and currently, on her immensely entertaining twitter feed, where she will spark conversations about everything from Jack Kirby's brilliance and Cyclops' lameness to thoughtful insight about the special relationship she has with her fans. She's also not afraid to take on some of the more toxic elements that permeate comics, which is important in today's climate where issues like sexual harassment are prevalent.
Simone's career, which has seen her do work for DC, Marvel, Lion Forge and a variety of other publishers, offers her a type of freedom that would work well for this. Imagine her getting a monthly slot to pontificate about comics on a website that could capitalize on her audience.
In my humble opinion, Simone is the perfect choice to be the person to take point on celebrating comics and also to have the courage to occasionally remind the industry, and those who work within it, to check itself.
Times were different when Stan Lee was doing his Soapbox.
That's not to say issues such as racism and societal inequality didn't exist; of course they did. Perhaps the most famous Soapbox Lee ever wrote was a condemnation of bigotry. But tackling controversial topics like that were rare in fandom back then.Today's hyper-aware fandom demands a currency to their discussions, and few comics creators are as capable and as willing to have those conversations as David F. Walker is. Every time I've interviewed him, he's always surprised me with his blunt responses. He's honest and unafraid to say something that will piss people off. His work on books like Nighthawk and Occupy Avengers has always reflected his strong opinions on real-world topics. One of his latest works, the Kickstarter project The Hated, envisions a world in which the Civil War ended in a truce and with two nations -- one that was free, and another where slavery was still legal. I don't have him on this list just because i think he'll make waves. He's also a renaissance man, having produced documentaries, overseen publications of fanzines, and he's also a damned unversity professor. The guy knows what he knows.
Naomi, a book he co-created with Bendis and Jamal Campbell, is pure, unfiltered comics awesomeness. And if I had my druthers, Walker would get a hundred-issue run on a Hawkeye title, because he gets Clint Barton as few other writers do. Walker will talk about those topics that maybe some fans don't want to talk about, and he'll make you think about it.
Our last contender has substantial experience spreading the good word of comics. Quesada's Cup O' Joe panels have become staples at the big Cons, and during his long tenure as Marvel's EiC he embraced the statesman aspect of the job. He also did a regular fan Q&A session with my old pals at Newsarama. Again, experience matters, and Joe Q is someone who, like Jim Lee, has influence in the industry based on a career full of success. He also will be hosting a show on Disney+, Marvel's Storyboards, that focuses on the storytellers, and his YouTube series, Joe Q's Mornin' Warm-Up is immensely entertaining. Having experience as a creator as well as from being 'management,' Quesada has the type of perspective that helped Stan Lee pull back the curtain a bit for fans. He's personable and enjoys the fan interaction. In fact, i think a video version of a Soapbox would best play to Quesada's knack for talking with guests.
The obvious downside for him is that he's part of the Marvel/Disney corporate machine. How much freedom would he have to weigh in on current events? Or something having to do with the competition? Back in the day, Lee could laugh at a Marvel mistake without fear of corporate repercussions. That doesn't seem possible today. A regular Cup O' Joe feature - something that delves beyond just the Marvel stuff - would be fascinating, although unlikely.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.