Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Stan "The Man" Lee: 'Nuff Said!

Words: Christopher Irving
Pictures: Seth Kushner

“I was ready to be a media star when I was twelve years old,” Stan Lee says with his usual gusto. “It just took all this time for the world to discover me.”

A month before, Stan Lee was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a first for a comic book personality. It was just the tip of the iceberg for the personification of the footloose and fancy free comic book creator and all-around media personality, a comics pioneer who put a new spin on the threadbare and static genre of the superhero and made comic books—dare we say it—hip and cool?  

But Stan Lee, born Stanley Lieber, is more than just a comic book visionary, the first self-made man of the comic book industry whose chutzpah sometimes eclipses his earlier struggles in the unforgiving comics world of the 1950s, then an industry hanging on by its fingernails as distributors went belly-up and crusading Senators sparked company-wide censorship. 

Now in his late 80s, Stan exists as a cross between an ambassador for the medium, his distinctive moustache and glasses spotted in Marvel Comics superhero movies everywhere. It’s not just that Stan may have helped save the struggling comic book in the 1960s, with the Marvel line of troubled superheroes forged by him and a group of artists that earned him a star—it’s his clever use of cementing himself as a personality that has kept him on the collective radar. In an industry overpopulated by introverts, of his contemporaries who were often ashamed to work in comic books, Stan’s rise to a fame borne out of kitsch and hero worship is to be just as admired as his distinctive and catchphrases.

The comic book industry of 1940 was a much larger place than today, as dozens of so-called publishers hired everyone from high schoolers to washed-up advertising artists to draw their comic books, with a firm belief in quantity and not quality. There were exceptions, of course, amongst many of the cartoonists themselves—Simon and Kirby, Superman creators Siegel and Shuster, Will Eisner—but most of the publishers were just out to make a quick buck. One of the younger of these publishers was Martin Goodman, who operated his nameless publishing house out of the Empire State Building, publishing everything from men’s magazines to lurid pulps to, of course, comic books.

Goodman was also savvy in that, after buying comics through packaging outfit Funnies, Inc., he took cartoonist Joe Simon up on his patriotic superhero Captain America. Timely had gained a small group of heroes that were too freakish to be boring, yet too anti-heroic to be as marketable as Superman—specifically disgruntled half-Atlantean prince Namor, the Frankenstein monster-like Human Torch, or the dapper yet boring Angel. Rather than introducing Captain America in the back pages of an anthology title, like his Marvel Comics, Goodman saw the Superman-like sales potential in the character and offered to debut the patriot in his own title. Bringing on both Simon and his partner Jack Kirby as editor and art director (respectively), Goodman promised them a solid 15% of sales on Captain America Comics, and Timely went from the minor leagues to majors. 

At age 18 and fresh out of high school, Stanley Lieber went in to work for Timely Comics (the name that stuck) as their office boy. A DeWitt Clinton High School graduate (the school that boasted most of the comic book pioneers), Stan had been everything from an usher to an obituary writer for a press service. 

“The reason I took the job was I heard there was an opening,” Stan recalls. “Martin was married to a cousin of mine, and I heard through the cousin that there was an opening and I went up there. He also published regular magazines—movie magazines, men’s magazines, pulp magazines—I didn’t know the opening was for the comic book department, which only consisted of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. They were the only two guys there. I had never said to myself ‘I want to do comics.’ I wanted to be a regular writer, but I somehow got into that.”

It started with a text piece for an issue of Captain America Comics #3 in May, 1941, a short filler to get the post office’s magazine rate. Stanley, with more literary aspirations in mind, used the pseudonym “Stan Lee”. He would get his first comic book script two issues later and, six issues from that, the editor position fell in his lap after Simon and Kirby left Timely over royalty disputes on Captain America.

“There really was no one to teach me,” Stan says of the early days. “I had to pick up everything by myself. What I would do (and it was the most natural thing to do) was to find out what books were the best-selling, and I would try to read those books and try to figure out ‘Why are kids (because it was mostly kids in those days) buying these books and not different books?’ I’d try to figure out what the appeal was and then try to use that appeal in my own stories.

            “There really wasn’t too much to learn, because none of the books were too good in those days,” he admits.            

            Stan was, literally, learning on the job and working to keep Timely’s comic book machine rolling. 

“When I started in comics, he was like God,” Lee says of Goodman. “He owned the company and made all the major decisions on what we published and how we would publish them.

“I learned never to say no to him, because he didn’t like that. The one thing I did learn from him is that he was great at cover design. He knew how to do a cover, or how to have his artist do a cover that would stand out on the newsstand. In those days, there weren’t fans like there are today. Today, someone would go to a comic book store and say ‘Did Spider-Man number so-and-so come in today? I want to buy it.’ In those days the books were on sale at regular newsstands and were impulse buys: a kid would walk by and buy whatever cover attracted him the most. Covers were incredibly important. Martin, while he couldn’t draw himself, knew what type of drawings would attract a kid, what color schemes would make a book stand out the most, and what type of blurb would be the best. He taught me all of that. The one thing I learned from him is how to do a cover that would catch the eye.”

Timely continued to hold on through the War and post-War years, in spite of Stan’s service in the Signal Corps, publishing Westerns, crime, and horror along with a dying superhero line. They even changed their name to Atlas at one point and, when Namor was being optioned for an Adventures of Superman-like TV show, tried to revive their three main superheroes—Captain America, Namor, and Human Torch. The Cold War versions were put back on ice, and Stan was back to editing the usual fare. Marvel/Timely/Atlas had even lost their distributor in the ‘50s, and were at the mercy of DC/National Comics, their new distributor. At one point in the ‘50s, Stan had to lay off his staff and only publish from the inventory drawer, not an enviable position for an obvious extrovert like Lee.

Comics had become a dying, dead-end industry, and Stan was stuck in a dead-end job.

Had Stan wanted to work in comics, producing everything from superhero to grisly horror books through his twenties, writing under every pseudonym under the sun to make Timely look like a well-staffed operation?

“Not particularly, no,” Stan admits. But even though he was using the “Stan Lee” moniker back then, he was yet to grow into Stan “The Man” Lee, the spokesperson for comics, and every comic reader’s pal. That would change when Goodman, inspired by DC’s success with super-team Justice League of America, prompted Stan to create their own superhero team.

It was 1961, and it was time for Stan to make lemons out of lemonade.

“The launch of the Fantastic Four was when I finally did a book the way I wanted to, Stan reveals. “Up until then, Martin was totally convinced that comic books were read by very young children or semi-literate adults. He didn’t want me to use too much dialogue; he didn’t want me to use words of more than two or three syllables; he wanted to stress the action and forget about characterization and personality; just get a lot of fighting and running around in the panels. It was a job, and I wanted to keep my job, so I did what he said. It was with the Fantastic Four that I decided to do books the way I thought they ought to be done.”

Jack Kirby, twenty years after the Captain America falling out with Goodman, was back with Marvel, drawing stories for Stan in every genre at a breakneck pace, all stamped with Kirby’s trademark gusto and violence. When Lee collaborated with him on FF, the duo produced the first superhero team as rife with infighting as with combatting monsters and villains. They were a weird team—a brilliant scientist with flexible Plastic Man-like powers; a beautiful blonde who could turn invisible; a teenage version of The Human Torch; and a grumbling, sauntering rock-like man-monster—and they didn’t initially fight in costume. What Lee and Kirby did was throw every comic book genre save Western, and every comic book archetype, into a blender to produce a quirky and sometimes morose dysfunctional family of a super-team.

“The only stories I can tell was that it was an absolute pleasure [and] delight to be working with him,” Lee says of Kirby. “He was so great at his artwork; whatever he drew was wonderful, but more than that, I would tell him what I wanted in a story.”

            Exactly a year later, Stan and Steve Ditko plugged a teenage superhero into the cover and pages of a dying anthology title called Amazing Fantasy’s last issue. Martin Goodman may not have been a fan of the idea, but what was the harm in sticking him on the comics equivalent of the Hindenburg?

            Spider-Man was a success, marrying Lee’s conversational narration with Ditko’s weird figures, contorted to fit his masterful sense of design. Where most superhero strips were colorful, Spider-Man managed to be both colorful yet wrapped in inky blacks; even the theme of the story—“with great power comes great responsibility”—is driven in with the grimness of the main character’s loving Uncle, killed by a burglar he’d prevented stopping.

            More heroes came out of the woodwork of Lee’s hyperactive and busy mind and the hands of his co-creators and artists. Iron Man, a munitions manufacturer turned knight in mechanical armor was trapped in the armor chestplate that kept his heart beating; Daredevil, an attorney with impeccable radar sense, gained his powers at the cost of his sight; the X-Men, a group of naturally super-powered “Mutants”; and Thor, the Norse God of thunder brought to flesh in today’s world, but was trapped in the body of a crippled doctor. Every Marvel hero had a tinge of the anti-hero, and a heavy dose of pathos. All of them were designed by his freelancers like Kirby (who did art duties on several of the Marvel books), Ditko on Spider-Man, Don Heck on Iron Man, and Joe Sinnott or Jack Kirby on Thor. 

With so many books penned by him, on top of his editorial obligations, Lee took as many shortcuts as he could for his characters, even down to giving all his characters alliterative first and last names, like Bruce Banner, Peter Parker, Sue Storm, and Reed Richards.

“If I could remember one name I would know the other name began with the same letter,” Stan admits. “I remember, when I did The Hulk, his name was Bruce Banner. There was a guy named Bob Banner, who was a big man in television. I used to read his name all the time. Every once in a while, instead of writing Bruce Banner, I’d write Bob Banner. I’d get letters from the readers going ‘Don’t you know the name of your own character?’ Of course, I’d answer the letter and I copped out the easy way: I’d just say ‘Well, his name is Robert Bruce Banner.’”

According to Stan, the heavy workload was work as usual:

“We would decide we needed a new character,” Stan says. “In those days, I would work for a publisher, and he would say to me ‘Stan, I’d like to put out a new book, would you come up with a new character?’ So, I’d go home and dream up a new character. I never got inspiration; I’d never wake up in the middle of the night and say ‘Wow, this is a great idea!’ Or I’d never work for weeks or months or years trying to make something right. I was a real ‘hack’ writer, if something was needed, I’d go home and I write it.”

            Stan wrote most all of them, working in what’s come to be known as the “Marvel Method” of storytelling, an utmost collaboration of writer and artist. The results were successful only because of Lee’s ability to work with and around his artists, as well as each artist’s impeccable sense of visual storytelling and character.

“I never wrote a script, sometimes I would write a page outline, but most of the time we just discussed it,” Stan recalls working specifically with Kirby. “[The artist] would go home and he would draw his twenty or twenty-two pages based on what we had talked about. He would send the pages in, and inevitably, there were things that Jack would have added that we never discussed, which were all wonderful. I had the fun of putting in the dialogue and captions; it was so easy to write the copy for anything Jack drew, because you just would look at his drawing and it would inspire me to write some good dialogue because the characters looked as though they were saying things that mattered. It’s hard to explain, but it was just such a pleasure to write stories based on the artwork that Jack had done.”

While the competition kept churning out superhero comics for kids, Stan and company at Marvel were producing more high-brow superhero books, featuring characters with believable faults, foibles, and hang-ups. It also helped that Stan employed a narrative voice that spoke directly to the readers, one that managed to inject Stan’s personality in all his stories. He also coined Marvel terms like “True Believer,” “Marvel Zombie,” and the always exclamative farewell greeting “Excelsior!” and gave the Marvel artists nicknames like Jack “The King” Kirby, “Jazzy” John Romita, or “Joltin’” Joe Sinnott. In the world of Marvel’s printed pages, you were instantly made a member of the club populated by the cool kids.

“Believe it or not, when I was a kid, there were some hardcover books that were fifty cents,” Stan reveals. “They were a series like Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, Don Sturdy, or Bomba the Jungle Boy. There was one series called Jerry Todd. Nobody ever heard of it except me, now. I loved those books. They were adventure stories, but there was humor in them also. At the end of the book (and this was something I had never seen in a book. They had it in magazines, but not in a book), there were a few pages where the author would print some letters he claimed he had gotten from readers and would answer them. He would talk to the reader of the book in his answers. I felt he was talking to me, and I felt that I got to know the guy. When I started doing the books (the Fantastic Four, and so forth) I decided I would put in letters pages and would talk to the reader the way that writer, Leo Edwards, would talk to me.”

Leo Edwards, in one of his “Our Chatter-Box” columns in a Jerry Todd book, referred to it as “a corking good idea. Edwards went back and forth, talking directly to his readers. He even announced the “Jerry Todd Freckled Goldfish Club” where kids could get a secret club book, which are “more or less secret.” Stan would launch a similar fan club with the Merry Marvel Marching Society, and talked directly to his fans in Stan’s Soapbox, a column in every month’s Marvel comic book. Like Edwards, Stan wrote to the readers as old pals, not as customers. This personal touch is what separated a Marvel comic from a more stodgy DC one, and went beyond the normal kiddie clientele of the spinner racks.

An unexpected audience for the Marvel books was the college kids, a market only penetrated before by Mad Magazine. They latched on to the Marvel books and gave them cult credibility that, arguably, kept superheroes alive beyond the growing-up of the kids reading comics. While the DC books were old as in, written by your dad (case in point: the “hip” dialogue of Bob Haney’s entertaining Teen Titans), the Marvel books employed a pseudo-intellectualism, with characters spouting off fake Shakespearean in Thor, or wanna-be Lovecraftian magic in Dr. Strange. Strange itself is a psychedelically odd book, with Lee’s dialogue working with Ditko’s bizarre and almost surrealistic artwork; the hippies thought they were reading work from two of their own, not realizing the conservative Ditko and flamboyant Lee were around their 40s.

“When I’d lecture at a college the students would inevitably say ‘We’ve been researching Dr. Strange and his expressions like The Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth and Cyttorak and things, and we’ve discovered that you based them on the ancient writings of the Druids,’ I laughed because I made them up,” Stan beams, while still refusing to name favorites.

“But, anyway, I loved doing that. I liked writing Daredevil, because he was kind of a realistic character. I loved doing Sergeant Fury, because I was very proud of the fact that I think I was able to make Sgt. Fury and his men sound like real combat soldiers, and they talked the way real combat soldiers talked without using any four letter words. I think it still sounded authentic, and I was proud of that.

“I [also] liked Iron Man because it was fun to take a character who was a munitions maker, and an industrialist, and a millionaire, and make him popular with young people who hated industrialists and munitions makers at a time when there was so many hippies [and] everybody hated the establishment. So, I took a guy who represented the establishment and I tried to make him popular with the fans, which was an interesting challenge. “I really enjoyed everything I wrote.” 

The Marvel Method would come back to haunt Stan Lee in later years, as it blurred the line between writer and artist, and became a point of contention in deciding who created what characters. Claiming character creation was different for Lee, who claimed sole credit for Spider-Man and other characters for years, than from his artist partners like Ditko and Kirby, who felt a co-creator credit for their visual development of the characters and stories. As time went by, Lee started sharing credit with his former partners, and all Marvel movies have credited creation to both Lee and the respective artist.

Steve Ditko had been given co-plotter credit on The Amazing Spider-Man, and left in a dispute with Lee over the identity of master supervillian Green Goblin: Ditko wanted Goblin an anonymous crook, while Lee wanted to give the narrative pay-off of established character Norman Osborn. Ditko walked out after #33, causing Lee to replace him with the more classic John Romita. Kirby would also leave Marvel, wanting more creative control over his comics, jumping ship to DC Comics to produce his New Gods comics. 

The ‘70s brought another decade of change to Marvel. In 1971, Stan (at the request of United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare) wrote an anti-drug storyline in The Amazing Spider-Man, much to the protests of the Comics Code Association. Lee published the issues without the Comics Code Seal of Approval, and unprecedented move by a comics publisher that took the wind out of the Code’s sails. Later that year, the Code was revised to allow horror, opening the door for the genre to return to comics.

By 1972, after having sold Marvel, Goodman relinquished the Publisher role to Lee, with Lee’s protégé Roy Thomas taking over as Editor-in-Chief. Stan remained the face of Marvel and continued to chime in with his monthly “Stan’s Soapbox” columns.

Stan moved out to California in 1981, serving as producer on film and television projects for Marvel. According to Lee, though, it wasn’t exactly for the work:

“It was because of the weather. Believe it or not, that’s all it was,” he admits. “I came out here on business once. It was the middle of winter, and people were out here in their shirtsleeves driving their convertibles with the tops down. I said ‘These people are living in heaven!’ We moved out.”

After moving to California, Stan truly began cementing himself as a media personality, narrating Saturday morning Marvel cartoons like The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man. He came in and out of writing comics while still writing the Spider-Man daily comic strip, continuing to serve as producer on Marvel films and television projects. In 1989, he had a cameo role as a courtroom judge in the Trial of the Incredible Hulk TV movie, his bench up-ended by Lou Ferrigno’s green-skinned Hulk. It was the start of Stan’s Alfred Hitchcock-like appearances in Marvel films.

His first feature role, however, was in filmmaker Kevin Smith’s 1995 comedy Mallrats, playing himself.

“I had heard that [George Carlin] had wanted to play the role,” Stan said in 1998. “Years ago I had been on a talk show as a guest, I think it was the Mike Douglas show, and George Carlin was also a guest on the show. Every time Douglas started to interview me, Carlin would interrupt. He was very funny, but he never gave me a chance to tell my story!

            “Years later, I had heard that George Carlin had wanted to play this role in Mallrats, but somehow or rather they picked me. And I figured that twenty years later, I got my revenge,” Stan laughed.

            “They picked me because [Kevin Smith] had written it into the script, he wanted a character who was supposed to be popular with the fans. They were going to make up a fictitious character, and somebody said ‘Stan Lee is sort of a ham, why not ask him? He might want to do it.’

            “So, they called me, and I jumped at the chance.”

            Stan’s cameos continued: he’s a hot dog vendor in X-Men, he saves a girl from falling debris in Spider-Man, he pops up in Daredevil, both Hulk movies, dresses like Hugh Hefner in Iron Man, and (in the only inspired moment the whole film) plays the Fantastic Four’s mailman Willie Lumpkin. While the Marvel movies have introduced new non-comic book reading audiences to their characters, they’ve also introduced Stan to a new generation of fans and made him comics’ true ambassador. 

“I didn’t think they’d even get started in the ‘50s or ‘60s, let alone be long-lasting,” Stan admits of the superheroes. “The point is that they certainly can be long-lasting, as much as anything else. Superheroes are like Sherlock Holmes: there have been a million Sherlock Holmes movies. Who knows how many Dracula type movies there have been. Anything that’s even a little bit bigger than life, with a lot of exciting scenes, special effects, and action—it can last forever, if the stories are written well enough.”

            Meanwhile, Stan had left Marvel to pursue his own comic book productions, many of them trying to adapt to the changing technology of the internet and digital age. His new venture Stan Lee Media, launched stanlee.net in 1998, with Flash videos of original internet-based characters. It even garnered a 3-D theme park ride, but fell apart after a loss of funds and indictment of Stan’s co-founder in embezzling funds. 

            It didn’t keep Lee down, though. He could have easily retired from comics, but he returned with the Just Imagine comic books for DC Comics, where he reimagined their line of superheroes with an army of legendary and popular artists. Then, he popped up everywhere, returning to Marvel for a special series of team-ups between Stan and the heroes he co-created, hosting reality TV game show Who Wants to be a Superhero?, hosting the documentary show Stan Lee’s Superhumans on History Channel, and, of course, continuing his movie cameos. Comic book publisher Boom! Launched a trio of titles with characters created by Stan (that are, for the most part, really enjoyable reads)—Soldier Zero, The Traveler, and Starborn. 

Stan’s current company, Pow! Entertainment, is using the wave of superhero movie love to produce new animated and live action projects.

“Here at Pow!, we have a number of movies in development,” Stan notes. “We have some TV shows in development. The one show that seems to be turning into a hit is the Stan Lee’s Superheroes on the History Channel. We had our first season and nobody knew it would do anything. They didn’t promote it, but it got great ratings. Now they’re filming the second season, and they’re going to start promoting it. I think it’s gonna be a big show. We’re working on a live-action show, which if you know the Cirque du Soleil, it’ll be like that but bigger. We have a new superhero, whose Chinese, for a movie that we’re working on. We’re also working on a number of graphic novels and comic books. We try to keep busy with everything.”
            Recently getting the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was a coup for Lee, who continues to embrace new technologies in comic book storytelling. Like everyone else, he can’t determine exactly where comics are going: 

“I’ve no better idea than you or anyone else, but the way the world is going, pretty soon you’ll be able to see everything on your telephone: movies, television shows, comics, and on your TV set and computer screen, of course,” Stan says. “I think there will always be comics. I think there’s something nice about a comic book that you can hold in your hand and share with another fella, and save them and let them pile up on a shelf somewhere, and keep all the editions. But there will also be comics on your computer, and telephone. Everything is coming together now. It doesn’t matter if its comics, or regular books, or magazines. You’ve got them on your Kindles. The world is changing so fast because of computers and technology.”