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Face Front, True Believers: The Comics Industry Sounds Off on Stan Lee

From Captain Marvel #1,1968. Written by Roy Thomas, penciled by Gene Colan, inked by Vince Colletta, lettered by Artie Simek.

From The Comics Journal #181 (October 1995)

*Excerpted

ROY THOMAS
The thing that most impressed me about Stan Lee in the early days of my working for him was not his carefully chosen and well-crafted words on the printed page, with which I was already familiar before I came to work for him — but the fact that here was a man who knew what he wanted, and knew how to inspire others to give it to him.

Much of the reason he could do so is that, by 1965, his demands and cajolings of artists and writers was founded in a firm basis of obvious accomplishment. The stark contrast with the situation today is too obvious for belaboring.

I myself accepted a job offer from Stan only ten or fifteen minutes after I first schlepped over to his Madison Avenue office in July of ’65, and despite the inevitable ups and downs of a sometimes-difficult relationship, I never regretted that decision.

Stan is indisputably one of the most important dozen figures in comic books since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster set the industry on its ear in 1938 with Superman. And like many of that elite — Will Eisner, Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman, Charles Biro, etc. — he was important as much for his editorial skills as for his writing abilities; it’s just that the latter are far easier to isolate and examine. Much of what he accomplished during the decade that began in1961 with FF [Fantastic Four] #1 was possible only because he was both writer coming up with a story, and the editor accepting that story.

One further note, because the oft-fired flames of the supposed Stan Lee/Jack Kirby controversy are bound to be kindled anew at this time: It goes almost without saying that, especially in the early days, Jack Kirby made much of that very real Marvel Revolution possible. His contributions — not only to the look of Marvel’s comics but even to their plotting — are undenied, least of all by Stan. However, it is no reflection on Jack’s immense talent, even genius, to point out that Stan’s own particular genius was to be able to expand and strengthen the Marvel line by getting other artists to aspire to the excitement Jack brought to his drawing and storytelling.

It does no disservice to the memory of the late and very great Jack Kirby — easily the most important artist in Marvel history, and far and away its second most important figure — to assert that Stan Lee, far more than any other person, was the man whose vision and firm guiding hand turned Marvel, in less than a decade, into the major company in the comics field.

DAVE SIM
The first time I was really aware of Stan Lee was in the summer of 1969 when I made my first odyssey (with my parents) to Captain George Henderson’s Memory Lane store in Toronto. This was in the immediate aftermath of the Toronto Triple Fan Fair — probably the first ever Toronto comic book convention. There were a lot of photos of Stan Lee stuck to the walls of Memory Lane which had been taken at the Triple Fan Fair. Stan Lee autographing comic books, Stan Lee on his way from one event to another surrounded — like Elvis or the Beatles — by a horde of fans.

It was years later, in talking with Captain George (sadly missed by all who knew him, let me interject) about the “coup” of having Stan Lee at a small Canadian convention in 1968 — that Captain George smiled his characteristic smile.

“Do you know how we got him? I had a copy of a promotional film that Marvel Comics had done in 1965 or earlier that featured Stan Lee, so I contacted Marvel and asked them if it would be OK if I showed the film at the Triple Fan Fair. Well, I got a call from someone saying that they’d rather I didn’t and how would I like to have Stan Lee in person instead?”

Of course, Captain George jumped at the chance. It instantly took the Triple Fan Fair from being a small Mirvish Village “artsy” kind of event into the realm of a comic-book happening (which, for you younger folk, is what these things were called back in the ’60s). All the while, Captain George is wondering how he had hit it so lucky which he didn’t figure out until Stan and his wife showed up at the airport.

Stan had a full head of hair.

In the promotional film, he was bald.

Another story? Well, OK, but I’d like to point out at this juncture that I’m on record as comparing Stan Lee to Mark Twain (Iron Man #37 letters page if you don’t believe me). The first time I saw Stan Lee was on a panel at the 1972 Cosmic-Con at York University Toronto. Most of the panel (like all convention panels) was pretty forgettable. But there was an interesting moment when one of the Hot Young Writers was talking about things you could or couldn’t do in a Marvel comic as opposed to an underground comic. He made reference to the “clichéd use of symbolism” and Stan (without missing a beat) interjected, “or the symbolic use of clichés.” It got a big laugh and it’s an inversion he long admired — it certainly reflected a quick wit.

The first time I met Stan Lee, I got his autograph (same convention, I believe) and asked him if I could do an interview with him. He told me to write to him at Marvel and to put “Stan Lee: personal” on the envelope. Sometime after that, I got a short letter back from his assistant expressing his regrets but he didn’t have time to do an interview. I kept the autograph for a long, long time.

A couple of years later, I was at a convention and they announced over the public address system that Stan would be giving a talk that was starting in 15 minutes. Everyone in the dealers’ room booed. I remember that that shook me very badly at the time. It was beyond my comprehension that a comic book “household name” could be booed by comic book people.

At the 1992 Diamond Seminar, I had a suite on the top floor of the … Hyatt, I think it was. I had only been in the room a few minutes and the door was open (the bellhop was getting ice, I think) so I saw Stan Lee checking into the suite across the hall. I thought about introducing myself, but I really didn’t know what to say. I really didn’t feel like explaining who I was or what Cerebus was, and I’m sure the last thing he was in the mood for was someone he had never heard of reminiscing about getting his autograph 20 years ago. If I’d remembered the “symbolic use of clichés” jibe, I might’ve mentioned that, but I didn’t, so I didn’t. I remember being smug about the fact that I had a Harbor View Suite and Marvel had only sprung the for City View for Stan.

BILL GRIFFITH
I had a breakfast with him once, in San Diego, four or five years ago, and I was really surprised that he was some sort of a fan of my stuff. I mean, he said he liked it and then he actually described it so that I knew he wasn’t just bullshitting me. So, I was really surprised at that, I remember, because I always associated him with strictly with Marvel, and [the] superhero genre, and I never met him before, so I didn’t know if he had a wider taste in comics. But I remember I was pleasantly surprised that not only did he read my stuff, but he even asked me to do him a drawing, and he acted like a fan, and I was completely taken aback by that… Actually, it was a breakfast with Gary [Groth], me, Stan Lee, maybe if you ask Gary, he can tell you who else, but there was at least one other person… I was surprised because my vision of him was always — I never cared much about Marvel Comics, which I told him. I didn’t insult him because I was being complimented, I tried not to give an insult back from a compliment, but I felt funny because I couldn’t say, “Gee, I love your stuff too.”

It was an awkward, odd moment for me because not only do I not read superhero comics, but I actually hate superhero comics… He was very philosophical, just funny about it. I said something, I couldn’t resist giving him a kind of veiled opinion of superheroes, or at least analyzing them a little bit: what it was all about. As opposed to saying “I love Spider-Man,” saying, “Gee, what’s Spider-Man all about? Why does he exist? What’s the appeal?” And I remember him talking about myths and legends, and retelling myths. He was a smart guy; I enjoyed talking to him. He was very reflective and philosophical about what he did, which I found to be refreshing, because a lot of people involved in that genre are, you know, they’re not particularly bright, in my snotty opinion.

I think Gary wanted to set us up to see if we’d fight with each other. Maybe Stan Lee was trying to disappoint Gary by coming on as a fan. I don’t know how well he knows Gary — I can’t remember, this was five years ago, so I can’t remember specific words. But I just remember that he had this, he knew that his audience was limited to mostly teenage boys. Because I asked him what he thought about that. I said, you know, if I could only talk to teenage boys, I’d go crazy; it’s such a small, limited audience — not in numbers of course. He basically said that was where the money was, he was doing something commercial. He was trying to at least give some mythic element to it, by being aware that that’s what superheroes are all about. They’re about myths and legends, and they weren’t supposed to be original or satirical — well, of course, they were satirical, his particular take on it was satirical. He said you could never break that rule, that at the heart of it you were supposed to be retelling these ancient legends about coming of age, the relationship between power and…

He was talking to me as a producer, as a movie producer, as far as Marvel goes.

I remember he asked me what was happening with Zippy and the wider world of entertainment, and I said we were trying to make — at that point, there was a movie possibility. And he said, “Well, if you’re ever interested in animation, come to Marvel.” He gave me his card. I didn’t take him seriously at all, but maybe I should have… I just can’t quite see Zippy in spandex all pumped up on steroids, but whenever I get to that point, I’ll give you a call.

JOHN BUSCEMA
Well, you know, I go way back to 1948 with the guy… It’s a working relationship; we worked together on The Silver Surfer, 17 issues… I went back to Marvel back in ’66… Surprisingly, the book didn’t do that well, and it was very popular in Europe, which surprised Stan and myself… We haven’t worked together too much; it’s been more a — you know, Stan has always been the editor-in-chief and I worked for other editors, like Roy Thomas, and guys like that. I can’t think of anything…

I met Stan in 1948, it was April of 1948. At the time, it was called Timely — it wasn’t Marvel. And they were on the 14th floor of the Empire State Building, and I walked in, showed Stan my samples, and he said, “OK, kid, I think we can use you.” And they gave me my first job; I was on staff. They had a large room with a bunch of artists in there. There was Syd Shores, there was Carl Bergis, the guy who created the Human Torch, guys I don’t think you would ever know. Danny DeCarlo, Gene Colan; a large room with about 30 guys in there. And I started working at Marvel, I was 21 at the time. He had to be about 25 or 26… The situation was we had different editors up there at the time, a guy called Don Rico (we’re talking about a long time ago), and anyway, we were assigned to each of these editors and I had to do a couple of pages and bring it in to the editor. Stan saw over anything… Occasionally, something would come up and Stan would call me in to his office and explain something, what he wanted, for example, if he wasn’t happy with something, or he was happy with something. Every so often, they would have a policy change as far as layouts, as far as telling the story. I was up there for approximately a year and a half, and then they put everyone on freelance.

Then I started working with Stan because the staff then was reduced because some of the guys didn’t stay with Marvel. But I worked with Stan, and I worked with Stan for… must have been about a year or so, and then I started working with other outfits… It was a matter of money; I got more dough from another company, Marvel wouldn’t meet it, and that’s the reason I left.

Then, back in ’66, [Stan] gave me a call and they asked to go back in. Back in the ’50s was one of the most frightening periods for anybody who was in comics. There was no work. I had developed a clientele in advertising and I was working steadily, but one of the problems I had was I had to commute from where I live into the city, which took me two and a half, sometimes three hours to get into the city… When Stan called and offered me his job at Marvel, I was kind of leery; I didn’t want to drop what I had. But Stan said it was a whole different ball game, the industry had come alive again, things were humming, and he made me an offer which was better than what I had with advertising, so I said, “OK, I’ll take a chance.” And I’ve been in it ever since.

We did write a book together: How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. That came about… I had decided to run a workshop, and Stan dropped by one night to see how it was going, and he suggested that we write a book on that particular course. And we did, and it’s been rolling along ever since.

DOUG MOENCH
When Paul Gulacy and I were doing Master of Kung Fu, Stan said he wanted to see us, and Paul was across the country so he couldn’t go in to see Stan, but I did. And Stan had a make-ready of Master of Kung Fu, and he held it up and he said to me, “This breaks every one of my rules for writing and drawing comics.” And, of course, I started diving on the spot. And he said, “Keep it up, it’s the best comic I’ve seen in years. You break all the rules, but you do it in the right way, and I want you to keep it up, but don’t tell anyone else I said that.”

He wrote this goofy letter that enabled me to get a house back 20 years ago, I guess. When you’re a freelancer, banks don’t like to lend you money because you’re not getting a salary. Plus, I had hair so long, I was sitting on it, and back then people didn’t think that was a sign of someone who was responsible. So I had to go to Stan the Man and say, “Stan, will you write me this letter telling these jabrones that, yeah, I do make money, and I’ll be able to pay my mortgage and all that.” And he did, he wrote some weird letter saying, I can’t remember, but it was something like, “Hey pilgrims, I want you to know that Doug Moench is one of our most valuable writers, and as long as Stan the Man has any say about it, he will be gainfully employed and be able to meet his mortgage payments.” And the banks thought it was kind of weird, but when they checked him out and they found out he was the head of Marvel Comics, and Marvel Comics was a big company, they said, “OK, you get the loan.” And of course, right after that, I quit Marvel.

RICHARD CORBEN
*In Third Person
Back in the ancient history of the early ’70s, Richard Corben had been appearing in the underground comix Skull and Slow Death, and the Warren black-and-white horror magazines. Stan Lee saw a spark of potential talent in Corben’s work and called to make an offer. This was a time when idealistic flower children didn’t trust the old warmongering establishment. To Corben, Stan Lee and Marvel Comics were The Establishment. So, he told Lee to take his project of a new slick fantasy magazine for young adults (this was before Heavy Metal) and stick it. Corben stuck to his ideals and achieved a mediocre level of success. Lee’s slick magazine didn’t get off the ground until much later.

But what if Corben hadn’t been so stubborn? If he had listened to Lee, they might have launched the project. It could have been a smash hit catapulting Corben’s career into comic superstardom…

Nah.

JOHN ROMITA
When I was a kid just starting out, his was the first company that gave me regular work. I did a couple of jobs for other people, but the interesting thing was that I worked for him for over a year without him knowing me. I ghosted for a friend of mine, his name was Zachary, but he never stayed in the business… He was an inker who had work from Stan Lee already, back in the late ‘40s. I think it was 1949 and this guy approached me and said would I ghost-pencil for him. So, I did a few crime stories, and maybe a love story, I think a couple of crime stories. What happened was this guy used to take the stories up, and Stan would make suggestions, and we would have to meet at the public library and I’d make the changes and he’d take them back up to Stan and Stan would be happy with them and that was that. So, when I went to Stan a year later, I went in and said I’d been working for him but he doesn’t know me. I pointed out which stories I worked on and I got work from him. Actually, I went in the army, and I started to get steady work from him while I was in the Army.

He didn’t see me at first, and then after a while, he started to see me. Right away, I got the same impression that everyone else got: that he was very involved and very interested as compared to most editors. There were two or three other editors that I worked for around that time, and they barely gave any response, and they barely gave any thoughts. They just took the work, or grumbled and said they didn’t like it; you never knew how close you were. Stan was immediate and decisive with his response, and he was quite a flamboyant character from the very beginning.

He’d give you a two-dollar raise every time he saw something he liked. He gave you a lot of verbal encouragement which was different from a lot of the other guys.

He used to drive Jack Kirby and me — I think he drove Jack home and he drove me to a railroad station. So, I would get in the back seat of his convertible and Jack and he would sit in the front seat and they would… plot Fantastic Four while I’m looking at the traffic because Stan certainly wasn’t looking at the traffic… Stan would plot the FF with Jack, and they would both come in with their ideas, and they would both ignore each other. Each one would have their own ideas, and I could see that the other guy was countering with another idea, and at the end of my time in the car, they would say, “Yeah, I think that’s the way we’ll go.” But I never really knew which way they would go because both of them had a different aspect on the story. So that when Jack got the story in, sometimes Stan would say, “Gee, Jack forgot what we talked about.” And I’m sure Jack thought the same thing, that Stan forgot what they talked about.

JOE SINNOTT
The thing that I always felt was one of the funniest incidents that concerned Stan and myself was I hadn’t seen Stan since, oh, 1958 roughly, even though I talked to him every week doing FF and other stories, I never went down to the city because it became such a hassle. So, I naturally just sent all my work in by mail. In any case, in 1975 Marvel had one of their two conventions that they had in the mid-’70s. And I was invited down and asked to sit on the dais with Stan, John Romita, John Buscema and a couple of the other old-timers from Marvel. So, I was a little bit late. When I got there, most of the guys were up on the dais, and Stan was there, so I walked over to Stan and I said, “Stan, how’ve you been? It’s been so long.” So, he looked at me, and he said, “Jack Keller. How are you? How’ve you been?” He thought I was a guy named Jack Keller, who used to work for

Fantastic Four #142

Marvel back in the ’50s, and he did a lot of Westerns… He thought I was Jack Keller. And this was in front of a large audience because we were having a banquet at the time. I thought Stan was joking with me, pulling my leg. So, I went along with him and I said, “Oh, I’m fine.” So, he said, “How come you don’t come back and work with us?” I thought he was still pulling my leg, so I said to him, “Well, gee, if you paid decent rates, I said I’d come back and work for you.” He gave me a funny look when I said that. Anyway, he went back to his seat next to John Romita and I sat down next to John Buscema. I saw him talking to Romita and looking down at me with a strange look on his face. So finally, he got up and he came down and he said, “Joe, I’m so sorry. I honestly thought you were Jack Keller.”

He hadn’t seen me in so long, even though he talked to me all the time, he hadn’t seen me in 17 years and he thought I was Jack Keller. Stan got up and told the audience the complete story of what had happened, and everybody got such a charge out of it.

MIKE ALLRED
He’s definitely made an impression. With Stan, there’s a certain style and energy that influenced me, with those early Marvel creations that he had his name on. One of my all-time favorite books, that I still look at all the time, are the Fantastic Fours that he did with Jack Kirby, which to me are very much a touchstone. That whole period—there were two periods in the history of comics that I find the most inspirational and influential, just bursting with energy and creativity. The first was the EC era, with Harvey Kurtzman and Johnny Craig and Bernie Krigstein and all those great guys. Then, historically after that, you probably would have assumed that comics were dead and I give it to Stan Lee for bringing it all back. That’s with the help of people like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and John Romita. But Stan the Man had the ideas, and thanks to him, he helped resurrect an industry.

Most recently, I was sent a rough cut of this film called Mallrats — it’s the follow-up to Clerks. It was sent to me because they want a different pseudo-comic book cover for each main character — there’s eight of them. I did one for one of the two main characters. Anyway, Stan Lee is in that film. He plays himself and he kind of gives this almost Confucius-like advice for this comic book fan who’s actually split up with the Brenda character. And so, it was just a lot of fun to realize that I was going to be part of a film that he was a part of.

HERB TRIMPE
I was sort of on the tail end of Stan’s system for producing comics, which was primarily the thing he did with Jack. That was to go into story conference and between the two of them, utilizing also the ability of the artist as well as his own storytelling… There would be a lot of rapid back-and-forth, throwing out ideas, seeing what would fit, seeing what wouldn’t fit. I was sort of on the tail end of that.

From Strange Tales #157, 1951. Written by Stan Lee and Marie Severin, pencilled and colored by Marie Severin, inked by Herb Trimpe, lettered by Artie Simek.

The thing about Stan at that time was he was very big for acting parts out. He literally — if he had an idea concerning, say, something that Spider-Man might be involved in. You know, some situation he was in, and he would react — well, he would act it out, literally climbing on chairs and things like that. He was very physical in order to get the idea across.

Nobody ever did any marketing research. They didn’t know necessarily what age groups were buying the books, except by what they got in letters and that kind of thing. We knew we were hitting a college-age level but we weren’t sure about the rest of it. At any rate, somebody interviewed Stan and asked, “How do you come up with ideas that people like?” And I always thought this was a very good rule of thumb for almost anything. He said, “Well, the thing I would do is come up with something that I like, and then what I would assume is that there would be a lot of people that would agree with me.” And it was based on that. It’s totally opposite to the strategies used today in selling books, which is trying to figure out what the fans want. His approach was to figure out what he wanted — I’m sure Jack did exactly the same thing.

AL WILLIAMSON
He’s always been a lot of fun to work for.

A couple of months ago, Gray Morrow and I saw each other for the first time in quite a few years. We started talking, reminiscing, this and that, and we hit upon Stan Lee. Back in the ’50s, he wrote a lot of Westerns. We were reminiscing about how much fun they were. They were four-page, five-page stories. They were simple little stories, but they had a nice moral to them. The guy would come in, clean up the town, you know. And there would always be a nice moral behind it. But it was always so much fun to draw. We were just reminiscing about how much we enjoyed those stories. They were simply written, but they were positive, the kind of thing that kids at that time enjoyed. I don’t think they’d enjoy them now, which is kind of a pity. That was it: we were talking and we thought, “Gee, it’d be kind of nice if Stan would know that.” If he reads this, then he’ll find out that we really enjoyed working on those scripts.

GILBERT HERNANDEZ
I’ve never met him, seen him around. I’ve seen him act in a movie. He’s in a movie called The Ambulance and he actually doesn’t do a bad job of acting. He plays himself. It’s his persona that he’s created in comics; this P.T. Barnum of comic books. I’m not at all surprised that he can act because he’s been bullshitting for the last 35 years.

Hernandez illustrated a Seth interview in “The Kids Are All Right.”

I haven’t read a mainstream comic book writer since Stan Lee that was that much fun to read. There have been better readers, of course, but I still feel he was the most fun to read.

SPAIN RODRIGUEZ
His books were really a bell ringer, that comics were something to look at again. I never met the guy and I’ve seen him on TV a bunch of times, he seems like a big promoter of the stuff I like. Jack Kirby’s commentary in the interview with him that was in TCJ, one of the best things I ever read in the Journal, talking about how he walked into the room, and they were carrying out the furniture and Stan Lee was sitting on the chair crying, and he went over and comforted him and basically introduced his idea for the new line of comics. All those Marvel comics were the first bell that comics were coming back.

When the Comic Code came in, I just stopped reading comics; I didn’t even read the EC comics. The Comics Code was just such a humiliating cop-out, an injustice compared to William Gaines standing up before the Kefauver Committee. I like to think of myself in that tradition of comics, rather than the Goldwater tradition. Those Marvel comics, they seemed to have some kind of psychedelic subtext that’s kind of hard to pinpoint, but there was something about them. All the stuff that was going on around ’65 — everybody dropping acid — and reading those comics, they seemed to be giving us some kind of message and putting some kind of color into the world that wasn’t there before.

TOM SUTTON
Stan gave me my first job, and I hate him forever for that. Otherwise, I would have found real work and wouldn’t have winded up in this situation. Over the years, I’ve heard so much garbage about Stan and it’s quite possible people have had run-ins with him— I never did. Stan was very nice to me. From the time I first went there and knew nothing, he helped me. He showed where I did this a little differently, or that a little differently, mind you according to the Marvel style. He was very helpful to me; he took time out of his very hectic madness and at that time — we’re talking the end of 1969, 1970, somewhere around there — things were very crazy there. But as far as Stan is concerned, he was very helpful to me.

Kid Colt Outlaw #137 was written by Sol Brodsky, penciled by Sutton, inked by Bill Everett and lettered by Morie Kuramoto.

As opposed to certain other individuals — who will remain unnamed — he did take the time to say, “Yes, I like this part. No, I don’t like this part and this is how we can make it better.” This is very helpful to a young person going into something like that.

He was a little imposing — because I was a very provincial person and Stan was very downtown — but very likable.

AL JAFFEE
Stan Lee and I joined the comic book world at about the same time. He was a 17-year-old wunderkind editor and I was an 18-year-old wanna-be artist/writer. Eventually, we worked on many titles together. Who can forget (or for that matter, remember) such stirring features as Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal? Other such ilk was soon to follow.

The one thing that impressed me greatly about Stan was his “can do” attitude. No matter how many new titles were thrown at him at the last minute he somehow never failed to meet the deadlines.

I remember the first time I was called in for a cover conference. I was an associate editor at the time, responsible for some 20 teenage titles. I figured this would take the better part of the day. No way! Stan said, “Read the titles off one by one.” I started, and instantly he rattled off a cover idea quicker than I could rough sketch it. This went on for no more than 30 minutes till all 20 or so covers were done. Time Magazine, eat your heart out! I must say I was deeply impressed. It was a bravura performance.

There are those who might say teenage magazine covers of that era were based on simplistic formulas. True or not, they had to be done professionally to compete in the marketplace.

Stan did this successfully throughout his career in my view. I and zillions of fans hope he’ll continue doing so for many moons to come.

JOHN WORKMAN
One of these days, when the ocean is a little less wet and I have some time to spare, I really do plan on visiting the “book room” and making a search for something that’s eluded me for almost thirty years.

When my wife and daughter and I moved into our “new house” twelve years ago, I filled one of the six bedrooms with books and magazines and comics and spent time putting them in alphabetical, chronological and numerical order, certain that I could look forward to treasured hours of reading in my own private library. Instead, I find that I’m in the “book room” only when I need to check the files for some needed bit of reference to use on a current project or to do some necessary tidying up by incorporating new acquisitions into the main collection. Those times, too, are far from the solitary attempts at discovery that I envisioned because they usually involve some help from my brother or my daughter. Indeed, the last time my brother came down to help, he waded through the entire comic and magazine collections while I sat in my studio feverishly lettering pages of overdue comic art. Receiving aid from my daughter in the cataloguing of recent comics has been a real eye-opener since this representative of a new generation of potential comics fans seems to want to read everything she comes across from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s but looks with disgust at the current offerings and asks, “Dad, do you really want to keep this junk?”

Every time I reluctantly leave this wondrous library and return to the mundane tasks involved in the lettering of current comic books, I feel a twinge of guilt because I’ve once again failed to search through the long-neglected piles of letters and magazine clippings and other paper paraphernalia that fill several boxes and file cabinets to find something important that I really need to see again. Somewhere in that room… or possibly in a similar maze of boxes in my studio… is a letter written to a kid who no longer exists by a comic book writer/editor named Stan Lee.

From Fantastic Four #279, 1985. Penciled by John Byrne, inked by Jerry Ordway, and lettered by John Workman.

When I was in junior high school, I already knew what I wanted to do with my life and an enterprising teacher gave me the chance to do some digging and to find out just what I was getting myself into. The assignment was to contact people in the line of work that interested me and see what these guys might be able to impart concerning the good and bad of that vocation. For a couple of years, I’d been drawing comic book stories and publishing them in fanzines and I’d decided that this fantastic combination of writing and drawing was just about the best way around to say something worthwhile to people and that if I played my cards right, I might be able to make a living at it. I typed up a list of questions specifically about the field and included some others relating to medical benefits, pensions, and job-related travel and left the rest of the page for any comments the person answering those questions might wish to make. Knowing even then how important time is to a working professional, I went back and re-wrote each question so that they could be answered with a “yes” or “no” and left room for comments.

After all these years, I can’t remember how many different companies received my questionnaire. I do remember getting an answer from DC. As I expected, someone in the office filled in the yeses or the nos and returned the questionnaire without any comments. I wasn’t bothered by this. I figured I’d rather have my heroes creating comic books than answering silly questions. It was enough that they’d helped me with my school assignment. Others didn’t answer at all. When an envelope showed up with the Marvel name on it, I opened it without any hope of gleaning any information beyond that afforded by a yes or no answer. It was a real jolt when I saw that each question had a typewritten comment beside it, that the bottom half of the page was filled with several typed paragraphs, and that the signature at the very bottom was that of Stan Lee.

No tears came when I’d opened that Marvel envelope, but I still feel the realization that somebody who had a million other things to take care of had, instead, shown me a kindness. It was almost a challenge. I wanted more than anything to show that sort of kindness to other people, to tell them, “Yeah, you can do it. I’ll help.” I’ve tried to do that and I know I’ve often failed, but I keep at it.

Inside the envelope, Stan offered benign discouragement. He told me that most comics artists made very low wages and had little in the way of the paid vacations, medical benefits, and retirement provisions that were enjoyed by those who worked steadily for one employer in a more lucrative field. He suggested that I adjust my sights and aim for a career in book and magazine illustration. This bothered my dad, who had steadfastly supported my interest in comic books. Finding out that, by Stan’s reckoning, my father’s job in a wood products plant offered more security than that enjoyed by a group of talented storytellers made him wonder how far I should walk down the path I’d chosen.

I saw Stan’s answers and comments as a true challenge, cutting through the layers of dream and into the core of reality. “Get tough or die, kid. If you’re serious, get at it; if you’re just goofing around, go do something else.” He didn’t say any of these things, but he let me know how things were and then left it up to me to make my peace with the real world.

The suggestion that I concentrate on illustration was one that I immediately jettisoned. Individual drawings were of little interest to me. I loved the panel-to-panel progressions of comics, the chance to play with time itself by way of the arrangement of those panels, and the opportunity to force the reader to join in on the fun by filling in with their imaginations the blank spaces that existed between each panel.

It was to be more than a decade before I began working for one of the comic book companies that had been such an influence on my younger self. Two more decades beyond that time, I find myself standing among the tattered ruins of American comic book publishing with surprisingly few regrets. I never got to be known to millions of readers as a great writer and artist, but those things I did create were pure and complete and reached a solid group of people on an international level. Every now and then, someone walks up to me at a convention and tells me that they like my work and that they wish I’d get back to drawing and writing. That’s good for a couple of days of feeling really happy. For those to whom my interest in comics has provided a relatively decent lifestyle, the possibility that my handful of creations may live beyond my lifetime is less important than the fact that I was able to make a living by playing around with something that I loved. And, money-wasting morons like Ed Meese notwithstanding, I was even able to keep some of those earnings. Beyond that, I’ve kept some wonderful memories.

LARRY HAMA
I have a diploma on my wall from the Wally Wood School of Comic Art and Applied Psychology. It is a hand-crafted thing with seals cut out of cigarette package foil and lettered in that patented Woody Gothic script. He gave them out one Christmas to all his former assistants. The Applied Psychology part always puzzles anybody who didn’t know Woody personally. (Nobody called him Wally to his face!) What it refers to is the fact that lettering, filling in blacks, ruling borders, swipe-o-graphing, and inking backgrounds weren’t the primary functions of an assistant in the Wally Wood studio; no, the job was listening.

Woody talked non-stop. He had opinions about everything. I listened to it all, because in between the discourses on politics and psychiatry, there were anecdotes about his days with Mad Magazine, his experiences as an assistant in Milt Caniff’s studio, EC Comics, his times in the Army paratroops and the Merchant Marine, life in rural Minnesota and what it was like to go to the Hogarth School (School of Visual Arts) on the G.I. Bill. I felt I was the amanuensis of some comic book oral tradition.

Alcohol seemed to set loose the vitriol in him. I dreaded going into the studio when he was on a bender because the air seemed thick with hate, resentment and envy directed at the various bogeymen of his life. Some of it I could understand. The anger was righteous. He had been exploited. Chief among the targets of his animosity was Stan Lee, but there was something decidedly different about this particular rant. There were never any specific wrongs mentioned. It was always so general. One day, I tried to pin Woody down on the subject. “Exactly what did Stan do to you?” Woody fumed and sputtered for a while, smoked half a dozen butts, drank another six pack before he retorted, “He’s too damn nice! He has to be hiding something!”

A few years later, when I first met Stan Lee at Marvel, I was prepared to carry on my mentor’s paranoia. The friendliness and good humor that came out of this man seemed too good to be true. It’s an act, right? He’s a showman and ace frontman, and all this sunshine is the false bonhomie of a cold call telephone salesman.

It is now 22 years later and I am firmly convinced that with Stan Lee, what you see is what you get. The enthusiasm is genuine. He is just happy to be here. And nice? In all this time, I have never heard him say a mean word about anybody. Even when he was castigated in the fan press by a former colleague who went so far as to claim total authorship of work that was clearly a collaboration, Stan refrained from rebuttal because to do so would be a cruelty to great talent who was laboring under a few unfortunate decisions.

I remember that Woody had a few things to say about Stan’s accuser. “He’s a genius, but much less of a genius than he says he is — and he’s always claiming he created everything!” My last words on this particular topic are, “Why didn’t anybody ask Flo Steinberg or Steve Ditko, who were there at the time, whether or not Stan really created all that stuff or not?” Maybe because they didn’t want to hear the answer?

Flo Steinberg succinctly summed it all up about Stan Lee in an interview I saw on tape somewhere: “Stan has always been a true gentleman.” God Bless him, there are far too few of them in this world.

MARY FLEENER
I don’t know much about Stan Lee personally. I’m sure he’s a very nice man, but I really don’t think his influence has anything to do with the kind of comics I’m doing. I’ve said this before about Jack Kirby, and I’ll say it about Stan Lee: I think he was the start of something bad. Obviously, I’m not a fan of superheroes. The bigger issue, it seems to me, is that Stan Lee represents unethical business practices in dealing with artists. The throwaway attitude they had towards artists in the past, like work-for-hire which they still do, keeping people’s artwork, trying to get as much as they can and paying as little as possible — all the practices that make the corporate world what it is today — that’s what Marvel represents to me. Stan Lee seems to be the figurehead of that and I find it all unacceptable. Like I said, while I think he’s probably a very nice person, to me he represents everything that’s wrong with comics.

From The Spirit strip #5, June 30, 1940. Written, penclled, and inked by Will Eisner, colored by Joe Kubert, and lettered by Sam Rosen.

WILL EISNER
While I’ve known Stan for many years I cannot recall a specific anecdote that might be pertinent. I can report however that our public appearances have always been characterized by an effort to “upstage” each other in a most friendly manner. Privately, Stan has always admitted to a fascination with “show business” and about 20 years ago when he was about to move to Hollywood for Marvel he offered me his post at headquarters. It was an opportunity I had to decline. Actually, we never worked together.

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One Response to Face Front, True Believers: The Comics Industry Sounds Off on Stan Lee

  1. 20+ years after reading this article, I can still recall Kaz and Danny Hellman’s responses therein.

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