With the possible exception of William Gaines, who created the Entertaining Comics (E. C.) line-up out of which Mad Magazine became the most successful publication in American history, Stan Lee today stands as the leading personality of the comic-book industry, having also made a more modern reputation for himself in television and motion pictures. Would you believe 129 credits as exec producer?
As for the current Marvel Movies featuring superheroes, somewhere within you will discover Lee appearing in a cameo role, usually with a comedic overtone. In Captain America: Civil War he’s a driver for FedEx; in Deadpool he’s the head disc jockey of a strip club; and in Ant-Man he’s none other than the bartender. Would you believe 93 parts in all? Call him The King of Cameos.
Before I tell you about my meeting with Stan Lee back in 1974, allow me to provide a brief outline about my introduction into the world of comic books, which would include Lee an entire decade before he created Spiderman and an entirely new line of superheroes and superheroines.
It all started in the summer of 1949 when I discovered the E.C. comics of Bill Gaines. I was staying at my grandparents’ home in Orcutt, Ca., when I went into a local store and was stunned by the imagery of The Vault of Horror, a collection of horror stories amusingly spun by a macabre character named The Vault-keeper. That same week I also found copies of The Haunt of Fear (tales told by the Old Witch) and Tales From the Crypt (storyteller: The Crypt-keeper). These horror comics were establishing a new trend in story-telling and artwork. One of the artists, Graham Ingels, became better known as “Ghastly Graham” for his artwork.
I also picked up my first copies of Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, war comic books written by cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman (who would go on to create Mad Comics in 1952). Unlike previous war comics, these depicted various phases of historic warfare (past and present) from a realistic point-of-view that was quite often disturbing to a nine-year-old like myself.
Within the next year, as I kept buying the horror and war comics (as well as E.C.’s two science-fiction comics, Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, and its two crime-related mags, Crime Suspenstories and Shock Suspenstories), I suddenly came across similar comic books bearing the Atlas News Company emblem and all done under the editorship of . . . yep, Stan Lee.
It was obvious that the war, science fiction and horror/suspense Atlas Comics were spin-offs of the E.C. comics. But I didn’t care. They were close seconds and to me were a compelling read.
Journey Into Mystery, Astonishing, Mystic, Spellbound, Mystery Tales, Uncanny Tales . . Navy Action, Battle, War, Battlefront . . . I enjoyed reading them as much as Gaines’ output, even if the artwork wasn’t always as superb. There were also other genres: romance, Westerns, comedy (imitations of Mad, of course). I collected literally hundreds of these Atlas comics. Many were purchased at the time of their distribution; years later I would visit the Collectors Bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard, where I would pick up missing issues for $1 each. For years this fabulous shop was operated by Malcolm Willits and Leonard Brown, who became two major figures in my life whenever I walked into their domain.
By the mid-1950s the E.C. line was all but finished except for Mad, which was moved from the comic book genre into the world of magazines, and erupted with a spectacular life all its own. The rest of the industry was facing a major crisis as well as Gaines when Senator Estes Kefauver and his sub-committee decided in 1954 that comic books were the direct cause of juvenile delinquency in America – a ridiculous idea lifted from the pages of Seduction of the Innocent, an “expose” written by psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Wertham.
Bill Gaines was the only comic-book publisher who had the fortitude to defend his industry by appearing before Kefauver’s committee, even though he didn’t have to. But volunteering to save himself and others didn’t work. It was utterly impossible to reason with those brain-dead politicians who had believed Dr. Wertham, no matter how stupid his premise. Rather than have a code imposed on it from the outside, the comics industry decided to censor itself through what became known as the Comics Code Authority. And thus did Stan Lee’s line of comics, just like Gaines’, slowly dwindle away as they were stripped of their artistic vitality and story impact.
But then things began to change. In 1961 Lee was responsible for creating what would become one of the most popular of all comic-book creations, Spider-Man. His imagination didn’t stop there, but went on to create the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, and many other fictional characters, introducing a thoroughly shared universe. He also allowed his characters to be less than perfect. After all, even a superhero must have a few weaknesses here or there. And finally, Lee was responsible for being the first to challenge the Comics Code Authority, which resulted in policy reform. And eventually the code was buried in the deep hole in which it belonged, and talents like Stan Lee were once again free to write their hearts out.
So, comic book fans of America, let us pause and give full credit to Stan Lee for revitalizing the superhero genre in the early 1960s and restoring originality. From there he would constantly grow larger and larger as an American icon. And now journey with me backward through time to October 1974, when I first met Stan Lee and interviewed him for the San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday Datebook. Here is the story as it first appeared:
Spider-Man Swings From
TV Cartoons to Feature Film
Spider-Man, that nemesis of the underworld who literally spins webs to snare the forces of evil, has been the luckiest of superheroes to make the transition from four-color comic-book pages to film. And the spinning all began in the brain of Stan Lee back in 1961 when he was creating a new line of characters under the Marvel Comics imprint. Spider-Man made it to television before the decade was over – a Saturday morning cartoon series with animated action that consistently matched the bizarre comic-book plots created by Lee and his staff.
This very month “Spidey” will become – to the delight of the younger set – a recurring figure on TV’s The Electric Company, a program designed to help children fight the forces of forgetfulness as they face new studies in grammar and spelling (narrated by none other than Morgan Freeman – years before he’d become a famous film actor). According to Stan Lee, Spider-Man is ready for his greatest leap of all – into his own full-length feature film, to be produced by Universal Studios with that Super-Publisher himself, Stan Lee, functioning as associate producer.
When Stan Lee sat down with me one afternoon, he made it clear he was serving as an all-around spokesman for the comic-book industry. And, he told me, he had arrived in San Francisco praising “the wise decision” Hollywood had made to make Spidey the subject of a live-action adventure film.
“This is a major breakthrough,” proclaimed Lee, a tall, slender man who always seems on the verge of exploding with nervous energy, even now at the age of 51 (within two months he will turn 52, having been born Dec. 28, 1922). “As a rule, superheroes are not considered popular fodder for the screen. Superman made it in the serials, as did Captain America. Batman and Robin were a big hit on TV and in movies, but they really are not superheroes.”
It might be that Spider-Man is part of an upcoming trend in Hollywood. “(Producer) George Pal recently made a film based on the Doc Savage character, a kind of ultra-perfect he-man hero who was popular in the pulp magazines of the 1930s. Pal has already made plans for a sequel, even though the original hasn’t been released yet by Warner Bros. Now that Universal has taken the plunge, who knows what is next.”
(Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze would be released in the summer of 1975. Starring Ron Ely, who had portrayed Tarzan in a TV series in the 1960s, the film failed miserably at the box office and whatever plans George Pal had for a sequence were quickly forgotten.)
Although casting has not yet been decided, Lee told me that he would like to see a “young Dustin Hoffman” in the title role. “Dustin might have been right a few years ago, but now he’s a little too old. I have some other casting ideas, but don’t want to reveal them until I’ve contacted more actors.”
Naturally, Lee hopes to have a hand in the shaping of the screenplay. And he has every right. He has been writing and plotting stories for the Marvel magazines since the year 1939.
Life started for him not as Stan Lee but as Stanley Martin Lieber. He grew up in Manhattan and the Bronx, developing an early-in-life love for writing. By 1941 he had helped to create his first superhero character, The Destroyer, for Mystic Comics. And he proved to be the fledgling staffer at Marvel who whacked and crunched Captain America and Submariner to victory during the patriotic years of World War II.
That phase of his career was interrupted while he served in the Signal Corps. After the war he was the executive editor who produced Astonishing Tales, Adventures Into Weird Worlds and all those other Atlas comics during the horror-sodden 1950s. He also worked overtime to help establish a rapport between readers and the artists that helped to create the new world of fandom.
I asked Lee to give me his opinion of how he felt about the turbulent 1950s. “Comics,” he replied, “were exciting until 1954, when those Senate hearings led to the self-imposed Code within the comics industry. After that, comics pretty much died out. Even superheroes were out of vogue.
Then, one day, we wrote something called The Fantastic Four. We related these new superheroes to every-day problems. What happens when you can’t pay your rent? Or your costume tears and you don’t have the materials to mend it? Well, from that first issue new ideas and characters gradually grew. And suddenly something fresh and exciting was happening. The college kids were the first to pick up on it. And we found ourselves writing on two levels. The youngsters could enjoy them for their fast pace, color and action. The older readers could enjoy them for their satire and social commentary. It was a renaissance in the comics world, and it’s still going on today.
“After writing a few hundred stories,” Lee told me, “you realize your mind works like a movie camera. You see it unfold with all the various camera angles, as you might see a film unfold on the silver screen. You even begin to think after a while in terms of fast cutting. It’s fantastic what the movie form can do for your imagination–and for your writing.”
Lee is the only comics kingdom editor-publisher who has turned himself into a celebrity through the power of the press. For years his name adorned the splash title pages (“Startling Story by Scintillating Stan Lee”) and always Lee signed his chatty, personable editorials, concluding his promise of a ton of action in the next issues with the phrase “Nuff said.”)
Lee has become a crusading representative for comic books, lecturing at least twice a month on campuses across the nation. As publisher he no longer has time to write and edit, but he tends to such Marvel affairs as paperbacks, cartoon shows, fan clubs, games and assorted merchandising. He is delighted to be entering the world of movie production.
My conclusion: Stan Lee is an individual of rich paradox – while he devotes his energies to exploiting, and expounding on, his comic books (and they have been of all genres, from war to suspense to horror to love to Western), he never really wants you to take him all that seriously. For example, he begins his new book entitled Origins of Marvel Comics with “Greetings, culture lovers,” and refuses to remove his tongue from his cheek for the rest of that book.
“There’s a new wave of excitement in comics today,” he claimed, as our interview came to an end. “And the forthcoming Spider-Man movie proves how it is affecting other media. You’re going to be seeing a lot of innovative things now that the comic book is no longer looked upon as inferior junk.”
And Lee promised (just as he does in the pages of his magazines) that “there’s going to be tons of adventure and excitement when Spider-Man swings across the giant screen.”
Oops, not quite ’nuff said, not just yet. Why? ’Cause that Spider-Man movie Stan Lee dreamed of making never happened. At least not back in the 1970s, when first we met. The project would die the following year and not make its way to the big screen for many years to come. But hold it!
There was a moment of breakthrough… and we’ll cover that in Part 2!