Stan Lee's "A Brief History of Marvel" with Kevin Smith

Thu, November 9th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Emmett Furey, Staff Writer

Last week, CBR news caught a screening of "Spider-Man 2" at the world famous Grauman's Chinese theater in Hollywood, California. It's a safe bet that every audience member in the packed house had already seen the film, but that's not why the comics fans came out in droves that night: They were there to see the Q&A with Spidey creator Stan Lee himself and special guest host Kevin Smith.

The film and the comics legend both were introduced by a hapless host, who was admittedly a good sport when the audience chided her about her marked ignorance of comics culture, epitomized by her butchering of the pronunciation of Magneto.

In his remarks before the film, Stan revealed that the now-legendary phrase "With great power comes great responsibility" came about as a happy accident. "I had written the story, and I always put the dialogue in after the drawings are done. So I wrote the final caption, and there was a little space left over, and it looked like it needed a few more words," Stan said. "It filled the space perfectly! I didn't realize it was gonna be like 'Friends, Romans, Countrymen' someday."

The cameo-hungry comics legend lamented his scant few seconds of screen time in the second installment of the Spider-Man movie franchise, but Stan did dangle a few breadcrumbs about his Hitchcockian cameos in the upcoming "Spider-Man 3" and "Fantastic Four 2."

"In Spider-Man 3, I actually have a scene where I'm speaking to Peter Parker. What I say is so profound, and so meaningful, there won't be a dry eye in the place," Stan told the audience. He was hesitant to go into specifics about his FF2 appearance, but he did say it was a callback to a classic issue from his run on the titular comic series. "Jack Kirby and I had done a 'Fantastic Four' story a million years ago, and there was a scene where we injected ourselves into the story. Jack actually drew him and me in a panel in the story doing something. In 'Fantastic Four 2,' they replicate that very scene that we did, live-action. Unfortunately Jack couldn't be here to do it, but I come in and I do what we had done in the comic book."

On the prospect of sharing the stage with Kevin Smith, Stan said, "He talks more than me, and if he's wearing those short pants, I'm out of here." But after the screening of Spider-Man 2, Smith did take the stage in his trademark shorts, to a melodramatic fanfare. "I had no idea there would be music. That was kind of cool," Smith quipped.

And with that, Stan Lee took the stage to thunderous applause. "To have to follow this guy is like suicide," Stan told the crowd. "Unfortunately I don't have any anecdotes about him, because he's not that memorable." And so began an evening of good-natured one-upmanship.

Smith began the Q&A with a question not about Marvel, but its forerunner, Timely Comics. Stan told Smith that at the age of 17 he was hired by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon to be their gopher, raising the fledgling comic company's employee count to a resounding three. "I was the guy, in those days, they did the pen and ink, I would fill the ink wells, I would go down and get the lunch, I would erase pages after they had been inked, and run errands, that was it," Stan said of his earliest responsibilities. "When they found out I could read and write, they asked me to proofread [the pages]." In his capacity as proofreader, Stan found himself rewriting dialogue on a regular basis. "So when they learned that I could write a simple declarative sentence, they said, 'How would you like to write some stories?'"

When Timely Comics publisher Martin Goodman eventually fired Kirby and Simon, he offered the job of editor to the only employee he had left, a still-teenaged Stan Lee. "Sure, I can do it," the eager teen had said. "So I was the editor, art director and head writer at 17."

Stan then made mention of his stint in the Army, and his subsequent return to Timely Comics. It wasn't long after the sales of Stan's early superhero work picked up that Stan made the decision to change the company's name. "I came up with Marvel, because that was the name of the first magazine Martin Goodman had ever published," Stan said.

In the 20-odd years between his hiring at Timely and the changeover to the primarily superhero work come the name change, Stan said Publisher Martin Goodman's rule of thumb was to follow the trends. When Western stories were selling, Stan would write Westerns. The same was true with war stories, horror comics, even romance comics.

In a way, it was Goodman's bandwagon jumping that led to Stan's first foray into the superhero genre. Superman and Batman were already big sellers for Timely's chief competitor, National Comics (which would of course later become DC), and high sales for National's "Justice League" convinced Goodman to solicit a superteam comic from Stan Lee. But Stan, for his part, was on the verge of quitting the business.

"Martin used to say he didn't want me to write words of more than two syllables, don't waste time with characterization, just have a lot of fights and a lot of action," Stan said. "Because he felt the comics were read by very, very young kids, or by stupid adults. That was what most people thought about comics then."

"It's still the same," Smith interjected wryly.

But it was Stan's wife of 59 years, Joan Lee, who convinced the writer to give Goodman one more shot. When Stan told his wife about Goodman's idea for a comic about a team of superheroes, Joan told him, "Stan, why don't you do it, but do it your way? The worst that can happen is he'll fire you. So what, you want to quit. But at least you'll get it out of your system." And that is the true origin of the Fantastic Four.

Of his first superhero creations for Timely, Stan said his first innovation was cutting out the secret identities. "If I were a superhero - Well, of course, I'm exceptionally conceited and a showoff. There's no way that I wouldn't want people to know all the good things I was doing," Stan said. He also bucked superhero trends by having the FF not wear costumes (at least at the beginning) and by setting their adventures in the real-life city of New York as opposed to a fictional metropolis.

When asked about character design, Stan said, "See, that's the reason that I like to say that I co-created these characters. The original idea was mine, I would write it down, I would give it to the artist, either Jack or Steve Ditko or John Romita or Buscema or whoever it was, but they would add so much to it, because I never was specific." Stan didn't even describe what he wanted the costumes to look like. "When Steve Ditko did that Spider-Man costume, I loved it!" Lee went on to suggest that one of the reasons that Spider-Man is so universally loved is because his costume entirely conceals his ethnicity. "It's easy, no matter who you are, to empathize with Spider-Man, because he could be you under that costume. Now, we didn't do that purposely, but it worked out that way, and I think it was very lucky that Steve did the costume the way he did, and I think it's one of the reasons that Spider-Man is so loved in every part of the world."

Smith asked if there was one of Stan's comics creations that the writer heralded as his favorite, and Stan said, "You know, I really don't have a favorite because, whichever one I was writing at the moment was my favorite. And I love them all."

Stan admitted that at the time, it never occurred to him that these characters might one day become cultural icons. "The only thing I thought was, 'I hope the damn book will sell so I'll keep my job and get my salary and pay the rent.' I mean, to think that someday I'd be sitting here being interviewed by Kevin, I never could have imagined that in a million years."

And we can chalk up all the alliterative names in the Marvel universe to Stan Lee's one failing. "It would be hard for you to believe this, because I seem so perfect: I have the worst memory in the world," Stan said. "So I finally figured out, if I could give somebody a name, where the last name and the first name begin with the same letter, like Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Matt Murdock, then if I could remember one name, it gave me a clue what the other one was, I knew it would begin with the same letter."

Smith then asked Stan, "So back in the day, when you're typing out silly stories about dudes in costumes beating the crap out of each other, did you bring the finished comic book home to your wife and be like, 'Look what I did'? Did she read your work at that point?"

"I don't think my wife ever read one," Stan admitted. "She doesn't read comics -- one of those things. It probably kept our marriage together."

"So when they take her to see the 'X-men' movie or 'Spider-Man' or 'Hulk,' does she go like, 'Hey, these are good movies, why didn't you think of that?'" Smith asked

Stan said that Joan has been pleasantly surprised at the quality of the filmic adaptations of her husband's work. "I don't think she'd go out of her way to see a superhero movie, but when she'd see ones about our characters, she seemed to enjoy them. Unless she was just patronizing me," Lee joked.

Stan said that even though he created these characters, his sense of authorship evaporated the moment he stopped writing them. "I'm well aware, I wrote certain stories, for better or for worse. Now other people are writing them, they are now their stories, nothing to do with me." In fact, Stan hardly even reads comics these days. "That's not a slight, or a dig, I don't have time to read comics anymore, really."

Stan does, however, take the time to read the occasional book that he writes. He took a moment to plug his most recent comics work, the "Stan Lee Meets" books that Marvel is putting out to commemorate Stan's 65th anniversary at the company. "They asked me to pick five characters I would like to write about, and do a ten page story about each in a book. So I picked Doctor Doom, Dr. Strange, The Silver Surfer, Spidey and the Thing," Stan said. "I wrote them as humorously as I could, and I injected myself in the stories, where I'm talking to the characters and so forth. And if anybody reads them, I hope you love 'em."

When Smith observed that most, if not all, of Marvel's heroes got their powers as a result of scientific mishaps, Stan had this to say: "Well, you have to have some reason why a guy gets a superpower." Stan admitted that when it comes to science, he has always been as in the dark as the next guy. But he would read the occasional headline about radioactivity, or cosmic radiation, and the rest was history. Not wanting to repeat himself, when he ran out of scientific excuses he looked to Mother Nature for inspiration. "Hey, we know there are mutants in nature," Stan had said to himself. "I'll just say they're mutants, I don't have to come up with rays, or radioactive anything." And it was thus that the X-Men were born.

Stan then took a moment to ruminate on the so-called Marvel style of comics scriptwriting. "Because of the fact that I had so much to write, and there are only so many hours in a day, I had to think of shortcuts," Stan said. "Up until the time we were doing the Marvel books, I used to write full scripts, like an idiot." In comics scripting, the full script method is much more akin to screenplay format: It's a blow-by-blow, panel-by-panel description of the action, with all the relevant dialogue and captions set more or less in stone. "So what I did was, I would give the artist an outline, they would draw the story, I would then go back and put in the dialogue and captions." Stan believed then as he does now, that giving the artists this unprecedented level of freedom freed them up to produce some of their best work. This method kept the writing process fun and fresh for Stan as well, since tailoring his writing to the pictures kept the writer on his toes. "If an artist drew a really beautiful panel, I made it a point not to put in any dialogue, or very little dialogue, because I didn't want those balloons to spoil the artwork," Stan said. "If there was a dull panel, just two heads talking or something, I'd put in quite a lot of dialogue balloons, or maybe a sound effect, because it needed something to add more interest."

Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, CA

Stan then spoke to the Comics Code of Authority. "It came into being because some psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham decided that all the ills of mankind were caused by comic books, and he wrote a book called 'Seduction of the Innocent' in which he pretty much said that." To stave off potentially crippling censorship, the comic book publishers banded together and formed their own self-regulatory body, the Comic Book Association of America. The upshot of the code was, according to Stan, "We weren't supposed to be overly sexy or overly violent."

Stan recounted a story that illustrated the seemingly arbitrary controls the Comics Code imposed on the publishers who were graced with their seal of approval. In a comic Stan wrote called "Kid Colt, Outlaw," a panel with a closeup of the titular hero's hand firing a gun was deemed by the Comics Code to be "too violent." When Stan called to ask for an explanation, the supervisor at the time told him, "The puff of smoke is too big." When Marvel sent the page back to the Code with a smaller puff of smoke, the page was approved.

"Can you imagine this guy?" Stan said of the esteemed moderator. "The way he talks and writes, with the comic code. Oh, I wish I could be there."

"The puff of smoke they'd kick back to me would be a fart illustration," Smith suggested.

After Stan stopped writing the books, he still wore the hat of editor until the early 1970s when he left even that behind to become Marvel's publisher. Of the changes that were made to his characters after he hung up his editorial spurs, Stan's opinion was decidedly magnanimous. "When you say to somebody, 'You take over this strip now,' you've gotta let him do it his way. And a lot of the changes that were made were pretty good."

Stan specifically gave a shout out to Todd McFarlane, whose stylistic approach to drawing Spider-Man "brought a lot new interest to the character." Stan actually had to resort to polling the audience to recall McFarlane's first name. "See, the problem with his name is both names don't begin with an M!"

"So change can be good," Stan said. "And whenever I thought it wasn't good, I kept my mouth shut, because I wasn't the editor anymore."

Stan's legendary verbosity left little time for audience questions at the end, but Smith did rattle off a few of their queries before the night drew to a close. The first was about the possibility of the return of the Sci-fi channel reality series, "Who Wants to be a Superhero?" which is hosted by Stan Lee himself. Stan's answer to that was a resounding yes. The networked produced a mere six episodes for the show's first season, but upped their order to ten for the second installment. "I have no idea what the show will be, whether we'll make it 'Who Wants to be a Supervillain?', or keep it as it is, or 'Who Wants to be a Super Sidekick?', or what the hell we'll do, but there will be a show."

One fan wanted to know about Stan's childhood heroes. "My big hero as I remember was Errol Flynn," Stan said. "He was just, to me, the man I wanted to grow up to be. Fearless, the women were crazy about him, so I didn't really make it in all areas, and I remember when I was a kid, I'd leave the theater after having seen an Errol Flynn movie, and I'd have an imaginary sword at my side, and a little crooked smile the way I thought he smiled, and I'd be looking for a girl who was being picked on by a bully so I could save her, that's how this guy affected me."

When asked how his life might have gone if he hadn't become editor at Timely, "Be president" was Stan's facetious reply. "Believe it or not, I wanted to be an actor," Stan said, in all honesty. "That's why I even love doing this, this is the closest I come to being an actor -- you've got a captive audience, without having to act."

"Porn," Smith suggested.

"Porn! Oh, if I were single, I wanna tell you…"

Smith did end the night on a genuinely heartfelt note. "I speak for myself, everybody in this room, everybody in the world, thank God you got into comics. You created something insanely special, and it still connects with people to this day, it will connect with people forever, thank you so much."

"I would give anything to be interviewing this guy, whose work that he's doing now is so interesting," Stan admitted.

"No, what's gonna happen is one day I will die, and my characters will die with me. And years from now nobody will ever remember Fucking Jay or Silly Bob," Smith said. "One day, long after me, you will die, people will remember you for hundreds of years."

"And a lot of good it'll do me!" Stan exclaimed.

 
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