Marvel Comics: Face Front
It was three years ago that I went to work at Marvel Comics. I replaced Flo, whose place I really couldn’t take. Fabulous Flo Steinberg, as she was known to her public, was as much an institution in Marvel’s Second Golden Age as Editor Stan (the Man) Lee himself. She joined Marvel just after Stan had revolutionized the comic industry by giving his characters dimension, character, and personality, and just as Marvel was catching on big.
Now there’s a sign on the door of the office which says SORRY, NO VISITORS to those who manage to find Marvel’s hidden location. But in Flo’s days the office was located at 625 Madison Avenue, just as it says in the comic books. There was a reception room and Flo would go out to meet the fans.
She was the only one they ever saw. They called her “Miss Flo” because “Flo” was too personal for them. Most of them were nice, the little ones were really sweet. But sometimes there’d be older ones, 12 and 13, who would try to get past her. She’d put her foot out and trip them, and say, “I’m sorry, are you all right? Poor thing.”
And sometimes they’d come convinced that Spiderman himself was right there behind the door. She’d say, “Oh, I’m sorry, he’s out covering a robbery.” Because she didn’t feel it was her place to destroy fantasies.
Hundreds of letters came in every week from fans, and Flo was the one who opened them. One time there was a letter addressed to Sergeant Fury from a man in Texas, a real rightwinger, who said, “I notice in Sergeant Fury that you’re anti-Nazi. Well, if you’re anti-Nazi, that must mean you’re pro-Commie, and you’re all a bunch of no-good dirty kikey commie pinko people, and I have a gun and I’m going to come to New York and shoot you.” It was addressed to Stan Lee and the Marvel Comic Group.
Flo passed the letter around the office, and everyone got hysterical because this guy was going to come and machine-gun everybody. Flo didn’t know what they were hysterical about because she was the one who went out to meet the people. Flo was loyal, but for a hundred bucks a week you don’t get shot. So they called the FBI and a man came down. He said, “Wilkins, FBI,” and Flo said, “Steinberg, Marvel.”
But Wilkins was very serious and he handled the letter with a handkerchief. Of course they had already put their hands all over it. He said he’d forward it to the anonymous letters file in Washington, and see what could be done. They gave him a whole bunch of comics (their usual tactic, cover them with comics). And for days everyone avoided the reception room and sneaked out early. I visited Flo at her apartment in New York. She’s changed her style. Her hair is long, she looks good. She’s thinking of moving to California. She still hangs out with comic book people — underground comics people. We got stoned and drank some wine, and she talked about the fans and their letters. Flo laughs a high-pitched laugh that sounds like electronic music. And when she smiles her eyes close to crescent shapes. She smiles so hard that she can’t keep her eyes open at the same time.
Yeah, the fucking mail. Remember how awful it was? I felt every little creature should get some sort of an answer. I really took it seriously, each little letter. One thing that’s awful, when I go to the Comic Convention they have in July at the Hilton all these tall thin fellows come up to me and say [deep voice], ‘Hello, how are you?’ and I’ll say, ‘Who are you?’ and it’ll turn out they’re these kids who used to come up and see me in the reception room. That was eight years ago. And now they’re young men with girlfriends, who go to school and work. I can’t believe it. It’s sort of depressing.
“When the kids heard I was leaving Marvel, they sent me really nice letters. They felt bad.” She showed me some of the letters, and some pictures that they’d sent of themselves and Flo in the reception room, pictures taken by their mothers. They signed everything with their numbers, their Merry Marvel Marching Society membership card number. Like Larry Schwartz, MMMS #18756.
The Merry Marvel Marching Society is the club that Stan made up for Marvel fans to join. You send in your money and you get a membership card, with your very own membership number and name on it, and a record with Stan and the rest of the Marvel Group saying lines from a script Stan wrote. Corny jokes, in-jokes. But most important, the voices of the people who make Marvel Comics.
“Ok, out there in Marvel land–. Face front. This is Stan Lee speaking. You’ve probably never heard a record like this before because no one would be nutty enough to make one with a bunch of offbeat artists. So anything is liable to happen.”
“Hey! Who made you a disc jockey, Lee?”
“Well, well Jolly Jack Kirby! Say a few words to the fans.”
“A few words.”
“Look, pal, I’ll take care of the humor around here.”
“You, you’ve been using the same gags over and over for years.”
“Well, you can’t accuse me of being fickle, can you? By the way, Jack, the readers have been complaining about Sue’s hairdo again.”
“What am I supposed to do. Be a hairdresser? Next time I’ll draw her bald-headed!”
“Boy, I’m glad we caught you when you were in a good mood.”
“Oh, Stan, do you have a few minutes?”
“For our fabulous Gal Friday? Sure! Say hello to the fans, Flo Steinberg.”
“Hello fans. It’s very nice to meet you. As Marvel’s corresponding secretary, I feel as if I know most of you from your letters.”