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.”
And there was Jolly Solly Brodsky, Adorable Artie Simek, Kid Daredevil Wally Wood, Dick Ayers, and the idol of the Iron Man fans, the Ace of the Avengers, Don Heck. There was also a Merry Marvel Marching Society song:
You belong, you belong, you belong, you belong,
To the Merry Marvel Marching Society!
March along, march along, march along to the song
Of the Merry Marvel Marching Society!
Be a little brighter, try to be ambitious!
Eyes a little wider, try to be judicious!
Be a good advisor, never, never vicious!
Then you will belong!
Face Front! Clap your hands.
You’re on the winning team! With Stan!
Hanging on the wall in Flo’s bedroom were some cartoons left over from her days at Marvel. One showed Flo lying down with a huge thumb in her stomach, blood all over the floor, and bloody footprints walking away from the scene. Another was a cartoon of the rut Flo was in–to angry eyes peering out of a crack in the ground, and a sign “rut” next to a pail and shovel. That’s how the people in the office at Marvel communicate best, by drawing pictures. That’s how they tell you they love you, or you did a nice thing, and when they’re angry with each other they get it out by drawing a cartoon and everybody laughs.
The cartoons on Flo’s wall were done by Marie Severin, the only woman artist at Marvel, maybe the only one in the professional comic book world. “You can dearly love people,” she says, “but they sometimes become awful pests and you cannot verbally assault them because they’ll never forgive you. But a picture, they are so flattered that you took the time to do it, they don’t realize that you are getting rid of this anger. Comic book artists are always excreting all this stuff all over the place, and thank goodness. We’re like Peter Pans. We refuse to grow up but we get paid for it. Which is fortunate. We’re channeling all this immaturity into something instead of standing on street corners making obscene gestures.”
When I walked into the Vision building, where Marvel is located, I said hi to Frank the doorman, and it was as if I’d never left two years ago. There was that new No Visitors sign on the office door, but the door was still open. There was a new face at the front desk, not nearly as pretty as Linda Fite’s– — it belonged to Allan Brodsky, a comic fan who had made the big time. Inside it was still warm, light green and friendly. The superhero-size Spiderman poster was still hanging on the wall at the end of the hallway. Posters of Hulk, Captain America, Daredevil, and the Fantastic Four hung along the sides.
When I walked into the bullpen, the men said, “Hey! Legs is back!” and I remembered how it used to feel to be “Legs Diamond.” The place looked much the same, except there was a xerox machine where Marie Severin used to be. She had her drawing board in a different room now and the main bullpen had become a kind of men’s den, with pictures of naked women, some playboy types and some drawings of comic book characters as they will never appear in Spiderman. Some of them were downright pornographic, and you couldn’t talk to Tony Mortellaro without a tit or an ass staring you in the face. It felt good to be back in the bullpen again with Ring-A-Ding John Romita, artist for Spiderman, Happy Herbie Trimpe who had just switched from Hulk to Sergeant Fury, Merry Marie Severin, Stu Schwartzberg, Morie and Allan. It was a fine reunion until I mentioned that I’d come to write an article about them and then — whoosh — they all disappeared back to their drawing boards. I was no longer Stan’s former leggy secretary, but an emissary from the “real” world, which is a different world from the one inside the office door. The people at Marvel are paid to be professional children and the atmosphere around the office is correspondingly chaotic, moody, riotously emotional. Unlike most Madison Avenue offices, Marvel makes no attempt at decorum. I was always very grateful for that. You could dress the way you wanted to, say anything you wanted to (the key to the bathroom was called the shithouse pass), and you even worked because you wanted to because there was very little supervision.
All the bullpen people have an interest in telling stories by pictures. That’s the thing about comics. Most of them are really hooked on that kind of work and over the years they compromise themselves because of their desire to do it. It’s one of the few businesses where individuals will take a cut and still stay in the business. The artists just had a cut at Marvel. Instead of 20 pages in a book there’s really only 19 pages of artwork and that means they do less work and get less money. And management doesn’t tell the artists what the sales figures are because “they’re afraid you’ll ask for a raise or something.” For most of them the work is an emotional outlet. They can set loose fantasies most of us repress as we grow older! Herb Trimpe put it this way: “If a story works out well, I have the same feeling of satisfaction as if I’d worked out all day long, or gone on a eight-mile hike. It’s a release. Plus there’s a feeling of creation, of controlling a situation. In a comic book story, unlike life, you know what the plot is and you can control every aspect of that story. It makes you sort of a miniature god.”
I had lunch with Herb and it was good to talk to him. He’d been my favorite bullpen artist, not just because I dug the way he drew the Hulk, but because he was so nice to look at. He’s incredibly handsome, tall and wiry with deep-set eyes and black hair. He looks like a superhero, like the Phantom Eagle, or a good-looking Hulk. Or maybe the Hulk looks like an angry, ugly him. He’s been through a lot of changes in the last two years, including a divorce. His old lady now is Linda Fite, who used to work at Marvel. She was my partner in letter opening and general office disrupting, a beautiful hip southern belle with a fine sense of humor, and a fine sense of life. Herb’s still going through a lot of changes and confusion. Reality is making some heavy demands on him. Gil Kane said, “It’s hard to keep the boy in the cartoonist because if you do, it means that you are talking about an individual that never outgrows his need for fantasy.” And that’s the question. How to remain a child and cope with a world that imposes problems and responsibilities? Tired of the hour-long commute to work, Herb moved from his home in Peekskill, New York, where he was born, to a room in the city. He painted the floors battleship grey, the trim and his drawing table he painted black. Linda had given him three wooden chairs painted in primary colors. His collection of toy soldiers, tanks, trucks and model airplanes were arranged in neat rows on his shelves. He’s always had an interest in flying — he was in the air force for a while — and some day, he says, he would like to go to Mars.
Herb would make a successful criminal, because he’s the last person anybody would suspect. People always put him in the role of being a good guy. When he was in high school he won the good guy medal for the senior class. “It really stuck in my craw. Anybody that gets the good guy medal, there has to be something wrong with them. We had an awards assembly and they had this medal. A real medal, it’s a goddamn medal with a ribbon on it, a pin, it came in a plastic case with a felt backing and all that crap. It was named for a student who had done very well and was killed in a traffic accident and they made this award in his memory.
“It’s not an athletic award, it’s not a scholastic award. It’s just for being cooperative. If a teacher needed a project done, you’d help do it. I didn’t realize what it was I felt at the time, but now I realize that I felt like a traitor. Like in Bridge over the River Kwai, when the Japanese give the English commander a medal for building that bridge for them, that would be the last thing he’d want to get, even though he wanted to do a good job on the bridge, and he wanted to show those people that the British army does a job right.
“So at the senior assembly they said, ‘For helping his fellow student and faculty,’ and all that shit, and they said, ‘Herb Trimpe.’ I was dumbfounded and embarrassed. And ten years later I said to myself I’m going to get even with those bastards if it’s the last thing I do. Anybody who gets a good-guy medal, they must be doing something wrong.
“So now I’m real bad. I react in the opposite direction, trying to be bad. If you keep being a good guy, people will take advantage of you, they’ll take you for granted. Because I’m not a threat to people they don’t listen to me. Herb Trimpe, they say, that’s one guy you don’t have to worry about. Hah.” He scowled at the coca cola he was drinking. I went to the Marvel office Christmas party. Stan wasn’t there; just the slaves. They had already downed two bottles of Champagne by the time I came, and were working on the second bottle of Scotch. There was a lot of laughter, more than usual, and the atmosphere is always pretty high there. There were peanuts, and powdered sugar cookies, the kind that spell asphyxiation if you inhale at the wrong moment, and salamis that Holly the secretary’s father manufactured. I drank more than my share of the scotch and wandered into my old room. I sat down at my old desk. On the wall in front of me were pinned up the recent covers from the 30 Marvel titles published. My old friends Daredevil, the blind superhero in the red suit, Thor, the Asgardian sweetheart with the magic hammer, Sub Mariner, Captain America, Iron Man, Sergeant Fury, Invisible Girl, the Human Torch, the Thing, the Avengers, Spiderman, the Black Panther, the Falcon, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and a newcomer, Conan the Barbarian, whom Marie calls Conan the Masochist.
I thought about Dorma, the Sub Mariner’s blue-skinned love. She and Subby had been planning to get married ever since I could remember. And Roy Thomas, who writes Sub Mariner, had just told me of poor Dorma’s fate. Roy had let them get married because they’d been planning the wedding for so long, but they didn’t even get as far as their wedding night. Roy arranged for a green-skinned girl who was in love with the Sub Mariner to kill Dorma, and he said he was never going to bring her back again. He said he felt that Sub Mariner should be a lone wolf and he didn’t like the idea of his having such a stable home, a Lois Lane situation. Now the broken-hearted Sub Mariner would be even more hostile, and roam the seas alone. I felt very sad that the blue-skinned Dorma was gone.
And I thought about the Silver Surfer, who used to have a book of his own. He was the sexiest superhero, a sleek silver-plated sports trophy of a guy who sped through the galaxies on a surfboard made of silver. A philosopher as well, who flew around unhappy about pollution and man’s inhumanity to man, and went nowhere. He was a hit with older audiences, but didn’t sell enough to survive, so the book was killed. But the Silver Surfer still makes guest appearances in other comic books, and I could see him gliding from cover to cover before me.
Most of the characters aren’t drawn in the Marvel office. They’re done by freelance artists and sent in through the mail. But Spiderman and Hulk were set loose in the Vision Building and had their home there. I could almost feel them there, more with every sip of Scotch.
The colors on the covers seemed to jump and move around, the characters to come alive in front of me. They were having a Christmas party, too. Kid Colt brought in a huge tree he had chopped down, and Spidey decorated it with his web-shooter. The webbing came out sparkling silver. The Silver Surfer glided by and topped the tree with a star he’d picked from the galaxies. Everyone had brought presents for Reed and Sue’s super-baby. And then in came Santa Claus, all dressed in red with a big phoney beard and moustache. It was a beautiful party. But all at once I realized that Santa was the sinister Red Skull. Couldn’t everybody see that? And what was in the huge sack he was carrying? In leaped Daredevil, the blind superhero. To him disguises meant nothing, because he couldn’t see anyway. His radar-sharp senses detected the evil Red Skull’s presence and he signaled the danger to Ben Grimm who was standing in back of Santa. Ben turned into the Thing and lunged at the villain yelling, “It’s clobberin’ time!” But too late! Santa Claus/Red Skull was too fast for him and managed to detonate the negative energy machine in his sack. Everything disappeared, the colors of all shapes and sizes receded and everything turned white before me. The whiteness floated down to my desk. I picked it up. It was a piece of paper with an original drawing of Spiderman on it and it was signed Merry Christmas to Robin from Johnny Romita.
* * *
Most people who read comic books are not fans. They aren’t concerned about who makes the books, or how. They read the comics, then lose them, or give them to a younger brother who loses them or tears them up. Or they roll them up and stuff them in a back pocket to read again later.
But a real comic book lover never folds or bends his comics. He reads them, catalogues them, and files them in his library of other comics when he can refer to them instantly and they won’t get bent or soiled. Most comic book readers buy comics occasionally, three or four a month, usually attracted by the bright gaudy colors on the cover, which are put there to do just that. But the aficionado buys as many as he can afford, and he arranges to afford all of them. This is another breed of comic book reader, the fanatic, the fan, the Marvel Maniac, the True Believer.
I asked Marie Severin about the fans, the ones who find the office, and manage to get in. She put down the plastic cigarette she was sucking on. Marie says she has the common sense, or pride, to hide what she really is. Like she dresses very Peck and Peck, and with her wide brown eyes looks like the kind of person people on the street ask for directions. But if she dressed the way she really wanted to, it would be, she says, gold lame. “Gee,” she said, “they’re so uninteresting, that’s why they’re fans. If they were interesting they wouldn’t be fans. I mean, is a hospital ward interesting? The fans buy the books, but they don’t support comics. Comics are supported by many other normal little children, but the fans are the ones who are hung up on it. I think fans are very lonely.” She says the fans are arrogant now. They don’t gasp and ooh and ahh anymore. The new breed of fans just want to lean over your shoulder and tell you what you’re doing wrong. Hanging above Marie’s desk is a cartoon she drew describing the fans who come to the office. “There’s one guy that clutches his artwork to his chest and won’t show it to anybody but Stan, and he is what the office calls the wet dream. Then there’s the mother that brings the child up and the child is the absolute duplication of her, with short hair and no bosoms, and the poor child has done these comics and they’re all stapled and worn and looked at, and she is saying, ‘Look at this, isn’t this marvelous that he can draw this,’ and you look at what the child has drawn and there’s murder, every page he’s killing his mother, right there, and she is propagating it, bringing this child up and he just looks at you and doesn’t talk or communicate in any way.
“And then there’s the whole family that comes up and the father’s taking pictures and bumping into everything, and they’re from Indiana or something and awfully nice dull people, and the mother does all the talking and we keep handing the children pictures and there’s no reaction, these children could be in a covered wagon. And they say to John Romita, ‘Yes, I like Spiderman. I like Steve Ditko [who used to draw Spiderman],’ and John Romita cries because he is an artist, and Ditko was a fan, but they all remember Ditko. And then there are the little thieves who steal anything. They don’t come up to steal, it just happens.
“Then there are the really quiet totally subdued kids, with acne all over their faces, but with something to show, work that they’ve done, and you have got to give them credit, it’s not bad. And then there’s the beatnik woman from the Village, and they’re usually, pardon the expression, doing an article for a magazine, and they’re very overbearing, and when Stan comes in they immediately hunch over and follow him.”
Marvelmania is a subculture, a living-breathing-changing-happening art form, a fantasy world in which millions live, some of them most of the time. The fans participate in the process of creating the comic fantasy world. They send in their ideas and criticisms and Stan listens to them. The comic world has a language and logic of its own, even a whole technology that works for it, and the books have to be consistent within that world. If they are not consistent, letters will pour in about a mistake. For instance, if a book says that the Hulk was transported back to 1917 to fight Phantom Eagle in France, hundreds of readers will write in to object that Phantom Eagle was in Germany at the time. Because they keep track, they know everything that’s happened in that strange world.
If a reader spots a mistake and writes in about it, he will receive a “No-Prize.” A No-prize is an empty envelope which has “No-prize” printed on it, and the name of the recipient. One interesting thing about being the person who opened the mail was the occasional obscene letter. And there were some precocious drawings of Spidey and Gwen doing some S-M bondage trips, some letters full of swear words some kid just couldn’t hold in anymore. There were some fantasies that comic books don’t acknowledge, but kids have them anyway. I remember one letter from a young couple who had met through the letters page of Silver Surfer comics. The girl had written a letter which was published, and the boy had read the letter, dug what she said and written to her. They met at a comic book convention a little later, and shortly afterward were married. In every comic, there’s a letters page and on the bottom of every letters page is a box which reads: “Know Ye These, The Hallowed Ranks of Marveldom [these ranks were made up by a fan and now they are used in the comic books]: R. F. O. (Real Frantic One)–a buyer of at least three Marvel mags a month. T.T.B. (Titanic True Believer)–a divinely-inspired No-Prize winner. Q.N.S. (Quite ‘Nuff Sayer)–A fortunate Frantic One who’s had a letter printed. K.O.F. (Keeper of the Flame)–one who recruits a Newcomer to Marvel’s rollick-in’ ranks. P.M.M. (Permanent Marvelite Maximus)–Anyone possessing all four of the other titles. F.F.F. (Fearless Front-Facer)–An honorary title bestowed for devotion to Marvel above and beyond the call of duty.”
One F.F.F. is Roy Thomas, editor of the fanzine Alter Ego. (A fanzine is a fan magazine devoted completely to comic books.) He told me, “I was and in many ways still am a fan. I’m constantly being told this by some professional artist that’s trying to pick on me or something.” Roy has risen to a position in the comic world which many a fan must envy: Stan Lee’s Associate Editor.
He’s been into comic books, adventure, and costumed characters since he was four and a half, and he wanted to get involved in the comics ever since he discovered that people actually made them. “I know that the stories are escapist, but I didn’t have a particularly unhappy childhood to escape from. Some did. Tiny Tim used to pretend he was Captain America and beat up someone, and I have a friend who believes that Captain Marvel saved his sanity when he was in military school, and he’s maintained an affection for him ever since. I was small but I never got beat up or anything by bullies. There weren’t that many bullies in Jackson, Missouri. Maybe the fact that I was small made me identify with all the heroes with all their power and everything, but if that’s true it was very unconscious. I never thought about why I was getting into comics.”
All through college and for the four years he taught high school, he still read comic books, and wrote to the companies, National and Marvel. He maintained a nice relationship by mail with National, but when he wrote to Marvel, someone named Flo Steinberg would answer his letters, and that didn’t mean much to him, so he stopped writing. He was going to go to graduate school in foreign relations, but he happened to get a letter from National offering him a job working on Superman. He only worked there for two weeks–he and the director didn’t get along–so he took a writer’s test for Marvel, and went to work for them. National had been his first love, being the biggest of comic book companies. When he told the people at National he was going over to Marvel, they thought he was a spy and they ordered him out immediately. Flo showed me a picture of Roy when he first came to work for Marvel. He was wearing a Fantastic Four T-Shirt.
Roy is the fan supreme. His hobby has become his livelihood. And he is not just a professional now, but keeps up interest in being a fan as well. He has bound volumes of Marvel Comic books and every book in his house is fantasy or related to it. But he says sometimes he gets so immersed in it that everything he does has something to do, some connection to comics. Every year there is a comic parade in Rutland, Vermont, on Halloween. He gets to dress as Spiderman, and his wife Jeanie is Invisible Girl. The costumes they wear were made for a Macy’s parade, but the people who were supposed to wear them were paid in advance, and got drunk, and didn’t show up. So the costumes had never been worn. Comic book folk don’t meet their public very often, but when they do the reactions are interesting. People used to ask Roy if everybody up at Marvel was a “head”– he didn’t know the meaning of the word. “People who had read Doctor Strange thought people at Marvel must be heads,” says Roy, “because they had had similar experiences high on mushrooms. But Stan’s pretty straight, and I am too, pretty square, not to the point of being completely ignorant of such things, but obviously I don’t use hallucinogens, nor do I think any artists do. Probably if they did they wouldn’t do any work at all.
“With some of these people, this particular segment of their minds is already released. Like Kirby’s way-out worlds, or Steve Ditko, they’re already turned on. They do try sometimes to mix politics with the superheroes, and get a little more far out than apple pie, but after all, social equality and peace are the modern form of motherhood and apple pie. Everybody’s in favor of peace and women’s lib, at least up to a certain point. I used to be liberal, but the world has moved to the left. I think I’d rather stick with fantasy. Some people think that everything should be relevant, but I think you should be able to escape.”
* * *
Jim Steranko was at Marvel when I worked there. Even though Jim had only done about 25 books, there wasn’t a fan who didn’t know of him and dig his work. He used to do the Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. books, and was always getting into hassles with the Comic Book Code people.
The Code had come into existence during the juvenile delinquent scare of the Fifties. At the time EC (Entertaining Comics) was coming out with a crime and horror series that was pretty gory and horrifying. People killing their wives and stuffing them into garbage disposals which would backfire and blood would gush all over the place. And Marvel was doing its share of gore, too.
The Code completely banned all horror and terror comics and all material which might be immoral or in poor taste, anything which could stimulate “the lower and baser emotions.” It fosters respect for parents, for police, judges and other government officials. It forbids profanity, obscenity, vulgarity; it requires that females be drawn realistically “without exaggeration of any physical qualities.” Each of its 41 provisions is a bulwark against the inclusion in comic books of any material which “may be undesirable for exposure to youthful readers.” In short, the Code is a drag.
Steranko’s female characters were always too sexy, and they’d come back from the code, where all material was sent for approval, with modified bosoms and asses. There was one beautiful page which was perhaps the first realistic love scene in comics. It was a silent page, no words, because “there is a time for talking and a time for silence, and this was a time for silence.” So one panel had the stereo in Fury’s apartment to show there was music playing, cigarettes in the ash tray in one, there was a sequence of intercut shots where she moved closer to him, much more intimately, there was a kiss, there was a rose, and then there was one panel with the telephone off the hook, which the comic book code made him put back on.
The telephone off the hook must have appealed to the prurient interest of someone at the dusty little Code office, maybe Lee Darwin himself, or maybe Tania Fredericks, his assistant in rooting out the dirty. Jim Steranko said after that he got horny every time he saw a telephone off the hook. Anyway, the last panel on that page had Nick and his old lady kneeling, with their arms around each other, and that was entirely too much for the Code, so the panel was replaced with a picture of a gun in its holster.
I used to dig it when Steranko came to town. He didn’t work at the office, but like many artists freelanced the work at home. One day he took me for a ride in the big convertible Cadillac he was driving in those days. We got to talking and he told me about himself.
“Maybe because I grew up reading comics, I was always less realistic than most people. I’m kind of a dreamer, I’m still a dreamer. I live in my own world. When I get up in the morning, go to bed at night, even while I’m sleeping, I’m thinking of fantastic things. I don’t want to live the life that those people live out there. It’s a dull life.
“My dad did many things and one of them was magic. I grew up seeing him work, do tricks and things. Whenever I could I’d dig out those books and read them and eventually began to do magic and that led into escapes. Escapes meaning that when I was 15, 16 and 17, I was breaking out of jails, out of strait jackets and handcuffs, out of safes and vaults, out of packing boxes dropped to the bottom of a river. I did TV shows and Elks and the American Legion.
“And I was into locks. I have no mechanical ability whatsoever except when it comes to locks. In school a week never went by when I wasn’t called over the loud speaker to unlock a car when some teacher had locked his keys inside it. They’d say, ‘Steranko, bring your tools.’
“I was fourteen at the time, new in the lock business, and I didn’t know much about locks, so I could say crazy things. I had an idea that combination locks could have many combinations. And I told this locksmith, who really didn’t want to be bothered, ’cause it’s like secretive stuff, these machines around us to protect us. I told him that I had my idea and he said, ‘Get out of here, kid, don’t bother me.’ I came back a week later and I said, ‘Give me any lock that you have’ and I showed him various combinations that could open it, which knocked him out. I had a device I made up that could give me multiple combinations, a device about as big as my thumbnail. I invented many devices for my escapes and I wrote a book with all that material in it.
“My first jail break I did for publicity purposes so I could book my act. I had to create a demand for this act, because who wants a 15-year-old kid cluttering up their stage? So when I was ready, I went to the police department and I talked to a guy named Captain Feldman who was very amenable, a hell of a nice guy, an Edward G. Robinson-looking guy, and he said Ok, we’ll try it. I told him I’d be by the next day after school. From there I went to the newspaper office, and said I’d be at the jail at 3:30, so they should send a photographer and a reporter and I’d bust out of jail. The police department didn’t know there was going to be publicity, and Captain Feldman was a little pissed off that the reporters were there, but of course they had to be. This time wasn’t really a jailbreak. They handcuffed me spreadeagle to the outside of the cell, hands and feet. They had given me half an hour to do it. It took me 27 minutes. They had searched me head to toe, but I had these miniscule devices.”
The transition from escapes to crime was easy, and at 17 Jim became a very ingenious juvenile delinquent. He believed anything that could be locked by one man, could be opened by another: him. “I was familiar with safes from the inside, so I knew things, like there’s a particular kind of safe, if it fell on you you’d be crushed, it’s a big heavy monster. But all you have to do is hit the right corner with a sledge hammer. That’s all it takes to open it up. You have to hit it at the right spot, but that will knock the bolt that holds the thing. It completely bypasses the tumblers. And the door will fly open.
“One of my stratagems in my career of crime was to change cars frequently. If I’d steal a car in Reading, I might replace it with another car in Allentown with another one in Easton. If you use one car for a whole night’s work, you’d stand a pretty good chance of being nabbed. And of course cars were no problem for me to steal. Eventually I became so particular, if a car didn’t have a radio, I’d stop after a block and steal another one. Or if it didn’t have a full tank of gas. ‘Cause how’s an honest thief going to make out if he has to spend five bucks to fill up the gas tank? So it had to be a nice car, radio and all the conveniences.
“I remember once, me and another guy committed our only armed robbery. There’s a difference between armed robbery and burglary, around 15 or 25 years. Armed robbery is a heavy rap. What I was was a burglar. I hit places like gas stations, or wherever there were cash registers.
“Most of our burglaries were committed without a word. We’d just pull up to a likely-looking place and there was my getaway man and me. He’d sit in the car and I’d get through the doors or windows, and go through the place. But this one time we were going to do one armed robbery.
“We were driving around, not in Reading, because none of the things we did were done in Reading, maybe one or two. I stole a submachine gun in Reading, but that was all. Anyway it was a spur of the moment thing. We saw this man coming out of a building. He was locking up, very well dressed, he had like a homburg, an old man about 60. Got in this brand new Lincoln Continental.
“I said, ‘Follow that guy, I’ve got an idea.’ So he drove across the city with us following him, and finally he pulled up in this very nice section of town, parked the car, and I said to my partner, ‘Pull up in front of him and you get out and cover one side of the car,’ and I pulled out one of my pearl-handled .38s and stuck this gun in the man’s face. And I said, ‘Your money or your life, motherfucker, let’s go. Get it out, whatever you got.’ And the other guy was on the other side with a gun. And the man laughed. He laughed! This was a nervous laugh, you know, like when you have an embarrassing moment, like in church when you start laughing and you can’t stop. “Well, here were two guys, you know, with guns, and I don’t know if you’ve ever been on the other end of a gun barrel, but it’s an uncomfortable feeling. I didn’t know what to do. Like, I never saw in all the movies that I have seen with Cagney, Bogart and Robinson, nobody ever laughed. This was a situation not covered in the books.
“So we like stood there looking at each other, and I realized that sooner or later somebody was going to walk by or drive by. This called for the right decision. And I finally wound up saying, ‘Ah, ‘scuse me, mister, we thought you were someone else,’ and got back in the car, and drove out of that district. That was it for armed robbery. I couldn’t take another laugh.
“I don’t know where your head’s at, but I wouldn’t shoot anybody for any amount of money. I don’t mind stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, which was myself, but I certainly would never shoot anybody, that’s just too far out.
“Eventually they caught me and I had to give up, my guns. I had many guns. A complete arsenal. My two pearl-handled .38s, 30 pistols, and countless rifles, we had .45s, and a submachine gun that shot nine millimeter parabellum shells. I carried that gun home, walking along the streets of Reading with it over my shoulders, across my back, like you carry a baseball bat when you’re a kid. And nobody noticed me, I guess, ’cause they didn’t stop me. I was only in jail until my trial, about a month, and they had me in solitary with a 24-hour guard because of my history as an escape artist. They knew all it would take me was three minutes and I’d be out. I was placed on probation– — I was still a juvenile delinquent at the time. But I had to pay back what I had stolen, make restitution for whatever stuff I had done. It took me a couple of years to do that.”
I drove down to Pennsylvania to visit Jim. He still lives in Reading, which turned out to be a funky old railroad town. I walked through an iron gate, through an old heavy door and into a dark hallway with pink faded flowered wallpaper, and the smell of somebody’s grandmother’s cabbage soup. Up three flights to a dark wood door, which Steranko opened, dressed in white from turtleneck to ankles, with pointed black Italian boots. Jim is a fantasy character who really exists. “After all,” he once said, “the mask is the man.” The color TV was on, an Edward G. Robinson movie, but no audio. Jim is a good looking guy — –he looks a lot like Nick Fury except for the eye patch, compact and strong looking, with a lively gleam in his eyes. He hasn’t been working for Marvel for a while.
Jim Steranko would like to be the Michelangelo of comic book art. But as he said, who’s going to pay any attention if you have Michelangelo working and it costs only a dime? People don’t see all the work that goes into comic book art. They don’t realize there’s a writer and an artist and an inker and a letterer and a colorist. Even so, Jim thinks most of what’s done is trash. There are a few creative people, and the rest are imitators and the work that’s done is repetitious. “Comic books are trash. But that TV set is trash, and so much of music is trash. And books like Peyton Place and Gone With the Wind and The Power of Positive Thinking and The Love Machine. It’s all trash.” I asked if he considered the stuff he did to be trash. “Of course,” he said. “So you like trash?” “Well, yeah, of course I like trash. Of course, human flesh is trash, too.
“Comic books are throwaway art, they’re just temporary. But the whole form has a chance to endure. I believe that ideas are more important than human life. I think that in every person there is maybe one idea, one grand idea. I know that I will be immortal because I have turned out words and pictures and as long as one of these lasts, I will truly endure. At least until the end of this planet. I haven’t done that one thing yet that I can call really redeeming. That will be in the future.
“I don’t believe in peace either. I used to think, ‘Love and Peace.’ But now I have changed by mind about that. I have a new philosophy. It’s this: I believe that I am an agent put here to maintain the aspect of equipoise in the universe, the balance of nature. That means warmth and cold, night and day, light and darkness, order and chaos, good and evil, peace and war, love and hate. I think there’s a reason for those things being, and I do whatever I can to maintain that.
“For example, before you came, I ripped up that Life magazine. It came in the mail today, and I destroyed it by ripping out things that I wanted. Now tomorrow I might destroy an idea and the day after I might destroy a person. I believe that in order for life to endure there has to be movement and change. Static is death. Motion is life. So every day I create something, a drawing, some writing, something new. And in order to maintain that balance, I’ll destroy something. After you’ve done it for a while, you begin to see signs that something will beg to be destroyed.”
There are no bounds to Steranko’s imagination. He said that when aliens land here, or when we land on another planet, we are going to communicate with pictures, illustrated stories, comic books. I asked him if he really believed there was someone out there. “Oh, sure,” he said, “there’s someone out there. It’s staggering no matter how you think about it. Either there’s no one out there and you’re alone, or there is someone. Either way it’s overwhelming.”
Steranko works in the back room of his apartment. His walls are covered with posters of sexy girls dressed in leather, original comic artwork, paintings he’s done for paperback book covers, and a huge library of pulps and comics. He has an antique colt .45 gun, and on the floor in a cage is a giant hare (“what’s a magician without a rabbit?”). He showed me a book he’d written about escaping when he was a teenager. It was a special Houdini Memorial issue of a magazine, and it had pictures of Steranko handcuffed to the cell of a jail, Steranko in a strait jacket, Steranko hanging from the face of a huge clock by his ankles, and all kinds of pictures of the devices he had invented for escapes. He told me about one stunt he did where he was buried alive three feet under for 15 minutes. He had made an air pocket in front of his mouth with just enough air to survive if he timed his breathing right. He is a man who likes to escape.
“I have led the loneliest life of all the people I have ever known. All the things that I do, like writing and painting, are solitary proceedings. You cannot write with someone else, unless you’re collaborating, which I don’t do. That means you spend hours alone. I spent an entire childhood writing and drawing by myself, studying and practicing magic. To this very day, I work alone in this back room.
“But I believe that happiness is nothing. Like most things, it is temporary. I don’t think people were put here to be happy. I think if you decide to be an artist or a writer, you automatically accept the responsibility of being alone. However, after your 50 or 60 years are up you’ll be able to look back and see this output that you’ve done that will endure long after you’re gone, and will continue to fill the minds of millions of people.”
* * *
He was my boss and sometimes I liked him and sometimes I hated him, but I always did what he told me to, sometimes grudgingly, like when he’d have me run the errands his wife didn’t feel like doing, but I always did them. Because he worked so hard, tried so hard, was so enthusiastic, you’d want to make it easier for him. He’s got a one-man show going, he won’t delegate, which is why he works so hard. In the world of the Marvel Comics Group, God doesn’t look like Charlton Heston. He looks like Stan Lee.
Sometimes God used to remind me of Errol Flynn. I remember once going into Stan’s office to give him some letters and finding him eight feet tall standing on a chair. A balloon with “I’ll show you who walks away from here!” in it flew out of his mouth as he leapt from the chair and started faking punches at an artist. Stan has been editor of Marvel Comics since he was 17 and Marvel was called Timely, over 30 years ago. He used to have a collection of all the comics he had ever put out, a collection that would be worth quite a lot of money now. He had it stashed in the cellar of the house he used to have in Hewlitt, Long Island. But one day he went down to look through some old issues and found that the whole collection was ruined. It had gotten wet from a leak through the walls, and the books were all mildewed, and crumbled in his hands at the touch.
Stan (The Man) Lee revolutionized the comic book industry ten years ago by deciding to let his superheroes live in the real world: his real world. He made Spiderman a neurotic, guilt-ridden, insecure superhero with romantic problems, financial problems, sinus attacks and fits of insecurity, embarrassed about appearing in public in a costume. Lately Spiderman’s life has become almost unbearable. Peter Parker is committed to his role of Spiderman, fighter for justice and good, and yet it is this role which has alienated him from the world he seeks to help. His girl Gwen hates Spiderman for killing her father, and he’s so busy playing “Web-Spinner” he hasn’t time for anyone who really matters, like his Aunt May who smothers him with motherly attention and can’t be told about his secret identity because she would die of a heart attack. The public thinks he is a thief and murderer. He can’t win. If he should forsake his super-powers and try to be just Peter Parker, he feels guilty for not fighting crime and doing the good he knows he can do. Stan told me he thinks of his Superheroes as copies of himself.
When I asked him for an interview, he asked me if I would be nice. He said the world was a hostile place. I guess that’s just the mood he’s in lately. Things have been tough around Marvel. His best artist lack Kirby went over to National not so long ago and Kirby had been with Marvel since the beginning. Gil Kane said in an interview in Alter Ego that Jack and Stan had painted themselves into a corner by converting everything at Marvel into the same model, and now everybody’s losing interest in that model. Well, Stan’s alone in the corner, still Facing Front and smiling, but a little down sometimes.
The day of the interview, Stan was in a good mood though, speaking with exclamation points at the end of every sentence even though he had a cold and his sinus trouble was acting up. I asked him where he’d like to sit and he said, “You do what’s best for you! Have a sourball! You’re my guest!”
We talked for a while, then played back the tape recorder to see if we were picking everything up, and Stan said, “You know, that sounds so icky, I wouldn’t like me if I met me and I sounded like that. I’ve gotta try to sound more rugged.”
I asked Stan if his personal life was a lot different from his life as a comic book editor, like if his wife and daughter were into comic books.
“I don’t think my daughter has ever read a comic book in her life, and I doubt that my wife has. They get very bored if I even discuss the subject. All they want is the paycheck every week. Sometimes I think that’s all I want. Actually, I don’t know where one life ends and the other begins, ’cause I really work seven days a week. I come to the office two days a week to do my editing and talk to people, and at home I do my writing and talk to people on the phone. Sunday, Sunday night, Saturday, Monday, everything. That’s one thing I don’t like about my job. There isn’t enough time to spend with people. Being a writer is the loneliest…
“But anyway, I think this is what has held my marriage together. I’ve got the greatest wife in the world. I’m absolutely crazy about her and every time I see her or have a date with her, it’s like a treat, it’s like I’m stealing time away from work and nobody knows it. ‘Cause I got a story to write, but I say, ‘Come on, let’s go out to dinner. I’ll finish it when I get back.’ So it’s a few precious stolen hours, and maybe if I had a regular job, I’d get tired of going out every night.”
Stan is devoting his life to convincing people they shouldn’t condemn the comic book field. He thinks he can do a lot of good with those books. “You know I’m very square and preachy sometimes, but the more I realize that people are to some degree affected by what we write, the more I’m aware of the influence we have, the more I worry about what I write. I don’t want to be misunderstood, I don’t want to send one kid off on the wrong road. I never try to say to the reader, this is the way it should be, ’cause I feel who am I to say it?
“I think the only message I have ever tried to get across is for Christsake, don’t be bigoted. Don’t be intolerant. If you’re a radical, don’t think that all of the conservatives have horns. Just like if you’re a John Bircher, don’t think that every radical wants to blow up the nation and rape your daughter.
“Maybe I sound like a Pollyanna, but I think most people want the same thing. They want to live a happy family life, they want to be at peace, they want no physical violence, nobody to hurt them, and they want the good things that life has to offer. But I think everybody sees us reaching that nirvana by a different path.
“And I think one of the terrible things in the world is that we are so inclined to think in black and white, hero and villain, good and bad, if you don’t agree with me I’ve got to destroy you. If we could only learn that the world is big enough for all of us. For a guy who wants to wear his hair long, and a guy who wants to be a skinhead. Neither of ’em has to be bad.
“I try not to make my villains all bad. Like Dr. Doom is a lovable villain. He thinks of himself as a guy who wants to rule the world ’cause he thinks he can do a better job than anyone else. And he is amazed that people try to stop him. There’s no law against wanting to take over the world. You can be arrested for being a litterbug, but you’re not breaking the law if you try to take over mankind. “I think I’ve done pretty well, ’cause we’ve gotten so many letters from parents and kids. I got one letter last year, a Christmas card that said, ‘You don’t know me but my son has been so influenced by your books over the years. He’s a wonderful boy, the class valedictorian last year, and I just want to tell you that I think his father and I and you have done a good job of rearing him.’ And I get so much mail like that. Very often I get letters from, of all things, ministers, preachers saying, ‘I used a few pages from your Silver Surfer, Avengers, Captain America as the basis for a sermon’!”
Stan is under contract to Magazine Management and his job is to produce comic books that will make them money. Readers think of Stan as such an idealist, they are shocked to learn that money is a consideration. He had just gotten a letter that morning that said, “I’ll never read another comic book, and screw you Stan. We always thought that money didn’t mean that much to you, and if you drop the Silver Surfer because of money, it means you’ve been fooling us just like everybody else has, and up yours.” Stan said he wanted to sit down and write the guy, but there was no return address. He wanted to tell the kid that if they didn’t make money, the comic book department would be closed down, and then they wouldn’t be able to do any good at all.
“The other day the station manager of a radio station, a long-haired kid, but a nice kid, told me, ‘You know it’s a funny thing, Stan. Most of the kids I know my age (he was in his early 20s), we don’t believe anything we read in Time or Newsweek, or any of that junk, but we believe what we read in Marvel Comics.’ Maybe what the world needs is truth, even more than love.
“I have a theory about love. I started thinking about it the other day, and the more I think about it, the more I think about it. I wonder if we are wrong in stressing love because we’ve tried love for about 2000 years and it seems not to have worked. And it’s just possible that hate is just as strong an emotion within the human condition. Why not learn how to live with hate? Let us not try to drive hate out of existence, maybe it’s impossible. Maybe we should be saying, look to be truthful, we all have hate. But once we accept the fact that hate is as strong and as everlasting and as all-pervading an influence as love, let us learn how to live with it, to direct it into useful channels.”
Stan thinks of himself as the world’s most anonymous celebrity, even though his books sell around 60 million copies a year. The people who read the comics know of him, and the people where he’s lectured, but most people have never heard of Stan Lee. He is always surprised to find that the disc jockeys and radio personalities who interview him are fans of his. One fan of his is Federico Fellini. He told me of the time Fellini had come to see him. The switchboard operator had told him, “Federico Fellini is here to see you,” and he said, “Yeah, and tell him Santa Claus is in here.” Stan thought it was a gag.
“But in he walked with an entourage. He had a translator, and his manager, and a friend of his, the guy who makes Strega Liqueurs, and I was so thrilled, and I figured I didn’t know what he was doing here, but it will give me a chance to talk to him and ask him a million questions. I didn’t have a chance to ask him one thing. He spent two hours interviewing me! Through his translator, asking me where do you get your ideas, how long have you been doing it. And I said about a dozen times, ‘This is insane. I’m with the most famous director in the world. Don’t talk about me. I wanna talk about you!’ It was intensely flattering, but I was embarrassed. It was like a scene from one of his movies. Nutty. He was interested in these books, he’s a fan of these books. It turned out that he started out doing comics in Italy. He recognizes the similarity of techniques between comics and motion pictures.”
Now Stan is working on a screen play with Alain Resnais. “He’s one of my very best friends, through the comics. He’s a fan of Marvel’s. He came up here once, same thing: ‘I want to meet you.’ With a tape recorder and a camera. We got to talking and he told me he learned to read and write English mainly through Marvel comic books. He’s been reading them for years and he knows these stories better than I do. He’s one of those fans that spot my mistakes. He’ll say, ‘Stan, don’t you remember, Red Skull can’t do what you said, because three years ago you had him say he couldn’t do that.’ He’s one of the sweetest guys, we double dated together.”
What does Stan think of himself?
“Well, I think I’m pretty dull– — no, I don’t think that. I think of myself as a communicator. It seems to me the most important thing in the world is communication. Take the President of the United States. I often think that what we should elect is not a politician but a communicator. I think what the world needs is somebody who can talk to other people. And can explain things so they’ll understand, and sort of give people faith in themselves and in their fellow man. I think that what we’re suffering from today is that nobody believes anybody else. What happens is we have become so devisive, we only believe ourselves and people exactly like us.
“I’m not a hippie, I’m not a conservative, I don’t know what the hell I am but I don’t think labels are that important because, boy, I’ll tell you, I’ve been with guys whose hair is down to their ankles and would scare anybody, they just looked so weird, and they were the greatest guys in the world. And some of my friends are real establishment people. One of my best friends is the chairman of the board of one of the most respectable companies in the world and he’s the greatest guy living. And I just don’t think it matters what kind of philosophy you have as long as you’re a good guy within that philosophy. I belong to all worlds, am comfortable in all worlds.”
When it came time to take some pictures, Stan went over to the mirror to spiff up a bit. “My hair isn’t even on straight!” he said. Stan Lee used to be Stanley Lieber, and Stanley Lieber is bald. But Stanley Lieber hardly exists any more. Stan said he doesn’t even recognize him in the mirror. He said his daughter doesn’t allow him to go out unless he looks like Stan Lee.
“You know how I got this beard? I went to a Christmas party about three years ago, and when I left I was feeling no pain. I jumped up in the air to click my heels and I fell down and broke my ankle. I was in bed for two weeks, so I didn’t shave, and when I got out of bed and went to get a razor, my wife grabbed one arm and my daughter got the other arm and they said if you shave that off we’re through with you! You’re suddenly glamorous!”
Stanley Lieber turned 48 last December. Stan Lee spent the day writing Spiderman.