FEATURE MARVEL COMICS
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Although his identity is stamped on every comic the company produces, Marvel’s STAN LEE has been challenged by his former partner Jack Kirby on the matter of who actually did create their most profitable super-heroes. Alastair Mabbott speaks to Lee about this, and 50 years of Marvel, and profiles the most durable heroes of the Marvel Age.
or anyone who began devouring
Marvel Comics as soon as they
could read — who preferred them,
for goodness’ sake, to television —
he belongs as much to the world of
myth as the super-heroes who made him his fortune. But here he is, sitting right in front of me, spreading ketchup evenly and meticulously over an omelette with the ﬂat of his knife: Smilin‘ Stan. Stan The Man.
To understand Stan Lee’s place in American popular culture you’d have to think of him in similar terms to Walt Disney, and when he opens his mouth to gush about how exciting it is to live in LA and do lunch with Coppola and De Vito, you’re likely to be reminded of Andy Warhol’s boyish ‘golly-gee’ ingenuousness too. Now in his mid-60s, grey and balding, he looks less like a publishing giant than a retired small businessman who’s glad to have the pressure off his back. Bloomsbury’s Cultural Icons has Lee pegged as ‘super-rich’, but his slightly stooped frame is clothed today in an unassuming black V-neck and jeans. Perhaps he just likes dressing down for signing sessions. Despite his relocation to California, he speaks with a perfect Noo Yawk twang and seems slightly self-conscious abOut it, putting down the lack of ﬂavour in the American accent while praising the Scottish and Irish lilt. ‘It’s like music. It really is, listen sometimes,’ he urges, between bites.
The day-to-day comic-book work in the New York offices far behind him, the
Chairman of Marvel Entertainment Group now supervises movie adaptations of the company’s characters. After a series of embarrassing disasters (like Howard The Duck), Marvel looks set at long last for a blockbuster that will even the score with DC (their ‘Distinguished Competition’), who " x ‘ ‘Knowing that so .. I " many children were ‘ reading these
stories, ltried to . 7- give them a decent ‘ 7- moral tone. ltried , , ;, to preach against
" v; things like hate and
have the Superman and Batman movies to their credit. Terminator and Aliens director James Cameron is turning his considerable talents to a Spider-Man movie, and several other Marvel projects are under way. Even The Black Panther, hardly one of their biggest smashes, is being nurtured by Columbia in the hope of cashing in on recent Afro-American box-office successes.
The glittering lights of Hollywood — the dream of every boy who grew up in the Depression. If there had been any money in it, Stanley Martin Lieber (he later legally adopted his pen-name) would have tried to become an actor— he belonged, he says, to the WPA Federal Theatre, as did the young Orson Welles — but his father was unemployed, his mother needed money and Lee discovered it was easier to make ends
meet by working on comic books.
In 1940, when he was seventeen, he was taken on by publisher Martin Goodman’s Marvel forerunner Timely Comics, to help with the increasing workload brought on by the success of the super-hero title Captain America.
‘I answered an ad in the paper. It said an assistant was wanted in a publishing company. I didn’t even know it was a comic-book company,’ says Lee, perhaps momentarily forgetting that Martin Goodman was his cousin-in-law. and had already recruited several members of his family into the business. Also working at Timely then was aspiring novelist Mickey ' Spillane, and Lee himself had plans to move into ‘proper’ writing. (Lee scripted training films during the Second World War, and was one ofonly nine men in the US Army to hold the military classification ‘playwright’.)
For the next twenty years, however, he busied himself with whatever material Timely thought would sell — Westerns, war, romance, funny animals, monsters — then, in quick succession, he and veteran Golden Age artist Jack Kirby came up with The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor Iron Man, The A vengers and The X -Men. All were populated by heroes who had flaws to their make-up which made them that bit more interesting than the competition. Sales snowballed and, with unprecedented reader response, the company started producing more and more books per month. So many
were on the go that Lee could not script them all and would only give a brief summary to the artist, who would draw the story however he (invariably he, rather than she) saw fit. Lee would get the pages back and add dialogue to suit the pencilled pages. So the disputed legend goes, anyway. Thus was born ‘The Marvel Method’. ‘It was totally born out of necessity,’ says Lee , ‘but then we found out it’s a great system, because the artists could use their
10 The List 6- 19 December 1991