Thursday, August 23, 2018

What Stan Lee do after Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby left Marvel?

Let’s start with one important fact: The decade of the 1960s was Marvel’s most creative especially during the first five years. No company since has ever created so much great material in such a short time, especially with so few people.

I am often puzzled by people who try to diminish the accomplishments of Stan Lee by asking, “What did he do after Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby left?”  That is an ambiguous statement and it shows that they may not understand Stan’s job at Marvel in those days. Stan was not just a writer; he was the editor and art director for much of the decade. The question is ambiguous because Steve Ditko left in 1965, five years before Kirby did, in 1970, and we need to count those years, although many detractors don’t. 

Of course, an equally valid question may be: “What did Kirby and Ditko do after they left Marvel?”

No matter what fans want to think, producing comics is a business, the art and story come second. Stan’s job was to make money for Marvel, produce comics on time, and increase sales. He did that very well. Even Jack Kirby would say that his job was “to sell magazines.” Not create good ones, but to sell them. In 1960, Marvel was selling 16,000,000 copies a year. By 1966, Steve Ditko leaves and we no longer have his version of Spider-Man.  Marvel then was selling 35,000,000 comics a year. Without missing a beat, Stan assigns John Romita to Spider-Man and adds many aspects to the character Ditko had rejected.  Aunt May becomes younger, Peter becomes better looking and he gets a girlfriend or two that he can actually keep. The new team not only produces great stories (I loved Spider-Man #39-40, Romita’s first issues) but soon, a great villain, the Kingpin. This version of Spider-Man draws in new readers and becomes a college sensation, drawing in the older readers that had abandoned comics a decade earlier.  Spider-Man becomes Marvel’s biggest seller.  By 1970, annual circulation at Marvel had increased to 60,000,000. Five years after Ditko left circulation doubles. That was Stan’s job. If you’re going to give him blame later you have to give him the credit now. With circulation up, and more money coming in, publisher and owner Martin Goodman enables Stan to recruit not just Romita, but Gene Colan and John Buscema at higher page rates than Marvel had offered before.  Iron Man and Daredevil are further developed and sell more comics with the team of Lee and Colan. Buscema adds to Spider-Man too, but does well with everything he touches.

Different from DC’s Earth I and II, the concept of a singular Marvel Universe was Stan’s vision. While artists, including Steve Ditko, did not appreciate putting in guest stars, Stan loved the idea and did it often.  With circulation increasing it would have been hard to quibble with that idea. Stan’s vision though, has been incorporated into the last ten years of Marvel movies with incredible success. Those movies have taken in over 17 billion dollars.

From the beginning of the Marvel Age, Stan injected many adult themes, including the cold war, unemployment, handicapped people and ageing into his stories.  This was something his main competitors did not do. He even retitled Amazing Adventures to Amazing Adult Fantasy, and advertised it as "The Magazine that Respects Your Intelligence."

Lee wanted to push the limits of creating comics and he and Romita produced the black and white Spectacular Spider-Man, aimed at older readers.  Marvel also published the first Savage Tales, another magazine for adults that was also outstanding. Sadly, Goodman cancels them both. He was fearful that he would run into trouble with the Comics Code. It took courage, then, in 1971, for Stan to publish a three part anti-drug story in Amazing Spider-Man #96-98. It was published without the Comics Code approval. No other publisher or editor had done that before and there was a risk that no dealer would put in on the stands without a Comics Code seal.

Stan was the editor of at least sixteen comics a month during the 1960s and writer for about half the stories.   At DC, several editors produced only five or so comics a month and of them, only Robert Kanigher wrote.  So, beginning in 1965, Stan hired Roy Thomas. Roy worked his way up to the Avengers, partnered with Buscema, Sgt. Fury with Dick Ayers, and the X-Men with Neal Adams. Roy and his partner produced great stories that sold well.

Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. was created by Jack Kirby, but assigning it to Steranko was inspired. Nick Fury’s circulation was not the highest, but his readers were very loyal. In other words, they kept buying the book. While at DC reprints were often from a generation earlier, Lee started (in 1965) reprint titles of fairly current stories. This catered to new readers and brought them up to date.  Oh, and I loved Not Brand Echh, which was a funny, satirical look at Marvel comics at first and the entire industry as time went by. By the end of the 1960s, circulation had reached 60,000,000.

In 1968 Marvel is bought by Perfect Film and Chemical, Goodman is no longer the owner. Jack Kirby leaves in 1970. His last year at Marvel was not inspired, but it was still Kirby.  According to Mark Evanier’s Kirby bio, the new owners don’t really negotiate or try hard to keep Kirby.  This is foolish on their part, of course. Soon Kirby leaves and Stan takes an extended vacation and doesn’t write.

The new owners had a new direction for the company:

1. Initially, no more continued stories disrupting what had been established over the last decade.

2. They wanted, instantly, a huge amount of new titles, to compete, one on one with DC.

3. Whereas comics initially had 24 pages of art, then 20,  by the mid 1970s it was down to 17.      In 1970 Marvel comics were to have two half-pages, which DC’s had done but Marvel’s never did.

4. The prices on comics triple, from 12 cents to 35 cents in just a few years.

5. The black and white line was started.

6. And they wanted to go after the international market.
      Under Stan, characters (except for Captain America and Nick Fury) appeared in only one comic, enabling their authors to control their continuity. Now, most title characters must appear in at least two books, with different authors, complicating continuity. (Spider-Man was in three titles.)

Stan Lee had to adapt to those changes. So what did Stan do with this burden?  Stan worked with Roy Thomas and creates a big hit with Conan the Barbarian and later Kull; Marvel returns to horror with great talent in Chamber of Darkness and Tower of Shadows; and takes the Silver Surfer to new heights with John Buscema.

But here is the big thing:  In 1973 Stan Lee becomes publisher. This fact is ignored by the dissenters.  This was a big step up in his career; it meant more money and more prestige and no writing or deadline pressure. He increases circulation at Marvel to 70,000,000. This is what a businessman is paid to do.

By the early 1970s the industry was not drawing in many new readers and total sales were declining. This meant that Marvel’s new readers came at the expense of DCs readers. Under Stan Lee, Marvel sales exceed DC for the first time and have remained that way ever since.

There were successes in the mid-1970s, Stan introduced many successful new comics. In 1972’s America it took courage to produce Luke Cage, the first African America hero to have his own national title. By having to produce so many new titles, in so many genres, and there were also many failures. Unlike publisher Goodman, Stan was not an owner and had to follow instructions. With so many new titles there was no time to develop new talent and the bookkeepers often decided what titles were to be cancelled. Often within a failure there is a success. The magazines of the mid 1970s mostly failed, but Conan, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu and a few others were successful.  Marvel did, lose most of its female readers.  

Roy Thomas (Comic Book Artist #2 1998): There was a great drop off in female readers in the early ‘70s. We came up with three strips for which you made up the names and concepts: Shanna the She-Devil, Night Nurse and the Claws of the Cat. (We were) trying to woo the female readers back” Stan Lee said, “The failure of the Cat was my biggest disappointment.

But Stan did give it the old college try.

There is no question that Lee, Kirby and Ditko did outstanding work and nothing like that has happened since at any company. While Ditko and Kirby continued drawing and writing, Stan’s career took a successful turn up the company ladder. Stan’s later trajectory does not parallel the other two, it was more perpendicular!

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Other Stan Lee: Not giving Credit where it’s due!

This is  the most difficult blog I have written because I am a fan of  the Marvel Age and everyone who was a part of it. Over the last few decades I have met with many of the artists and writers who worked with Stan and they genuinely like him. They describe a nice, even generous person.  But when you talked to them about “Stan, the Promoter,” they often smiled and rolled their eyes. It was as if you were talking about a different person. Forgive me for keeping a source confidential, but one famous artist told me that he liked Stan very much, he just wished he would not take credit for things he didn’t do.

Stan Lee changed comics for the better and forever and this is no way should be seen as diminishing his accomplishments.  The major point of this blog is that I just feel the credit for Marvel's success in the 1960s should be shared. It should not be seen as taking away from Stan's many accomplishments.  In the fifteen years between 1960 and 1975, Marvel’s sales increased from 13 million to over  70 million comics a year and Stan Lee, as editor, oversaw this rise in sales.  There is no question that we should also remember the work of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and many others for the incredible creative work at Marvel during the 1960s.  When promoting Marvel Stan often did not mention his creative staff.

In the 1960s and 1970s, comic books were too often considered junk reading by parents and librarians and monitors of good taste. Reporters sent to get a story on the topic, didn’t read comics, and in their ignorance, their questions and conclusions often lacked depth and ignored the contributions of others.  Here are a few examples:

New York Herald Tribune, January 9th, 1966: … Stan Lee dreamed up the “Marvel Age of Comics in 1961.”

Dallas Times Herald, 1975: In the beginning was Stan Lee. And Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four. And he saw that it was good. And the Fantastic Four begat the Hulk and Spider-Man.

New York Times Magazine, May 2 1971: The turnabout came in 1961, when Stan Lee metamorphosed the Marvel line and very likely saved comic books from an untimely death.

Chicago Tribune: July 17, 1975 : STAN LEE, 53, is the great bard of the superhero epics, the creator of a modem mythology avidly devoured by 72 million readers a year.

The Press Telegram Newspaper of Long Beach Calif., Aug, 19, 1977: First, he begot The Fantastic Four, a cosmic powered quartet….AND THE Fantastic Four begot The Hulk and The Hulk begot Spider-Man, who begot a whole lot of success for Stan Lee, who is now 55, and the publisher of Marvel Comics, a definite cult hero and rich like you wouldn’t believe.

New York Newsday, June 8th, 1978: It was Lee’s fertile mind that created the many superheroes who were eventually to make Marvel mighty. Among them: “The Incredible Hulk,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “The Mighty Thor,” “Captain America,” “Ms. Marvel,” “The Fantastic Four,” “The Avengers,” “Dr. Strange” and “Daredevil.”

Time Magazine: Monday, Feb. 5, 1979: Marvels of The Mind: The man chiefly responsible for all the TV superdoing is Stan Lee, 56, the mustached and irrepressible publisher of Marvel Comics. Ideas pop in and out of his head so fast that Lee keeps a tape recorder by his bed to catch them late at night.

Even early Comic book fanzines gave Stan all the credit                                       
Super Star Heroes by Gene Wright, 1978: THE ORIGINS OF STAN LEE… he’s Super Stan!—inventor of the hung-up hero. “The result of Lee’s brainstorm was a 1961 comic book entitled The Fantastic Four.”

Stan  cannot be blamed for those  headlines. Those came from reporters and editors and  that was the playing field of that time. Marvel and Lee listed the creators of every story at a time when most comics did not. I learned their names from those credits.

Stan received criticism for his introductions to the Fireside series of reprints which started with Origins of Marvel Comics in 1974. Fans need to accept a few realities. Concerned with ownership and copyright issues, Stan, then a publisher, and a true company man, was not about to suggest that a single creator was responsible for a character’s creation. They all belonged to Marvel, so a creator’s role was often downplayed, and even sometimes ignored. When an artist left Marvel he was never referred to again. This is common among all media companies.  When someone leaves the Today show and joins the competition, they are never mentioned.  While Steve Ditko was drawing the Amazing Spider-Man letters were addressed to “Dear Stan and Steve.” Two issues before his last story was printed, in the spring of 1966, Steve’s name was removed from the greeting in the letters pages and they just read, “Dear Stan.”

We cannot lose sight of the fact that Stan was running a business. Just glance at any cover from that era. Every story was “the best” or “the greatest,” chock-full of “the most” thrills of any comic magazine.   So each artist was equally talented,  he was not about to promote one artist over another. With Jim Steranko replacing Jack Kirby on S.H.I.E.L.D. or John Romita replacing Kirby on the Fantastic Four, each was generating work that was described in superlatives in the Bullpen Bulletins or the letters pages.

Stan eventually began to understand what many of Marvel’s artists and writers were complaining about. He recognized the problem and admitted to it.  On the Today show (June 15, 2008) Stan said: “The artists felt that I was getting too much credit for everything so occasionally there would be a little dissatisfaction. But that was normal and we got over that.”

At a Caps Banquet in 2007: “Comic books is (sic) a collaborative medium. Had I not worked with artists like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko … my stories would not have looked as good. These guys were writers themselves. But they would write with pictures.… And they really deserve as much credit as I ever get.” 

An example of self-promotion came in an article he wrote for the July/August 1977 issue of Quest magazine. For the record, I placed the entire article at the bottom of this blog.   It was entitled “How I Invented Spider-Man.” . The editor, not Stan, might have written the title.

The article begins with Lee discussing his own background: “I heard of a job opening at a comic book publishing company. In those days it was called Timely Comics.”  What Stan neglects to say is that Timely’s publisher was Martin Goodman and that Martin’s wife Jean was Stan’s cousin. 

Lee continues: “Not long afterward, the editor and the head artist left and I was asked if I thought I could fill in as editor until the publisher could find someone else.” The editor and artist were Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, creators of the very successful Captain America.  At  the N.Y. Comic Con in 2008 I was next to Stan when he said to Joe Simon “I have never had the chance to thank you. You taught me so much and I have used what you taught me throughout my entire career.”

A little later in the article, Stan writes: “In 1961… For the first time within memory there seemed to be no special trend in the comic book field. No single title or group of titles seemed to excite the readers.” That year, the Justice League of America was definitely exciting comic book readers it was outselling Superman! The rebooted Flash and Green Lantern were also gaining in popularity. When Goodman found out how successful the JLA was he asked Stan to create a super-powered group for Marvel. 

In displaying what Stan wrote in that 1977 article on Spider-Man, I will make some some comments.  I will also discuss, when necessary, two other titles: The Fantastic Four because they were the first of Marvel’s new line and Sgt. Fury because that was an unexpected success.

Stan Lee may not be scripted but he certainly is rehearsed, he knew how to entertain an audience. When he begins the version of his sole the creation of Spiderman he would say: “I’ve told the story so many times it must be true.” (which he did on Larry King Live, May 4, 2002; Barbara Bogave National Public Radio (2002); Comic Book Artist #2 (1998) and 60 Minutes (Oct. 13, 2002). 

Stan: “But most of all I wanted to do Spider-Man….in searching for a title for our newest superhero, I remembered [an] old pulp favorite [The Spider: Master of Men]—and the title Spider-Man instantly hit me.” 

Stan also has another version describing his searching for the character where he tries to look spontaneous. He will first mention that he saw a fly or insect walk up a wall...  “I thought what will I call him….it seemed to me that Fly-Man didn’t work; that Insect-Man didn’t sound good, Mosquito-Man was awful, and then it hit me: Spider-Man. It was an epiphany!” This was said on a CBS interview in 1992; The Overstreet Quarterly (April 1994), Interview, Maryland’s Fredrick News Post on May 2, 2002, National Educational Association, 2008 and National Public Radio 2002.

Stan: “Even the man I chose to illus­trate the web-spinner's adventures marked a departure from the usual superhero strip. Steve Ditko was as fine a draftsman and graphic conti­nuity artist as one could find.”  

It has been established, most notably by Joe Simon in 1990, that Stan Lee first gave the character to Jack Kirby, who provided six pages of a very different character than Ditko’s. In Comic Scene Spectacular #1 (1989), Stan says: “I think Ditko was tremendously responsible for the popularity (of Spider-Man)… Kirby did a few pages. When I saw them, I said, “No, no, this isn’t what I want.” I took him off the hook and gave it to Ditko. I felt Spider-Man should not look like the typical superhero. And Ditko’s style at the time was just perfect.”

There were great differences in the Ditko and Kirby versions.  Ditko told Comic Fan #2 (Summer 1965): "Stan Lee thought the name up. I did costume, web gimmick on wrist & spider signal." And in 2001, Ditko added the following: “So for 30-plus years, the ‘one and only creator’ theme continued to pollute various publication outlets. The subjective and intrinsic mentalities continued their unquestioning, unchallenging, and self-blinding support of the non-validated claims.”  Stan did say in 2007, "If Steve wants to be called co-creator, I think he deserves (it)." Note that he added the word “think” instead of stating explicitly he deserves it. Ditko noticed this and expressed his displeasure.

 In 2007, BBC host Jonathan Ross asked Lee,  “Do you, yourself, believe that (Ditko) co-created Spider-Man?” Lee, looking uncomfortable says, “I’m willing to say so. No, and that's the best answer I can give you. I really think the guy who dreams the thing up created it! You dream it up, and then you give it to anybody to draw it!” Ross then says, “But if it had been drawn differently, it might not have been successful or a hit.” Lee replies, “Then I would have created something that didn't succeed.”

In an interview published in Eye Magazine in 1966, Lee said: “I don’t plot Spider-Man any more. Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories.” But in the article, Stan takes credit for everything and does not mention Ditko again. Nor does he mention John Romita, who followed Ditko as artist on Spider-Man.

Again from the Quest article, Stan writes as if he was working solo: “The deeper I dug under Spidey's skin to see what made him tick, the more I realized how embarrassingly banal had been the comics of the past few decades in terms of character­ization; When­ever Spidey was in a tight spot, I'd only have to think of what I would say or do in the same predicament. I merely tried to imagine what would happen if someone with superhuman power really existed, and if he dwelled—for example—in Forest Hills, New York.”

In Comic Book Marketplace, Lee recalls the beginnings of Sgt. Fury. Lee, in 1963, says to publisher Goodman. “How about a book of war stories?” He said, “Nobody’s going to buy a war book. Point number two: Let’s call it Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos?” Martin said, “Are you joking? That’s the worst title... “I said, “I’ll bet I could do that book and make it sell.” I tried to concentrate on getting a platoon of soldiers that the readers would care about, I think it was one of the first multi-ethnic comic books ever done.

In his biography of Jack Kirby (Tales to Astonish) Ronin Ro quotes respected artist John Severin as saying that in the late 1950s, Jack Kirby had wanted to do a war series “set in Europe during  World War Two; the hero would be a tough, cigar-chomping sergeant with a squad of oddball GIs — sort of an adult Boy Commandos." This doesn’t mean that Lee did not come up with the idea of a war comic with “Commandos” in the title, he just does not acknowledge the input Kirby must have had in its creation and execution. Kirby’s group would really not be unique in comics, the Blackhawks, created in 1941 for Quality Comics, which also featured a similar culturally diverse group of fighting men. And a nod of appreciation should also go to Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates.

In 1999, in an interview with James Cangialosi for Comics Interview, Stan is asked the beginnings of the Fantastic Four: “I was sitting and I thought, “What powers would be interesting for these characters to have?” One thing I remembered was that when I was younger I loved the original Human Torch and I thought I would like to bring him back. I also liked the idea — and I don’t know how I particularly thought of the idea — of a scientist who was a little bit stuffy…. Then I wanted to have another guy on the team who was always bored.” In Stan’s 250-word answer Jack Kirby is never mentioned. On WFMU-FM radio in 1967 Stan says: “Jack is the greatest artist in the world. He also is a great story man. He does all the breakdowns and basic plots and I provide the dialogue.”

In the Quest article, Stan writes about how he created the various characters of the Fantastic Four, without mentioning Jack Kirby. “Improbable as they all sound, I was attempting to place these fantastic characters in the real world, trying to give them human traits and believable reactions, trying to com­bine fairy-tale concepts with down-to-earth reality, and the results really grabbed me. I was doing what Joanie (his wife) had suggested. I was writing stories for myself, trying for the kind of off­beat, irreverent feeling that had always attracted me to Mark Twain, Bernard Shaw, and yes, Woody Allen.”  In The Overstreet Lee says: “Jack was about the best. He was really the most creative artist of all, because he was more than an artist. I call him a great conceptualizer. He could conceive of stories and follow them through. All I would have to do with Jack is give him a very brief outline on what to do, and he would just do the whole story. After a while when we were rushed, I didn’t even give him an outline, he just did whatever story he wanted.”

In Quest, Lee continues: “To me, the most gratifying result of our new approach was a startling change in the comic book audience. The age range of our readers, previously six to about 13—suddenly zoomed to college age and beyond. In fact, the additional sales were corning mainly from older readers, and the beauty of it was that we were gaining those older readers without losing the younger ones.”

Jim Galton, former President of Marvel, says in Comic Scene #1 (1981): "When comics (in the 1960s and early 1970s) were at their height the average age was between 10 and 12." Galton said that the “average age of a Marvel reader was 11½ despite Marvel’s widely publicized popularity among college students.   

Stan was aware that he spoke to two different audiences. To those who knew comics, he often included comments about the artists who worked for him. But to a more general audience he often just spoke about himself.

One last time to the Quest article. Stan: “You'd be amazed at the range of queries that have been flung at me, questions ranging from “How can Spider-Man see through those obviously opaque eye panels in his mask?”  Beyond grownup language and drawing, there seems to be something about Peter Parker and his costumed alter ego that mesmerizes his millions of admirers, including myself.” These statements refer directly to Ditko’s creative costuming of Spider-Man, but he is not mentioned here.

Think what you like. Whether it was showing off or simply toeing the company line, by not giving credit where credit was due, it caused some heartache for the creators. Mark Evanier recalls the aftermath of the 1966 Herald Tribune story, briefly mentioned here. “That article did enormous damage to Jack, personally and professionally.” And Jack would never forget it. Stan did not write it or approve  it and it was a surprise to him too.  But some of  the tarnishing of Stan Lee’s reputation, among fans, is seen as self-inflicted.

If we accept that Stan may have come up with the original concept and the name of Spider-Man, but the actual character is a co-creation with Steve Ditko, then we must also accept that Stan is the co-creator of many concepts that Jack Kirby originated, such as the Silver Surfer and the Inhumans.

“How I Invented Spider-Man.” By Stan Lee

In case you've been living outside the solar system, and therefore haven't heard of Spider-Man, let me introduce him as painlessly as pos­sible. The Amazing Spider-Man, to use his full title, appears on the covers of six million comic books a year and plays starring roles in an additional 10 million. Beyond comic books, he shows up everywhere from toys to T-shirts to television. He's a celebrity not only in the United States but also in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Indochina, and most of South Amer­ica. He is, in fact, the world's most popular fantasy hero—and the best­selling as well.

Now that we've more or less established his fame, let's explore how it happened and, of far greater impor­tance, what it all means—mainly in order to learn a little more about ourselves.

To that end, I've been asked to tell you something about the guy who reputedly started the whole thing—namely me.

Unlike most New Yorkers, who come from somewhere else, I was born right in the middle of Manhattan. I attended De Witt Clinton High School and, in my spare time, was a member of the Washington Heights branch of the WPA Federal Theatre. I loved acting. I was always a ham. But acting didn't pay the rent, and since my father was one of the legions of unemployed at that time, I had to set my greedy little sights elsewhere.

While completing my senior year in high school, I became the world's most inept theater usher, whose great­est claim to fame was showing Elea­nor Roosevelt to a seat at the Rivoli Theatre and suffering the indignity of having her help mc to my feet solic­itously after I had tripped over some­one's outstretched kg in the aisle with the theater manager and half the nation's Secret Service force looking on. From that debacle, I went to a job writing obituaries of famous people for a news service, so they'd have the obit all ready to print when the notable finally went to his or her reward. I soon got depressed writing about living people in the past tense, so I abandoned what might have been the springboard for a glorious career in journalism. After other forgettable part-time stints, such as writing pub­licity releases for a hospital (I was never sure what I was supposed to publicize: "We'll cure you faster than other hospitals"? "Our doctors arc safer than theirs, I reached the turning point of my 161/2-year-old life.

 In those days the New York Herald-Tribune ran a weekly essay contest open to all high school students. It was called "The Biggest News of the Week Contest," and the purpose was, as you'd expect, to write the most spell­binding essay in so many words or less on what you considered the most momentous news event of the past week. Either no one else was enter­ing, or I was an embryonic Walter Cronkite (probably the former), but I won three weeks in a row. One of the editors called to ask me to stop submitting entries and "give someone else a chance." If I hadn't yet made a life's commitment, he said, I might consider becoming a writer.

At that point the long arm of coincidence took over. Within a matter of hours, I heard of a job opening at a comic book publishing company. In those days it was called Timely Comics. A "gofer" was needed to round out the tiny staff: a kid to do some proofreading, write copy, answer letters, and "gofer" the coffee and sandwiches. I applied and I got the job. Not long afterward, the editor and the head artist left and I was asked if I thought I could fill in as editor until the publisher could find someone else. I said sure. At the age of 17, I didn't know any better. Apparently no one else was ever found, and I've been there ever since.

In the past three decades, I've held the titles Editor, Art Director, and Head Writer. Then, in 1972, I was named Publisher of what is now called Marvel Comics. Although I never made it as a thespian, I've found enough temperament, talent, and theatrics in the way-out world of comic books to make it all worthwhile.

Now back to Spider-Man and the events that led to his creation.

 In their own simplistic way, comic books have usually mirrored the tenor of the times. In the late thirties and early forties, colorful pulp heroes like Captain America and Captain Marvel almost single-handedly decimated the forces of fascism between the multicolored covers of their monthly magazines. After World War II, when the public was satiated with tales of diabolical dictators, the comic books turned to Westerns, crime, and monster stories. For a brief period in the early fifties, when the nation enjoyed an illusory hiatus between crises, the biggest-selling comics dealt with the innocuous antics of the animated animals created by Walt Disney, Paul Terry, Walter Lantz, and their ilk.

In 1961, something happened. For the first time within memory there seemed to be no special trend in the comic book field. No single title or group of titles seemed to excite the readers. Oh, they were still buying the comics—kids always will—but with‑ out any discernible enthusiasm. Even the superhero titles, long the staple of the industry, were declining in sales and apparently going nowhere.

At first blush, it didn't make sense. Everyone said it was a time for heroes. The youth of America had been inspired by John Kennedy and the vision of Camelot; astronauts and cosmonauts performed incredible exploits as they raced for supremacy in space. It was a time for daring concepts, deeds far bigger than life—a time when comic book superheroes should have been selling better than ever. What was wrong?

Personally, I was bored. I had 20 years of writing and editing comics behind me. Twenty years of "Take that, you rat!" and "So, you wanna play, huh?" Twenty years of worrying whether a sentence or phrase might be over the head of an eight-year-old reader. Twenty years of trying to think like a child. And then an off‑ hand remark by my wife caused a revolution in comics tantamount to the invention of the wheel. Eighteen simple words, electrifying in their eloquence and their portent for the future. Each momentous syllable is engraved in my memory:

"When are you going to stop writing for kids and write stories that you yourself would enjoy reading?" It was a casual question, posed in a casual way, but it really rocked me. It made me suddenly realize that I had never actually written anything for myself. For two unsatisfying decades I'd been selling myself short, sublimating any literary ability I might have in a painful effort to write down to the level of drooling juveniles and semicretins.

"Nevermore!" I shouted. "Never‑ more will I fashion my tales for the nameless, faceless 'them' out there. Henceforth, I will write for an audience of one; an audience I should have no trouble pleasing, for I cer‑ tainly know what turns me on."

When the time came to create a teenaged hero for Marvel Comics, I decided to depict him as a bumbling,   real-life teenager who by some mir­acle had acquired a super power. He'd have to be bewildered, insecure, inept, ungainly, and often out of step with those around him. He'd be my kind of teenager. A loser. A schlepp. Just like I was when I was young. And I know if I had gotten a super power when I was a teenager, the only change would be—I'd simply have become a super-powered schlepp.

After all, who ever said that extra strength, or talent, or ability has to make a guy a winner? If you suddenly gained the muscle power of a hundred men, OK—so you'd be able to lift heavy weights and outwrestle King Kong; but that doesn't mean you still wouldn't have to worry about dan­druff, or acne, or hemorrhoids, right? And suppose you could crawl on walls and ceilings like a human spider. Wouldn't you still be concerned about postnasal drip, or warts, or the heartbreak of psoriasis? Wouldn't you still have trouble balancing your checkbook, or scoring with a girl who doesn't happen to dig costumed wall-crawlers?

The more I thought about it, the faster the ideas came to me. Sure, I was still writing comic book yarns about freaky, farfetched superheroes, but I suddenly realized I was begin­ning to enjoy it. An extra dimension had been added. I was now playing with characters like the Human Torch, a pushy extravert able to burst into flame and fly like a bird with his blazing lighter-than-air body; Mr. Fantastic, a stuffy, brilliant, ego­centric scientist with the ability to stretch his body like a piece of elastic; the Thing, a monstrous being with a temper to match whose superhuman strength is exceeded only by his popu­larity with our fans; and the Invisible Girl, Mr. Fantastic's fiancee, whose chief claim to fame is exactly what her name implies. In addition to the Fan­tastic Four, who battle for truth, jus­tice, and monetary compensation, there was the Incredible Hulk, the most powerful mortal on earth. His distinctions include a green skin and the fact that he weighs in at about 700 pounds. Improbable as they all sound, I was attempting to place these fantastic characters in the real world, trying to give them human traits and believable reactions, trying to com­bine fairy-tale concepts with down-to-earth reality, and the results really grabbed me. I was doing what Joanie had suggested. I was writing stories for myself, trying for the kind of off­beat, irreverent feeling that had always attracted me to Mark Twain, Bernard Shaw, and yes, Woody Allen.

But most of all I wanted to do Spider-Man.

When I was about 10 years old, I used to read a pulp magazine called The Spider and subtitled "Master of Men." Perhaps it was the Master of Men that got me, but to my impres­sionable, preteen way of thinking, the Spider was the most dramatic charac­ter I had ever encountered. He ranked right up there with Doc Savage and the Shadow. Even better, he wasn't as well known as the others, which gave mc the warm feeling that his fans belonged to an elite club. At any rate, in searching for a title for our newest superhero, I remembered my old pulp favorite—and the title Spider-Man instantly hit mc. I didn't mind bor­rowing the Spider part of his name because everything else about our new character would be completely different. I was determined to make our next production the most origi­nal, most unique comic book charac­ter ever to swoop down the pike.

Even the man I chose to illus­trate the web-spinner's adventures marked a departure from the usual superhero strip. Steve Ditko was as fine a draftsman and graphic conti­nuity artist as one could find. Instead of depicting unreal creatures, with muscles bulging on muscles, Steve's characters looked like the guy next door. Where the average superhero strip was exaggerated and overblown, his artwork was low-key and under­stated. It was just what I wanted. It was vitally important to me that Spi­der-Man be the kind of character with whom any ordinary Joe could iden­tify. I was certain that Steve's untypi­cal, uncliched artwork would help.

The deeper I dug under Spidey's skin to see what made him tick, the more I realized how embarrassingly banal had been the comics of the past kw decades in terms of character­ization. The so-called good guys were always invincible, infallible, and totally triumphant at the end of each story. The bad guys were always das­tardly, deadly, and irrevocably eradi­cated by the time the final curtain rang down. The good guys talked lyrically. The bad guys grunted. The good guys were pure at heart, proud, and passionately patriotic. The bad guys were cowards, cutthroats, and craven to the core. The heroes were one scant step removed from saint­hood, while nary a villain had a single redeeming feature. Nonsense: I'll bet that even Attila the Hun was good to his mother; Albert Schweitzer proba­bly snored in his sleep.

And so another mighty Marvel concept was born. Our villains would no longer necessarily be the epitome of evil incarnate; our heroes had not only feet of clay, but kneecaps and thighbones as well.

But how could the reader learn what motivated them? After all, their dialogue was usually limited to "I've got to stop him before he captures Buckey," or "Great Scott! It's a crea­ture from another planet!" The solu­tion was obvious: give the reader a chance to get inside our characters' heads—emphasize cogitation as well as conversation. Those of you who are steeped in Marvel lore, who have faithfully followed the adventures of our amazing arachnid, how well you know our penchant for thought bal­loons wherever we have the slightest millimeter of empty space within a panel. Our characters soliloquize enough to make Hamlet seem like a raging extravert. Never before have comic books exhibited such inter­minable soul-searching; such agoniz­ing reappraisals on the part of hero and villain alike; such a dogged quest for truth, understanding, and basic motivation, even while Spider-Man is getting his lumps.

Thus, for the first time, comic book stories began to be written with the same concern for human speech and characterization as movies, novels, and plays. I'm not trying to imply that the end result would have made Ibsen jealous. We were still writing for a mass market and grinding out doz­ens of pages a day. But we were trying—and we were on our way.

There were plenty of voices of doom out there. I can't tell you how many times I heard, from those who were "older, wiser, and we've been in the business far longer than you," how my innocent little crusade to upgrade comic books would bring about the total collapse of our valiant little com­pany, if not the entire industry itself. I can still hear the voices—wise, per­suasive, and unrelenting.

"Are you out of your mind? Comics are for kids. For little kids!"

"You can't produce comic books to suit your own tastes. You'll lose your entire audience!"

"They just wanna look at the pic­tures. Give 'em anything that requires real reading and you've had it!"

"Don't ruin what we've got goin' here. Don't be a jerk and mess up a good thing!"

We managed to stick to our guns. We kept writing and drawing Spider-Man stories that featured surprisingly realistic situations, carefully con­trived motivation, and the sharpest dialogue I could invent. One of my favorite devices was the old "What if . . . ?" ploy. What if Spider-Man, while fighting for his life against some deadly foe, is suddenly hit with an allergy attack? What if he has to rush out at midnight to don his hidden costume and save mankind, but his Aunt May won't let him go because of an impending snowstorm and he's just getting over a cold? What if Spidey receives a huge check as a reward for apprehending some deadly dastard, but he can't cash the check because it's made payable to Spider-Man, and he has no bank account under that name, nor does he have any way of identifying himself without revealing his secret identity? For the first time in years, comic books began to amuse me again.

After the first few stories of this type, I felt I really knew our friendly neighborhood web-spinner. Refer­ring to him as Spidey seemed as natu­ral to me as calling my wife Joanie. Writing his dialogue was ridiculously easy; I simply let him speak exactly as I would. Talk about empathy! When­ever Spidey was in a tight spot, I'd only have to think of what I would say or do in the same predicament, and presto—I had my dialogue as well as my course of action. But I've always tried to keep it in the right per­spective. I've never personally. attempted to shinny up a wall or cling to the nearest ceiling.

But what about the readers? What sort of impact did the widely heralded (mostly by us) "Marvel style" have on the hard-to-please hordes of Spider-dom Assembled? I'm glad you asked.

The Amazing Spider-Man first went on sale early in 1963. Prior to that time we were selling about 17 million comic books a year. In 1964, spear­headed by Spidey's phenomenal pop­ularity, we sold 28 million. By 1968 we were selling 49 million copies per year. Last year, still led by Spider-Man as our flagship character, Mar­vel Comics sold more than 70 million comic books and our sales arc still growing. Throughout the world, Spidey outsells even Superman by about 800,000 copies per year.

To me, the most gratifying result of our new approach was a startling change in the comic book audience. The age range of our readers previously six to about 13—suddenly zoomed to college age and beyond. In fact, the additional sales were corning mainly from older readers, and the beauty of it was that we were gaining those older readers without losing the younger ones.

It seems that Spider-Alan and other Marvel Comics titles were being accepted and enjoyed on two levels. For the younger reader, there were colorful costumes, action, excitement, fantasy, and bigger-than-life adven­tures. For the newly proselytized older reader, we offered unexpectedly sophisti­cated plots and subplots, a college  level vocabulary, satire, science fic­tion, and as many philosophical and sociological concepts as we could devise. In the beginning, the satire wasn't completely intentional. I merely tried to imagine what would happen if someone with superhuman power really existed, and if he dwelled—for example—in Forest Hills, New York. Then I tried to con­front him with real-life situations and problems. I thought I was being realis­tic; older readers thought I was wax­ing satirical. If they called it satire, who was I to contradict them?

I was also delighted to discover that our younger readers were not turned off by the college-level vocabulary we were dishing out. They seemed to absorb the meaning of words like cataclysmic, misanthropic, sub­liminal, phantasmagoric. We actually received hundreds of letters from bewildered parents telling us that "Johnny's reading ability has improved 100 percent, as has his schoolwork—especially gram mar and composition—since reading Marvel Comics"!

For the past decade, I've traveled around the country extolling the vir­tues of Spidermania on the campuses of virtually every college and univer­sity from Portland to Phoenix, from Seattle to Sarasota. You'd be amazed at the range of queries that have been flung at me, questions ranging from "How can Spider-Man see through those obviously opaque eye panels in his mask?" to "Philosophically, how do you equate Spidcy's guilt syn­drome with his hyper neurotic extra­version and manic-depressive tenden­cies?" And I'm not even laying the tough ones on you!

Beyond grownup language and drawing, there seems to be something about Peter Parker and his costumed alter ego that mesmerizes his millions of admirers, including myself. Let me venture a theory as to why Spider-Man has enjoyed such a vast and ever-growing popularity all these years.

It's a pretty safe bet that you and I have one thing in common with the whole human race. Cute, cuddly, and captivating though we may be, we all possess a certain degree of rotten-ness—just enough to make us inter­esting. We may be genuinely fond of our friends; we may respect and admire any number of people, wish­ing them success in all their endeav­ors; and yet, we never quite want them to succeed too much. If a close friend or relative does well, you rejoice for him. But if he does an awful lot better than you, it wouldn't really break your heart to have him stumble once in a while. We never really want anyone to be too much better, richer, handsomer, smarter, sexier, or luckier than we arc. Not too much. In fact, if a loved one can be something of a loser now and then, it's usually a lot easier for that love to flourish and grow. Nothing breeds genuine, long-lasting affection as much as the knowledge that the recipient is just a teensy bit—just slightly, mind you, just the merest soupcon—inferior to you!

Well, that's how it is with Spider-Man. For all his power, brains, and fame, the poor kid has far more prob­lems, far more hang-ups than a ster­ling soul like you. As you read his weird and wondrous adventures, even as you thrill to his superhuman prow­ess, you find yourself pitying the guy, sympathizing with anyone who can have as many tough breaks and as much crummy luck as he does. Sure, he's a superhero. Sure, he's a regular one-man army. Sure, he's practically indestructible. But you're a lot better off. You seem to handle life's little vicissitudes far better than he can. Even though he's a living legend, you can feel superior to him. Now, how can you help but love a guy like that?

And perhaps, when all is said and done, that's what Spider-Man is tell­ing us about ourselves and our time. Even though it is fashionable to lament our lack of heroes—the van­ishing of our Joe DiMaggios or Win­ston Churchills—it's just possible that the day of the bigger-than-life hero is gone forever. We've grown too sophis­ticated. We've become too cynical. The events of the past few decades have made us suspicious, have made us distrust our leading citizens, our public figures, our politicians. What­ever happened to the time when we could refer to a politician as a states­man without feeling foolish?

All our Vietnams, Kent States, and Watergates have taken their toll. It's not that we don't want heroes. It's not that we don't search for someone to emulate, to admire, to idolize. But until the shock waves of our recent past have worn off, and we're finally ready and able to believe once again, our heroes will have to be fashioned of a different mold. They'll be flaky, fallible, and fault-ridden. They'll be no better or worse than we ourselves. We've endured too much. We won't let ourselves be hurt anymore.

So here's to Spider-Man. Here's to the new breed of superhero. He'll never disillusion us because we'll never expect too much from him. We can understand him and sympathize with him. If his powers arc greater than ours, so arc his problems. He's our kind of guy.

Quest July/August 1977