This piece ran February in TCJ, the magazine’s first small-format issue. One thing that I left out and always wanted to get in: “I was ashamed to admit I did comics,” Stan told an interviewer in 2005. It’s strange to think of Mr. Cheerful feeling like a failure right thru his 30s. He remarked somewhere that writing Spider-Man was easy for him because he remembered being picked last for the team as a kid, and so on. The comment struck me as a bit of everyman-style relating, since it’s a commonplace nowadays that we all feel pushed around and ignored, as kids or later — good old Charlie Brown. But to spend years being ashamed of what you do for a living, that’s not so common.

Reading about DC in the ’50s, as the Silver Age got going, it seems like there was a good deal of shame and overcompensation going on. Over at Timely, Stan dealt with his crap a lot better than Weisinger, etc. dealt with theirs. He was a cheerleader and a fairly decent guy, self-centered but with a kind heart. And he always had that tremendous energy. He was designed to be a star, what with the energy and the sense of entitlement and his need to feel that everyone was swinging to his happy tune. But here he was working for a second-rate player in a dingy industry; his only consolation was that he got to be big man at the office.
Then came 1961 and the baby boom kids had paper routes; the ground rules for the comics industry were changing. Stan just followed his nose, but he had the drive to make full use of the new opportunities as they rose up. A few years later, believe it or not, he was a star at last. In between he’d found that his old hidden angst made good copy: the kids related to Peter Parker and the misunderstood Hulk.
Whatever the comic industry is now, it’s that way because Stan Lee was running Timely as the 1960s began. It takes energy to grab an opportunity that big; Stan had it, and history was made. I don’t think he was much of a writer, but he still made all the difference.

The piece reviews Stan Lee: Conversations, edited by Jeff McLaughlin, and a comic that came out last year: The Last Fantastic Four Story, written by Stan and drawn by John Romita Jr.
And now “Stan”:


People compare Lee-Kirby and Lennon-McCartney. I think that misses the point. It was more like Jimi Hendrix was in a band with whoever did the words for “Incense and Peppermints.” But it wasn’t a band, of course. Any halfway decent music-comics comparison would have to make Stan Lee a producer and Jimi Hendrix the top star on his label. (Or the boss’s label, with Stan in charge of “creative.”) Hendrix would have to be a middle-aged man who was knocking around and had a wife and family to support. He would have dissolved his first partnership, one that had lasted more than a decade and given him every success he’d ever known. He would have just lost a job at the biggest employer in town, and also a lawsuit brought against him by a boss over there.  He’d have a big future behind him, and from out of nowhere Stan Lee would make possible the greatest phase of the poor man’s career. That being said, of course, it would remain that Kirby was Hendrix and Lee was the guy who did the words for “Incense and Peppermints.”

            Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (the label’s Syd Barrett, I guess) had talent. Lee had knacks: for putting words on pictures, for peanut gallery banter, for gimmicky ear prodding, verbal drumrolls, the hey-gang tone, mock grandiosity. He worked very fast, and he never forgot the chief aim.  Al Jaffee, the man behind “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” remembers watching Stan bang out cover ideas for 20 different teen comics back in the Atlas days. “There are those who might say teenage magazine covers of that era were based on simplistic formulas,” Jaffee allows. “True or not, they had to be done professionally to compete in the marketplace. Stan did this successfully throughout his career, in my view.” Throughout his comics career, I would add. When he left for Hollywood, a great slowness seemed to possess Stan’s fortunes. But back on his home turf he changed pop-culture history, and he did it by being a man who puts out product for buyers.

            Stan Lee is ordinary in a lot of ways but not all. He’s very intelligent and has the kind of temperament found among top politicians and operators, a never-say-die energy and serenity that carry him forward as he pushes—or tries to push—from level to level, always higher, even if he’s not sure what is higher. When he finds a new course, he charges down it until a better course comes along. Thirty years ago, even after his undreamed-of successes in the 1960s, he was still essentially a corporate hand and wondering vaguely about a nest egg; he would check out ads for bond investments in the New York Times. Now he is 84 and getting a million a year from Marvel, with plenty of time to himself for pitching ideas in Hollywood and tending to his public. In some ways, if Stan’s big 1960s hits actually had been rock songs, he would be living the way he does now. Every year he becomes rich all over again; strangers’ faces light up in airports; the people who know his name and care about him, one way or the other, could fill a decent-sized municipality. Stan got to this point through corporate employment, which in itself is astonishing. He wasn’t much of a writer; he wasn’t even much of a businessman or deal maker. He was a very good middle manager with the skills needed to put out a line of cheap paper entertainment. But he was also a star, with a star’s dedication to building a healthy emotional life with people he will never know. (He still remembers what a difference it made to him as a kid, when the columnist’s secretary sent him that letter and he thought it was from the columnist.) As soon as the fan mail started coming in, almost five decades ago, Stan tried to answer every piece.

            Now he makes a handsome living as an icon while pretending to be a creator. He’s looking ahead, of course. He’s a free agent and ready as always to seed ideas. Disney has signed him to an exclusive first-look contract and Stan is hoping to inspire franchises, whole new ones. “The whole purpose is to come up with new things, and Marvel owns the old characters anyway,” he told Variety. I’m pretty sure Stan will crap out. Maybe not; he could find a godsend of a collaborator. But otherwise Disney has bought itself a whole lot of nothing. From The Amazing Spider-Man, sometime during the 1960s:  “Sorry, guy! I’m the getter, you’re the gettee!” From a meeting with the young fellows at Stan Lee Media in 2000: “And he goes, ‘Sorry, guys, I’m the getter; you’re the gettee!’” Back in his writing days, the same bits would bounce from issue to issue—“even my ulcers have ulcers!” Now they bounce across the decades. The second time around, Stan may have been worth $130 million—it was the dotcom boom. Soon his company would be gone, but the kids apparently bore him no ill will. I bet they had a great time that day with the storyboards, hearing him act out the parts. Meanwhile, Stan Lee’s post-Marvel successes have been Stripperella and So You Want to Be a Superhero?

            If talent were gas, Stan Lee couldn’t get 10 miles out of town. Of course, you could say the same thing about policy knowledge and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Stan is a lightweight; that didn’t stop him from being essential. Given that the facts are sketchy, my case is more an interpretation than an argument. But here’s how I read the traces: First, Stan Lee pointed the way for the Marvel revolution; then he put the revolution into effect. I doubt he could have pulled it off without Kirby and Ditko, and I’m certain that they were a lot more brilliant than he was. But without him they would not have begun the project. Ditko would have worked his way up to mystery stories for DC; Kirby would have been drawing the greatest monster bubblegum cards ever seen. Because of Stan Lee we have the Marvel-style superhero, and therefore the basic shape of the U.S. comics industry as it has been for about 40 years and looks to be for at least 10 more.

             Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon published a life of Stan Lee four years ago, Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book. Now Jeff McLaughlin has gone through 37 years of Stan’s interviews and published a collection called Stan Lee: Conversations. A few of the interviews, notably one McLaughlin did in 2005, touch on interesting material. Most of them don’t. According to a documentary I saw, being a member of the royal family means a life of making small talk with strangers about their countries’ exports. Being Stan Lee means saying the artists do the pictures first and then you put on the balloons, and your wife said to you why not do a story you want to do, and Kirby was the best, a splendid imagination, and comics do a lot for getting young people to read. William Gibson this man is not. But Stan gets that; he never sells himself as a thinker. Asked for his own opinions, he slings them out without any special airs. The tone is more Well, since you asked — “I admire the successful commercial artists of today. … Charles Schulz … Leroy Nieman … I don’t feel that fine art is more important than commercial art.” He likes science fiction and knows what John W. Campbell was all about. He likes H. P. Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes, and wishes Conan Doyle had written more stories with Holmes and Moriarty, “the two of them battling.” He doesn’t like sword and sorcery — the Conan stuff was all Roy. (“It turned out great.”) During the 1970s he read Kurt Vonnegut. As a kid: “I loved whatever all kids loved. I wasn’t that different.” And of course: “My favorite writer of all time was Shakespeare.”

            Stan’s mind is a homing device for the obvious. People like to have fun, commercial product has to pay its way, there’s nothing wrong with a smile. Stan has no problem with any of that. When he writes, he says, he writes to please himself. He also sits down and starts doping out what the market is looking for. The two approaches sound different, but for him they aren’t. Whatever his calculations turn up will be something that he likes, and Stan will develop the something in a manner that he likes. He’s not in the habit of having a bad time. (On his years as publisher: “Oh, it was always fun. I enjoyed everything I did all the time.”)

            When calculating, his goal is “what can we do that is different from what is out there, and yet is close enough to the ones that were successful so we know [they] will appeal to the same audience?” Which I would shorten as “the same, but different,” a Hollywood cliché. In fact Stan’s approach is the same as that of any showbiz pro looking for a spot, and he might not mind hearing the fact stated. Solid professionals often have a kind of humility. If the job comes first, and you do what the dollar tells you, then it’s no big leap to accept the humble facts of existence as the plyer of a given trade. Stan Lee wants ideas that will sell; he’s not ashamed of it. Most of all, he figures he is no different from anyone else. “I’m not that exceptional,” he told a London entertainment Web site when Spider-Man 3 came out over there. The interview was too late for Stan Lee: Conversations, but it captures the man.If there are things that I would like,” Stan goes on to say, “there must be lots of other people who would have the same taste as I do.” Humility and confidence can go together. If you’re everyman, then you’re in a very good place for coming up with mass-market ideas. Or you would be if everyman were good at ideas.

            I just read The Last Fantastic Four Story, the only new comic I’ve read by Stan in almost 40 years. You might expect a fossil, but in some ways he’s adapted. He still has a lot of word balloons, but they’re slimmer. The captions are about as minimal as Stan can get; he opens with a visual sequence (a sparrow falls to earth) that is nothing new for today but still completely different from his old approach. Most of the chatter has gone out of his work, which is too bad. The banter doesn’t hit the over-the-top fizziness of the old days. And with the captions toned down, you don’t have Stan yodeling and boasting on the rooftops—no alliteration, no hoching, no “Hang tight, pussycats!” As a writer, Stan seems less like himself when he isn’t trying to sell you something.

            Like in the old days, Stan takes care to provide an explicit and reliable catalogue of each panel’s contents. The word balloons move as fast as this basic duty allows. In the 1960s that seemed quite fast; Stan’s good at lining up his dialogue so it doesn’t back and fill. But today his pace seems like a lope, a trot. The balloons scud forward, whereas nowadays writers try to get them to zip. Another period effect is the bystander commentary, the lineups of men in workaday pants and shirts who point and exclaim in a fashion that provides information or establishes public mood: “The Fantastic Four! World’s greatest heroes! What a crock!” I like to think this is a sign of Stan Lee’s everyman tendencies, but anyone who uses dialogue to document action probably needs some random mouths to stick it into.

            Story is a what-if about the Fantastic Four where Johnny, Ben, and Sue start talking like comics professionals of a certain age. (Ben: “We don’t get much outta the FF toys ’n games. Fans are always lookin’ for somethin’ new.”) They’re disgruntled, and the answer to their disgruntlement turns out to be a whole lot of love, really supreme love. The story has the Fantastic Four save the world again, and this time, in return, the world gives them a kind of global birthday party. “The U.N. holds a colorful ceremony attended by representatives of all nations in which they give the FF a special award for saving the planet,” Stan says in his outline. The award, which is pretty hard to imagine in its details, drops away from the finished story, but we still have the U.N. ceremony and the memory of a beautiful phrase: “a special award for saving the planet.” It’s so tremendous and at the same time so perfunctory, and there you have Story. The plot’s moving force is a cosmic entity, one that outranks all other cosmic entities and yet has never been heard from before. Back in the ’80s Jim Shooter pulled this trick to rig a 34character crossover that ran for a dozen issues. Stan does it to get thru a 48page story (not counting ads). As a side-effect, Galactus is busted down to supporting player. He’s just among those present, and at the end he even pitches in by shooting power blasts out of his arms while he and the Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer battle a mass of humanoids.

            Stan doesn’t know something has been sacrificed here. He doesn’t realize Galactus has to be bigger than this if Marvel’s universe is going to stand up and walk instead of being a mess of decent properties. Straight-out bigness is important to Marvel—Galactus was the crown jewel of its founding period—but the truth is that bigness and Stan don’t go well together. He’s good at mock grandiosity, where the volume is turned up but the point is to goose the readers, give them a quick thrill. If they want to laugh, they can go ahead and no harm done.  (“Lo, There Shall Be an Ending!”) Grandeur is something else. The Silver Surfer ought to be laughable but isn’t, and the same for Galactus. Because of Jack Kirby, Marvel had grandeur, and it was a wonderful thing to find in a superhero story. Because of Stan Lee we get big sentiments, thoughts that could come off a poster in a guidance counselor’s office in Asgard. “What better way to die than to do so for a cause!” says the Vision during his cameo in Story. In a way the truisms in Story are a sign of Stan’s humility. He climbs to the mountaintop and surveys the big facts of existence, but he doesn’t think he himself will see anything especially new up there. He sees what anyone sees, and he reports it because such is the job necessary when producing a big story about heroes.

            Story would be a flop if anyone had expected better. You think about how Alan Moore insisted on writing the last Superman story of the old continuity and came up with “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” Stan just trots out his old characters, and where the plot has room for it they fight. He doesn’t have any idea that the occasion calls for something more; his register doesn’t go up that high.  To break it down: Alan Moore did a better job of summing up Mort Weisinger’s Superman for Julie Schwartz than Stan does of summing up his own cocreations for himself. If you want to find any imagination in Story, look at the spacey stuff by John Romita Jr. Otherwise The Last Fantastic Four Story is a souvenir packaged as a comic book, something to pick up at the gift shop on the way out of Stan’s comics career. And I would bet that this surprises nobody at all who reads or produces comic books. It’s the suckers, the dotcom investors, who think Stan is a creative force.

            Yet I still believe Stan Lee made the comics revolution possible. Not only that, but I think he did it the way he says he did it:  by going to Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko with specific ideas and having them execute the ideas. Stan doesn’t take responsibility for much. Most often he describes himself as a conduit—for the market’s desires, for Martin Goodman’s business decisions, for the influence of Conan Doyle and the Frankenstein movies and anything else he has ever read or experienced. But Stan does hold firmly to the responsibility for having requested a superhero who would climb walls and be a bit of a shlubb, someone kicked around by life, and for having requested a group of superheroes whose leader would talk too much and whose members would quarrel a bit before pitching in together, a group of heroes with disparate powers and personalities—a girl and the Human Torch and the long-winded scientist leader and someone who would get annoyed by the long-winded scientist leader. For that matter, Stan is also quite sure he thought up having a hero who would be based on a Norse god and another who would be like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and also like Frankenstein’s monster. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and all the other artists did plenty, in his view, but they didn’t come to him with the ideas; he went to them. And the ideas, speaking plainly, were assignments. “I could’ve given it to anybody to draw,” Stan said in 1981. When he didn’t like Kirby’s Spider-Man, Stan says, he took it away and gave it to Ditko. (Ditko’s version of events supports this: He was asked to come up with a new look and feel, not to pick up from Kirby’s sample pages.)

            Stan has been fairly consistent about his claims. Even during the bad old days of the press releases that referred to him as “creator,” he was talking up what Marvel artists did for plots and specifically what Jack Kirby did. Since the bad old days, he has downplayed the “creator” business and talked up his partnerships even more. I don’t have a big problem with his case. Drafting pre-ideas is the dry end of creation, but it is part, and it looks like the Spider-Man and FF notions already had a direction and some key detail when he sent them on to his collaborators. During those wonderful years Stan was playing above his game, reaching for inspiration; of course, Ditko and Kirby still had to pull it down for him. “Co-created” is appropriate here, but “instigated” would come in handy if we could use it. Stan did when he put Denis Kitchen up to editing an pseudo-underground magazine for newsstands (“Instigated by Stan Lee” the masthead said), and as verbs go it gets pretty well at the function of someone who is engaged in creation but more as a manager and less as an artist (taking “artist” to include anyone whose primary work is exercising the imagination within an aesthetic discipline).

            The ideas Stan assigned to Ditko and Kirby derived from a basic notion that was new without being personal or even very original. “I wanted to do a more realistic fantasy,” Stan Lee said in 1998, looking back.  He summed up the Marvel “formula” this way: “What if somebody like this existed in the real world, and what would his or her life be like?” Harvey Kurtzman had asked the same question about superheroes back when he was editing Mad, and various standup comics and nine-year-olds had asked it and would keep on asking it. The big difference was that Stan was in charge of a comic book line. He brushed past the easy laughs and got down to the business of manufacturing product. But it was an obvious question, and he asked it because the obvious was his specialty.

            One part of the answer was that superheroes would live with a yesterday, today, and tomorrow, not a timeless now, and so began the central fact of modern superhero existence—continuity. (I’d better acknowledge that Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs made this point in The Comic Book Heroes.) For the rest of the answer we have four and a half decades of fans, professionals, and companies improvising what they think “realistic” means when applied to franchise properties who have costumes and powers. To Stan the word meant that heroes could run into money problems or romance problems, that they could have minor personal failings, and that somehow they could have something about them that was weak instead of strong. In some cases they would be at odds with the law or seriously misunderstood by respectable citizens. At a panel appearance with Stan in 1985, Jenette Kahn helpfully summed up this stew as “anti-Establishment feelings . . . alienation and self-deprecation.” You could find a lot of these qualities during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Kafka had trickled down into Feiffer and “sick humor” and Nichols and May, and now the seepage made it to superheroes.

            “I liked things that were hip and cutting-edge, cool and big city,” Stan says, thinking back to his prime, the end of the Eisenhower days. In 1961, being hip was about to hit the big time, to massively expand its population base; by the mid-’60s, everyone would feel hip or feel like they ought to be hip or fiercely resent those who claimed to be hip. No wonder Stan Lee had his antennae quivering. Kirby and Ditko, by contrast, had no antennae. They were the type to look inward for ideas, not out. Soon they would pull ahead of the ’60s and invent psychedelia on paper before most hippies found it through drugs. From a career viewpoint, the good it did either of them is debatable.

            Asking real-life questions about mass-media creations is the easiest way of being hip, and maybe the most widespread. Everyone knows about life’s dumb, up-close details; everyone knows about mass-media products (that’s why they’re “mass”). To compare one side and the other is a short mental hop, and during the 1960s it came with big payoffs, a sense of bold thinking and wide mental horizons. Being smarter than TV or comic strips became everyman’s idea of being a free agent in a stifling world. Stan took the jump. The “company man” (as he calls himself) decided to get smart with the product because he was planning to get out of the business anyway (so write a comic you want to read). Then being smart turned out to pay off, and who would have thought it?

            Like so many success stories of the 1960s, Stan has his before and after, his shorthaired version and his longhaired version. Granted that in his case hairpieces are involved, in between the before and the after his life was still remade by the times. He zigged when zigging was the right idea, and as a result the ’60s made him—one small corner of the ’60s, namely the arrival into their early spending years of the biggest generation that had yet been born during what was still a fairly new period, the age of social penetration by the mass media. The young baby boomers tended to stick with their entertainment instead of giving it up; in that way they were like everyone who had come along since radio and movies, only more so (as we have seen, what with boxed sets, Godfather quotes, classic rock, the collectibles market, and the comics industry). Of course, outgrowing comics remained highly possible—for every kid whose mother threw out his collection, there was another who lost interest around 14 “because of girls.” The comics had to adjust a bit if they were going to stay palatable in junior high and high school and college.

            Stan’s real-people idea grabbed the attention of the big world, the adult world, and every decade or so the notion of the “new kind of superhero” gets another go-round in the popular consciousness. But what really counted about the idea, right from the start, was its effect on the people who actually bought comics every month. Without the very basic notions of plausibility and dramatic scope introduced by Marvel, comic book heroes would have stayed the way they had always been: too suffocating for kids to read past age 10. Now, with some gross, basic concessions to reality programmed into their ground rules, superhero stories could move along with the audience as readers got older.

            I do think the idea came from him. Somebody has made this argument, but since I can’t find the source I’ll restate it. On their own, Ditko and Kirby showed only minimal orientation toward the idea that the world is a bit too big for all of us and sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders and at least everyone is in this mess together. Post-Lee, Kirby had the New Gods; Ditko had the implacable Mr. A and his nasty razor-edged ruler of a social philosophy. When Mark Evanier had to explain why Kirby didn’t like Deadman, one of DC’s “offbeat” responses to the Marvel revolution, he said Kirby “didn’t like losers … he chose not to dwell on failure and defeat and death in his work.” I don’t suppose followers of Ayn Rand are too crazy about losers either. But Kirby and Ditko did everyman heroes when they were with Stan Lee. From this I read that Stan was essential to the process and that quite likely it arose from him and not from Kirby or Ditko. (The “realistic heroes” idea is one of the few that comes easily to everyman—superheroes have money problems or unwashed clothing because, after all, that’s the kind of thing everyone has.)

            I’m willing to make a second guess: Kirby and Ditko didn’t mind the idea. Everyman includes the semi-geniuses, so everyman’s appeal can hit them too. Kirby lost interest fairly fast, given the Inhumans, Galactus, the Black Panther, the Silver Surfer, the Black Rider, Orion, and on and on. But he drew the FF bickering, Johnny and Ben hanging out in the breakfast nook. He was a tolerant man and didn’t mind humanity. It’s just that, for him, being human started at the Viking level and then took off into new realms of development. Kirby wasn’t going to hang about and wallow in the everydayness and humbleness of it all. Ditko’s case looks more complicated. Reading the Spider-Man issues he plotted, it’s a surprise to see how in the spirit of it he was—the teen soap opera (Peter and chem lab!), the multipage fights, the many dumb shmos given superstrength by bizarre accidents. He didn’t mind doing an action series/soap opera, and he was all over the average-guy aspect of things. He did a three-page sequence of Spider-Man with a baggy uniform, shins bare to the world. When Ditko left and Romita came in, Stan had to inject that sort of thing by giving Spider-Man a head cold. (“Don’t rush, fellas! I promise not to ignore a single one ob you!”)

            I would guess it was the times, plus the money coming in. They were in a business; when business goes well, you like what you’re doing because why not, you’re a success. At Marvel, Ditko and Kirby covered imagination and heroics; Stan covered pop-culture gimmicks, catch phrases—all the zeitgeist jabber—and he made it his business to keep the everyman angle coming through. At the same time he cared a lot about heroes; if everyman didn’t care about heroes, we wouldn’t have so many. Stan and his two artists had enough common ground to make things work.  The last-straw creative ruptures we hear about are small-bore, connected to subtleties. Lee made the Silver Surfer a person who had been turned into a space being, whereas Kirby saw him as a space being who was learning to be a person. Ditko wanted the Green Goblin’s secret identity to be no one the readers had seen before, because such is life and the culprit is not always the butler. But it’s not as if Ditko were questioning the need for somebody to get dressed up as the Green Goblin and go fight Spider-Man. If Stan didn’t get why a superhero would look as bizarre as the Silver Surfer did, then there would have been a fundamental difference of outlook. Or if Ditko had asked why there should be so many lab experiments in the New York area that produced superbeings, or why anyone should care about the manner in which a teenage boy hands a girl a pen. But the three men all understood the basic recipe they were working with.

            Stan doesn’t come off too well in the clashes mentioned above. He was right to put story above Ditko’s philosophical point, but making the Goblin turn out to be Norman Osborn was not the greatest solution. (“Of course—you’re related to my own classmate!!”) And Kirby was right, the Silver Surfer was plenty just as himself. Making him start out as a woeful bald man from a pseudo-Krypton did nobody any good. Stan has the shlepper’s instinct for a sympathetic protagonist—it’s the bread and butter—but a lot depends on execution; it’s not like hitting the sympathetic-protagonist button will always do the trick. When Kirby had a bunch of scientists invent a creature that looked like a superhero, Stan figured the creature had to be sympathetic and there went Kirby’s critique of objectivism (in which, it has been argued, the superhuman creature would try to kill off its imperfect creators). At stake was just one issue of Fantastic Four, but the issue would have been more interesting if they had done it Kirby’s way. Why not have a critique of objectivism? Or a golden destroyer who didn’t know he was a monster? At any rate, Lee and Kirby had done their share of misunderstood, in-a-world-they-never-made superbeings.

            Looking back on his days dialoguing pages, Stan remembers the “fun,” the kick of doing a crossword puzzle and overriding the clues. “Very often you don’t like what the story is and you say, ‘I’m going to find a way to make it good,’” he said in 2000. “In the later days, I did that with Kirby a lot.” The point is that he sounds cheerful about this. It’s possible he never figured out that the changes bothered Kirby. Here we have the fatal flaw of the Lee-Kirby and Lee-Ditko partnerships. Lee was the boss and considered that messing with others’ work was part of his job. It’s hard not to if quality control and product identity are your lookout. And, of course, as a one-man headquarters who combined his writing knacks with production expertise and a tremendous amount of energy, Stan was able to build Kirby’s and Ditko’s individual triumphs into a stable of product, the sort that can change an industry. To have the same effect on their own, they would have had to invent a phenomenon on the order of Superman. Meanwhile Stan was having fun, but having fun with other people’s work can be dangerous. He should have recognized that the Surfer was Kirby’s, since Kirby had drawn him up based on no suggestions whatsoever. But Stan was entranced by his own creativity and had to shanghai the Surfer idea for the sake of Norrin Radd. He was grabby, and I would bet he saw no reason not to be grabby. He never figured out why Kirby left. “I don’t know much of what Jack is talking about these days,” he says grimly in 1981, when the art and credit disputes were heating up. “I don’t know what his problem is.” The same for Ditko: “it was all on Steve’s part. I mean, I felt the same, but he got angry.” Yeah, go figure.

            Ditko and Kirby looked on themselves as artists, creative forces, and not pieceworkers. Over the next few decades, comics fans and the industry would convert to this same view of funnybook illustrators, to one degree or another and factoring in a great deal of lip-service. Stan held the view himself—he knew Kirby was “the Great One”—but Stan was creator-in-chief, the man in charge of product, and he figured he called the shots. As it turned out, he was wrong about a lot in particular, but he was not wrong in general. The two creators walked out on him, but his machine kept rolling forward.

            If Stan ran up against two artists, Ditko and Kirby ran up against a star. Of all the places to find one, a comic book company in 1961. But Stan had a star’s presence and a star’s bulletproof sense of entitlement. (Stars want to make our lives a party, but they get the cake). Kirby had fought in World War II; he still backed down from Stan and did it automatically. With his friends, Kirby would fume about his work getting changed and say he’d pull the company apart, and then he’d go into Stan’s office, be told what panels he had to redo, and go off and redo them. One imagines Stan smiling as they look at the pages, his hand in between Jack’s shoulder blades and giving them a workout. Stan figures everyone’s having a great time. Decades later, Kirby is giving wilder and wilder interviews about what a puny, insignificant little man Stan Lee was.

            In the end Marvel’s owner, Martin Goodman, stopped liking Stan too, and for Stan that is another mystery. He can explain it only by sheer unreasoning perversity on the part of the man who kept him employed for 30 years. Stars often find ingratitude around them, but they move forward. The Marvel episode is all far in the past, except that it’s the whole reason people pay attention to Stan Lee. But aside from that … “I loved that Spider-Man story where he was lifting up the things in the sewer, whatever the hell that was.” From decade to decade in Stan Lee: Conversations, Stan tells his interviewers the same prize bits of dialogue, but they lose shape over the years. In 1968, Dick Cavett quotes “All-powerful? There is only one who deserves that name. And His only weapon—is love!” (Another great candidate for the walls of a superhuman guidance counselor.) By 2005 Stan relays it to Jeff McLaughlin in this form: “I have one of the characters saying something like ‘the one with the greatest … there’s one man who nobody … nobody is all powerful except one and he … he only used his power for peace.’ Oh shoot, now I don’t remember the exact line. It was a good line, I have to admit.” It’s not that his mind is slowing down; he sounds pretty quick in his latest interviews. But he’s been doing the drill for a long time and he has other things to think about. In the late ’80s, when everyone had known for a while that he was Martin Goodman’s cousin by marriage, he was still telling his old story about getting hired by Timely through a want ad. Stan has been giving interviews for close to half a century. They’re his marathon, and he knows how to save energy.

            In the end, we have a smiling man with three angry ex-colleagues and a pile of money. It could be worse. Stan Lee has said one thing I find heroic, from a 1998 profile in Salon that couldn’t get into Conversations because the article wasn’t an interview proper. “I have always personally felt that all of us, every living being, gets one shot at life,” Stan said. “You know, we’re here once, then we’re gone as far as we know, and why the hell not enjoy it as much as possible? Why not be nice to our fellow man? We’re all in the same boat, we’re all taking a journey to nowhere, and why not make it as pleasant for all of us as we possibly can?” That’s not a grand sentiment, but you can live a life by it and Stan has done so as best he knows how.  In a business full of petty tyrants, he was by way of being a petty champion, a small-scale hero who paid people pretty decently and made them feel better about what they were doing. He played his recorder, showed off by dictating stories to three secretaries, stooped down to tell Trina Robbins’s little girl that pretty soon they’d be introducing a woman superhero, the Cat. (They did, she bombed, and now she’s Tigra and doesn’t wear many clothes.)

            After reading Conversations, I see Stan as spending big swathes of the past few decades—and swathes of decades to come—breezing from Hollywood office to Hollywood office, making the execs smile with his patter, lighting up a few faces with a compliment, then breezing out the door with a deal nowhere in sight. Later that afternoon, he gives an interview to a fan and explains how he was too busy with all his projects to finish that screenplay with Alain Resnais. The next day he bangs out the Spider-Man scripts for the dailies (syndicated in 400 papers), looks over press releases related to new developments in Marvel’s Saturday-morning cartoons, and tells a reporter in an interview that if Shakespeare and Michelangelo got together and did a story with words and pictures, wouldn’t that be just as good as anything they did separately. Disney’s first-look deal aside, this combination of pointless breezing and interviews and pop-culture busywork has the feeling of eternity, and I think it will keep going on until Stan Lee dies.

            Stan Lee does not have a whole lot of talent. But he is a wonderful man and a natural source of buoyancy, light, and optimism. Comic fans love Stan, and the ones who don’t had to learn how to stop; otherwise they couldn’t be conscientious rebels against corporate overlordship and the superhero-continuity complex. I bet the movie execs love him too. The jolly sweetheart who makes people feel good doesn’t realize he’s become harmless office entertainment for the Hollywood executive class, that he breaks up the decision makers’ grim hours of dickering over properties they actually want. Stan, the editor who told his artists to avoid the in-between moments, lives in a perpetual in-between, and the shiny temperament that made him a success keeps him from guessing he’s a failure. But he has our love and he has millions and millions of dollars, and I think he deserves it. He was the instigator.

 

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