Stan Lee: Quitter?

I could go through Greg’s email point-by-point and argue with him, but I think you can clearly see we disagree on this topic and I don’t see us accomplishing anything by going back and forth on this endlessly. Greg did phrase a couple of his answers as questions, so I figured I should answer them.

I told Greg that I did not believe Stan Lee was literally going to quit working for Martin Goodman in 1961 — that was just more of Lee’s legendary hyperbole. I asked Greg how exactly was Lee going to pay his bills if he was unemployed. Greg replied,”savings?”

Here’s my response to that. How does Greg know how much money Stan Lee had in his savings account back in 1961? Does Greg have his bank records? Did Lee tell Greg in an interview that he was going to live off of his savings after he quit working for Goodman in 1961?

I asked Greg, why didn’t Lee just spend a few hours each evening working on his novel? That’s what many novelists do to this day; it’s very hard to make a full-time living as a novelist — surely after working in publishing for 20 years Lee knew that. Greg’s reply was: “You kick out fifteen comics a week, deal with hundreds of creators, take orders from Goodman, and ride the train for an hour two ways five days four times a month in a profession that will suck the life out of you.”

Was Lee really dealing with “hundreds” of creators in 1961? Were these comics creators so awful that Stan felt he had to walk off his job? Lee was in charge of hiring and firing — why not just hire people who he got along with? Stan Lee wasn’t working in a coal mine — he sat in his air conditioned office and dialogued cartoons. And Stan was going to quit because he had to ride the bus? Why not use his “savings” to buy a car?

I mentioned to Greg that Lee told the exact same story about wanting to quit when he discussed creating Fantastic Four and Spider-man. I mentioned that I thought Lee made up the story to add some drama to his mythology. Here are two interviews where Stan Lee tells the same story about creating two different intellectual properties: FF and Spider-man.

This is from an interview with Roy Thomas where Lee discusses the creation of Fantastic Four:

Roy: Was there any thought at that time to just bringing back Cap, Torch, and Sub-Mariner?

Stan: No, I really wanted to do something new. You probably heard this story: I wanted to quit at that time. I was really so bored and really too old to be doing these stupid comic books; I wanted to quit. I was also frustrated because I wanted to do comic books that were—even though this seems like a contradiction in terms—I wanted to do a more realistic fantasy. Martin wouldn’t let me and had wanted the stories done the way they had always been done, with very young children in mind. That was it.

My wife Joan said to me, “You know, Stan, if they asked you to do a new book about anew group of super-heroes, why don’t you do ’em the way that you feel you’d like to do a book? If you want to quit anyway, the worst that could happen is that he’ll fire you, and so what? You want to quit.” I figured, hey, maybe she’s right. That’s why I didn’t want to do the Torch and the Sub-Mariner; I wanted to create a new group and do them the way I had always wanted to do a comic book. That’s what happened.

Roy: I assume that Joan said this after you were given the assignment to do the super-hero group and not while you were doing the monster books.

Stan: It was after I told her that Martin wanted to do a super-hero group but I thought that I would say to him, “Forget it. I want to quit.”

Roy: So you were actually thinking of quitting instead of doing the Fantastic Four? I hadn’t heard that before! That would have changed comic book history.

Stan: Maybe. If Martin hadn’t come in to me and said, “Liebowitz said the Justice League is selling well, so why don’t we do a comic book about super-heroes?”—if he hadn’t said that to me, I might’ve—in the next day or two, I might’ve just quit.

Here’s the story Stan Lee told in his “How I Invented Spider-man” (1977) article where he discusses the creation of Spider-man:

Stan: “Personally, I was bored. I had 20 years of writing and editing comics behind me. Twenty years of ‘take that, your 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 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 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. ‘Nevermore will I fashion 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 certainly no what turns me on.”

Lee goes on in the article to describe how he invented Spider-man alone.

(Note: First of all, how about Lee referring to the hundreds of young people who had read his comics for 20 years as “drooling juveniles and semicretins?” Talk about a rare glimpse into what Lee really thinks about the people who buy his comic books.)

Here’s what I think: I think Lee made up this story about quitting to add some drama to his solo-genius/creator mythos. If Lee was “bored” why not go out and hire a writer to dialogue the comics? If Lee had enough money in his savings account to quit his job, surely he could have taken a pay cut and brought in someone who was passionate about doing comics for young people.

In reality, I think Lee realized in 1977 when he wrote his “How I Invented Spider-man” article that when you looked at his whole career in comics from 1940 – 1970, it’s as if an atomic bomb went off in 1961. The material Lee put out from 1940 – 1960 was forgettable and Lee knew it was his fault. Then when Jack comes onboard, BOOM!

There is an explosion of ideas. Specifically it’s Jack’s visual dynamics that resonate with readers. When kids picked up a Kirby book off the spinner rack in 1959 they noticed something was different, something was new and exciting — something special was happening starting with Jack’s monster stories, and the momentum kept building into Jack’s superhero work. It wasn’t the Lee plots that kids started noticing, it was Jack’s style — his graphics, his imagery.

I think what Lee is doing here is trying to take credit for that seismic shift that took place in comics in the early-1960s where you saw DC readers starting to pick up Jack’s Marvel books. Lee tells his “I was going to quit” story to explain why his work from 1940 – 1960s was so awful and so forgettable; Lee uses being trapped in the children’s genre as his excuse for publishing what he knows is substandard work, then Lee pretends the spike in Marvel comics sales in the early 1960s is the result of his master plan — his wife inspired him to consciously start doing stories for adults and that is the reason the books took off. In reality, I think it was Kirby’s dynamics that revolutionized the Marvel line. I think Jack was the catalyst for the Marvel revolution, not Lee’s wife telling him to write for adults.