Tuesday, March 31, 2015

THE STAN LEE PROJECT

I receive about a dozen interview requests every month from people who have probably been turned down by everyone else on their “want to interview someone in comics” list. Depending on my schedule when asked, I try to accommodate these folks.

In December, I received a request from Aurelio Cortez, who teaches 8th grade gifted students at Vista Heights Middle School in Moreno Valley, CA. Two of his students - Alyssa and Emily - were doing a National History Day project on Stan Lee and wanted to interview me regarding Lee's leadership and legacy. Cortez described the young ladies as “4.0, high-achieving students who are excited about life and their studies.  They are going to do a tremendous job on their project and I am excited for them.”

It would have taken a grumpier old man than me to turn down their request. Here are the questions they asked me and my responses to those questions...

1: We read you wrote Ghost Rider for a two year period and were wondering what comic book you most enjoyed writing.

ANSWER: My second Black Lightning series, published in the early 1990s. It was some of the best writing I’ve ever done. Artist Eddy Newell nailed the visual look I wanted for the series and, for the most part, the editors let me do my stories without interference or second-guessing. I was able to write the emotional, exciting and relatively realistic story of a hero in a struggling neighborhood of a major Midwestern city and show him bringing hope to the people who lived in that community. It was a very satisfying eight-issue run and it allowed me to write about situations that were important to me.

2: How do you think Stan Lee demonstrated leadership in the early years of Marvel?

ANSWER: Stan set the tone for the Marvel super-heroes in the 1960s and beyond. The stories took place in a fictional universe that was close to our real world. He made the heroes and the villains more human. His writing was much sharper and more witty than that of any other writer in comics; all of us writers who came after Fantastic Four #1 learned from Stan. He collaborated with artists in such a way as to make their work more visually exciting and investing them more fully in the stories. He started running credits for writers, artists and letterers in the comic books, adding colorists credits as soon as that became possible. He got readers excited about the comic books again and that resulted in great publicity for comics in general. He invited the Marvel readers into the world of Marvel Comics and even the Marvel movies reflect that sense of inclusion.  At the age of 92, Stan is still the grand master of comics, working harder than comics people half his age. 

3: What got you interested in writing comic books?

I learned how to read from comic books at the age of four. I was an avid reader for the next several years, but my interest in writing comic books didn’t happen until 1963. On a boring vacation trip, I bought Fantastic Four Annual #1 and, besides being the best comic book I’d ever read, it made me realize that writing comic books was an actual job and it was an actual job I wanted. From that moment, I started studying comic books more closely and, within a year or two, I was trying to write my own comic-book scripts. My fall-back plan was to become a crusading newspaper reporter, but, happily, I did get to write comic books professionally and work in the comic industry instead. I’ve been in the business for just over 42 years. 

4: Have you ever worked with Stan Lee on a project. If so, what was it?

When I came to work in the Marvel Comics offices in New York City in late 1972, I worked with Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and Sol Brodsky. I had been hired to put together The Mighty World of Marvel, which was a weekly magazine which reprinted our early super-hero comics. The magazine was put together in New York, but published and sold in Great Britain. Roy got me started, Sol handled the production of the magazine and Stan would approve the covers I would design with various artists and the copy I wrote for those covers. Before too long, we had added Spider-Man Comics Weekly and Avengers Weekly to our British line. So I was editing three magazines each and every week for a while.

I also worked with Stan on Monsters Unlimited. This was an American magazine which mostly featured photos from monster movies to which Stan would add humorous dialogue balloons. After an issue or so, we added text articles about monster movies. I would buy and edit the articles and help Stan do the layout for the magazine. This was a lot of fun.

I did other things with Stan during my time at Marvel. I learned a lot about writing comics stories from him and Roy. I also learned about the production end of things from Sol. I could not have asked for three better teachers.

5: Do you think Stan Lee made comic books popular during the time you were enjoying comics?

Stan made a real connection with the Marvel readers. We were drawn to the great characters, stories and art, but Stan took it a step further and made us feel like we were part of a select community of comics fans. I loved comic books from before I learned to read from them, but Stan and Marvel cemented that love. I continue to read and enjoy all sorts of comics from all over the world.

6: We  understand you worked at both Marvel and DC comics, what are your experiences with the people while working at those companies?

Marvel was more fun and supportive. Almost every Marvel staffer was friendly and always willing to share their knowledge of the comics business with the new guy. DC was the opposite. Most of the people there were rigid in their thinking and suspicious of anything and anyone that wasn’t exactly what they were used to. Though I wrote comics for DC on a freelance basis for several years, I found the company to be less than honest and honorable in its dealings with creators. By contrast, Marvel has always kept its agreements with me and then some.

7: Did Stan Lee influence you or your work?

Stan is probably one of my biggest influences. I studied the comic books he wrote and learned a lot from him even before I worked with him. I have also been influenced by Stan’s showmanship and the fun he brings to everything he does. As much as possible, I learned to incorporate that into my own public appearances.

8: When you worked at Marvel Comics, did you look up to anyone?

When I started, I looked up to just about everyone. I was a young man of 20 and this was my dream job. I was naive, which allowed a few people to take advantage of me. Still, overall, it was a great learning experience and, to this day, I am grateful to people like Stan, Roy, Sol, Steve Gerber, Don McGregor, Marv Wolfman, George Roussos, Mike Esposito, John Romita, John Verpoorten, Danny Crespi, Larry Lieber and so many others. I worked with some of the best and nicest people in comics.

9: What are your feelings toward Stan Lee?

He has been one of the most important people in my life. His comics writing inspired me. Working with him was terrific. We still keep in touch today and I visited him in his Los Angeles office around this time (January) last year. I’m honored to call Stan my friend and my mentor.

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Alyssa and Emily won second place in their district’s History Day contest. They and their teacher should be proud.

I’ll be back tomorrow with a new installment of our ongoing Rawhide Kid Wednesday series since last September. If you start reading now and stay up all night, you can probably read all 61 of the previous installments. Excelsior!

© 2015 Tony Isabella

2 comments:

  1. Nice to hear some positive, friendly feelings expressed towards Stan. There's so much said about the man, both wildly pro and con, I tend to put the most trust in folks who were actually there in the room at the time (such as you, Tony), working for Marvel in its Silver Age. Thanks for sharing this.

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