The voice was a little hoarse after greeting hundreds of readers, but still unmistakable. Last Saturday afternoon, shortly after 1:00 pm, Stan Lee walked onstage before the vast expanse of a Fan Expo Canada conference room and deadpanned, “Nobody told me what the hell I’m supposed to do or say.”
Lee – who, of course, had a hand in creating most of Marvel Comics’ classic 1960s superheroes, not to mention scripting most of their adventures simultaneously – was rescued when the Canadian TV producer/writer Mark Askwith appeared to shepherd along the spotlight panel.
Askwith asked Lee how he came to develop the famous, or notorious, Marvel Method of production. The publisher’s former impresario explained, “I was writing just about everything and I couldn’t keep up with it. And the artists were freelancers, that means they weren’t getting salaries. So if they didn’t draw anything, they weren’t getting paid. I couldn’t let a guy like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko or John Buscema sit around with nothing to do. But if I was writing a script for Kirby, I couldn’t be writing Ditko’s script at the same time. These guys were good at making up their own stories if they had something to start with, so I would say to Ditko, ‘Look, I haven’t got time to write your script, but here’s what I think the story would be. We’ll get a villain called the Green Goblin and he’ll do this and that and you come up with some funny scenes, I don’t care.’ He would go ahead and just draw whatever he wanted, based on what I told him, and I would finish Kirby’s story. I would just give them the germ of an idea, they would draw it, I’d put in the dialogue later, and that way I was able to write all these books pretty much by myself.”
Precisely who did what in creating which characters, and the issue of creators’ rights at a Marvel Comics that rapidly expanded under Lee, have been fraught, acrimonious controversies for several decades now. Lee alluded to this with roguish self-deflation when he added, “They did the work, I took the credit. It’s not the right way to collaborate. It should be the Stan Lee Method.”
After that, Lee mostly stuck to pithy anecdotes and generous helpings of his trademark schtick, which blends a huckster’s irresistible patter with mock-crotchety deprecation. Askwith prompted him to tell a story about the 1965 New York City blackout, when Lee was the only Marvel writer to get his scripts in on time. Lee asked his bewildered colleagues at the time, “Haven’t you ever heard of candles?” There was even more laughter when the moderator inquired about Lee’s habit of appearing in his own works. Lee grasped the podium, leaned in, and grinned, “I’ve always loved cameos.” He went on to describe his bit part in the upcoming “Thor” movie (as a truck driver). “You will see me in ‘Thor,’ but you will see a new, a different Stan Lee.”
The moderator then solicited questions from the audience. A few were boilerplate (how do I break in to comics, which three superpowers would you choose, the mumbles of an adorably nervous little boy), but others resulted in more involved and revealing answers. Asked for his fondest childhood memory, Lee recounted the story of how his parents (who lived in a one-bedroom Bronx apartment facing a brick wall) found the money to buy their 12-year-old son his first bicycle. “Suddenly, I was free to go anywhere I wanted. It’s like ‘Citizen Kane’ with Rosebud,” Lee said. He also reminisced about Joe Maneely, an artist who drew comics for Marvel’s 1950s precursor Atlas before dying in a tragic accident beneath a moving train car.
On a less somber note, Lee described the conception of Iron Man as a act of preposterous literary salesmanship. “What I had in mind, what I wanted to do, was to get somebody who was like Howard Hughes. And I thought it would be fun, because at that time – I don’t know, there was the Vietnam War, the Korean War, one of the wars was going on, and most young readers were violently opposed to war, to the military establishment, to munitions, anything that had to do with violence like that. I thought it would be fun to get a guy who made his money by selling munitions and still get the readers to like him.”
Lee added, enigmatically, “I’ll tell you a funny thing about Iron Man. Of all the fanmail we got for all our characters, we got more fan mail from [women] for Iron Man than any other character.” One assumes he wasn’t including Marvel’s old romance comics, often scripted by Lee and drawn by titans like Jack Kirby yet pored over far less now than any of their superhero collaborations. Lee, at least, sounds as though he might regret that. Near the end of the panel, he said, “I loved writing ‘Millie the Model.’ I could write ten ‘Millies’ to one ‘Fantastic Four.'”