Danny Fingeroth Explores "The Stan Lee Universe"

Today, Danny Fingeroth is best known as the author of "Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society" and "Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero." Currently the Senior Vice President of Education at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA), Fingeroth was for years both a writer and editor at Marvel Comics, with the publisher recently releasing "Spider-Man: Deadly Foes of Spider-Man," a collection of two miniseries he wrote in the early '90s.

Fingeroth's latest project, which he co-edited with another legendary Marvel writer, Roy Thomas, is "The Stan Lee Universe." A look at one of comic's most important and influential figures, the book delves deep into Lee's archives, which are stored at the University of Wyoming, and presents old conversations and documents, unfilmed movie scripts, comics proposals and notes in addition to new interviews and supplemental material tracing Lee's long career. The book, which is out now, is available in hardcover, paperback and digital formats from TwoMorrows Publishing. We spoke with Fingeroth about his career, the Stan Lee book and more.

CBR News: To begin, I was wondering if you could talk a little about how you got started working in comics?

Danny Fingeroth: I worked at Marvel for eighteen years. My first job was as assistant editor and production manager in Marvel's British Department, which adapted the American comics into smaller chapters for the British kids' comics market that, at the time was dominated by weekly black and white comics with multiple features. After that, I became reprint editor of the main Marvel line, then went on to become Louise Simonson's assistant on the X-Men titles. I then became the editor and eventually Group Editor of the Spider-Man comics line. I wrote a lot of comics, too, including "Deadly Foes of Spider-Man," the "Deathtrap: The Vault" graphic novel and the entire run of "Darkhawk."

When did you first meet Stan Lee?

When I came to Marvel, Stan was still living on the East Coast and coming into the office regularly. My boss in the British department was his brother, Larry Lieber (they still do the Spider-Man syndicated strip together), and Stan liked to see the covers to the British Marvels. I imagine I must have met him sometime when he was looking over the covers, but I couldn't say specifically when. He was just around, and you'd see him all the time, racing off to one thing or another, which was pretty exciting.

One of my favorite Stan stories is the time when my then-girlfriend and I were in Los Angeles while I was supervising the shooting of some Spider-Man holodiscs. We were visiting Stan and his wife Joan at their home. It was during a rainy January, and there were dangerous mudslides that were blocking the roads. We couldn't get back to our hotel. Stan got on the phone and found a hotel for us, and then he and Joan got in their car and led us down twisty, dark, flooded roads to make sure we were able to find the main highway. I certainly never imagined anything like that ever happening when I was reading "Fantastic Four" as a kid!

In what ways, if any, did Stan influence you as a writer?

Stan is the major influence on pretty much every superhero writer of modern times. He and his creative collaborators, especially Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, blazed new trails in what such genre stories could be. I think I learned from those stories that you could write superhero stories that could work for a variety of audiences -- kids, college students, adults -- with each group getting something worth their time and attention. The stories were inclusive -- they had something for everybody.

What was it that made you decide to assemble a book about Stan Lee?

Stan's life and career -- he was born in 1922 and started at Marvel in 1940 -- encompasses much of what was going on in the popular culture of the all those years. He both embodies it and was a prime mover in much of it. I find that alone fascinating. "The Stan Lee Universe" started as separate issues of Roy Thomas's "Alter Ego" magazine and my own "Write Now!" magazine, both published by TwoMorrows. When Stan turned 85 a few years ago, we each did tribute issues. At first, we were just going to combine those two into a book. But then we got the idea to explore in depth Stan's archives in the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, where I spent a week doing research. We also gained access to other sources of Lee-rarities, and before we knew it, we had enough cool stuff to make something that was far more than the original concept. It became a newly-designed book full of incredible interviews with and about Stan, memorabilia from the seventy-plus year span of his career, correspondence between Stan and prominent people in the arts and politics, all sorts of offbeat stuff that's rarely -- or never -- been seen before by the general public.

What's the most interesting thing you learned about Stan while you were assembling this book?

It was fascinating to see how, over time, Stan took Marvel -- and comics in general -- from a niche to being the global media phenomenon it is today. Apart from the amazing stories he and his partners created, he somehow knew exactly the right way to get the word out about what they were doing. From the beginning of the Marvel Age, Stan was the comics medium's most passionate cheerleader. In the days before the advent of the modern graphic novel, Stan was not only making great comics, but also making sure the world knew not just about Marvel, but about the comics medium and its unlimited potential. He was doing that before it was fashionable, and he continues to do it to this day. The evolution of that advocate's role he took on is tracked in "The Stan Lee Universe" if you read it with that in mind.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the transcript of the debate with Hilde Mosse, a psychiatrist who worked with Fredric Wertham. How did you come across that and what do you think it shows about Stan?

In Stan's Wyoming archives, there are audio and video tapes of radio and TV appearances he did over the years. The 1968 debate you refer to was on a tape of the Barry Farber radio show in New York. Mosse wasn't as well known as Wertham, but she, like him, had issues with what they saw as the negative effects of popular culture on people, especially children, and was as avid an opponent of comics as Wertham was. You can't doubt her sincerity, and her track record in general, as a therapist and educator, is admirable. But clearly, she and Stan would never see eye to eye. What he saw as harmless children's entertainment, Mosse and Wertham saw as threats to civilized society. I think the debate between them -- which we had transcribed from the audiotape, and which you can read in the book -- shows that Stan can hold his own with pretty much anybody in any context.

I was particularly struck by the fact that Stan wrote a film for Alain Resnais, the great French filmmaker who loves comics and made a film with Jules Feiffer. How do you think the film script fits in with Stan's body of work?

He actually worked on two scripts with Resnais. The one we excerpt in "The Stan Lee Universe" is called "The Monster Maker." It's about a producer who makes schlocky horror movies and decides he wants to do something more meaningful with his life and career. In some ways, its analogous to Stan's own transformation from someone (as he saw it) churning out horror and monster and crime stories in the 1940s and '50s, on the verge of leaving comics altogether, taking a chance on doing comics with more depth and meaning, which, of course, turned out to be titles such as the "Fantastic Four," "Spider-Man" and the other iconic Marvel characters.

One aspect of Lee's work in the sixties which I'm curious about is the underlying theme of nuclear fears. People are constantly being transformed and mutated by radiation, the world's constantly about to end -- was this a conscious choice on his part?

I don't know if you've noticed, but there are still enough nuclear weapons and reactors in the world to destroy it many times over. So that anxiety is still with us, even if it's not making daily headlines. For kids reading comics -- heck, for everybody -- in the 1960s, that fear was very much front and center, especially after the Cuban missile crisis. So I'd think Stan was tapping into that generalized concern. But in interviews, he generally says that radiation was just a convenient way for characters to obtain superhuman powers. On that practical level, it makes sense, especially because it did tie into the nuclear fears of the times.

Lee has often said that he used a pen name so that when he wrote his great American novel, he would use his real name. Does he feel like he ever wrote that great project, that there's one work he's most proud of out of everything he's done?

That's something you'll have to read "The Stan Lee Universe" to find clues to. Or a lot of Stan interviews in general, as well as his autobiography, "Excelsior: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee." I can tell you that he often speaks with pride of the "Spider-Man" anti-drug stories he did at the request of the office of the President where, in order to get the message across, he and publisher Martin Goodman decided to print the issues without the Comics Code seal, which was taking a big risk, and ultimately resulted in some of the code's more absurd restrictions being relaxed.

"The Stan Lee Universe," edited by Fingeroth and Roy Thomas, is available now.

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