Marvelites came out in droves to UCLA's Ackerman Grand Ballroom this past Saturday night to the "Marvel Then and Now Panel," despite the fact that the school's football team faced off against their archrival USC the very same day (For what it's worth, UCLA beat USC 13-9). The ineffable Kevin Smith, who was moderating the proceedings, told the audience, "Only a bunch of comic nerds would have something like this on the night of the biggest fucking football game. Excellent planning right there." The panel, featuring once and current Marvel EiC's Stan Lee and Joe Quesada, was sponsored by The Hero Initiative, a non-profit corporation dedicated to helping comic creators in need. CBR News was on the scene for their talk on Marvel, past and present.
Smith, who in true self-deprecating form asserted that his history of blowing deadlines on books like "Spider-Man/Black Cat" rendered him ineligible for aid from the event's philanthropic sponsor, then introduced the man who created the Marvel icons he'd grown up reading. Stan the Man took the stage to thunderous applause, and sprawled out on one of the stage-bound couches. "You know, years ago, I posed for a picture at Marvel, a pinup," Lee told the crowd. In the pinup, Lee was sprawled on a similar couch, naked but for a Marvel comic covering his modesty.
"Was it a giant-sized annual?" Smith asked the living legend.
Smith then proceeded to introduce the man who gave Smith his first opportunity to play in the world Lee had created. "I'm pretty sure he's never been photographed naked with a comic book in front of his bits, but if he was, it would be an ashcan," Smith joked at the expense of the current head of the House of Ideas. But Quesada gave as well as he got as he took the stage, announcing the winner of the Marvel office pool taking odds on how quickly the potty-mouthed Smith would use the word "fuck."
The assembled comics gurus began their conversation about Marvel by talking about the company's first superhero, and one who actually pre-dates Stan Lee, Captain America. Quesada believes that Cap is a different character in the post 9/11 America than he was during World War II. "Cap in the present day is still very symbolic of more the American ideal than the American way," Quesada said.
Lee did ring in with the only thing about Captain America he felt qualified to talk about, his own contribution to the character. It was Lee who made Steve Rogers a man out of time, bringing him to the present day by trapping him in a block of ice for decades. This he did as a way of giving depth to the formerly one-note character.
This prompted Quesada to go into a discourse that he's had with Lee on many occasions, on the importance of super heroes' alter egos. "Superman is Superman, Clark Kent is a façade," Quesada said of Marvel's chief competitor's flagship character. "[Stan] created characters in which the person, Peter Parker or Steve Rogers, that is the real person and the costume was the façade. Which was exactly what made everybody like these characters," Quesada said.
Smith then prompted Lee to address how the Marvel superhero revolution came about. The edict that resulted in Lee's creation of the "Fantastic Four" came down from up on high from publisher Martin Goodman. Spurred on by the success of DC's "Justice League," Goodman, who Lee characterized more as a follower than a trend-setter, asked Lee to cook up a superhero team book of their own. But Lee, who had been continually frustrated by his publisher's policies, was on the verge of quitting. "[Goodman] didn't have much respect for the readership," Lee said. "He didn't want me to use words with more than two syllables, he didn't want too much dialogue, and, 'Don't waste time worrying about characterization, just give me a lot of action and fight scenes.'"
And if it wasn't for the sage words of Lee's longtime wife, the Marvel revolution may never have occurred. "Well, if you're gonna quit anyway, why don't you do one book the way you would like to do it, get it out of your system, and what's the worst that can happen?," Lee's wife had told him. Lee took his wife's advice and wrote a superhero team book that broke the mold.
"It's the only logical super team," Quesada chimed in. "They're family and they're stuck together, and if they're not stuck together, there's also a price to pay, there's emotions involved."
"After the 'Fantastic Four' came out, [Martin Goodman] was about to really give me hell," Lee said. "There was too much dialogue in it, things like that. But we got the sales figures, and he said, 'Oh, I think we'll make a series out of this.'"
Smith then observed that in Lee's day, the Editor-in-Chief was creating a universe, and today Quesada was managing one. "We care take this universe," Quesada said. "My job as Editor-in-Chief is to make sure these characters remain as true to the new reader that comes in as it was for the people who have been reading for years. And it's a tougher job than it looks - a lot of writers want to come in and kill off spouses, like Karen Paige, stuff like that," Quesada said, a not so subtle jab at Smith's run on "Daredevil." Smith, for his part, jovially insisted that that plot point had been Quesada's idea.
In a moment of magnanimity, Lee praised his latest successor. "I sometimes think managing something properly is as hard or harder than creating it. I'm not sure I could manage it as well as he's doing, if I had stayed in that job all those years," Lee admitted. "And some of the things that Marvel is coming up with now, like 'Civil War,' I think that is so brilliant, so Marvel, because it's being realistic, it's using the characters to reflect what's happening in the world and doing it intelligently."
"Who do you feel is the last iconic character that was created at Marvel? Wolverine?" Smith probed the current Marvel EiC.
"Punisher and Elektra are the last two," Quesada offered. As far as icons in the making go, Quesada threw out Brian K. Vaughn's "Runaways" as a possible contender. "'Runaways' is very pure and very simple and it's something that hearkens back to the kind of idea you go, 'That could be an icon.'"
Quesada then steered the conversation towards how comics has grown as a medium. The current Marvel EiC invoked the name of the much-lamented Comics Code Authority, a self-censoring body that was formed in the mid '50s in response to Dr. Fredric Wertham's inflammatory "Seduction of the Innocent," a book which suggested certain material was not appropriate in what has long been considered a children's medium. "About 15 years ago, books like 'Watchmen' and 'Dark Knight' came out, and showed that comics were more than just a child's medium," Quesada said. Quesada credited the success of comic book movies in recent years with raising awareness of the medium, and driving the point home that comics could tell adult stories. Quesada is also gratified that comics has become a viable medium to work in, because it opened the doors to successful writers from other mediums.
At this point, the panelists transitioned to a conversation about old green skin himself, the incredible Hulk. Lee's first inspiration for the character was Universal's "Frankenstein." "I always thought the monster was the good guy - he didn't really want to hurt anybody, but he was always being chased up and down those mountains by those idiots with torches," Lee said. "But then it would get kind of dull just having page after page of a monster running around, so I remembered 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,' and I said, 'Why not a monster who can turn into a normal human being?'" The green goliath's name was an homage to a character at a rival company called "The Heap."
Lee took a moment to comment on the infamous discontinuity in the Hulk's skin color from the first to the second issue. Lee's initial impulse had been to make the character gray. "But what happened was, the printer had trouble with the color gray, they couldn't be consistent with the color," Lee said. The choice of green as the replacement color turned out to be more or less arbitrary - Lee selected it because it was a color that was not prevalent in superhero costumes at the time.
Quesada brought the discussion into the now, noting how the Hulk had changed over the years, especially in the wake of 9/11. "Part of the Hulk's M.O. is coming to town and he takes the town with him," Quesada said. Marvel Comics is of course based in New York City and after the towers fell it became difficult to write "Hulk Smash" stories. This was the impetus for Bruce Jones' long run on the title, which Quesada characterized as "The Hulk" without the Hulk.
The current storyline, "Planet Hulk," was the brainchild of Quesada, who had a jones to see the Hulk get back to his old tricks. "And I decided to jettison the Hulk into space, let's put him on an alien planet where he can just knock everything down, he could kill aliens, it doesn't matter, he can just go to town," Quesada said. "So we put him on this alien planet and we basically did 'Spartacus' with Hulk."
Fans of "Civil War" know that it was that Tony Stark and Reed Richards who engineered the Hulk's exile. "They saw Civil War coming, and they figured, 'This guy is the biggest blemish on the superhero community, we've gotta get rid of the Hulk,' and they sent him off world," Quesada said. "And of course, the Hulk will come back, and he's gonna kick their asses."
"The Incredible Hulk" was far from the only Marvel comic affected by the 9/11 attack. "I approached Joe Straczynski and I asked, 'Joe, Spider-Man is our everyman. He is the one superhero character who's synonymous with the city, synonymous with the peril of the city. Could you write a story, do you have a story in you that speaks of 9/11?'" Straczynski initially refused, but the seed of an idea had been planted and an inspired Straczynski churned out a Spidey 9/11 script overnight and sent it in the next day.
"And a lot of people read that story literally, they're like, 'Oh, it's the heroes helping the firefighters, even the villains are there,' but the whole thing is a metaphor," Quesada said. "Superheroes, the stories that we tell, they are very much akin to the stories of ancient gods. We tell the stories of extraordinary people who do extraordinary things under extraordinary circumstances and triumph over evil. As long as we stuck to that mission statement, I thought that we'd be okay."
This seemed as good a segue as any into the topic of Marvel's most iconic superhero, Spider-Man. Lee explained that until he created Spider-Man, teenagers in comics had been relegated to the role of sidekick. "Just as an aside, I hate teenaged sidekicks. I always felt, if I were a superhero, not to imply that I'm not, there is no way I would prowl around with some teenager. I mean, at the very least, people would talk," Lee quipped.
Lee conceived of a superhero who could stick to walls, and tried out all manner of insects before the name "Spider-Man" stuck. "I wanted him to have a lot of personal problems," Lee said. "I never read a story where Superman had to worry about paying his bills, or Batman had to go to the dentist."
But when Lee pitched the idea to Martin Goodman, his publisher almost kicked him out of the office. "He said, 'Stan, people hate spiders, you can't call a hero Spider-Man. And you know a teenager can only be a sidekick. And personal problems? Stan, we're talking about a hero, don't you know what heroes are?'" But not one to give up easily, Lee found a home for his Spider-Man story in the pages of a doomed book called "Amazing Fantasy." "When you kill a book, nobody cares what you print in the last issue," Lee said.
Lee first approached Jack Kirby to draw the story, but despite the artists' best efforts, Kirby's rendition of Peter Parker looked more like the typical, broad-shouldered, muscle-bound hero than the nerdy, scrawny teenager that Lee had in his head. Steve Ditko, on the other hand, was perfectly suited to draw the webslinger.
"When the sales figures came back, my publisher called me into his office and said, 'Stan, do you remember that character Spider-Man of yours that we liked so much?' He said, 'Why don't you do a whole series of him?'" Spider-Man's debut in "Amazing Fantasy" #15 had been Marvel's best-selling book that month. "And that's how Spider-Man came to be. And on the seventh day, I rested."
Lee went on to muse that one of the reasons Spider-Man is so internationally popular might be that the hero's head-to-toe body suit means the man under the mask could be of any ethnicity. "Until he takes the mask off," Smith chided.
"He doesn't do that that often in public," Lee retorted, but then caught himself then turned his gaze on Quesada. "Well, maybe now."
"Sounds like you've got something to answer for," Smith told Quesada.
Then the man who authorized the unmasking of Spider-Man within the pages of "Civil War" attempted to explain the character's appeal through a rock 'n' roll analogy. "Superman is Elvis. And although the music was great, it was still very simple rock 'n' roll, 1, 4, 5 progression," Quesada said. "And then Stan comes along and creates characters that are multidimensional and it's like the British Invasion. All of a sudden there are minor chords and diminished chords - there's a complexity to the music that comes in. I think 200 years from now, Spider-Man is gonna be here. Because Spider-Man will always be relevant."
Smith then brought up the groundbreaking 1971 Spidey story arc that had the distinction of being one of the first stories in mainstream comics to deal with the issue of drug addiction. The story came about when the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare approached Lee about doing a story that showcased the evils of addiction. The irrepressible Comics Code, however, said in no uncertain terms that drug themes could not appear in comics that bore their seal. But this was a story Stan Lee was bound and determined to tell. "Go ahead and do it," Goodman had said. "We'll take the seal off."
The well-received story arc got a good deal of press coverage, and resulted in a revision of the Comics Code, adding the caveat that drug related themes could be included as long as the story painted drug use in a negative light. It was also this story arc, coincidentally, which facilitated Joe Quesada's introduction to the world of comics. Quesada's father had read the good press the book was getting, and bought those "Spider-Man" issues for his young son. And the rest was history.
Smith segued from drug addiction to Marvel's favorite lush, Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man. "At the time we did 'Iron Man,' I was really feeling a little cocky," Lee admitted. "Young people throughout the country hated war, they hated the military industrial complex, and rightfully so. So I said, 'I'm gonna come up with a character who represents everything everybody hates and I'm gonna shove it down everybody's throats.'" Thus was born the millionaire playboy and arms dealer, Tony Stark, and the Iron Man armor that kept his bad heart in check. Stark, Lee admitted, was partly inspired by Howard Hughes. "I fashioned him a little after me also, he was irresistible to women," Lee quipped. "And the funny thing is, it had more female readers than any other book of ours."
The next hero on the docket was Black Panther. "I wanted to get a black hero, but I didn't want to follow the stereotypes." Lee broke the mold by making T'Challa a king instead of a pauper, and the primitive, thatched huts of Wakanda merely a façade concealing a modern city. "And he was a scientist whose intelligence could rival Reed Richards' and even my own," the ever-modest icon said.
"And I especially loved the way Jack Kirby drew him," Lee continued. "When Jack would have him, as the Black Panther, fighting and running and jumping, he really made him look like a human panther."
This seemed like an opportune time to introduce the first of the evening's surprise guests, "Black Panther" scribe Reginald Hudlin. Hudlin's first order of business was to personally thank everyone on the panel, Lee for creating the "coolest black hero ever created," and Smith and Quesada for paving the way for Hollywood writers in the comics industry. Hudlin did admit that he felt his entire career had been leading up to him writing "Black Panther." "All of that was just a backwards way to get into the comic book business," Hudlin told the crowd.
The X-men were the next topic of discussion and Lee spoke to their creation. Lee, who felt like he'd run out of scientific accidents to inexplicably endow his characters with superpowers, fell back on the natural phenomenon of genetic mutation. But Lee's publisher was weary of a book called "The Mutants." "Stan, nobody knows what a mutant is, you gotta come up with a better name," he'd told Lee. "Well, I thought, the professor's name is Xavier, and they had extra powers, so I'll call them the X-men," Lee explained.
Lee said the "X-men" started out strong, but took a while to find its stride after he and Jack Kirby migrated to other projects. "I'm not saying it's because I didn't write it, but I think that fans lost interest for a while," Lee said. But when new creative team Len Wein and the dear departed Dave Cockrum came onboard with a new roster of characters, "the book started to fly again."
"The thing with X-men was that they were also an ostracized group," Quesada said. "And it happened during a time in the '60s and the '70s where there were all the civil rights movements. It speaks to us on so many levels."
Here the conversation turned to the current superhero movie boom. "I used to be friends with [Batman creator] Bob Kane, and Bob and I used to have dinner together a lot, and he would talk about the 'Batman' movie," Lee said. "He said, 'Stan, what do you think of 'Batman?' Too bad you can't do anything like that with Spider-Man.' And he would go on week after week. And I was so frustrated when Bob went to his maker a few years ago just before the 'Spider-Man' movies came out. Sometimes, when I'm home alone, I have little conversations with him."
Smith chimed in: "You just know, wherever Bob Kane is right now, he's like, 'I don't know which is the greater indignity, the fact that 'Spider-Man' out-grossed 'Batman,' or the fact that Stan's still alive and I'm not."
The last Marvel icon up for discussion was the one that tied all three panelists together: Daredevil. Lee cited a short-lived TV series about a blind detective as part of his inspiration for the man without fear. "And I had read and heard so often that when people are blind, their other senses seemed to be magnified, become a little more acute," Lee said. "The best part about it was, you get your balance through your ears. So in theory, he could walk a tightrope and do all these things any great gymnast could do. And that allowed him to operate like a real superhero, he had a lot of physicality and nobody would know he was blind."
Quesada admitted that were it not for "Daredevil," he'd never have become Editor-in-Chief of Marvel. First approached by Marvel in 1998 when his company Event Comics was contracted to work on several Marvel Knights titles, the canny comics creator was nothing if not practiced in the fine art of negotiation. Daredevil was the one book Quesada wanted. He knew if he asked for the world - the entire line of Marvel Comics - they'd probably say no, but if he followed that up with a request for the Man Without Fear, they'd likely say yes. All went precisely according to plan, and the groundwork was laid for the reign of Quesada.
Smith's road to "Daredevil" was fraught with indecision. After agreeing to do the book, Smith called Quesada at the eleventh hour asking to bow out. "I was just like, 'I don't know, man, it's tough following Frank Miller. I don't want to fail so colossally in front of so many people,'" Smith had told the future Editor-in-Chief. Quesada caved, but the good-cop, bad-cop team of Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti weren't through with the waffling screen scribe. "Then I get the phone call from Jimmy Palmiotti who was like, 'You fucking turd. How could you leave us hanging like this, you're a total fucking pussy and you really hurt fucking Joe,'" Smith recounted. More upset about leaving Quesada in the lurch than the slur of insults that had been hurled his way, Smith was struck with divine inspiration and signed back up.
Quesada and Lee took the opportunity to plug Lee's latest comics work, the "Stan Lee Meets" series, five books that sees Spider-Man, the Thing, Dr. Doom, Dr. Strange and the Silver Surfer meet their maker. "I've written a lot of stuff. I have never enjoyed writing anything as much as 'Stan Lee Meets,'" Lee admitted.
"You should do 'Stan Lee meets Stan Lee,'" Smith joked.
Lee didn't seem to understand that Smith was joking. "Wouldn't that be something!"
The event rounded out with the second and final special guest of the evening, "X-men" producer Tom DeSanto, auctioning off an "X-men" movie poster signed by most of the cast, with the proceeds to go to the Hero Initiative. Lee added his own John Hancock to the array, and Dynamic Forces President Nick Barucci won out with a high bid of $1200. Barucci proceeded to take the stage and present the hard-won poster to Stan Lee. "Wait a minute, I have an idea," Lee exclaimed. "Let's auction it again!"