This is my second post in my week-long look back at legendary Marvel Comics writer/editor/publisher Stan Lee, and the influence he's had on my own work. For my first post of STAN LEE WEEK, click here.
On one of my bookshelves, I have a collection of books featuring biographies and collections of work by Stan Lee. (Next to a collection of Steve Ditko comics and compilations. More on him later!). Two of those books have had an everlasting impact on me, both as a young fan and more importantly I feel, on the way I would eventually create my own comics.
Back in the middle 1970s, I was already buying my own Marvel Comics at my local 7-11, as well as on trips to the markets with mom. I also started shopping at a local bookstore called BOOKLAND, located on Greenleaf Ave in the heart of Uptown Whittier. What I loved about Bookland was not just that they carried a complete selection of all the newest comics, but behind the front counter (I always assumed it was for the most prestigious books!) they carried the recently-published paperback books from Simon & Schuster written by Stan Lee. And the one my eager eyeballs zeroed in on was ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS!
ORIGINS, which I had read about in Lee's STAN'S SOAPBOX (more on that later) as well as seen numerous times in various ads throughout the comics I bought, was a collection of the first issues and origin tales of the initial wave of Marvel Superheroes. THE FANTASTIC FOUR, THE HULK, SPIDER-MAN, THOR and DR. STRANGE. Not only were there first appearances reprinted, but Stan had written introductions to each title, presenting the reader with the 'behind-the-scenes' secrets on how the characters were created.
What struck me about his collaborations with artists Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four, Hulk and Thor) and Steve Ditko (Spider-man & Dr. Strange) was the "Marvel Method" Stan employed. After coming up with the initial idea for the book, he'd call in one of the artists and either discuss the plot or give them a few lines of what the story was about. The artist would then proceed to basically create the whole story in the form of the artwork, designing all the characters, their visual personalities, the pacing of the stories and environments they lived in. Staring at pages of wordless artwork, Stan would then have to create the dialogue from scratch, using the artwork as the map of the story. It's been shown that Kirby would include his own dialogue and narration, which Stan, as the credited writer and editor, chose to either follow or change to his own liking.
(Over the years, this method of collaboration has led to some differences of opinion between Stan and Kirby & Ditko. I'll be addressing those concerns later as well.)
As a young 'Marvelite' however, the ORIGINS book really opened my eyes to the very idea of creating characters. Forming a character based on a variety of influences and interests, and shaping those into an interesting character with unique traits and personalities. While it was the actual comics themselves that entertained me with their fascinating and far-out characters and artwork, Stan's explanations for the origins of the characters really planted the seeds in my mind about using my imagination to conjure up my own comic book characters.
A few year ago, in 2007, I was invited by my good friend Michael Aushenker to the annual CAPS (Cartoon Art Professional Society) banquet, where they honor a guest from the comics/cartooning field. Stan was the guest for the year, and Michael knew I'd want to be there. I had met Stan several times over the years at various signings, but to meet him now that I was publishing my own comics, and at an industry banquet, was too good an opportunity to pass up.
I had asked Michael if it would be okay if I brought along a book for Stan to sign. Michael was very honest and told me that I could, but suggested we play it by ear if we brought in our books to the building, as this was an industry banquet with a lot of professional cartoonists and bothering the guest of honor for an autograph might be inappropriate.
Well, I brought along my well-worn copy of ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS, hoping I would have a chance to get it signed. When we got to the lobby of the facility, I noticed a cluster of 'professional cartoonists' huddled around the guest of honor, taking photographs with him and getting his autograph! I figured 'to heck with etiquette' and pulled out my book to get signed as well!
Eventually they had Stan sit down, so everyone formed a long line behind the table as Stan freely chatted with every autograph-seeking pro. Standing in line in front of me was veteran, award-winning cartoonist Stan Sakai (USAGI YOJIMBO) and his daughter, getting some Spider-Man action figures autographed.
Stan Sakai and daughter getting a signature, and behind them I prepare to get my lucky Sharpie ready for Stan's magic. To my right is bon vivant/cartoonist Michael Aushenker, and to his right is our pal and fellow DIY comic creator, Rafael Navarro.
When it was my turn to sit and visit with Stan, I told him "Stan, I've been carrying around this copy of ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS for over 30 years. I think I deserve an autograph!". He didn't miss a beat, saying "Oh yeah, sure. Let's have it!"
Score!! Three cartooning True Believers victorious once more!
ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS showed me how heroes were created, and also how heroes of mine created those characters. Some of that insight inspired me later on when I wanted to come up with my own characters. Whatever I paid for that book in the late 70s was money well spent! Next time I'll talk about another book written by Stan that also opened my eyes to the world of creating comics, HOW TO DRAW COMICS THE MARVEL WAY.