Interview conducted by Alan David Doane
Along with Tom Spurgeon, writer Jordan Raphael has written an in-depth, journalistic look at the life and career of Stan Lee. In this chat, Raphael tells me a little about how the book came together and about his thoughts on one of the key figures in 20th Century superhero comic book industry.
How did you and Tom come to team up on this book? A real-life Marvel Team-Up, now that I think about it.
Jordan Raphael: I guess so, assuming that we were anybody of consequence. But here's the story, anyway: I was Tom's intern at The Comics Journal back in the mid-1990s. I was still an undergrad and he was the magazine's editor. We remained friends after that, and on one of his many visits to Los Angeles, we realized that there was a huge gap in comics journalism and scholarship, namely, a solid, well-written account of the career of Stan Lee. It seemed like a huge omission to us, because of Stan's importance in the development of comics and the popularity of Marvel's characters.
In reading the book, I really got a good sense of how Stan really had a big role as comics transformed during the '50s and '60s. He really now seems to represent the comic book industry to the American public and probably even beyond that. What's your sense of what that means to him, if anything?
JR: If anything, I think that feeds his sense of self-worth. The available evidence that we found suggested that for most of his life, he was striving to make a name for himself, whether in acting, magazines, comics, or whatever. When Marvel Comics hit big in the 1960s, he was quick to seize upon that success and to make it his own, by identifying himself with Marvel and becoming, in essence, Mr. Marvel to the world at large. From what I can tell, he seems to take great pride in that. At the same time, there seems to be a part of him that regrets he didn't make a bigger name for himself outside of comics -- in movies and TV, for example. And I think what we're seeing now -- with Stripperella and his other endeavors -- is a late-life attempt to quell those feelings of regret.
Yeah, from his longtime ambitions to write the Great American Novel to his other, usually abortive projects, it seems like he really wants to be recognized for something besides funnybooks. Why is that? Why is that not enough of a legacy, in your opinion?
This is strictly my opinion, but I think it stems from the fact that Stan came of age both personally and professionally in a time when comics were looked down upon as junk literature. A lot of people who worked in comic books back then wanted to work anywhere but. Many of them were marking time in the field until something better came along, perhaps in advertising or magazines. Stan's comic-book company was a little-seen division in Martin Goodman's pulp magazine publishing empire, an invisible cog in a disreputable machine, and it was financially unstable to boot, nearly shutting down twice. So even when the money was good it couldn't have seemed like a respectable place to work. I think that feeling of insecurity - that inferiority complex, if you will -- persisted with Stan long after he became famous as the "King of Comic Books."
I know you interviewed Stan and spent some time with him in preparing the book. Did you get a sense, then, of what he thinks of today's much more diverse comics industry? I'm wondering, I guess, what he makes of guys like Crumb or Pekar or Dan Clowes, who have managed a degree of celebrity and acclaim and seem happy to be considered artists without any obvious larger ambitions.
I didn't really get a sense of that, because he doesn't seem to read comics anymore. Even if he did, I'm not sure he would be reading alternative guys like Pekar or Clowes. He probably would recognize Crumb's name from the old days, but as for the majority of the alternative scene, it's probably not on his radar.
What was the experience like of interviewing Stan and the other people you talked to? Were people generally cooperative?
The people we interviewed were generally cooperative. The uncooperative ones didn't call us back. Nearly everyone we spoke to really loves Stan, even those who may have had problems with him in the past. He's a very likeable guy. Personally, I enjoyed interviewing him. With details he could remember, he was fairly forthcoming. At the same time, there were some areas of interest to comics historians -- about 1950s Atlas, for example -- that he didn't remember all that well. He's famous for having a bad memory, right? And his response to questions from the olden days was along the lines of, "I wish I remembered, but we never knew back then that people would ever be interested in this stuff."
Yeah, I have know some Marvel veterans, and one in particular who I am thinking who has unquestionably been screwed by Marvel mutliple times, but he loves Stan. Sees his flaws and his humanity, but has great memories of those years. On the issue of Stan's bad memory, you document an occasion or two where it's pretty clear that he's wrong. Do you think that it's deliberate, ever, or does he just not remember how things really went down in some cases?
I'm not sure. It's possible that he embellished some details back in the early 1960s, when he began his media career, and that over the years those details have acquired the luster of truth in his mind. He doesn't seem to be a deliberate liar. It may be simply one of those things he's had to do over the years in order to create an orderly timeline of his life when representing himself in newspaper and magazine interviews. What do you think?
I think that over time, yeah, real memories can be replaced by a bit of wishful thinking. And given that he seems willing to give the credit due to his collaborators, it's mostly harmless, I guess.
Well, the problem with a lot of reporting on comics history is that so many of the principal actors are deceased, and the few who are still around either have bad memories or huge agendas to foreground their own contributions to the medium's development. There aren't many paper trails for journalists to dig up. It's a shame that no one was performing serious journalism about the field 20-30 years ago, because then we'd have a lot more to go on.
What, you don't count Roy Thomas's ALTER EGO as serious journalism? Are you one of those Comics Journal snobs?
To be honest...It's not about the Journal vs. non-Journal reporting. I'm a journalist. I studied to become a journalist. Over the years, I've learned and developed what I hope are standards for accurate and responsible journalism. And in reading over the majority of history books and articles that have been written about comics, we didn't find a lot of stuff that we felt comfortable using without a ton of additional reporting. At the same time, one area that comics journalism and scholarship have been rich in is interviews. There are lots and lots of interviews with old-timers in magazines like Alter Ego and Comic Book Artist, especially in the last few years, and those were very useful.
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