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Stan Lee's evolution from editor to celebrity

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the January 2013 edition of Comics Buyer's Guide (#1697).

It never hit me till now: Stan Lee is an editorial icon. In fact, if you were to ask folks today to name an editor they’d recognize as such, if they were standing in an elevator with him or her — I’d bet Stan Lee is the only person they could identify. So make that: Stan Lee is the editorial icon.

Understand, I’m not saying he’s the most influential editor in history. That position might be held by Julius Schwartz of DC. Or Harold Ross of The New Yorker. Or John W. Campbell of Astounding Stories/Analog and Unknown. Or Forry Ackerman of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Or any among countless others.

But a celebrity editor who made his recognized career out of being an editor — not the guy who owns the magazine or even the guy who publishes it, but being a celebrity as an editor: I’m thinking Stan may be the biggest.

What is an editor?

I refer here to the occupation of “editor.” There are a few publications whose editorial staffs own those publications. But that’s not the role via which Stan became a celebrity. I’m writing about the job Stan was hired to do: He was, like so many editors before and after him, hired to provide the contents that a publishing house would release to newsstands.

That kind of editor is the public face of a publication.

He or she represents that publication to its readers. To do that, an editor writes editorials. An editor provides form to the contents, gives answers to letters, helps guide contributors, and is the front-and-center avatar of what’s in print (or, today, online).

But that editor is not the owner. That editor is not the publisher. That editor is not the one who writes the contracts. That editor is not the guy who says how much the publishing company will spend on publicity, on production, or even on content. That editor may make a case for such allocations — but that editor doesn’t get to make the final decision on most of the basics.

On the other hand, that editor is the one who is there to smile cheerily to readers and make the very best effort to convey at all times and in all circumstances that the publication is the very best he or she has been able to put together. And, for that matter, the editor’s job is to make the publication the very best he or she has been able to put together — while following the instructions of the owner and the publisher and sometimes a board of directors and other decision-makers.

Secrets Behind the Comics by Stan Lee

Secrets Behind the Comics by Stan Lee

So ...
Heck, we just always took it for granted that Stan was the one in charge. We were grateful when he took us behind the scenes to tell us his “secrets behind the comics,” when he was Timely Comics’ managing director and art director, “in complete charge of more comic magazines than any other living editor.” We might even have thought he’d told us all the secrets in 1947. But he didn’t share the worries that a project’s failure could bring. He didn’t discuss the increasing censorship and distribution pressures that must have confronted him every day. He didn’t discuss the occasional traumas an editor has to experience.

As time went on, and comics-reading kids grew up to be grown-up comics fans, Stan Lee seemed to some of us to be the least accessible of the comic-book editors. Don and I were able to visit the offices of DC and Gold Key then — but Stan said (nicely) that he was too busy to have us visit the Marvel offices. (Remember: He invented the “Marvel method” of creating comics, in which a writer-artist story conference resulted in pages that were only scripted after the pages were penciled. It let him write enough of a volume of material to fill the pages that Marvel shipped each month.)

Message from Stan Lee

A personal message from Stan Lee to comic book readers.

Even by the time of the first big comics convention in New York City (July 23-24, 1966), Stan didn’t do convention appearances. That show, put on by John Benson (with Chris Steinbrunner running the projector for the film events), starred Roy Thomas, Jack Kirby, and Flo Steinberg as the Marvel representatives. (Footnote: Flo, Lee Hoffman, Pat Lupoff, and I were the only four females in attendance. Those were early days.)

And so it went. Stan was incredibly friendly — but busy. And we had yet to meet him. Don and I had begun our Comic Art fanzine in 1961 but felt the need for some sort of fan-to-fan newsletter. So eventually, we wrote, edited, and published a mimeographed newsletter titled Newfangles. Though it was conceived of as a publication that spread news to fans about fans, we quickly began hearing (and publishing) news about comics pros, too. So it was in #9 (Apr 68, along about the time Fantastic Four #75 and Amazing Spider-Man #61 were hitting newsstands) that one of our front-page stories (well, that issue only had a front and back page; just saying) was as follows:

A West Coast rumor was passed on to us: Stan Lee has quit Marvel, joined Charlton and is trying to lure Ditko away from DC. Actually, said the rumor, he was fired for putting all his relatives on the payroll and paying them instead of non-relatives when the budget was short. We called a New York source (fella name of Stan Lee) and reached him at Marvel (which blew the whole rumor right there). He was stonkered at the tale, snorted at the Charlton part, grunted noncommittally on Ditko and said he has one (count him, one) relative on his staff: brother Larry Lieber, who gets paid when others do. Budget isn’t short, either, says Lee. He expressed appreciation at being given a chance to squelch a reeking rumor, said he still smarts over a letter in a DC mag some time back which said “everybody knows Lee doesn’t write his stories.”

“I’m very careful to give credit to anyone who even helps on the writing,” Lee said. “If my name is listed as writer, I wrote the story.”

Stan Lee

Today, Stan Lee gets that combination of flak and admiration that other celebrities get. Photo copyright Maggie Thompson. Used with permission.

Now …
Stan is now a celebrity. So he gets that combination of flak and adoration that other celebrities get. Rumor, hostility, affection … He’s a public figure. (Note the photo? I took that in 2008, when the San Diego Blood Bank folks were showing him a Marvel-art-covered car they were raffling to Blood Bank donors. Note the arm of the security guard? That was one of the guys who had told me I couldn’t photograph Stan in the parking lot. Of course, it being a parking lot, I went ahead and took pictures — and Stan saw me, cheerily said, “Hi, Maggie!” and waved.)

He takes the blame for decisions others have made and positions in which other people have put him. He clearly takes seriously his job of helping to put the best face on the industry — and it has never been easy. Especially considering that he has such an impact on people who vividly remember every encounter — when he has had to be so focused on so many other things.

Which, of course, brings to mind my own anecdote about his famously faulty memory. I was having breakfast with Carol Kalish and Stan, probably at some point in the summer of 1990 or 1991, maybe when Marvel was considering its approach to what were eventually the “2099” titles (Doom 2099, Punisher 2099, Ravage 2099, and Spider-Man 2099). I think the breakfast meeting was at Dragon*Con — but that detail is foggy in my memory. Carol would have been vice president of new product development at that point; in any case, she invited me to accompany her to the breakfast chat. Her goal, she told me, was to impress upon Stan that, whatever the stories under discussion were, they should be announced as stories of a possible Marvel future, not of a definite Marvel future.

We all smiled at each other, seated ourselves, ordered breakfast, and settled down to a delightful start-of-day conversation. Eventually, Carol made her point to Stan — and he responded by saying that he thought the fans would be more excited to read stories of what would actually happen to Marvel’s characters in the future. The back-and-forth continued, Carol arguing that locking in continuity would ruin suspense about the present-day adventures — Stan saying that success of the new project would be amped up, if fans were given glimpses of a future that meant something, rather than a “what if” possibility.

At some point near the end of the meal, Carol turned to me, and began, “Maggie —”
And Stan did a double-take. “Maggie?” he said. “Oh, my gosh! I just thought you were Carol’s assistant!”

Maggie Thompson

MAGGIE THOMPSON (pointing to that story in Newfangles #9) has won a few awards — but a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame? Not so much. Star luminary Stan Lee has never been as snooty as Maggie would be, were the roles reversed. How would you handle the world, if you were Stan Lee? Maggie’s website is, and she Tweets as ThompsonMaggie.

That was Stan doing an editor’s job, even when that job has evolved to only occasional participation: Focusing on what is important in order to solve a problem.

Consider, then …
When I discussed the topic with another editor today, she presented me with this editorial simile: “Being an editor is like being a thong panty. You’re getting it from both sides but doing the best you can to do a dirty job.” While trying to get that thought out of my head, I acknowledge its accuracy. And I’m here to say that Stan has done the job with greater success than just about anyone else.