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November 14, 2003

The Business of Art: Stan Lee and Marvel Comics


Thanks for shipping me Jordan Raphael’s and Tom Spurgeon’s bio of the comic book legend, “Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book.” As a long time fan of Marvel comics from the 1960s it was quite intriguing to get an inside look “behind the curtain,” so to speak.

The comics industry offers many, many analogies to the industry I work in, so I was irresistibly drawn to the business aspect of Stan Lee’s story. Anyway, it’s not as if you can avoid it. In pop culture, more than half the action is always on the business side—a rule that the comic industry illustrates nicely.

According to Raphael and Spurgeon, the comic book industry was actually—and tellingly—dreamed up by two employees of a printing company, who licensed old Sunday color comics from newspapers and put them into a comic-book format. Although the original business model was to have these “funny books” underwritten by corporate sponsors as giveaways, in 1934 they took a chance and printed up some for sale at newsstands. When the trial issue of 35,000 copies quickly sold out, a new industry was born. A year later the firm of Wheeler-Nicholson produced the first comic book featuring original material. (Wheeler-Nicholson soon evolved into DC Comics.)

Intriguingly, Max C. Gaines, one of the printing company employees who invented the “comic book,” also served as mid-wife on the industry’s breakthrough project. He put two young creative types who were shopping around an idea for a new type of book in touch with the editor of DC comics. The result, of course, was first Action Comics and then Superman, which had sales of a million copies a month within a few years.

Naturally, the Superman phenomenon created a gold rush atmosphere, and many entrepreneurs promptly entered the market. By 1941, there were 168 comic book titles jostling for space on the newsstands of America. One of these market entrants was a pulp magazine publisher, Martin Goodman. It seems fair to characterize his interest in comics as purely financial; he was an acute observer of industry trends and was a big believer in jumping on any apparently profitable bandwagons—and abandoning any areas that cooled off, no looking back. He was strictly a numbers man, a trend spotter, and had no interest in any aspect of comic book content, although he did possess a fanatical interest in comic book covers, since they were his sole and only marketing medium.

Being a big believer in nepotism, Martin Goodman was willing to hire an unemployed 17-year-old relative of his wife, Stanley Martin Lieber, soon to be known as Stan Lee. The boy was originally intended to be a gofer for his editor, Joe Simon, and his art director, Jack Kirby. Since these two were also the creators of his new hit comic, Captain America, which was moving to monthly status, they needed help with routine matters. However, when Simon and Kirby discovered that the firm’s accountant (tellingly, Goodman’s brother) was cheating them on their profit shares, they quit, leaving Goodman with the problem of how to handle the managerial tasks that Simon and Kirby had handled for his dozen or so comic titles.

Although apparently during the Simon and Kirby era all of the stories and art for the comics were—except for the contributions of Simon and Kirby themselves—purchased from freelancers, Goodman decided to move to a system of staff artists and needed someone had to supervise, hand out the assignments, make sure they came in on time, etc. He gave a battlefield promotion to Stan Lee, intending to replace him with a more mature talent as soon as he could find one. That never proved necessary, as Lee was obviously a managerial wonder.

And that was largely what Stan Lee remained for the next twenty years, although he wrote hundreds if not thousands of comics during that period. After a hiatus during his World War II service, Lee was in effective charge of an empire that produced, at its peak in the early 1950s, over 80 comic book titles a month, making it the largest comic publisher in North America. The genres covered included superheroes, romance, Western, teen humor, crime and “funny animals.”

However, crucially to our story, Lee's empire, like that of the Romans, suffered a decline and fall. A combination of the moralistic attacks on comic books during the early 1950s (which reduced total industry titles by two-thirds), an ill-timed foray into independent distributorship of his comics and other publications by Goodman, and the rise of television as a competitor for the eyeballs of young readers laid waste to Lee’s fiefdom. This destruction was completed when the newsstand distributor Goodman had hooked up with (after shutting down his own distribution company) also exited from the comic book market in 1957. Goodman, facing a potential inability to get his products to market at all, was forced into a humbling distribution deal with the enemy—DC comics. As befits a triumphant conqueror, DC exacted a heavy price; Goodman’s group could produce no more than 8 comics a month. To cushion the financial blow, Goodman ordered Lee to stop purchasing new material altogether for a while, and rely entirely on his “rainy day” cache of already developed material.

As the 1950s ended, Lee found himself working in a small office in a dusty corner of Goodman’s publishing empire, overseeing 16 bimonthly comics. Naturally, he was thinking of leaving and was working to develop other commercial projects for his writing.

However, the situation held the seeds of his redemption. Because Lee was the only writer for all 16 of the titles, which now focused narrowly on romance, Westerns and attacking monsters, for reasons of efficiency he was forced to adopt a new working relationship with his key freelance artists. One of these was—by a strange coincidence—Jack Kirby (his old boss); another was a newcomer, Steve Ditko. With both of these men Lee developed the habit of saving time by not writing out a detailed “script” for each comic, giving a page-by-page, panel-by-panel description of the action, the dialogue, etc. Instead he gave them a synopsis, and left it to them to lay out the story. Finally, he would come in and write dialogue to fit their finished art.

Although superheroes had faded away as the staple product of the comic industry during the late 1940s and 1950s, they began to enjoy a slow but noticeable resurgence at the only comic company that still produced them: DC Comics. In the late 1950s D.C. brought out several “revised” versions of ancient characters like The Flash and Green Lantern, and then combined them with their Big Three characters (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) into a highly successful combination comic, the Justice League of America.

Apparently Martin Goodman either learned of the hot sales of the Justice League from a D.C. executive while playing golf, or via a spy in D.C.’s distribution company, but in any event he called Lee into his office in early 1961 and gave him marching orders: “Maybe we need to do some superheroes.”

This was, oddly, a rather strange and novel assignment coming from Goodman. His whole business career had involved following rather than leading trends. D.C. Comics was having success with an enlarged line of superhero comics, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s that company had a monopoly on superhero comics. D.C.’s move amounted to a “brand extension.” This was a strategy that Lee couldn’t emulate with his ‘romance/Western/monster’ brand. Goodman had suddenly set Lee a challenge unlike any other in his career: to innovate, not to emulate.

Although Lee had actually written superhero comics fairly rarely in his vast output, he and Jack Kirby, using their by-now familiar ‘scenario instead of a script’ method, got busy and produced a version of a superhero team comic to compete with the Justice League of America: the Fantastic Four. It was successful, and over the next four years Lee reworked the Marvel Comics line—still constrained by the 1957 distribution contract with D.C. comics—so that it focused on superheroes. The changeover required every ounce of his formidable production skills, as he had to juggle discontinuing some lines and substituting others while continuing as sole editor and art director.

The collaborative nature of the development of new superhero comics is well illustrated in the case of Spider-Man. According to Raphael and Spurgeon:

In early 1962, Stan Lee expressed the desire to do a teenage superhero using the spider motif. Jack Kirby had long wanted to do an insect-related superhero…With Lee’s input, Kirby began to craft an introductory tale, rejecting some of the more fantastic Lee story elements, grounding the character in a domestic situation featuring a kindly aunt and uncle, and giving the superhero a secret origin revolving around a neighbor who happened to be a scientist. At Lee’s request, the character was turned over to Steve Ditko who, working from a synopsis and Kirby’s pages, produced an inspired visual take on the character that drove its story for decades—bottle-thick glasses, slumped shoulders, and a homemade costume.

In short, many of the most memorable and human aspects of Spider-Man were actually contributions by Kirby and Ditko. In fact, the 'hybrid' nature of the Marvel comics of the early 1960s led to their most aesthetically distinct feature: Stan Lee's wisecracking dialogue floating over far more serious and, in some cases, even somber art. The tension successfully conveys something of the spirit of being a teenager, but I'm not sure a single 'auteur' could have captured it. Still, as Raphael and Spurgeon note:

Stan Lee’s most significant contribution as an editor of American comic books was to use his relative autonomy to facilitate greater contributions from the artists…Stan presided over an editorial environment in which everyone, not just the top artists, could take part in establishing a new kind of comic book.

So what lessons can we draw from this case study of pop-market creative success?

I suppose the first lesson is the huge element of luck involved. The Lee-Kirby-Ditko team that proved “revolutionary” in developing a new wave of superhero comic books in the early 1960s had worked away quietly for years in the late 1950s without causing any creative tsunamis. The ‘Marvel’ way of working—incorporating the narrative skills not only of the writer but the artist—that ultimately proved so successful wasn’t deliberately invented, but simply evolved to meet an altogether different need: efficiency. Still, it is a lesson in applying whatever zany or wacky competencies you happen to have lying around—unique methods can often create differentiated products.

The second lesson would be the stimulation of creativity from the entire productive team: obviously, businesses that tap the brainpower of their entire staff will do better than businesses that treat most of their employees as disposable units. Of course, it appears that the ‘Marvel’ way of working was first developed in a small, intimate setting and only gradually exported to the rest of the production staff over time; Stan Lee didn’t just tell his freelancers to start jumping and jiving one day. Training in new methods is essential, as is time to digest them.

The third lesson would probably be for the creative types that resent the Martin Goodman’s of this world. If you notice, he turns out to be the unsung hero here; he identified the goal, told his staff to pursue it (even though it was novel and risky), and funded their efforts. Of course he also raked in most of the dough, but without that incentive what sane person would encourage innovative, risky ventures?

Do you see other lessons for pop-art success in this little tale?



P.S. After reading this, I suddenly saw one possible explanation for the never-ending troubles and challenges that beset poor Peter Parker despite his 'success' as Spider-Man. Stan Lee, the harried comic book executive, was putting on paper the hectic life of a businessman! (Do this! Fix this! What have you done for me lately?)

P.S. Anybody have any idea why there was a resurgence of super hero comics in the late 1950s and early 1960s? The genre had been moribund (except at D.C.) for years. Was there some mysterious resemblance between the American mood of the late 1930s and the early 1960s? The dread of looming military confrontation hanging over an increasing prosperity? Or like what?

posted by Friedrich at November 14, 2003


Did DC comics actually own marvel?

I read many of the original spiderman, Wolverine, Thor, Punisher, X-men comics.

They were great. If any of you ever get a chance to cozy up with a bankers box full of one of the comic book series in order I highly recomend it. The graphic novels are great too. A combination of story line, hero's and japanese animation and you would have an exceptional product.

Posted by: ShipShape on November 14, 2003 11:13 PM

When I was about 15 (in 1967), I was such a Marvel Comics fan that I wanted in on the fun, too. So I sent Stan Lee a letter serving notice that someday I, too, would be a comic-book writer. He actually responded, first thanking me for my "cogent comments" on other issues, then trying to talk me out of the comic-book writer idea. His argument was that TV or advertising would pay much better for the up and coming writer. He may have well been right in 1967...

Posted by: Dwight Decker on November 15, 2003 1:14 AM

A propos of nothing but my tired brain ... I'm tickled by the info that Stan Lee fed his artists "scenarios" rather than detailed, frame-by-frame breakdowns of his stories. I've been told that Euro filmmakers often work -- actually go out and shoot -- from what we'd consider to be very short, roughed-in outlines: "scenarios" much like Stan Lee's, rather than fully worked-out screenplays of the sort we're more used to. The downside of that approach certainly shows sometimes, but maybe so does the upside -- more looseness, expressiveness, and art excitement than we generally get in our maybe over-thought-out productions. I recall reading an interview recently with the wonderful Ronny Yu where he talked about this kind of thing. He and directors like Woo had a terrible time adapting to American methods. They were used to taking a few notes about what had to be accomplished in a scene onto the set and then figuring it out with the actors and camerapeople. In the States, it all had to be figured out, shot by shot, six months ahead of time.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 15, 2003 2:01 AM

You mean Euro-filmmakers like Polanski?

Posted by: j.c. on November 16, 2003 1:10 PM

The late thirties were filled with the pressure of the depression and Hitler; the late fifties with the pressure of commies and nuclear war. American youth seem to need superheroes who can handle anything when the real world pressures get to be too much, or seem to out of control for the adults in charge.

Which makes it seem like we are primed for another resurgence in some form of superhero need now. Or maybe Vietnam changed that; maybe youth began to feel like they couldn't wait anymore for the powers that be to handle things, they needed to take matters in their own hands. Let's hope school shootings aren't the current generation's answer.

Posted by: annette on November 17, 2003 7:43 AM

The WATCHMEN, Alan Moore's tale of "capes" in a realistic world deals with this. Superheros are a viligante desire, that *someone* will clean up this mess, since the people in charge can't. Moore's story makes a point that this is the same drive that leads to Klu Klux Klan and Despots. I recomend The Watchman to people with an interest in literary comic books (It has some major downsides, it's very long and full of awful, garish art. ) Credited as the book that killed Superheros and started the moody, gothy trend in comics. (Or, in Moore's words...he was in a bad mood that year and it infected everything)

Still The WATCHMEN is a wonderful book, good on multiple readings, horrifying at times, tender in others. Moore is tight as a drum and The WATCHMAN marks the begnining of his mature writing.



Posted by: jleavitt on November 17, 2003 10:53 AM

Just to point a light at a small point that was mentioned. Because it's really a big point.

form follows process.

i'm surprised more people don't recognize this.

Posted by: Chris on November 17, 2003 2:26 PM

P.S. Anybody have any idea why there was a resurgence of super hero comics in the late 1950s and early 1960s?

um..... drugs.

Not necessarily drug use by authors, but drug use by readers, all of a sudden drug enhanced visions became....clear.

Or not.

Posted by: degustibus on November 18, 2003 3:49 PM


Even if that's true of the 1960s, how does that explain the original explosion of super-hero comics in the 1930s and 1940s. I think war and the sense of impending war must have something to do with it.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 18, 2003 10:39 PM

I really dig THE MIGHTY THOR.....




because....Bruce Wayne is just a man...

No powers.......Like flying.....

No ability to ignite himself to

flame.....''Elastic ability''........

Or superhuman strength..........Only

Superb intelligence! Which, in this

day and seldomly heard


Posted by: Nick Lobie on May 3, 2004 4:29 PM

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