Not long after we started this new feature on the WF blog -kicking it off with interviews of two great authors, JOHN OSTRANDER and JEFF MARIOTTE -it occurred to me that any discussion of western comics writers should include the great Stan Lee.
I was able to interview Stan about his western comics way back in 1996, when I was just getting started. The article appeared in the sadly defunct online magazine AMERICAN WESTERN, and I re-posted it to my own blog a couple of years ago. I decided to dust it off for this feature- because no one has had more impact on the comics world, western and otherwise, than Stan the Man.
Stan Lee was one of my biggest –maybe the biggest –childhood heroes. I loved his bombastic style, and his well-defined characters –the way he made them seem like real people with real problems, just like the readers. I caught on early that –while plot was important –it was how much you cared about the characters that really made a story exciting.
Stanley Lieber (Stan Lee) was born in New York City in 1922, and went to work at Timely Comics (later called Marvel Comics) soon after high school. He started off as a gofer and ink pot-filler; in 1941 he had his first writing assignment, a text-only short story in Captain America #3. He was later top writer, managing editor and eventually editor-in-chief. In the early 1960s, working with various talented artists, he co-created a virtual army of superhero characters who have been lighting up the big screen in recent years. Unlike previous superhero comics, Lee’s co-creations had distinct personalities, angst-ridden private lives, and very human weaknesses.
I got to meet my hero at a convention in Nashville in 1996 –at The Great Escape comic store. My 4 ½ year old daughter was already a fan of his characters, especially Spider-man and the Fantastic Four. When I found out Stan was going to be in Nashville I called a magazine editor who had accepted several of my history articles and pitched the idea of trying to get an interview with Stan Lee –about his western comics. I got the green light.
I stood in line to get Stan’s autograph –he was charging five or ten bucks, and donating it to the Boy Scouts –and pitched the interview to him. He was one of the nicest people you could hope to meet, and spent several minutes posing for pictures with my family. I had him sign my 1962 copy of Two-Gun Kid #60, the first appearance of the re-vamped, Silver Age Two-Gun, by Lee and Jack Kirby. He was delighted to see the book. “I remember when Jack drew this!” he said. “Wow, I haven’t seen one of these in years!”
Stan put me in touch with his publicist to schedule a telephone interview. When we spoke again, I was at my house in Tennessee and Stan was in his Hollywood office. He remembered me, and called me “Two-Gun” several times during the conversation.
Me: I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but your western titles lasted longer than any others –even licensed characters like The Lone Ranger.
Stan: Wow. I had never thought about it, but you’re right.
Me: Did you have a favorite western character to write for?
Stan: Let’s see. We had Two-Gun Kid, Rawhide Kid, Outlaw Kid, Kid Colt, the Western Kid, Black Rider… I liked them all. I kind of liked the Black Rider, because he was more of a superhero. Also, we did one photograph cover of him, and that was me under the mask. I got a kick out of that.
Me: Tell me about some of the artists you worked with.
Stan: Jack Keller did Kid Colt, Larry Lieber did Rawhide Kid, Syd Shores did Black Rider. And there was Dick Ayers. Jack Kirby would step in whenever I needed an extra one done. He filled in a lot. So far as telling you about these artists, all I can say is that every one of them was a pleasure to work with. They were good artists, had a lot of talent. They always kept to their deadlines. I was very lucky –I always worked with good artists.
Me: How would you compare writing westerns with writing superheroes?
Stan: One was as much fun as the other. The only reason that superheroes became so enormously successful was that there seemed to be more glamor involved with them. But I loved writing the westerns. In fact, in those days we wrote everything –whatever there was a demand for. Comics came and went in those days. One year the westerns would be popular, another year the war stories, or the romance stories, or the monster comics. We just went from one to the other, to the other, whatever was selling at the moment. But no matter what else was popular at the time, there was always room for the westerns, and I enjoyed doing them.
Me: Do you foresee doing any more?
Stan: I would love to –whenever we feel there is a market for it. I remember once a writer came up to me to see if he could work for us. I said, “Hey, I need someone to write a western. How about it?” He said, “I don’t write westerns, I write mysteries.” I said, “A story is a story. In a mystery you say ‘follow that car,’ in a western you say ‘follow that stagecoach.’ It’s the same type of writing.” He laughed, and finally did the story, and it turned out okay.
Me: Was there a consistent element in your stories, in every genre, that identified your work?
Stan: I would like to think that I stressed characterization along the way. No matter what kind of story it was, superhero or whatever, I tried to make the characters as realistic as possible so that you cared about them. You can spin the greatest story in the world, but if the reader doesn’t care about the hero none of it matters. That’s the whole thing about writing –make the reader interested in the main characters, make them care what happens to them.
Me: Who was a big influence on you?
Stan: Oh, everybody. I was a voracious reader as a kid. H.G. Wells, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Shakespeare –I probably didn’t understand Shakespeare that much, but I loved the sound of the words. Yeah, I read everything –my mother used to say that if there was nothing else at the dinner table I would read the label on the ketchup bottle.
Me: How would you describe the duties you have now?
Stan: Mainly I work on the movies and television shows we do. I’m really not that involved with the comics anymore.
Me: Why do you think your westerns lasted so long?
Stan: I think it’s because westerns have such a basic storyline. It features the good guys versus the bad guys. Yet there are a lot of options. I think it’s the same reason Westerns have lasted in Hollywood for so long. You can always think of something new and put it in a western setting. You can have romance stories, revenge stories, jealousy, hatred, parental love –you can take any theme in the world and put it in a western formula.
Me: Have you read any of the more recent western titles, like Jonah Hex or Blueberry?
Stan: No, I don’t have time to read comics anymore.
Me: I read somewhere that you once wrote “Stan Lee is God” on a tower.
Stan: Oh, don’t tell that again. I was young. I don’t know why I did that. We had a big building called the tower where we published our high school magazine –I was one of the editors. One day some painters were doing some work on that big steeple-like tower. He left his ladder there and I climbed up and painted “Stan Lee is God.” Then the painter came and took the ladder away –as far as I know it’s still written there. Nobody else could ever go up and erase it. It was just a joke.