New York -- With their industry in a slump, organizers of the recent American Booksellers Association conference chose as a speaker a man responsible for the sale of more books than anyone since King James.
So what if Stan Lee's characters have been bitten by radioactive spiders, belted by gamma-rays, or otherwise altered in galactic maelstroms? They grieve, fear, ponder, worship, transgress, regret and love just like ones created by other authors, just a little more frequently, intensely, and in color.
And, to be scathingly accurate, a lot more readers are interested in their plight.
Mr. Lee, if you haven't already guessed, is the man behind Marvel Comics, a publisher that sells 8.5 million comic books a month. Were all these books considered a single publication, they'd rank just behind Readers Digest, TV Guide and National Geographic in sales.
Flush with success, Marvel put out a special publication last month on its own activity: a stock prospectus. Soon its shares will be traded on the New York Stock Exchange in a deal valuing the company at about $180 million. This, to be sure, is not funny business.
Mr. Lee is somewhat amazed by his fame-by-frame rise to success. Now 68, his role in the company (owned by Revlon boss Ronald Perelman) is tantamount to presiding muse. He sports a Los Angeles tan and spends most of his time attempting to get superheroes onto the silver screen without having producers harm them in a way countless villains never could. "It's a big problem," he said.
When Mr. Lee began writing for a Marvel predecessor at age 16, nothing was certain. His first two decades produced Ziggy the Pig, Millie the Model, Silly the Seal, Super Duck and hundreds of other characters, all so dull neither he nor anyone else still remembers them. Alternative vocations beckoned.
Then came 1961. The Berlin Wall and the Kennedy administration were news, but Marvel created a more enduring legacy. Rejecting the simplistic plots, vocabulary, and definitions virtue that typified prior comics, he struck a chord by creating flawed characters.
Initially, the most striking efforts were with monsters. First came The Thing, a behemoth suffering from a truly awful complexion who joked, suffered and took inordinate pride in his blue eyes. Next: The Hulk, a green-skinned (due to a printer's error) brute, all rage and no humor. "I wanted a monster who was good but didn't know he was good," Mr. Lee explained, adding with a pause, "or at least I think that is what I thought at the time."
Comic books haven't been the same since. "I knew [the characters] were different but I never realized the impact they'd have," Mr. Lee said. Teen-agers as well as children began picking them up at the corner candy store. A small cult was born.
Success was assured with Mr. Lee's third effort, a comic based on a man who could cling to walls ("Should I call him insect man?" Mr. Lee mused. "No. Not different enough. Mosquito man? No. Too ugly. Then I thought, 'Spiderman, or better yet, The Incredible Spiderman.' ")
Thus is history made. According to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (admittedly an odd source for super hero info), Spiderman is the most popular comic book character in the world. Mr. Lee himself continues to pen a daily Spiderman strip tTC carried by about 500 papers. ("There's not much to it," he noted. "Frame one, recapitulation; frame two, infinitesimal advancement; frame three, cliffhanger.")
Unlike Superman, the archetypal comic character produced by competing comic company D.C., Spiderman was not only physically vulnerable, but emotionally a mess. In a soon-to-be-published book on Marvel, Mr. Lee describes him as "neurotic, compulsive, and profoundly skeptical about the whole idea of becoming a costumed savior." In short, he was the quintessential Marvel character. While irrelevant to children of the 1950s and 1940s, it was a character for the 1960s and beyond (at least, Mr. Lee notes, "for boys. We never had much success with girls.")
Other comics became a guide for what not to do. If Superman's alter ego worked for a kind newspaper editor, Spiderman's worked for one who was crazed. If Superman always arrived in time to save Louis Lane, Spiderman blew it with his girlfriend Gwen Stacy. "We had always thought they would marry," Mr. Lee recalled philosophically, "but one month I went to Europe on business and when I came back, Gwen was dead."
How bitter; how winning. Reacting to Marvel's soaring sales, even Superman got stuck working for a creep. Life in the comics became harsh and complex.
"We always tried to get realism," Mr. Lee explained. "That may sound like a contradiction. After all, how can you have realism in characters that fly or crawl on wall and ceiling, but the formula I used was that the readers had to suspend disbelief on the super power and then have realism everywhere else."
In a creative splurge, a vast world of characters, as weird to some as it is familiar to others, was established in a few brief years. Iron Man, Dare devil, the Avengers, the X-Men, Dr. Strange, etc. became the flawed fantasy equivalent of an industrialist, lawyer, doctor and misplaced youth.
Odd? Absolutely. All had gifts, all had problems. They wrestled not only with evil characters, but with the notions of what was good. Often, they beat the villain but found themselves wanting. Mr. Lee became a popular speaker on college campuses (topics included "Icons in Contemporary American Literature" and "Pop Art vs. the Classics"). Students would seriously ask him about similarities between his characters and Christ (since both were persecuted by those whom they protected).
In 1980, after 41 years in the business, Mr. Lee kept his title as chairman and publisher of Marvel but left New York for Los Angeles.
In the beginning, he said, it was tough being separated from the characters he created and watching others do the writing. "But I'm used to it."
Perhaps. But there's still the occasional jarring note. Karen Page, for instance, was a secretary dreamed up by Mr. Lee in the 1960s. He sent her off from a New York law firm to be an actress in Hollywood. Another writer brought her back several years ago as a burned out porn-star junkie who sells out the identity of the superhero she loved for a fix.
"I hated that," Mr. Lee said. "I wish they had another character, not Karen. It was good writing and the books sold well, but I would have done it differently. I want my characters to be role models." Except, of course, he added quickly, the villains.
Similarly bleak themes, though, have become increasingly common in comics. They embrace vivid, disconcerting perspectives on society, broadening Marvel's audience, or at least extending the age group of readers. The doubt Mr. Lee successfully seeded in his characters has evolved under others into full-fledged paranoia, the skepticism into a deep cynicism. Like movies, comics now come with ratings.
That provokes mixed feelings. "Things have gotten much darker since I gave up writing them," he said. "I'm always happy that even though we had college-age readers we kept the younger readers. I didn't want to depress them."