In November, Stan Lee, better known to some as Smilin’ Stan, passed away. He was Marvel’s Editor (later publisher) in the sixties and one of the main driving forces for all the Marvel Comics characters most people know today from their movies. By the seventies, he stopped being hands on with the company but remained its public face, maintaining the persona of a huckster and showman for the characters he helped cultivate nearly up until his death. He was both beloved and polarizing. People will continue to debate exactly how much he had a hand in creating the characters his name was attached to. Whatever side you fall on, it will be hard to admit the artists who gave them life went through their best years underthanked in comparison. And yet, few could deny that he gave them all a unifying voice. Marvel fans of all kinds still loved seeing his cameos in any Marvel movie, but very few people likely ever think of wanting or trying to be or emulate him. And yet, in my own microcosm of reality, for one thankfully brief moment in time, that’s what I did.
When I was young, my love of comics never grew into anything other than collecting them. I had no drawing skills and didn’t even know how I would go about writing one. I did write, but it was for the student newspaper in college, my main outlet given that the literary magazine only came out once a year. For my Junior year I ran for the position of Living Arts Editor. Instead, I wound up being the Comics Editor. I was a smart ass and would-be humorist who wasn’t ready for the most popular section of the paper. This upset me, but I wanted to make the best of my situation. I knew enough about the history of comics to know that Stan Lee took a flailing comics company and somehow turned it into a hotbed of creativity and talent. Why couldn’t I do the same?
Well, for starters, it’s hard to find that kind of enthusiasm and spare time in people and have them be willing to create art for free in between their studies and extracurricular activities. But this and any other obstacle I mention are just facts, and Stan Lee often wouldn’t let truth and facts get in the way of meeting a story deadline.
Whatever you think about Stan Lee, you had to admit he knew how to surround himself with talented people. I figured I would do the same. Just like Smilin Stan, my focus was promotion of the comics and the artists who would make up my team. Stan had “Stan’s Soapbox,” I had “The Box” (amazing my name-theft didn’t occur to me until now). Stan gave out “No-Prizes” to readers, I had “Boxies” given out to the artists at the end of each semester.
And I used a fake cursive font for my name. Because columnists like Stan Lee signed his name. My handwriting was atrocious, but I still wanted to sign my name somehow.
At least I didn’t call myself Chucklin’ Chad.
Eventually, I was able to turn my pages into 100% student comics, publishing over a half-dozen contributors at one point. The comics went from barely one page to two pages or more regularly. They weren’t the best artists by far, but most knew how to write a joke or a story well enough. One or two of them even went on to have some level of artistic success no thanks to me. My team was dependable and provided work weekly and put out work to publish every week.
The genesis of something wonderful and loved…didn’t quite happen.
My insistence on filling up two pages every week caused an editor to frequently look over my layouts with the occasional snide comment.
“That could have been a nice place for an ad.”
“All that white space. Could have fit two ads there.”
One week,they could only give me a a page and a half. I ended up still gettinga column in with condensed graphics and only 138 words. Or about two classifieds from the editor’s point of view.
All of the aforementioned brouhaha was preferable those moments of direct confrontation.
I didn’t allow outright swears in the strips, but when a cartoonist depicted in an intentional negative light jock students saying things like “Check out those jugs,” I was pressured to put asterisks over even the offensive sounding non-swear word “jugs.” My tampering of the artist’s words caused the artist to depict me as a censoring devil character called “Ed,” slapping asterisks over people’s words by the strip’s end. Though it was a swipe at me, I was on their side and it became one of my favorite strips.
Someone I cared about at the paper told me “I’m very disappointed in you” when I defended a cartoonist accused of libel and copyright infringement (though multiple authorities confirmed this wasn’t the case). Later, after a certain bout of controversy, the person followed up with “Your comic pages are crap!” That was probably true, at least to an extent. I put too many artists in who wouldn’t have made the cut in a larger school. Still I was giving people chances, and I believed in them. Some talent was there, but a lot of the strips ran on the fledgling talent’s moxie. And as Stan Lee likely learned with any number of his projects that didn’t take off the ground these past few decades, sometimes you need a little more than moxie and positive thinking for something to be successful.
Somehow, throughout all this, I was elected to Living/Arts Editor for my senior year. That gave me as much relief as it did the editors who oversaw my comics pages. Maybe more. My last year at the paper went off without too many hitches, but I was much more cynical writer and editor moving forward, and my Chucklin’ Chad persona died a quiet and welcome death. Decades later, when I visit the campus and look at the paper, it is devoid of any comics, let alone student drawn work.
Most of my regrets from that time stem from when I was confronted with real hostility was that I tried to put on a happy facade a la Smilin’ Stan. Or worse, I kept quiet. Not sticking up or just sticking with my weekly grind, the caricature that went with my byline serving as a mask. But masks are disguises, and disguises only work in comics.
Stan Lee as unflappable salesman, omnipresent pitchman, is a phenomenal persona to try and imitate. It’s alluring, but it’s impossible to do for a long time. The fact that he carried that torch for decades makes me pity and envy him equally. There won’t be another like him for a multitude of reasons, and maybe that’s a good thing.
I wanted to get this essay out of the way before I started writing about comics again. At least there’s comfort in the fact that no matter what feedback I get, whether from other writers or the fickle comics community, I don’t have to put on a fake grin.