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JFK, the Beatles … and Stan Lee
Stan Lee … helped revolutionize and update the American comic book industry in the 1960s in the way that Elvis and the Beatles revolutionized the music industry and transformed an entire culture.
—“Stan Lee: An Appreciation,” The Boston Herald, November 13, 20181
We can never allow this nation to be dictated to by … Doctor Doom!… We must move forward and proceed with great vigor! And now, gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me, it’s Caroline’s bedtime!
—President John F. Kennedy, as channeled by Stan Lee, in Fantastic Four #17, dated August 1963
In May 1963, Stan Lee proclaimed to the world that it was “the Marvel Age of Comics.”
Indeed, the covers of most of the Marvel comics that came out that month announced that fact in big, bold blurbs:
MARVEL COMICS GROUP USHERS IN “THE MARVEL AGE OF COMICS!”
It turned out to be more than clever hype. Lee and his creative collaborators were in the midst of creating that very “Marvel Age”—or, as you may know it, the sixties.
Nineteen sixty-three was perhaps the most innovative year of Lee’s life. With creative partners Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Larry Lieber (Lee’s brother), Don Heck, and a few others, Lee was reinventing comics, coming up with characters who would change pop culture. That year alone saw the flowering of Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, the Avengers, and the X-Men, as well as the ongoing excitement from the Fantastic Four, whom Lee and Kirby had unleashed in ’61.
Youthful and energetic at forty, despite his receding hairline, Lee did whatever it took to come up with comics like no one had ever seen. At its giddiest, this included jumping on desks and striking poses to impress on his artists the kind of extreme action and power he wanted the stories to possess. Besides simply demonstrating poses, though, the jumping and shouting and gesturing was his way of conveying excitement to the artists—and (ideally) sparking that same excitement in them!
But for all his enthusiasm, even Lee couldn’t know that Spider-Man would become the poster child for every kid who ever felt like he didn’t belong—just as the X-Men would make every alienated adolescent feel like there was a family of freaks he or she could fit into. He didn’t know that pot-smoking hipsters would look at Ditko’s weird Dr. Strange stories and immediately assume that the people making these stories were likewise high on something. (And this when R. Crumb was still drawing birthday cards for a living!)
All Stan Lee thought he was doing was running—and writing much of—a line of superhero comic books that seemed to be catching on with kids, teens, and—this was something new—college students. He’d been trying to catch a somewhat older audience—he’d even put out a comic called Amazing Adult Fantasy, whose slogan was “The magazine that respects your intelligence”—and indications were that he might actually be succeeding.
Lee was famous as a high-energy smart aleck who liked to have fun with his staff. Problem was, though, that severe cutbacks in 1957 had left him without much of a staff to have fun with. So, with little other outlet, that playfulness—in what he felt was his last-ditch attempt to stay in comics altogether—had started coming out in his whole approach to how he told stories and spoke to his readers, including proclaiming an “age” for his line of titles.
That zany approach, combined with his own serious storytelling skills and those of the artists he worked with, was touching a nerve. Kids who loved the irreverent, if sometimes over-their-heads, humor of Steve Allen and Jonathan Winters and Ernie Kovacs seemed to find Lee’s approach to comics novel and appealing. Sales were up—and so was attention being paid by kids to the comics. Lee could tell that from the letters that were pouring onto his desk and from the steady stream of preadolescents trying to sneak into Marvel’s offices to meet him and the imaginary “bullpen” of artists he had convinced them were just waiting there to shake their hands.
Even so, it would still be a couple of years before people like directors Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais would show up at Marvel to meet Lee; before San Francisco rock stars in town on tour would drop by to say hello; before Esquire magazine would devote significant space to Marvel’s comics and their fans; and certainly before a Princeton English major would anoint Marvel Comics as “the Twentieth Century mythology and you [Lee] as this generation’s Homer.” It would even be a good year before colleges would start inviting him as a guest speaker.
Lee knew he was impacting the kid-conversation in drugstores and school cafeterias. But a pair of momentous events led him to realize that what he was doing was not merely responding to the times but was starting to have an impact on them, as well, taking a place in the cultural conversation.
* * *
Lee had been through enough booms and busts in comics to not put all his eggs in one basket. Always looking for side-gigs—or even a total exit from the low-rent world of comic books—whether doing freelance advertising work or pitching syndicated newspaper strips, he also did writing and editing when he could for Martin Goodman’s non-comics magazines. These were published by Goodman’s Magazine Management Company, of which Marvel was a part. (Besides being his boss, Goodman was also Lee’s cousin by marriage, which would prove, over the years, to be a mixed blessing.)
And so, for Magazine Management, Lee was producing a humor publication called You Don’t Say. The magazine consisted of photos of celebrities of the day, including politicians, for which he would write funny dialogue balloons. It was easy and enjoyable work that generated extra income. Beyond that, Lee believed that the level of humor he put into the magazine might even allow it to compete with the revered New Yorker magazine! And even more: he felt You Don’t Say had the potential to become an important magazine that would enable him to ditch comics for a more stable field, one appropriate for an adult.2
The first two issues sold well. For the third issue’s cover, Lee used a photo of then-president John F. Kennedy (who had actually done unbilled cameos in a few Marvel comics). The universally recognized figure was behind a podium with huge versions of the presidential seal both on the podium and on the wall behind him. Lee’s gag for this redundant image was to have JFK saying, “Allow me to introduce myself.”
While the magazine was at the press, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
There was no way we could allow that issue to go on sale. Every copy was destroyed. I was so sick at heart that I couldn’t even consider continuing with You Don’t Say.3
(It seems that at least a few copies were shipped from the printer, since there are, from time to time, copies for sale online.)
Lee’s recently hired “gal Friday,” Flo Steinberg, noted the bonding effect the national tragedy had. As she recalled:
The people over at Magazine Management would make fun of us [the comic book people] … The only time the different departments ever really came together was when we heard that President Kennedy had been killed. Everybody sort of dropped everything and came together to listen to the radio reports.4
The entire nation was stunned by the November 22 Kennedy assassination. Marvel comics had embodied much of the same playful, optimistic sensibility that people associated with the youthful Kennedy administration. (Like JFK, Lee and Kirby were part of the World War II generation. Kirby was born the same year—1917—as Kennedy.)
Would anyone have been offended had the issue of You Don’t Say been widely distributed? In the wake of the assassination, there were so many magazines with Kennedy on the cover, it’s hard to imagine this one would have generated much negative attention.
More important was Lee’s sense of himself and his work as being important enough that the magazine needed to be held back from the public. Even if the world outside of a hip, in-the-know audience—and numerous ten-year-olds—didn’t yet realize that what he was doing was significant—well, he did. (And in the ’40s and ’50s, material he worked on did draw media attention. Why would it not now?) Before too long, the world would, indeed, come to agree with him about how important Marvel’s comics were.
* * *
As the country struggled to process and understand the murder of its president, Lee, like entertainers everywhere, kept going, making his deadlines, putting out comics, building momentum for Marvel.
During that same period, there was another significant middle-aged cultural figure who, on a larger playing field, had to deal with the same challenges: Ed Sullivan. Sullivan was the influential host of a popular TV variety show that bore his name. Like Lee, he had to figure out how to entertain the American public in the wake of a national trauma.
Sullivan had recently been to England, where he had witnessed firsthand the phenomenon called “Beatlemania.” The Beatles weren’t just an extremely popular rock band; they inspired a level of seeming hysteria, especially in their female teen fans, that was unprecedented. Seeing that the Liverpool-spawned musicians were also starting to become popular in the United States, Sullivan booked them for three consecutive early ’64 episodes of his New York–based Sunday night show. While experts like pop music guru Dick Clark thought the band wasn’t very significant, Sullivan’s instincts told him something else.
By the time of their February 9 live debut on Sullivan, the Beatles had become hugely popular in the United States, as well as in Britain, and by the time the show was over, they were even bigger. Watching the group on their first Sullivan performance became a cultural touchstone. As with the JFK assassination, baby boomers would ask when meeting each other, “Where were you?” when the group first stepped onto Sullivan’s stage.
Stan Lee’s solution to the challenge of how to respond in print to the Kennedy assassination had been to just keep on making comic books. No direct mention was made in the comics of the murder. Perhaps he felt there was nothing appropriate he could say. (In a few years, his attitude toward publicly commenting on current events would change dramatically.) But he was certainly noticing what was going on in the culture as a whole—including the Beatles phenomenon. In the letters page of Fantastic Four #31, which was on the stands in July ’64, David Grace, a reader from Liverpool, wrote:
By the way, did you know that America had two Fantastic Fours for thirteen days?… [the second was] the Beatles! They dominate the [music] scene as your comics dominate the comic scene.
To which Lee replied:
Thanks, Dave! Although we’re not quite sure whether your letter should have been sent to us—or the Beatles!
And in Strange Tales #130, on sale later in ’64, Lee, with artists Bob Powell and Chic Stone, presented a story with the same title as the Beatles’ first American album, “Meet the Beatles.” The story—starring the FF’s Thing and Human Torch—involved a subplot where the heroes and their girlfriends had tickets for a Beatles concert, but, due to hero duties, the teammates had to miss the show. The mop-tops did make a couple of cameo appearances in the story, so at least the readers got to “meet” the Beatles.
Like Ed Sullivan, Stan Lee knew that the Beatles were important to the cultural moment, even if he didn’t fully understand why—and even as he was busy producing comics that were themselves important to the moment. Unlike the Beatles, Lee didn’t have (not yet, anyway) a live audience that would show up in concert halls to cheer his work. In a manner similar to that of the Beatles, though, with their fans and fan clubs, Lee succeeded in making Marvel’s readers feel, simultaneously, part of a mass movement and of a secret community of like-minded aficionados. This was no mean feat.
Like Sullivan, Lee was doing what we’d now call curating the culture, giving his audience what they didn’t know they wanted until his comics gave it to them. As comics writer Dennis O’Neil has said of Lee in the ’60s, “There were about seven years where Stan didn’t make a single mistake. He just really was on an incredible roll, and everything worked for him.”5 Given the eventual phenomenal success of the characters and the company he was so instrumental in creating, it’s fair to say that Lee was ahead of his time, even if he didn’t fully realize it back in the early ’60s.
* * *
It would be a number of years before Stan Lee would meet—and talk business with—a couple of Beatles (although they were reportedly Marvel fans).6 But he would. And, in time, he would even hobnob with presidents. In the meantime, he was helping shape the culture, one superhero adventure at a time, one letter column response at a time, one hyperbolic cover blurb at a time.
With his artist-collaborators, he was creating Marvel’s stories. On his own, he was using those stories—and the personas he grafted onto himself and the artists—to create the Marvel Age. (To a reader who complained that calling the era the Marvel Age was presumptuous, since there were other companies in the business, Lee replied, “Okay, so let them make up their own age! It’s a free country!”)7
In retrospect, it was plain that, among those figures shaping the times, Stan Lee and Marvel Comics—which from almost their beginnings were synonymous—were on the road to becoming important cultural players. While Kennedy and the Beatles played out their lives and careers on much larger platforms than Lee was then doing, the influence the comics he was producing would end up having on the cultural conversation then, and to the present day, is undeniable.
Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Fingeroth