The Stan Lee Conversation Goes On

by Larry Brody

As everybody who visits this website with any regularity knows, Stan Lee died last week. His private, family funeral, in fact, was last Thursday.

Still, the reminiscences about him continue, especially among people who visit TVWriter™.  We’ve published a couple of them, by Gerry Conway and Rob Liefeld, and a couple more that have struck me as especially insightful are George R.R. Martin’s Farewell to a Marvel and Jess Zafarris’ republishing of Stan Lee’s 1947 Guide to Writing and Selling Comics.

I wasn’t a close friend of Stan’s, but we worked together on animated versions of Spiderman, The Silver Surfer, Spider-Man Unlimited, and even a few Marvel series that never made it to the air.

I do, however, have two personal experiences with the man whose true importance (for better, as many people think, or for worse, as Bill Maher seems to think) is that when you get right down to it, that his editorial attitude coupled with his master of  dialog fucking created our current literary culture that I’d like to share.

First, something that occurred at the San Diego Comic Con back in the late 1990s when Stan and I were there plugging the then upcoming The Silver Surfer series.

We sat side by side for a spell, autographing everything fans thrust at us, and one fan held out a Ditko-drawn issue of The Amazing Spider-Man for Stan to sign.

I marveled at the condition, which seemed perfect to me, and Stan picked up his pen. “Please, no,” said the fan. “Use this.” He held out a fancy calligraphy pen so that Stan could sign the cover in even fancier gold ink.

Stan took the pen, shook it once in preparation for his signature – and a mass of the gilded stuff came spewing out, covering almost the entire cover.

The fan gasped. “I just bought it over there for three hundred dollars!”

Stan looked as stricken as the fan did. Then he nodded. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll fix it.” Using his own pen, he wrote a note in the corner. I leaned over his shoulder to read it. Here’s what it said:

“This comic ruined by Stan Lee”

The fan beamed, rushed off to show his friends. Behind him, I turned to Stan.  All I could say was, “Whoa.”

Stan let out a deep breath of relief, allowed himself a smile. “Forget ‘wow,. This was a ‘whew!'”

The second story happened almost ten years later. I has just finished writing what turned out to be a spectacularly unsuccessful book called Turning Points in Television because it was about, well, you know, and reached out to Stan to write the foreward.

He agreed instantly, his own request being that I outline the points I wanted him to make so he could turn them into his own words. When he sent his version to me just a couple of days later, here’s what he said:

 TURNING POINTS IN TELEVISION
Foreward
By Stan Lee

It wasn’t always like this!

In the early days of comic books–and I mean way, way back–those of us who wrote and drew the strips operated pretty much on our own. The publishers who controlled the purse strings let us do pretty much as we wanted as long as the mags kept selling. That’s the reason writers like me managed to sneak Spider-Man, X-Men, the Hulk, Fantastic Four and a whole kaboodle of other characters out to the public when no one was looking.

Television, though, is a whole other animal. Although younger than comics, TV quickly grabbed a much larger audience and quickly came to represent much bigger financial investments and potential profits. Therefore everyone, especially the money people, started paying attention right from the get-go, along with the commentators, critics, and innumerable assorted pundits.

As a reminder of how accessible television is compared to comics, readers today have to get on their bikes or into their cars and find one of the few stores that sell comicbooks, but once you’ve plunked your money down for a TV set it’s right there, staring you in the face, begging you to turn it on.

Despite all the attention TV has gotten, Turning Points in Television is the first time I’ve seen both the programs and the business that creates them analyzed in terms of their contributions to contemporary culture by someone who has actually been part of the creative and the business side and knows each one from the inside out.

I like the fact that Larry Brody’s book is up close and personal. It gives us a rare behind-the-scenes account of the shows and, even more, of the people who have influenced how millions of viewers dress and talk and work and play and buy and look at themselves. Even more frightening, it has so surely influenced the way we think.

Larry, who is both an award-winning television writer and producer as well as a compulsive viewer, surprised me on almost every page of this book. I certainly had never been aware that Desi Arnaz, Jr. is the reason we’ve got reruns–and that he caused that little phenomenon even before he was born!

Nor did I know the real reason I see big city neighborhoods and people with big city problems every time I channel surf, even though that‘s so unrepresentative of most of the real world. ‘How could I? I’m from New York!

Before I read this book, could I have guessed that decisions made by a very hip TV executive named Fred Silverman in the ‘70s are why Suzanne Summers gets to sell us all that jewelry and exercise equipment over the airwaves today? Or, that a brilliant writer named Steven Bochco could very well be the reason that so many other terrific TV writers are out of work? Or how about the fact that Larry Brody loved a puppet named Howdy Doody so much that, just like The Who, he also wanted to “die before I get old?”

Not only is Turning Points in Television filled with countless surprising revelations, it’s also loaded with passion, plus a considerable amount of “deep thoughts.” That’s because it seems Larry can’t help himself. He’s a passionate man, and hey, possibly even as smart as the network execs.

Larry Brody and I first met in the early 1990s, when he was writing for one of the animated television versions of Spider-Man. Of course, I instantly pegged him for a man of good taste and impeccable judgment when he confessed that my work had had a great influence on him. Which reminds me, one thing he modestly leaves out in this book is the fact that he became responsible for another major Turning Point in TV when we worked together again in 1998. That’s when he ramrodded an animated series about one of my favorite creations, the Silver Surfer.

Before the Surfer, Saturday morning animation was all about the action. Characters ran and shouted and punched and kicked and fought their way through every episode. The Silver Surfer on Fox Kids changed all that. Larry’s version was articulate and thoughtful, with the hero always looking for a way to avoid a fight. The Surfer soliloquized and philosophized and talked the way he did in the comic, like an intelligent adult. I’m happy to report that the show became a cult classic and seems to have led the way for other characters in many other animated shows to speak and act more intelligently than before.

Know something? I suspect you’re really going enjoy this book. After all, would a guy who’s given you animated versions of Spidey and the Silver Surfer and a guy from Marvel Comics steer you wrong?

Excelsior!

Stan

As I said, Stan and I weren’t close friends. But when I first read this, the fact that he respected me as he did brought tears to my eyes. It was one of the highest accolades I’d ever received.

And it still is.

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