Comic Culture

FULL EPISODE

Danny Fingeroth

Former Marvel editor Danny Fingeroth discusses editing Spider-man and his recent biography of Stan Lee.

AIRED: December 21, 2021 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

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- Hello and welcome to Comic Culture.

I'm Terence Dollard, a professor in the Department

of Mass Communication at the University of North

Carolina at Pembroke.

My guest today is writer-editor Danny Fingeroth.

Danny, welcome to Comic Culture.

- Great to be here.

Thank you for inviting me.

- Danny, you are known for a period of time

that you were editing at Marvel Comics,

during the heady days of the 1980s.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how

you got started as an editor.

- I was there from the '70s through the '90s.

I covered many decades.

I got started the old-fashioned way.

I knew somebody.

I mean, I did and I didn't.

I'm being a little facetious.

I knew some-- because I'm a New York City native,

as are many of the people who invented the original comics

and superheroes--

I went to college.

I got a degree in avant-garde filmmaking

at Binghamton University, which was

a great education and a great degree,

but not maybe the most practical thing that I could have done.

But I got this incredible, visionary worldview

and education.

And I did what a lot of young people

do when they finish college--

I came home and crashed with my mom.

That, of course, happened to be on the island of Manhattan,

which was--

as I like to say, I was born, raised,

and lived my entire life on the island of Manhattan,

making me the most provincial person you'll ever meet.

I thought, OK, I might want to--

I did some schlepping jobs in the local New York film

business, and contemplated graduate school,

and contemplated learning to be a chef.

And then I said, I love comics.

I wasn't following the Marvels super-closely.

I was more into the undergrounds and especially American

Splendor.

And Harvey Pekar I was a big fan of.

I said, you know, it might be fun to work at Marvel Comics.

And I happened to have a contact that

could get me in the door for an informational tour.

Not so close a contact that could get me a job

there, but someone get me in on a tour.

So I went on that tour.

And I dropped my resume with several offices.

And I'm sure they immediately went into their wastepaper

baskets.

But I did run into someone I went to high school

with who was working there, who when

a job came open like six months later let me know about it.

And that job was working as Larry Lieber's assistant

in what was then called the British department.

Larry, of course, is Stan Lee's brother.

And the two of them did the Spider-Man newspaper strip.

Larry's also one of the co-creators of Thor,

and Iron Man, and Ant-Man, and Groot.

And Larry's still kicking today.

He's doing a lot of his own--

he just left the Spider-Man strip shortly

before Stan passed away.

And Larry's doing a lot of interesting creative work

that maybe you'll have him on to talk about sometime.

But Larry hired me to be his assistant.

In the British department, it was mostly refer material.

But the new material we did was for a character

called Captain Britain, who's very well-known today but then

was only published in the British weekly comics.

And Captain Britain, of course, was created mostly by people

from the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens,

because, after all, the word "queen"

is in Queens and Brooklyn is Kingsborough.

So it's got that royal, British talk.

But anyway, so it was mostly refer material,

which gave me a chance to re-familiarize myself

with stuff I'd read as a kid and to read stuff

that I'd missed in the years that I

hadn't been a regular mainstream comic book reader.

And so we put together weekly comics for publication

in England.

That was the British market then,

things like Dino and 2000 AD.

So there was a black and white British weekly comic market.

And we were trying to compete in that.

And I would do important things like changing the spelling

of "color" to "colour," changing the "elevator" to "lift,"

and, as I said, doing a fair amount of new material with

Captain Britain, and new covers, and new splash page.

So that was the beginning.

So I worked with Larry for about a year and a half.

And then the British department decided

to actually move to England.

A guy named Dez Skinn, who some of your listeners or viewers

may have heard of, who was the publisher of the British Mad

Magazine at the time and then went on to do Warrior

and had a very illustrious career.

But he convinced Marvel that perhaps the British

Marvels should be put out by people actually living

in England.

Actually, my counterpart-- because we did

have a British office.

So the assistant editor in the London office

was a guy named Neil Tennant, who

went on to become one of the Pet Shop Boys.

That's a little piece of trivia.

But that's how I started.

And then from there, I ended up becoming Archie Goodwin's

assistant on Star Wars, because the British comics

were using Star Wars at double the rate

of the American comics.

So it made sense for me to be involved with that.

And then I worked with Carmine Infantino

on extra covers and extra splash pages for the British editions.

And then at a certain point, I segued--

I was still the British liaison.

After they brought the British editorial offices mostly

over to England, I then became a shared assistant

between Jim Shooter and Sol Brodsky.

And that's when I did a--

I helmed a line of reprint books.

And shortly thereafter, I became Louise Jones'--

or you may know her as Louise Simonson's-- assistant

on the X-Men books when she came over from Warren Publishing.

So I had a multi-step entry into the business.

I did not come from capital F Fandom.

I'm of the baby boom generation.

And I was the perfect age to have my brain taken over

by the early Marvels, starting--

Fantastic Four number four was the first Marvel I knowingly

bought off the stands.

I think I'd actually been reading Millie the Model

in the barbershop and--

not Millie the Model in the Barbershop.

In the barbershop, I was reading Millie--

I don't know if Millie ever went to a barbershop.

Although, she had so many comics,

she probably did at some point.

But I was not someone who went to a lot of comic conventions

and didn't write a lot of letters in.

But I had this fondness for those characters

and for the medium in general.

- And you end up editing perhaps the signature character

of Marvel Comics.

You end up editing The Amazing Spider-Man.

And that's got to be daunting.

I mean, you've worked your way up through the ranks.

You've learned your craft.

But still, it's like playing center field for the New York

Yankees.

- You know, I'd say it's more like--

I don't know, maybe center field.

But I mean, I know what you're saying with center field.

I guess it's like that in the sense

that what some people love about baseball

and hate about baseball is that even center field for the New

York Yankees, a lot of the time you're just standing there

trying to look good, you know?

And occasionally, when somebody hits a fly ball your way,

you try to catch it.

So what I mean by that is there's

a certain way in which Spider-Man is editor-proof,

artist-proof, writer-proof.

He's Spider-Man.

People have him on Slurpee cups, and underoos, and calendars,

and--

so on the one hand, it's like, OK, it's almost automatic.

But, of course, you want it to be as good as you can.

And, of course, and the better it is,

the more it will ideally sell.

So aside from the commercial aspects,

there's a certain pride that you take

in being in the major leagues like that

and playing center field for the Yankees.

It was a real challenge.

And I did it two different periods,

in the '80s and in the '90s, because of different--

I mean, I don't know how deep in the weeds you want to get.

But my career had various phases, as careers tend to do.

But yeah, the period you're talking about,

it was interesting there.

Also, it either was just the beginning or maybe it even--

at a certain point--

I don't know if they still have them--

but there were editor's royalties.

So people then, there was a sense

of jockeying for getting the higher-selling books

because you'd make more money.

But at that point, there either hadn't been the royalties

or maybe it'd just kicked in and nobody really

understood in literal terms what that could mean financially.

So it wasn't--

I happened to get the Spider-Man books because that's--

there was a little bit of a staff shuffling.

Tom DeFalco was promoted to be executive editor.

And a couple other positions shifted around.

And so the Spider-Man books were just what was open.

And I think it was only under Tom a few years

before that that the idea of even bringing

all the Spider-Man books into one family editorial grouping

came together.

It used to be--

I guess at DC with Superman too.

It was just the various titles relating

to their flagship character would

be spread among other editors.

There was a certain amount of coordination.

But the idea of actually--

and I guess this is actually.

I probably should take that back about DC.

I guess the old '40s, '50s, '60 DC structure

was families of characters would be under one editor.

And so that was a relatively new concept.

So the thing about Spider-Man is if there's no royalties

and if you're just being judged on the quality of your work

and getting your books in on time,

then there's no big advantage to an editor

in comics to take on something so high-profile.

In some ways, the incentive for an editor

is to do what you'll enjoy or what

might play to your strengths or your interests.

Once there's a royalty system involved,

I think there is understandably more

jockeying for a certain group of comics or certain characters.

But not always.

I mean, I think--

I'd say there was less of that than you would think,

because along with editing Spider-Man or editing

The X-Men comes a lot of pressure

and a lot of performance anxiety.

TERENCE DOLLARD: And at the time that you were the editor,

we see some of the bigger changes in that character's

history and some that actually have held fast

throughout the years of comics--

the black costume, Mary Jane Watson understanding that--

revealing that she knows Peter Parker is Spider-Man.

And you actually were able to hire a relatively unknown

writer to write an annual issue, a guy by the name of Stan Lee.

So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how

you put those sort of books together

and get somebody like Stan Lee wanting

to script an annual for you.

- A lot of things happened in the early and mid '80s.

It was really the beginning of the prominence

of the direct market, which was proven,

of course, by Dazzler number one selling

400,000 nonreturnable copies.

So then you're not just publishing

for a casual reader who happens to pass a newsstand

and sees, oh, there's Spider-Man's

name in red letters.

I'm going to buy that.

You're dealing with a more informed, educated, and jaded

audience.

So then you're suddenly doing stuff

like changing Spider-Man's costume, or making him a clone,

or putting him in a big multi-issue crossover.

So I know there was one story point that you had asked about.

And your question, that was that I wanted to--

TERENCE DOLLARD: I had asked about or mentioned

the Mary Jane Watson reveal.

And of course--

- Hundreds of people have worked on Spider-Man over the years.

And everybody brings something to the table.

But there may be four or five writers who really, I feel,

get the character.

So I don't mean to slight anybody I don't mention.

But Tom DeFalco, Roger Stern, J. M. DeMatteis, Bill Mantlo--

again, I'm sure I'm forgetting.

But these are people who bring something to the table,

and a passion for the character, and an understanding

of the every-person aspect of Spider-Man.

One of my favorite conversations I ever had with Tom, who,

of course, for many years was the editor-in-chief--

but I said to Tom one day, help me out here.

Spider-Man sometimes says that he's Spider-Man

because he feels guilty about Uncle Ben and responsible.

Hence, power, responsibility.

Sometimes he does it because he needs to make money

to help support Aunt May.

Sometimes he says he does it because he just

likes to play jokes on Jameson.

Sometimes he does it just to forget about his troubles

as Peter and because it's fun to be--

what's with what motivates him?

And Tom said, the guy doesn't have a clue, which

means he's just like all of us.

We all have a narrative we tell ourselves.

Here's why I do what I do.

Here's what I did yesterday.

Here's why I chose the career I did.

Here's why I bought this car.

Here's why I have this girlfriend.

But we don't really know.

We're just guessing.

And so Peter is really that.

When he's in a good mood, it's great to be Spider-Man.

When he's in a bad mood, it's the worst possible curse

in the world to be Spider-Man.

And so I think those people I mentioned--

Tom, and DeMatteis, and Stern, and a few others.

And of course, that brings you to Stan Lee,

who, of course, co-created the character with Steve Ditko.

And both those guys have to be on the list of people

who understand Spider-Man, even though they didn't actually

always agree on who Spider-Man was, as we famously know.

So I think Stan--

this is one of those things that should have a better story for.

This is the 1984 Spider-Man Annual.

Stan had been writing the newspaper strip all along.

And of course, he'd been in Hollywood for a few years

then, trying to move the Marvel characters onto TV and movies.

And somehow, I found out that he was

interested in doing some work for the comics.

I cannot tell you the exact origin of that.

But I know it was a story plotted

by Tom DeFalco, drawn by Ron Frenz, inks

by Bob Layton and Jackson Guice.

And it was weird editing Stan Lee's script because he was--

duh, he was Stan Lee.

He was the guy who started the Marvel phenomenon,

co-created the characters, edited, art directed, wrote--

he was Stan.

I would then have the responsibility

and/or the power--

I don't know what you want to call it--

of editing his script.

And for whatever reason, I felt it was appropriate for me

to give him notes and tell him, I think this works,

and that doesn't work.

And instead of just saying to me, well,

who cares what you think?

I'm Stan Lee, he would--

he was totally professional.

He was like, oh, that's a good idea.

Or, no, I don't agree with that, and here's why.

But you're the boss, so whatever you-- so it was very surreal.

And then I ended up being his editor

numerous times over the years.

And every time, it was--

I guess over time it got to be less surreal and unreal

and just a thing.

But I did work with him a lot at Marvel.

I actually ended up working with him

a lot more after I left Marvel, interestingly,

because I went to work for a couple of other mostly

online entertainment companies.

And because I was the guy who knew Stan,

it was my job to bring him in and get him involved

with things we were doing.

And then with my magazine that I put out

for seven years for TwoMorrows, the Write Now!

magazines, Stan--

I often interviewed him for that.

And I knew him a little bit but not well.

So it was strange, and intimidating,

and obviously memorable, except that I

don't remember that one thing-- how did he specifically get

that.

He liked to write.

And maybe his schedule was a little light in Hollywood

or something.

I don't know.

- Well, it's interesting, because you were able to-- like

you said, you were able to interview him for it was

a Write Now! magazine for TwoMorrows Publishing.

And you've become a historian of comics.

You've written a number of books about comic creators

and comic history, including Stan Lee, A Marvelous Life.

So I was wondering, when you approach someone

like a Stan Lee as a subject rather

than as a colleague or a friend, how do you

get that research started?

Is it mostly because you've spoken to him so many times?

Or do you have to hit the library

and try and find those resources?

- Well, just to edit you, the correct--

the full title of it is called A Marvelous Life,

The Amazing Story of Stan Lee.

And by the way, the paperback is out, hardcover,

and I did the audiobook.

If you're enjoying this, imagine 14 hours of it.

Actually, people have said very nice things about it,

although it has disabused me of the illusion

that I don't have a New York accent.

I always thought, oh, I have a very cultured, urban,

cosmopolitan accent.

But it turns out, even though I'm not from the Bronx,

I'm Bronx-adjacent.

So it sounds like I am.

So the book was a long journey.

It was not officially--

it's not authorized by Stan, or Marvel, or anyone.

So it's a completely independent--

I mean, it's put out by St. Martin's Press,

which is part of Macmillan.

So it's a big deal publisher, which I was very pleased about.

No, I had to approach him as objectively as I could.

And I guess-- when you said, did you go to the library, problem

with going to the library, yes, it's

a lot of great scholarship and many interesting books,

but especially on the internet-- but also in printed books--

a lot of half-truths or total fabrications

get printed and repeated.

And there's a hundred points of view on everything Stan did.

So I did about 50 interviews.

I did two lengthy interviews with Stan.

When I told him I was doing the book,

he said, well, good luck with it.

But I don't want to be interviewed.

I'm too busy.

And I won't tell people to talk to you or not talk to you.

But he did give me two lengthy interviews ultimately.

And I think after all those years

I'd learned how to interview him.

I learned how to get past some of his standard stories

and try to dig a little deeper.

I figured there was no point in like, well,

what about Jack Kirby, because what was I going to get?

But a lot of things about his life, and his family,

and his background, and his views on things,

and how he felt about working with his collaborators.

I feel like I was able--

one thing I pride myself on in Write Now! magazine

and in my books, including Superman on the Couch,

in Disguised as Clark Kent, to try and often

succeed at getting people--

especially older people, but even younger people,

they have an official story of how things happened.

And it's convenient, right?

Somebody asks them a question.

And they just turn on the switch.

And out comes that story.

Well, I think I figured out ways to get people

to dig deeper or come at things from a different angle

and remember things, remember details that they might not

have thought that much about.

So I think that's one of my strengths as an interviewer.

And look, and there's something about spending

my entire life doing--

making stories with beginnings, middle, and end.

So I try to make the biography--

life is very often messy.

And to try to impose a dramatic structure on it

sometimes feels artificial.

But I tried to do that as well as I could

and make each chapter a cliffhanger.

And then Stan was alive when I started writing it.

But he passed away just as I was finishing it.

So I had an ending.

It was interesting.

And then, again, the weird part was because I was at Marvel

and worked sometimes with Stan or was

witness to or on the periphery or various degrees of closeness

to various events, to try to write about those

with some objectivity but also not pretending

that I wasn't there.

So what I tried to do was to give voice

to all the different points of view,

specifically Ditko's point of view and Kirby's point of view,

and just put the information out there and let

people decide for themselves.

I mean, Stan was a flawed human and did a lot of great stuff.

He did some stuff that wasn't so admirable.

Very complicated guy.

And so I tried to present--

I think it's clear that I respected and admired him.

But I tried to put it together in a story

that most critics and most commentators

think is reasonably well-balanced.

- Well, Danny, they are telling us that we are out of time.

I did want to say, just to your point,

there's one section in your book where

you talk about Ditko and Stan Lee meeting years later.

And the fact that you are not only a witness to this

but you spoke to two or three other people who

were in the room at the time, it just shows the amount of effort

that you went to to try and present the story as

accurately as possible.

And I hope sometime in the future

we could talk about this again.

I do want to thank you so much for taking the time

to talk with me today.

- Oh, well, thank you for inviting me.

And I would love to come back.

Just let me know.

- And I'd like to thank everyone at home

for watching Comic Culture.

We will see you again soon.

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ANNOUNCER: Comic Culture is a production

of the Department of Mass Communication at the University

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