Our startling saga begins several months ago, in a deceptively quiet part of town.
Bespectacled publisher Stan Lee was chatting with some people, not androids or aliens or anything WEIRD, just normal folks KIDDING around. And somebody said, "Remember how there was the Frankenstein monster and then they came up with the bride of Frankenstein?"
And then the idea struck, like a demented LIGHTNING BOLT! "Well, why not a FEMALE HULK!"
At first, STAN WAS ALMOST EMBARRASSED saying it. But then he thought: "Hey! That could be a CUTE IDEA!"
Later came the doubt: "But -- what would you CALL her? I mean, you couldn't call her ZELDA HULK!!" His mind raced feverishly ahead. The Hulk Girl? The Hulk Lady? Nahhhhh. Too CORNY! The Hulkett? C'monnn.
Thus an idea began germinating in Stan Lee's incredibly fecund BRAIN! An idea that exploded last month with a FORCE of such terrifying FEROCITY that it slammed with devastating impact into innocent newsstands from coast to coast, scattering exclamation points in every direction!!!!
There on the racks, jostling the other comic books for attention, aching for mayhem, hunkered the new super heroine -- brawny, huge, greenskinned, tree-trunk-thighed, Medusamaned, eyes flashing virescent rage, mighty green mega-breasts thrusting defiantly out of a jagged-edged, contrasting white cave-lady cut-off sheath!
The first trio of bad guys unlicky enough to go up against this voluptuous virago instinctively guessed her appellation and delivered it to the world. (In dialogue recognized by all comic book scholars as homage to the classic "it's-a-bird, it's-a-plane" reaction sequence from Superman):
"IT'S A GIRL! BUT -- LOOK AT THE SIZE OF HER!"
"HER SKIN! IT'S -- GREEN!"
"IT'S LIKE -- SHE'S SOME KINDA SHE-HULK!"
So was born the savage She-Hulk.
Yes, Stan Lee had done it again.
Stan Lee had always done it again. Stan Lee had done it again so often that his competition had to be sick of hearing about it.
On the other hand, Stan Lee hadn't done it again for a long time, because these days he spends less time here, in his New York office, and more and more time on the West Coast, thinking up movies and TV shows instead of comic books.
Stan Lee is the publisher and creative dynamo of the Marvel Comics Group, spawner of the newest and most successful of superheroes: Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four. He has grown prosperous and celebrated by catering to the milder fantasies of teen-age boys and advancing the perimeters of the superhero genre slightly beyond its previous limits. Marvel sells more comic books than anyone else in the country -- 72 million a year. Though he is well into middle age ("late 50s -- well, my wife would rather I said middle 50s"), Stan Lee himself seems to have the energy and enthusiasm of a teen-age boy.
But we are getting ahead of our sensational story and worse, our sentences are growing longer.
Somewhere areound 1939 (Stan is incredibly vague on dates), purely by accident, a high-school kid landed a job at what is now Marvel Comics. It had a staff of three. Stan did proofreading, sweeping, coffee-bearing and odd jobs. He got $8 a week and thought it was temporary work.
Quicker than it takes to yell Shazaam, he was the editor. People had quit and Stan had taken on more and more duties: editor and art director and head writer, too. He wrote the script for such characters as Captain America -- a nice guy, but one who could not muster anywhere near the box-office might of DC Comics' stable of stars like Superman and Batman. Reality Strikes
The New Era began in 1960 or possibly 1961 (that vagueness again). Stan's team brought out the Fantastic Four, a gang of superheroes of a slightly different stripe. For instance, they didn't get along. The Torch would say, "Hey, I'm not getting paid enough. I'm gonna quit and join some other superhero group." The Thing would write to his colleagues, "You guys get all the publicity and I do all the work."
A tentative note of quirky realism was sneaking into action comic books.
"Nobody had ever done comics like that before," says Stan. "The Fantastic Four really caught on. Then we did Spiderman and that became a big hit. Then we did the Hulk. It was like we couldn't do anything wrong. Everything we did became bestselling comics."
Lee began battering at the rigid conventions.
He gave hs super characters individual personalities. "Before, everyone talked alike," says Stan. "The dialogue was interchangeable. It all consisted of 'There they go! Let's get 'em!' or 'Take that, you rat!'"
Whereeas Superman and Batman lived in the fictitious burgs of Metropolis and Gotham City respectively. Lee's super folk reside in towns like New York and often make use of recornizable landmarks. They suffer from human doubts and problems. (One Marvel character, Iron Man, had to struggle back from a bout of alcoholism.) They get engaged and even married.
"Another thing we did was go to college-level vocabulary. In the past, people doing comics were afraid to use words of more than two syllables. If we wanted to say that a guy was misanthropic, we said it. We'd have a character say, 'Don't try to proseletyze me!'"
A lot of people told Stan that he was crazy. He would kill the appeal of his comic books.
The ignorant fools!
Stan, of course, was on his way to immortality with stops on the college lecture circuit. "We gained a whole new adult readership," he quietly gloats. "What Marvel has always tried to do is increase the age spectrum of our readers. The younger readers we've always had in the ast. We try to get older readers but in such a way that we won't lose the younger readers. We have to walk a thin line."
There were some rules that not even Stan Lee could break. Costumes, for instance. When he introduced the Fantastic Four Stan kept them in mufti. "I thought, you know, if I had a super power, I wouldn't wear a costume, and I wanted to be realistic.
"So I just had them dress like people." The fan mail poured in: "Love that Fantastic Four! But you've gotta give'em costumes or I'll never buy another issue." Stan gave in.
Another convention it's dangerous to meddle with the secret identity that almost all super heroes have. "Kids love that secret identity," says Stan. 'Maybe there's some longing on the part of the whole human race to have an alter ego. Maybe we'd all like to feel that in the wink of an eye we'd become another character."
In fact, Stan himself once did just that. He started life as Stanley Martin Lieber. "When I started working here, I thought I'd be a great writer some day. Why waste my name on comics?" So he signed the name Stan Lee to his Marvel productions. Eventually, so many people knew him by that name he was stuck with it. "I regret it," he says. "It's such an ugly, stupid name."
In 1969 or '70, after about 30 years of superherosim, Stan decided to quit and go out and do the kind of real writing he'd always wanted to.
So they made him publisher.
"'Publisher' is really a misnomer in this case, because normally, the publisher is business head of the company. 'Publisher' here is really a euphemism for creative director, which is what I am."
Comic books weren't such a bad job. Things had changed. When he first started in the business, and someone at a cocktail party asked him what he did, Stan would cringe. If forced to admit he was a comic-book writer, he'd often find himself suddenly alone. "Now it's totally different. Comic books have a new glamor. Now I go to a party -- and I'm exaggerating, of course -- but people will knock over Robert Redford and Sophia Loren and Hey! There's Stan Lee! He does Marvel Comics!"
He says that around five, six or possibly more years ago (c'mon, Stan! cut it out) Marvel overtook DC Comics and has stayed ahead since. "I'm not sure of the figures, but there's a big gap," says Stan. "I think it's startling because years ago it lookes as though nobody in the world could ever touch, even approach, the popularity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and we were a very dim second."
But now, f the 200 million comic books sold in the United States every year, Marvel's more than 30 titles account for 44 percent of the market. Multimedia Man
The magic, says Stan, is in the execution. The character is irrelevant.
"Now I think that if we published Superman, we could find a way to do it where it would outsell Spiderman," he says. "Cause Superman is really a great character. I think it just isn't done right in the comic books. He doesn't have any personality!
"'What I would try to do with Superman is make him a real human being! I would have him soliliquize a lot and do a lot of soul-searching. I'd have him wonder what the hell is he doing? You know -- why doesn't he just marry Lois Lane and try to lead a normal life?
"I'd have him feel guilty. Here's this girl who hasn't married anyone else because she has this crush on him. Is it fair to her to let her keep going along like that? I would do anything that would make him seen like he's flesh and blood and has emotions."
Stan is sitting there in the Marvel Comics office on Madison Avenue, really enjoying te storytelling, really getting into it.
He loves this stuff "If somebody ever said to me I want you to take a vacation for a month and go away and sit on an island somewhere, I think I'd punch him in the nose. I haven't had a vacation in 20 years."
What Stan actually did for many years at Marvel was to write entire comic books himself. He could do one in half a day. (Though he can draw, he says he doesn't draw well enough to do a Marvel super hero.)
When Lee started, comic books were written something like movies. The writer would write out all the dialogue then indicate to the artist what to draw and where. Lee invented a new system: He'd tell the artist the basic plot and say, "You draw anything you want. I'll put in the dialogue later and make it fit."
He made the change to save time but found that he liked it better that way. "It's fun. It's like doing a crossword puzzle." And he found it was easier for him to fit the dialogue into the drawings than for the artist to do the reverse.
Now his work is changing, though. As Marvel has grown, other writers have taken over the stories.
He has been spending less and less time at the Marvel offices here and more in Los Angles working at getting more and more Marvel characters into TV and movies. Some are already there. The Hulk, of course, is a TV series. Stan is working up outlines and presentations for more. He has turned into Multimedial Man. He enjoys this, but he also misses the comic books.
Maybe that's why he came back to do the savage She-Hulk. It was the fis comic book actually written by Stan Lee in quite a few years. Several at the very least.
Ms. Hulk is well within the Lee tradition of parameter-expanding. Outside of a few exceptions, female superheroes have not thrived. But Stan Lee has never been one to settle for the comic book status quo.
"Historically, the majority of comic book readers are male," he says. "One of the problems are that boys are inhibited or a little bit diffident about picking up a product that seems to be slanted to girls. They feel it makes them look sissyish or unmanly or whatever. I would like to find a way to break down that inhibition.
"I think the She-Hulk is a strong enough character that boys will buy it." Of course, he also thinks it would be nice if girls bought it.
And so, Superstan flies into the future. He has other ideas, too. Marvel is about to bring out a slick, expensive adult comic -- or call it an illustrated fantasy-book. And there are other fantasies gestating in Lee's head, which has room for numberless stories but few numbers.
"I would hope someday that we'll be able to hire novelists of the caliber of Stephen King or Kurt Vonnegut to do these stories. The more successful the books get, the more money we'll be able to afford to pay."
(Lee says he met Stephen King and King told him that he's a Marvel reader and would like to do a comic book adaptation of his novel "The Shining." Lee was ecstatic but it turned out that King's contract prohibited the deal).
In comic books, anything is theoretically possible.Maybe the Hulk and She-Hulk could marry and have tiny hulklings. Maybe there will be a Gay Hulk, who knows? Maybe we are all living in a comic book. Maybe this sprightly saga will be continued in our next thrill-packed issue . . . but don't count on it. CAPTION: Picture 1, She-Hulk; Copyright (c) 1979, Marvel Comics Group; Picture 2, Stan Lee, by Donal F. Holway for the Washington Post