Authors: Sean Howe
Meanwhile, superheroes had waned in popularity, lacking both Axis enemies and a dedicated readership of U.S. servicemen. Lee called for Captain America’s sidekick, Bucky Barnes, to be shot (“I always hated sidekicks,” he’d say later). By the end of 1949, the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner had vanished, and Captain America remained only in name:
Captain America’s Weird Tales
was a bizarre horror title in which the Captain himself was nowhere to be found.
That was okay with Lee, as long as
was popular. He needed to keep working. After his mother died, his fifteen-year-old brother, Larry, came to live with him and Joan, who was pregnant with their first child. They moved out of their fourth-floor walk-up with zebra-skin furniture, and into a $13,000 two-story house in the Long Island suburbs, right near Martin Goodman’s mansion.
s a boss, Martin Goodman could be difficult. He was magisterial—even his brothers called him “Mr. Goodman”—and he had mastered the art of the awkward silence, which he delivered with a calm stare. But he had a generous streak. Once, when he discovered that one of his magazine employees was taking his sick child to a veterans’ hospital, Goodman handed the staffer a blank check. “Use this as you wish,” he said. “Don’t leave anything undone that could be done with money.” He offered to take on one editor’s mortgage, and assured another that her job would be waiting for her when she returned from having a child. “The only regret I have,” he told her softly, “is that if I’d known how successful I was going to be, I would have had a fourth child.” But as with so many autocrats, his largesse was capricious. One employee remembered Goodman offering him a cigar while out for a lunch meeting; when he responded with “No thanks, maybe later,” Goodman replied, “Yes, maybe later, but what if I don’t offer you one later?” One never knew when the charity would evaporate.
And so when Martin Goodman opened a closet door in the Timely offices and found himself face-to-face with the thousands of dollars’ worth of inventoried pages that Lee had been stuffing away, he asked why he was paying for the production of so much new material. He ordered Lee to start trimming the staff. Shortly before Christmas in 1949, a speaker system was installed in the artists’ rooms. The artists called it “the bitch box.” “Every so often you’d hear Stan yell ‘so-and-so come into my office’ and you’d know that ‘so-and-so’ was being fired,” remembered one staffer. “It was the voice of doom.” Not only did Lee have to tell the artists they were out of work; he had to explain that it was because Goodman wanted to use up the inventory that he himself had stockpiled. By February, nearly everyone but Lee was on the street.
That outdated supply of inventory couldn’t hope to fill the need for the latest trends, including war comics (popular in the wake of the Korean War) and horror comics (lucrative following the wild success of EC Comics’
Vault of Horror
Crypt of Terror
Haunt of Fear
), and so freelance assignments began trickling down the following year. But for Lee and many of the writers and artists, the firings were a brutal reminder of the lack of security afforded the creative community. When Goodman decided to distribute his publications himself, under the name “Atlas,” that word began appearing on comic covers emblazoned majestically across a globe-draping banner—an ironic flourish of triumphalism, given the layoffs.
The days of the bustling, oversized artists’ rooms were over. But Lee began to build up a production staff again, as Goodman aggressively jockeyed for space on newsstand racks. While other publishers cut back, Timely added more titles. When
The Adventures of Superman
translated the Man of Steel into a television sensation, Goodman resuscitated his own holy trinity—Captain America, the Human Torch, and the Sub-Mariner—and pitted them against communists, in hopes that he’d capture a little of that old wartime thrill. As though history were repeating itself, men who’d made a splash for Timely in the 1940s, like Bill Everett and Carl Burgos, were now regular visitors to the Timely hallways, alongside a wave of younger talent. Rapidly expanding, Goodman moved operations to Madison Avenue, above the Boyd Chemists drugstore and cafeteria. With a carpeted office and a short walk to Central Park, he was headquartered at ground zero of 1950s consumerism, where legions of well-dressed martini lunchers, responsible for approximately half of the advertising dollars in the country, ducked into newly built towers and straightened their ties at the elevator banks. At 655 Madison, most of Goodman’s new office space was dedicated to his magazine line (the creatively titled Magazine Management, Inc.), which had evolved from its pulp roots into a mixture of true confessions, movie gossip, crossword puzzles, and, under the editorial stewardship of Bruce Jay Friedman, mildly smutty action-adventure titles like
For Men Only
. But off to the side, Stan Lee was overseeing more than sixty different titles and, in the words of Friedman, “a sea of employees.”
n April 1954, just as Goodman’s editors were unpacking their boxes and getting settled on Madison Avenue, the furor over comic books returned with a vengeance. Child psychologist Frederic Wertham, who’d been a prominent critic of comics for years, published
Seduction of the Innocent
, a full-throttle attack on the lurid contents of various crime, horror, and even superhero titles (including graphic illustrations of wife-beatings, sadomasochism, and gruesome murders); weeks later, a U.S. Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency turned its sights on the same, with Wertham as an expert witness. When Monroe Froehlich Jr., Timely’s business manager, was called to testify, he and Martin Goodman loaded a station wagon filled with comics and drove down to Washington, eager to provide wholesome counterexamples. (“May I tell you about Bible tales?” Froehlich helpfully offered from the stand.) But they shouldn’t have bothered; the subcommittee had its own supply of four-color thrills. In televised hearings, an interrogator waved a copy of Timely’s
#28 at the audience, noting that it contained “five stories in which 13 people die violently.”
Timely got off easy. William Gaines was the publisher of EC Comics, whose war, crime, and horror tales embraced outsiderism and railed against the hypocrisies of conformist American society. But EC’s stories also included vile scenarios, like a group of murderers who use the corpse of their victim to play a game of baseball. (“See the long strings of pulpy intestines that mark the base lines,” the narration cooed. “The heart that is home plate . . . see the batter come to the plate swinging the legs, the arms, then throwing all but one away and standing in the box waiting for the pitcher to hurl the head in to him.”) When Gaines took the stand, he was asked to answer for the cover of
#22: A killer’s left hand held a bloody ax; the right held the blond hair of a decapitated head, with eyes rolled back. Visible in the background were the victim’s skirt and lifeless high-heeled legs stretched along a tile floor. “Do you think that is in good taste?” Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee asked Gaines. “Yes, sir, I do, for the cover of a horror comic,” Gaines replied.
His testimony made the front page of
New York Times
he subcommittee hearings were adjourned and never reconvened, but the damage was done. A few months later, on a weekend in the Catskills, Lee mentioned to a rifle salesman that he was a comic-book editor. “You do comic books?” the man spat at Lee. “That is absolutely criminal—totally reprehensible. You should go to jail for the crime you’re committing.” Artist Dick Ayers donated an autographed box of comics to his daughter’s school fund drive, only to have them returned with a note recommending that they be burned.
In the summer of 1954, fifteen comic publishers went out of business. In September, nearly all the remaining publishers formed the Comics Magazine Association of America, which instituted self-regulating rules that were modeled after Hollywood’s Hays Code but even more draconian: according to the new Comics Code, covers could not even include the words
; under no circumstances were zombies, vampires, ghouls, or werewolves permitted to appear anywhere in the comics. Furthermore—and this is where the rules tipped into the Orwellian—there could be no sympathy created for criminals, nor disrespect of the sanctity of marriage. “Good,” the rules demanded, “must triumph over evil.” If a book didn’t have a Comics Code seal, distributors wouldn’t touch it. EC Comics, with its brilliant but lurid crime and horror titles, shut down its entire comic-book line, although one title,
, was reformatted into a magazine.
Comic books, defanged just as television sales were skyrocketing and rock and roll was beginning, lost their momentum. In the two years that followed Wertham’s crusade, the number of titles produced by the comic industry was halved. Companies folded left and right. Timely Comics cut its budget drastically, paying less and less every month to its freelancers; years later Goodman’s secretary would remember Lee repeatedly walking into the publisher’s office to fight for higher artists’ rates.
And rates were more important than ever to the draftsmen, who were by now scrubbed of the youthfully exuberant curiosity. The honing of craft, the following of whims, and the breaking of rules all took a backseat to the necessity of family-supporting paychecks. “Talk was no longer about work,” recalled cartoonist Jules Feiffer. “The men were too old, too bored for that. It was about wives, baseball, kids, broads—or about what a son of a bitch the guy you were working for was: office gas. The same as in any office anywhere, not a means of communication but a ritualistic discharge. The same release could be achieved through clowning: joke phone calls, joke run-around-errands for the office patsy, joke disappearances of the new man’s artwork. Everyone passed it off as good fun in order not to be marked as a bad sport.”
With lowered morale, they continued to churn out product that shared shelf space with similarly antisepticized comics from industry leaders Dell (which held longtime licenses of Walt Disney and Warner Bros. characters) and DC (which had begun to reintroduce its superheroes as squeaky-clean citizens who worked by day as policemen, scientists, and police scientists in gleaming, modernist urban landscapes).
In late 1956, at the advice of Monroe Froehlich, Goodman abandoned self-distribution and signed with the American News Company. But ANC—reeling from a Department of Justice investigation for monopolistic practices, and fighting lawsuits from its own clients—suddenly ceased its Wholesale Periodical Division in April 1957, leaving Goodman with a magazine and comic-book empire but no way to reach newsstands. Independent News, seeing the profitability of Goodman’s magazines, agreed to distribute Goodman’s publications. But because Independent News was owned by Timely’s rival, DC, there would be a catch: Goodman’s comic-book output could not exceed eight titles per month.
The Timely line was decimated instantly. Goodman scheduled himself a vacation in Florida and told Lee to fire the staff once again. “It was the toughest thing I ever did in my life,” said Lee. “I had to tell them, and I was friends with these people. So many of them, I had dinner with them at their homes—I knew their wives, their kids, and I had to tell them this. It was, as I say, the most horrible thing I ever had to do.” After each conversation with a staff member, Lee left for the bathroom. Then he came back and fired another.
John Romita, already impatient with his dwindling page rates, got a call from one of Stan’s lovely, soon-to-depart assistants:
stop work immediately
. He asked to be recompensed for the work he’d already done; she said she’d pass along the message, but he never heard back. “If Stan Lee ever calls,” Romita told his wife, “tell him to go to hell.”
he artists panicked. Some walked right over to DC Comics and showed their samples, but many ran as far from comics as they could. Bill Everett went to a greeting-card company, Gene Colan moved into advertising, and Don Heck began designing model airplanes. Mike Sekowsky, a cocky and lightning-fast penciler who’d been one of the stars of the Bullpen, got a job bagging groceries.
Stan moved into a cubicle on the other side of Bruce Jay Friedman, a thin partition separating them. “I thought it was very brave of him to stay on, to go from those heights to one little desk and a secretary,” said Friedman. “It appeared that he was being pushed out and that he refused to be pushed out.” But Goodman had his own reasons for keeping his wife’s cousin on board. He’d seen comics rise and fall and rise again, and he was damned if he was going to give up the rack space now, only to be shut out of the game later on.
hen the inventory started to run out this time, there was no rehiring of staff. Only about a half-dozen artists stayed on Lee’s Rolodex for the required work. One of them, though, was his absolute favorite. Joe Maneely, who was speedy and astonishingly versatile, handling the
Casper the Ghost
Melvin the Monster
and the western
with equal aplomb. Although he lived in New Jersey, Maneely became a regular guest at the Lees’ martini parties in Long Island, and by early 1958, Maneely and Lee were doing a syndicated comic strip,
Mrs. Lyons’ Cubs
, independently of Goodman. Lee would later say that, if things had gone differently, he might have quit Marvel to go work with Maneely on other projects. But one Friday in June, after drinks with a handful of other Timely alumni, Maneely—who’d lost his glasses earlier in the week—fell between cars of his commuter train. He was thirty-two. A devastated Lee lost not only his friend and collaborator, but also one of his most prolific employees.