Danny Fingeroth has been working in comics for decades. A longtime editor at Marvel, Byron Preiss and Visionary Media, Fingeroth wrote comics like Darkhawk, Dazzler, Venom: Deathtrap – The Vault and Deadly Foes of Spider-Man, and wrote nonfiction books including Superman on the Couch and Disguised as Clark Kent. He’s also known to a lot of convention goers as one of the people who runs a lot of panels — interviewing and celebrating the creators who helped to invent comics at dozens of labels across the country. At the end of 2019 he came out with his biggest book to date, A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee.
The biography of the late Stan Lee is unauthorized but affectionate, and tries to capture the man that Fingeroth got to know later in his life with the young man who has been written about at length. After reading the book, I asked Fingeroth a few questions about the project and how it fits in with his other work, including serving as chair of Will Eisner Week.
I know that you worked at Marvel for years, but when did you first become interested in writing this book and when did you actually start writing it?
I probably started thinking about it about 10 years ago. Really it arose from me searching for a project I could do that would be in my area of experience and that also might be of interest to large numbers of people. I wasn’t looking to do an interesting academic book or a book for a small number of fans. I wanted to take my interest and expertise and do something that would have the potential to be popular.
Stan Lee is the most well-known comic book person in the world. That combined with the fact that I did have a relationship with Stan. At one point I had been advised by an agent and publisher, who has since passed away, that doing a biography is best when it’s authorized. I actually tried to convince Stan to do an authorized biography and he thought about it for several months. I assumed he’d say no and he’d say no right away, but he actually thought about it and for whatever reason, decided that he didn’t want to do it. He said, “If I wanted anybody to do it, it would be you, Danny.”
Now, I don’t know if he said that to five other people that week, but he ultimately said to me, “Just write an unauthorized biography.” Which is funny because the whole point of being unauthorized is that you don’t need the subject. It set my mind at ease somewhat in terms of thinking, “Okay, it’s not authorized, and he’s not going to directly participate in it, but at the same time, he said do an unauthorized one.”
I found a very good agent named Kevin Moran, and I put together a very detailed proposal for him and we went around to sell it. It was interesting. When we first started shopping it around about five years ago, Stan was famous but not as famous as he is now. I think even though he had the cameos, he was an interesting type of famous person because everybody knows who he is. Most people have positive feelings towards him. Some people may have negative feelings. But the question of course when you’re trying to write a biography or when you’re a publisher trying to decided whether or not to buy a proposal for a biography is, “Is this person well-known enough and of interest enough that people would dig in their pockets to buy a book about this person?”
So I was thinking about it for about 10 years. Seriously thinking about it for five years. We signed the contract about three years ago, and two years ago I started laser-focusing and making it the main thing I was working on.
You mention in the book that you were working on programming for a lot of the Wizard shows and did a lot of panels with Stan and got to spend time with him.
From 2013-2017, I was engaged by Wizard as a programming consultant where they wanted me to come up with ideas for and then reach out to people to be on panels and then moderate them. I was doing 6-15 panels depending on which show. At a certain point Stan was a guest at almost all the Wizard shows and around 2014-2015 I was the main moderator for Stan’s large panels.
I’d worked with him when I was at Marvel, when I was at Byron Preiss and at Visionary Media. I’d worked on many projects with him and even interviewed him a few times for Write Now magazine and for the Stan Lee Universe book I did with Roy Thomas. Altogether we did 10-12 public interviews where I was moderating, which meant I would ask him a few questions, he would stop and say, “Before you go any further I’ve got to tell you this guy is the greatest and how we let him go at Marvel, I don’t know.”
While his mind was agile and witty and he’d come up with great answers, his hearing was bad. He needed a moderator just to repeat the questions. So we had fun kibbutzing on stage. I think I got some insight to him from that. Even though the book wasn’t authorized and he said, “I’m not going to do any interviews,” he then changed his mind and did two lengthy interviews for the book and I think in those interviews I learned how to get answers from him that were deeper than the usual rote answers he would give to people to certain questions. I think that helped inform the book.
As far as that, what did you get him to open up about? Because he was a great storyteller, but he told a lot of the same stories over and over.
This is maybe inside baseball but when Martin Goodman, the original owner of the company, sold it, Goodman signed a contract that he would stay on for four or five years as the publisher. The understanding – it was verbal because it wasn’t in writing – was that Martin’s son Chip would succeed him as publisher. Stan had other ideas. He had been there for 30 years and he wanted to be the publisher and call the shots and run the comics. That’s well known, but when I said, “How did that go down when Chip was about to become head of the comics division?” The way Stan phrased it was a little less polite than I’ve heard him say it before. “That was my revenge.” He said to them, “Either I’m the publisher or I’m walking, and so they made me publisher.” Stan is usually much more polite and delicate in his choice of words. He had a very mixed relationship with Martin. Chip was almost collateral damage, but he and Martin had a very complicated love-hate relationship and he wasn’t going to get Martin’s final act to edge him out of this promotion he wanted.
Another point is the famous story that when Stan was in high school he worked for the Magpie, which was the school magazine and Stan was the publicity director. The room where the magazine’s offices were was being painted one day, and it had a very high ceiling, and the painters went on a lunch break and left their brushes and buckets. So Stan climbed up on the ladder and wrote what he has often said he was, “Stan Lee is God.” Which is funny, but I asked, “So were you calling yourself Stan Lee in high school?” He said, “You’re right. I wasn’t. I must have written, ‘Stanley Leiber is God.'” Which is not the most profound revelation about Stan’s past, but it was interesting because he’s always told the story one way. So things like that.
I learned a lot about his friendship with Ken Bald and Jim Mooney. I didn’t think there was a point in asking, “So what about Jack Kirby?” I didn’t think that was going to get me anywhere. But filling in a deeper and broader picture of who this guy was and how he came to be in this position. If you know my work, I’ve done a lot of interviews in public with old time comics people. I’m very interested in the history of comics and the people who did them. That includes Stan. Among the many things that are interesting about Stan is that in one sense he was typical of that generation. He was a poor kid from the Bronx who had this skill set and was a distant relative of the owner, and he has a story that’s similar to a lot of people. Of course his life starting with the co-creation of the Marvel characters and the Marvel brand starting in the 1960s, from there his life takes a whole other turn. It’s a fascinating thing about him. On the one hand he’s like dozens of other people and then gradually he decides that his life and career and goals are a whole other thing. The saga of how he pursued those goals – and which ones he succeeded at and which ones he didn’t – to me it’s a fascinating story.
It’s interesting you point that out because he was a company man and there is a sense where that was typical for so many men of that generation.
You’re right. He had a father – and he’s written about this – and I go into some detail about how his father was a difficult personality. He worked in the garment business as a cutter, and reading between the lines I think he alienated people. He was not the most cooperative employee and he worked intermittently. Stan was virtually supporting his family from the time he started working at 17. So I think for someone of that Depression era, the idea of having a steady job was the ultimate goal. A regular paycheck and a steady job. Not only was Stan Martin Goodman’s relative, but half the people who worked there were Goodman’s relatives. It was a velvet-lined trap. It was a comfortable living. He could assign himself a salary and as much freelance work as he wanted. Martin at times was very involved with the comics but usually he was less hands off. At the same time, he never made Stan an editor of one of his magazines or line of magazines. He kept Stan in that comic book ghetto.
You see old photos or home movies, and Stan and Joan were very much in love. They had one daughter who died as an infant, which is the tragedy that I think colored a lot of their lives after that. But they had one daughter, JC, and they had a nice, typical 1950s suburban life. I think Stan was a little bored with the comics and thought maybe he’d go to Hollywood, but he was too comfortable to really do it. I think because there was that security of having a regular job, which he could supplement with freelance income. He was constantly sending out pitches for syndicated strips and independently published books and making special comics for places like the Bob’s Big Boy Chain. The guy was full of energy and loved doing funny creative stuff. You’re right; he was a company man. I think that’s definitely a part of the story, although there were times when he sued Marvel and Marvel sued him. It was not without its bumps – especially when it was no longer a family business. And he had become so identified with the Marvel characters and the comics, I think there were times where maybe he’d fantasize about going to DC. If I had to guess, I think Stan probably wanted to use his Marvel cred to get out to L.A. and use those credits to become a producer of movies that were not comics-based movies. I think he wanted that to be his foot in the door to become an independent producer in Hollywood. But he was so identified with the Marvel properties, and by the time he moved to L.A. in 1980 he was almost 60 years old, which in Los Angeles is like being 150.
I can see him functioning as an independent producer and doing very well. In part because he was one of the greatest editors in the history of comics. But I also kept thinking reading the book how much he needed other people. He thrived on collaboration. He needed Kirby and Ditko and Romita to throw him ideas and challenge his ideas.
And draw the pictures. [laughs]
And draw the pictures. But he needed someone who could push against him and challenge him. I mean, he never stopped working, but none of us want to remember Stan as a the creator of Striperella.
I know exactly what you’re saying. We don’t want to remember Stan as the creator of Striperella, but I think he got as a big a kick out of that as he did out of the Silver Surfer. I think because maybe he was with Pamela Anderson, who was a star and he thought some of that glamour rubbed off on him. It’s funny because not every creator is the best judge of their own material. I’ve never seen an episode [of the show], so for all I know it’s entertaining, but the premise is goofy and not the most progressive thing. I think he just liked to be working.
Maybe the peak of his ambitions to do something outside of that comfort zone might have been when he did a couple screenplays for the French director Alain Resnais. A lot of people wanted to visit Marvel and it was good PR, but of the few that Stan became friends and colleagues with, he wrote a screenplay for Resnais that almost got made and then he wrote a treatment for another film. I think had those movies taken off, it would not have surprised me if in 1972 or ’74, Stan would have kissed the comics industry goodbye.
Just to switch tracks, you are the chair of Will Eisner Week. Do you want to say a little about what it is and how it started?
I think it started about 10 years ago, by Charles Brownstein of the CBLDF and Carl and Nancy Grapper who run Will Eisner Studios and the Will and Ann Eisner Family Foundation. Carl is Will and Ann’s nephew and they wanted to do something that was simultaneously commercial and education and had a higher purpose. Will was born March 6, 1917. The idea is we encourage people in all sorts of venues to do an event that relates somehow to Will Eisner. It can be specifically about Will Eisner or celebrates his work, his legacy. He was an educator. He published several textbooks. We encourage people around the world to do a lecture, a panel, a “how to,” a memory of Eisner’s work a thing that’s tangentially to Eisner.
Will loved the medium. He was one of the first people back in the forties when no one thought of comics as art, Will was one of the first people to say on the record, “Comics are an artform.” He believed that and kept banging that drum his whole life. You can find all the information at website willeisnerweek.com. It can be anything. If you have a website, if you have a podcast, if you have a hot air balloon you want to paint a picture of the Spirit on, we will help publicize it.
I know that you’re doing more events for A Marvelous Life.
I just read the audiobook, which will be out in late January. I hadn’t planned to do it, but I think it came out pretty well. I’ve never done that before, but I’ve done a lot of readings from the book and I think I was able to bring that same presentation to the audio book. I’ll also be at the Jim Hanley Universe. I’ll be at the Manhattan store on January 15th and at the Staten Island store on the 22nd.
So have you started thinking about the next project?
Here’s my challenge. I’m going to write about the most famous person in comics – Stan Lee – well, who’s the second most famous person that a civilian, who’s not a comics fan, would know? The answer is, nobody. [laughs] I mean there are obviously hundreds of talented brilliant geniuses who have worked in comics over the years but as far as someone who could command the kind of attention that Stan Lee would, it’s a hard one. Right now I’m very focused on promoting the book. My agent and I are discussing what the next thing is, whether comics related or whether I’ll write a biography of somebody else. But may I quote from Jack Kirby? Whatever I do next, it’s going to electrocute you in the mind. So keep a look out.