“…Now let’s try it. This is Wednesday, May the 14th, and here in the home of Stan and Joan Lee in New York we are privileged to have as our guest Alain Resnais, world-famous director and cinematographic great, who is just about to make a statement about his study of English as it pertains to Marvel Comics! And now, for all of our fans here and abroad, we present Mr. Alain Resnais!”
Stan Lee met the French filmmaker Alain Resnais in Manhattan in the spring of 1969. The director of Hiroshima Mon Amour was a fan of Marvel Comics—passionate enough to buy an English dictionary, so he could understand Lee’s ten-dollar words—and had initiated an epistolary friendship with Lee. When Resnais planned a trip to work on his next film, Lee invited him to dinner at his apartment, which he recorded on tape.
“What type of movie is it?” asks Stan.
Alain says it’s about the Marquis de Sade, and they discuss the relative qualities of recent theatrical adaptations. Stan and Joan were from the Bronx and Newcastle upon Tyne, respectively, the cumulative effect of which is a kind of haute suburban dinner-hosting style.
“Do you like liver?” Joan asks, and Alain says yes, of course.
“Will this be a “sexy” movie?” asks Stan.
Alain does not know, but if it succeeds it will be on the “mysterious side of sexy.”
A doorbell rings; it’s their daughter, Joanie.
“Alain Resnais, dear?” Stan offers.
“My daughter is studying to be an actress,” says Joan.
“I’m finished studying, Mother.”
Stan says she’s just finished at the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts. “She’s an accomplished actress!”
Joanie volunteers that she saw one of Alain’s movies at a recent Metropolitan Museum of Art retrospective of his work.
“I wish I had known I was going to meet you,” says Stan, “I would’ve gone there! Let me know if they want a Marvel Comics day!” He offers Alain a cigar.
Marvel was a commercial phenomenon by the spring of 1969, and even though it hadn’t yet stormed museum halls, one of its cultural benchmarks was just around the corner. Already shipped to the printers—but not yet on stands—was an issue of Captain America that introduced the Falcon, Marvel’s first African-American superhero. It was past due, but it was also, in the world of comics, at the vanguard.
Even Stan Lee’s down-the-middle liberalism required a skillful balancing act when it came to publishing comics—keep the heroes away from Vietnam, don’t endorse angry protests but don’t demonize them, don’t ask too many tough questions. He had tried to keep politics at a distance, but the late 1960s forced him to choose a side, or at least gently nod in that direction. When you’re speaking at colleges, it’s harder to ignore campus strikes. And Lee loved speaking at colleges.
“They pay a few hundred dollars a lecture,” Lee tells Resnais. “And you don’t have to make a speech—I’ve learned the trick, I do quite a bit of it—you talk for just a couple of minutes, you introduce yourself, or tell a joke, say something to get them laughing, and then …nobody likes to listen to speeches. Nobody in the world likes a speech! So what you do, after you’ve spoken for a minute, you say now I hate to make speeches, and you hate to listen to them, so let’s have a question-and-answer period. And they will ask you a million questions, and it’s fun! You don’t know what to expect next, you can’t say anything wrong, any answer you give is interesting, and the hour, the two hours, just goes like”—fingers snap—“that. I’ve done that a few dozen times and each time it’s better. I wish I could do it more. I don’t have the time…but you get a new perspective on what people want. I’ve learned a lot.”
“But I am on the shy side,” says Alain. “I decided ten years ago that I will always refuse to appear on TV. So if I broke that now, I fear I will become less free.”
“Does freedom matter to you?” Joan asks. “Are you very much a free individual?”
“I like to do what I like when I like…”
“You’re just the opposite of me.” Stan says. “I’m not at all free because I live with these deadlines every day. If I had the time I would be interviewed, and if they wanted me on every TV show, on every radio show, I’d stand on soapboxes in the corner! I would much rather be an actor than a writer.”
“I’m a very shy extrovert!” pronounces Stan.
Writing made Lee feel lonely, Lee once said, and his wife and daughter had little interest in comics.
Joan goes back to the Marquis de Sade movie. “He said that this movie would be mysterious.” Turning to Alain, she says, “I think you like...”
“Magic. That’s why I like The Fantastic Four. It’s so free, and…the art of Kirby of course…”
“Oh absolutely!” Stan agrees.
“His machines are….”
“His art is beautiful,” Stan says, just as Joanie excuses herself from the table to walk their dog, Charlie Brown.
“I’m taking my child!” she exclaims.
“We have a new puppy…” Joan tells Alain—
(“She’s mine…she loves me,” Joanie interjects.)
“…that my husband bought to guard me when we’re on Long Island.”
“We took this apartment,” Stan says, “just to be near my daughter a few days a week. We spend most of our time here in these two rooms.”
“One time,” Joanie says, “I’m not going to come back at all with her.”
Stan Lee didn’t know it, but a month earlier, his longtime collaborator Jack Kirby had also hosted a dinner, in Southern California. The editor of Marvel’s rival, DC Comics, had trekked out to the Kirby home for a Passover dinner. Kirby—who’d created or co-created Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Black Panther and many more—felt that he was not getting enough credit, and not enough creative control. It all went to Lee.
The DC editor floated the idea of Kirby jumping ship and coming over to the other side. Kirby was interested.
“I can’t understand people who read comics!” Lee tells Resnais. “I wouldn’t read them if I had the time and wasn’t in the business. I might look through them and read something good in comics but I’ve got so many other interests!
“I was just an employee of the publisher, Martin Goodman, and I worked as editor. Everything I wrote I got paid extra for, so I had two incomes: I got my salary and I was writing, so I made a lot of money. I always made a lot of money, but it didn’t mean anything, because as long as you make money that way, the taxes are very high. The only way you can save money is if you own your own business, and you have capital gains taxes. With me, everything I make, about 60% goes to the government, so I had a lot of pride in knowing that my salary, my writing fees were very high and I earned probably as much money as anybody around, but I can’t keep any.
“I’m not underpaid. I make a lot, but I can’t keep it, you see. I don’t have any ownership. Everything I’ve written, nothing belongs to me. If somebody wants to reprint one of the stories they pay the company, they don’t pay me. It went on this way for about 29 years. Last year my publisher sold the whole company to one of these big conglomerates. I had to sign a contract for five years saying that I would work there for five years. The contract could be broken and I can break it at anytime but there’s a clause in the contract that if I leave I must not do any comics work for one year. All the time that I worked there, I never thought of leaving because I was loyal to this publisher but now it is owned by another company, and I figure, for the first time, at my age, I feel it’s time I started thinking of other things.”
“You must feel obliged to continue,” Resnais says. “You must have friends…”
(Joan brings out olives. “Very salty!” she warns.)
“…John Buscema, Gene Colan…if you leave them, they would be sad?”
“I’ve thought about that,” says Stan. “The thing is, these men are so talented that I think if I do movie work, I could take them with me. Jack is great at set design and things like that. And they’re good at storyboards. They could even stay where they are and do well, but I would like to take them. In fact, Jack is living in California…” Lee shows off some of Kirby’s recent work, and the tape recording ends.
In March 1970, Kirby quit Marvel Comics, and began working at DC.
In January 1971, at a closed comics industry event, Lee appeared on a panel with other professionals. In an odd twist, he played the role of the skeptic.
“I would say that the comic book market is the worst market that there is on the face of the earth for creative talent, and the reasons are numberless and legion,’ Lee said. “I have had many talented people ask me how to get into the comic book business. If they were talented enough the first answer I would give them is, ‘Why would you want to get into the comic book business?’ Because even if you succeed, even if you reach what might be considered the pinnacle of success in comics, you will be less successful, less secure and less effective than if you are just an average practitioner of your art in television, radio, movies or what have you. It is a business in which the creator, as was mentioned before, owns nothing of his creation. The publisher owns it.”
Months later, Lee took a sabbatical from comics, for the first time in thirty years, to work with Resnais on a film called Monster Maker, about a frustrated schlock-movie producer who tries to redeem himself by speaking out against societal ills. The film was never made. Lee returned from his sabbatical, and in 1972 was named President of Marvel Comics. In 2015, Stan Lee was asked if the comics industry had treated its creators fairly. ““I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t had reason to think about it that much.”