NYCC: The New York Comics Legend Award

Eric Rosenfield reports:

The first annual New York Comics Legend Award was held at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square where a number of die-hards ponied up $350 each to see the award given to Stan Lee, co-creator of Spider Man, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, etc. etc. He’s something close to the PT Barnum of comics, fond of such catchphrases as “True Believer” and “Excelsior!” I had come with this guy. At first, we milled around and ate the excellent canapés. We were upset because the luminaries—including Stan Lee, Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada, his DC counterpart Paul Levitz, and long-time comics writer Peter David—were all sequestered away in their own area, separate from the people who had paid so much money to be there. Then the show began. Peter David got up and told a number of amusing stories about Stan, including the way that Stan saved his family. (Basically, when Peter was getting a divorce, both he and his wife wanted custody of the children. Peter got a character reference from Stan, which had apparently astonished the court-appointed psychiatrist and made the judge awestruck. His wife said that, during the whole time she was with the psychiatrist, all he wanted to to was talk about was how Peter knew Stan Lee.) Next up was Sharad Devarajan, the CEO of Virgin Comics, who didn’t actually know Stan and seemed to be there only because we were all in the Virgin Megastore. At least he seemed to understand his irrelevance and got off quickly. Then Joe Quesada came up to the dais and talked about how Stan always liked to rip into him. Joe: “Every once in a while I’ll get a call from Stan and he’ll say, [doing Stan Lee impression] ‘This is Stan Lee. I’ve just read the last few months of Marvel Comics. [Dramatic beat] What’s wrong with you?'”

Then there was Stan himself. He apologized for not having a speech prepared. He hadn’t known he was supposed to give one. He made fun of Joe Quesada a little and then talked for a bit about comics and his new book, Election Daze, where he wrote captions, speech bubbles and thought balloons on photographs of political figures. Finally he threw his hands up and said “Excelsior!” The crowd erupted in applause.

Afterward, the comics luminaries did come out and mingle with the crowd. I managed to corner Joe Quesada for an interview, though, being the professional that I am, I didn’t bring an audio recorder. I asked him about whether he thought that the big crossover events that Marvel has been doing (Civil War last year and Secret Invasion this year) might be intimidating to new readers who maybe don’t want to buy all these different books in order to keep up with the storyline. He acknowledged that this had been a problem in the past (I mentioned some cross-overs from the nineties, Captain Universe and The Evolutionary War, which were particularly hard to follow without buying an enormous number of comics), but he said that the way they had built these series was by making them contained within the few issues of their own comic. You only had to read the other comics if you wanted to delve deeper into the story. You could get a complete comics experience just in the seven issues of Civil War, for example. This method has been successful: “I think Civil War has gotten more new readers into comics,” he said, “then anything else in the past ten years.” I asked him if having two Marvel Universes, the original and the “Ultimates” might confuse new readers or dilute the characters, and he said that both the original and Ultimate comics were selling very, very well, and he’s heard of a lot of people getting into comics through the Ultimates. “A lot of people told me that a long time ago the first comics they ever bought were GI Joe, back when they did these TV/comics crossovers. Nowadays people tell me that Ultimate Spider-Man was the first comic they ever bought.”

There’s a scene at the end of the first issue of Secret Invasion in which duplicates of many Marvel characters dressed as they appeared in the seventies show up. I asked Quesada if there was any worry about cognitive dissonance with all the characters in seventies’ clothing. Because in the Marvel Universe continuity, none of them are old enough to have been around in the seventies. The extreme example of this is Luke Cage—Power Man—walking around with a giant afro and a tiara on his head. He said, “Yeah, Power Man had that tiara and it was six years ago [in Marvel continuity], he was just having a real fashion problem then. You know, that’s the least of the problems with the Marvel Universe. Every story practically contradicts other stories because we’re coming out with so many of them all the time. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. You can’t get caught up in these things.” And then he leaned in conspiratorially, “I’ll tell you something about comics. We just make this shit up. Every day we go in there and just make this shit up.”

I found Quesada’s attitude refreshing when compared against sticklers in the comics world — the type so ably parodied by Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons — who get upset when any little thing seems out of place. Some might not understand why these issues of details and crossovers and parallel universes are so important and why Marvel’s attitude toward them is so interesting. You see, since the eighties, Marvel’s big rival, DC Comics, has been fanatical about updating their characters for new generations, constantly rewriting the histories of Superman, Batman, Wonder-Woman and so on to make them more “relevant.” Like Marvel’s current situation with the Ultimates and the main universe, DC once had two universes, one which took place in the contemporary DC Universe and one which was about the characters from the “Golden Age” of the thirties and forties, a universe where Superman grew old and married Lois Lane and Batman had a child with Catwoman. DC eventually decided that these two universes were too confusing and basically destroyed them both in Crisis on Infinite Earths, creating a new, “Post-Crises” DC, resulting in mixed reactions from the fans. My conversation with Quesada tells you a lot about Marvel Comics’s attitude and why it’s been more successful than DC for decades now; at DC, everyone seems very concerned about making everything just right, where as at Marvel they just seem to be having a good time.

Finally I managed to squeeze into the crowd and get a moment with Stan the Man himself. “Stan!” I said, “I’m Eric Rosenfield!” He looked at me for a moment before quipping, “THE Eric Rosenfield?” “Yes,” I said. Knowing I was only going to have a few more seconds with him before he was whisked away, I shot out the one burning question I had of the old Jewish comics maven, “I wanted to see you on Saturday [at the New York ComicCon] but I can’t because it’s on Passover! Why are you speaking on Passover?” I didn’t mention that it was particularly galling for the ComicCon to be taking place on Passover when New York is the epicenter of Jewish comic creators. “I don’t know what to tell you,” said Stan sweetly. “I may not be getting into Heaven, but at least we got to meet here.”

As Ed and I shuffled out, we were given a gift bag full of Virgin Comics. [ED: I politely declined the bag.] It didn’t matter that these comics are awful. It didn’t matter that we had to muscle out through the crowds in the Virgin Megastore into the crowds in Times Square. I was skipping with joy. After all, I’d just met Stan Lee.

Edward Champion reports:

Thursday night’s event had the feel of a corporate retreat initiated on a casual Friday. Crammed throngs transformed the basement into a semi-sweltering exposition. Caterers, dressed in red Spider-Man shirts and wearing false smiles, were casually ignored. Guests extended their anonymous tendrils onto trays and gulped down the food without thanks. Black plastic spiders were placed delicately in martini glasses. I observed one apparent reporter who wore a prominent button for Stan Lee’s book, Political Daze, and I had to wonder if the reporter was there to cover the event or serve as a Marvel advertisement. As Peter David observed during his remarks, “Ten people came up to me with business cards, wanting to give me more.” Did many misconstrue this brush with the greats as a networking session?

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but remain somewhat impressed by the madness of it all. Stan Lee had an entourage that, as Eric remarked later, resembled a Latin American potentate. Here was a man whose greatest creation was, as Joe Quesada observed, Stan Lee himself. During the ten minutes he sauntered through the crowd, flashing a politician’s smile. He’d place an arm around a fanboy’s shoulder for a quick camera snap, only to spin around and toss out a quip to another. He never spent more than thirty seconds with any one person. The crowd, of course, ate this up with the same zeal in which they scarfed down the canapés.

“Truth, above all, is his major contribution,” said Peter David. But I wondered what kind of truth was on display here. Being relatively clueless, I had no idea that people had shelled out $350 for this event until Eric pointed this out to me. Lee proudly boasted to the crowd that he was a tightwad. And I had to wonder whether some magical Marvel accountant had figured out a way to pull off this awards ceremony to ensure that Marvel made a sizable profit.

As Eric talked with Joe Quesada, I couldn’t help but observe a short man protectively clutching a plastic bag containing original Marvel artwork. Another comics fan began talking with this man, asking him how much he had paid for it. “Too much,” said the man. When the fan begin to open the top folds of the bag, the man shrieked and waved the fan’s arm away. He told the fan that the artwork was very personal to him because he knew many people. But if he knew many people, why then was he spending much of the party alone?

The comics industry is built on hardcore fans like the man with the plastic bag. And these fans were willing to pay considerable money to spend only a few seconds with the men they considered masters, hoping to feel important by proximity. But what made me feel truly sad was the way they had been casually sequestered away from their heroes, while their heroes saw no ethical conundrum in profiting at their expense.

[UPDATE: Comic Foundry senior editor Laura Hudson reports that because she has written critically about Virgin that she would be banned from future Virgin events. Meanwhile, Lance Fensterman reports that there were many unhappy fans because Stan Lee wasn’t signing anything.]