Stan Lee is the most recognizable face in comics. Even the average layperson could tell you, he’s the Marvel guy. But he’s also controversial, thanks to his habit of taking far too much credit for comic creations than he deserves. Alt comics artist and creator Dave Baker, who sells “Fuck Stan Lee” pins alongside his own comics, talked to Inverse about the industry, the history, and why he thinks Stan Lee isn’t quite the lovable old scamp he seems.
So why did you first create the pin?
The phrase “Fuck Stan Lee” first started because Nicole Goux and I were going on a tour of 11 shows in 11 weekends selling our Fuck Off Squad books. We were looking for something to call our tour and the possible names were “Fuck Stan Lee,” “Bob Kane Was A Liar,” and a few others. Ultimately, we went with Fuck Stan Lee and it sparked some interesting conversations. People have this idea of Stan as a kindly old grandpa who “created” everything [and that's why] Marvel puts him in the movies. But that’s simply not true. I made the pins as a means of furthering the conversation. For having a conversation starter of who did what on the books, how Stan’s business practices are definitely less than virtuous, and how he consistently takes credit (or simply doesn’t correct people when they attribute successes to him that he was minimally involved in) on stuff.
It seems like the Stan Lee name still overshadows the people who are creating for Marvel today. Is that the case? What’s it like for a creator right now?
It’s not like it was in the 70s and 80s. Now it’s pretty easy to get out of the big two and make your own thing and we live in a fucking golden age of comics. So many wonderful awesome books are being put out right now, and it’s hard, but creators can make a living off of them; sometimes they can make a lot of money off of them.
So the career trajectory is you start off making your indie comics, just like I do. I make a book called Action Hospital, I make the Fuck Off Squad books, I make a horror book called Suicide Forest. And that’s what you do for about 10 years. Then you make enough connections in the industry, and you get picked up by smaller companies to do licensed work. And that gets you in the door at a company where you can get a little more visibility for your own book, and then that book gets you into Marvel, you work on the X-Men for a while, and then you go back to create your own, and now you make a hit, because you have an audience that you’ve gained because you served your time as steward on the X-Man, or Daredevil, or Squirrel Girl, whatever it is that Marvel has — because they have an engine, they have a machine that puts out comics and if you are the flavor of the week, it’s a symbiotic relationship and it’s beneficial for both you and the machine.
So the machine is still necessary and still a good thing?
I don’t know if it’s a good thing, but it’s definitely a necessary thing. Fortunately, we live in a period in comics history where it’s more of a traditional path to serve your time at the big two, then leave and go make whatever you want to make, which for me, that’s the ultimate goal. So it’s maybe not the smartest career move to make this pin and start this conversation about Stan Lee.
But at least now there’s an end beyond the big two. Everyone still works there at some point, but it’s not the end of the line, right?
Right. When I was first starting to fall in love with comics, Image was awful, just not good, now Image is a fucking bastion. That’s the goal now. I want to sit in my house, and I want to make comics, preferably the Fuck Off Squad books with artist Nicole Goux, with a platform that’s large enough so that we can get people to actually read the books.
You didn’t have that before. John Byrne is a good example; he was a superstar in the 70s and, by the 80s, he was ostensibly comics’ Brad Pitt, and whatever he wanted to do, he could, and the only options were stuff at Marvel, or stuff at DC. It was all, “What you want to do John? You can do anything … I guess I’ll do Superman.””
So you couldn’t really “do anything” at that point.
Exactly. And then maybe seven years later, he was courted by Dark Horse and he did Next Men. I like Next Men, it’s good, but it’s not that crystalline moment in time; like you can tell this person’s putting everything on the line. If the timing had been a little different, John Byrne maybe could have done a book that he would have been more passionate about, or have been able to just have the technical facility. Because there’s also something in comics, where it takes fucking forever. So the longer you’re doing it, the harder it is to do it really, really, really, well — you physically can’t sit at the table for 17, 18 hour days.
At some point, you want it to get easier.
Absolutely. At that point, you’ve built a name for yourself, you’ve got a little bit of cache, you don’t have to go 110 on every single page. Which frankly is something that really scares me. I guess its comics’ equivalent of coming to grips with your own mortality, like, well, [I'm] not going to be able to do this forever.
You can argue that that’s what Stan Lee is doing right now. He’s coasting, making cute cameos. He shows up, he’s recognizable.
Yeah, and as much as I don’t enjoy that propaganda because of what it means in a larger context, good for him! Whatever, I would do the same thing if I had a lawsuit that granted me the right to be in every Marvel movie. Which is another thing that I don’t think people really understand. The reason Stan is in all those movies is because he sued Marvel after the first Spider-Man movie came out, and he didn’t make any money off it.
So it’s not this nice thing, like, “Hey Stan Lee, you wanna be in our movie?”
No, he sued Marvel, and he got a shitload of money, the right to be an executive producer on every Marvel film project that he was associated with as a comic, forever, and a cameo in any movie. And I’d like to point out, of all the creators who have ever sued Marvel, which there’s a lot, you know how many people have won? Stan Lee.
When we’re talking about Stan Lee, I think people only see “Stan’s Soapbox,” they only remember [his catchprase] “Excelsior!” and enough said. They don’t remember the fact that his uncle was the owner of Marvel for a long time, and he started at Marvel when he was 19. He didn’t want to work there, he wanted to be a novelist. But he was into writing so he was like, “Fuck it, I’ll do this.” He worked his way up the political food chain to the point where people couldn’t say no to him, and then put his name on stuff. Which again, if this was Mad Men, we’d all be rooting for this guy. He’d be like Don Draper, doing bad things for his own gain. I’m not saying that Stan Lee is evil, he just has this sense of avarice and doesn’t like giving other people credit for anything they’ve done. Which is why I made the pins!
Don’t you think he would kind of love your pin? He looks pretty pleased with himself in your design.
Maybe! I don’t know how I feel about Stan Lee the person. I just know that Stan Lee the character, the corporate puppet, is really problematic for me. That being said, there are now a bunch of people on the internet calling for my head on a pike, so that’s cool. Once you have haters, you know you’ve made it.
So some people get angry?
A little intense at times. People are opinionated, they have an idea of who Stan is because “Stan’s Soapbox” columns were propaganda of the highest order, and people really responded to them. That’s a great thing, on a lot of levels. Comics at that point in time needed propaganda. But every time I’ve talked to someone in person about the pin, it’s always been a positive interaction. Even people I disagree with, the conversation around this pin has been great. And for me, that’s what I want to focus on.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Photos via Colleen Doran