Stan Lee Calls Me From California

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From the time I was very young and long before I learned to read, I was fascinated by the art in children’s books and comic strips and soon realized I could draw my own pictures.

Every chance I could get, which was actually quite often, I would take a pencil and the cardboard reinforcement from one of my father’s recently-laundered shirts and sneak down the hall undetected into the dining room and sit down all alone at the dining room table.

Then I would silently slip away, escaping my own mundane boyhood existence, down through my arm and out through the tips of my fingers and out the point of the pencil, onto the paper and into the magical world of my own imagination, often in the company of a character I returned to time and again. I called him Ghost Diver.

Someone, or perhaps something, had long ago cut Ghost Diver’s still-bubbling air hose, but his skeletal face and bulging eyeballs were clearly visible through the thick plate glass of his big brass diving helmet. A rip in his canvas diving suit, revealing his ribs, had, no doubt, been occasioned by an unfortunate encounter which ended badly at the end of his diving knife or the tip of his spear gun for a Great White Shark or perhaps a hungry Barracuda. His bony ribs made a nice artistic counterpart to the rotting barnacle-encrusted timbers of the unnamed sunken vessel that Ghost Diver was perpetually exploring.

In all the drawings I ever did of him, he never got any closer than a few yards to any of the many treasure chests of jewelry and gold coins that were always conveniently open and beckoning to him as he went about his watery labors.

A quarter of a century later I would find myself employed full-time on staff at Marvel Comics as a letterer. I had done quite a bit of drawing up to that point in my life, but after seeing some of the artwork that was in and out of the office everyday, I’ll admit I was a bit intimidated. So I kept the fact that I could draw a secret. I wasn’t ready to show anyone in the office my artwork, because I knew it wasn’t good enough and I certainly didn’t need them to tell me what I already knew.

But there are some things which cannot be contained and there are some secrets which, given the passage of enough time, will always be revealed.

Such was the case with me.

One day, a half dozen years after I had begun working day and night at Marvel, I began doing a cartoon strip after hours based on a stick figure. I called him “Stick-Man.” I then made photocopies on Marvel’s photocopier and taped the comic strips to the doors and windows of offices in the editorial department and production department. I did not use my own name, because if anyone said anything unkind about the comic strips, I didn’t want it to coming back to me. “Skully” would have to take the criticism. Good luck finding him.

To my surprise, they were a big hit with my co-workers. People seemed to like them. Maybe there was some hope for a guy who couldn’t draw superheroes, after all.

For a guy like me a little encouragement went a long way. Unfortunately, so did a little discouragement, but, with experience, you learn to trust your own instincts about whether your work is any good or not. A little encouragement was all I needed it seemed. Soon people were coming into the office in the morning and were actually disappointed if there wasn’t a Stick-Man Cartoon on their door. They weren’t disappointed too often and in a few weeks I even got a card in the mail from Stan Lee with his own version of Stick-Man. One nice thing about a stick-figure is that everyone can draw it and the folks at Marvel had a lot of fun with it. After a few months, I was feeling so good about it, I even went up to King Features Newspaper Syndicate with the strips and showed them to the editor in chief, Jay Kennedy. He seemed amused by it and by me and asked if I really thought I could sustain a character with no face and who didn’t even talk for ten years. He explained that he wanted a ten-year commitment from the artist. I had to admit that gave me pause. I have never been the type of person who could sustain anything to do with art for ten days much less ten years.

But my secret was out.

I could draw and I could make people laugh. Soon people in the office wanted my cartoon strip in their comics and with a little encouragement from one of the editors at Marvel, I produced a Stick-Man Calendar for 1984. I will always be indebted to Jim Salicrup for that vote of confidence. We printed up a hundred copies and I gave one to everyone in the office.

Years passed and I did more and more off-beat stuff that people seemed to like. I was getting art assignments for comic strips, five-pagers and covers and I even did a humor book that sold a ton of copies. I was on a roll, as they say. Or maybe it was a bagel.

One day the phone rang in my studio, which, in those days was by no means an unusual event. My new girlfriend answered it. “Rick—it’s Stan Lee ….”

I thought I had finally arrived. Stan Lee, himself was on the phone and he wanted to talk to me about collaborating with him on a special project. It seems he was going to be meeting with the Heavyweight Champion of the Boxing World, Mike Tyson and Stan wanted me to do a special cartoon which would feature the Hulk and Mike Tyson and have Stan as the referee. Stan would be saying a bunch of stuff and I would also letter that in a big balloon over their heads. The original artwork would be presented to Mike from Stan during that meeting.

Stan could have called practically any artist in the world and they would have eagerly accepted the assignment. But Stan didn’t call any artist.

He called me!

Of course I told Stan I’d be happy to do it. I was secretly very happy that my new girlfriend saw that I was the kind of artist who gets calls from Stan Lee. Stan never said anything about money, so I asked my girlfriend how much to charge for the drawing. She told me because it was Stan Lee, I should charge him at least $500. If I charged him less money maybe he would be insulted. He was an important person, a millionaire. He could afford to pay $500. And besides, it took me all day to do the cartoon. Maybe two days even. So I did the drawing and sent it to California along with an invoice. In a week or so, I received payment by check. And I never heard a word more about it. And Stan never called me again with any more art assignments. I was pretty busy with work, so I didn’t lose too much sleep over it, although I’ll admit to being a little let down.

A couple of years later, at the San Diego Comics Convention, I happened to be on a bus from my hotel to the convention center. I was the artist of Beavis and Butt-Head Comic Book at the time, which was very popular. Two seats directly in front of me were empty and two men were getting on the bus and were going to sit in those seats. I realized that one of the men was Stan Lee. It had been a couple of years since I had done the drawing for him.

I stood up and introduced myself,

“Hi Stan! Do you remember me? I’m Rick Parker….”

Stan shook my hand and smiled.

“Yes, sure!! I remember you!

“You’re the guy who charged me $500 bucks for that cartoon!”

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