Only the Good Die Young– Except for Stan Lee

Screen shot 2014-10-08 at 2.48.54 PMMany years ago, when I was a young man, new to New York and new to being poor and in dire need of a job, I answered an ad in the Help Wanted section of The New York Times for a “lettering artist” at an undisclosed publishing house.

It turned out it was Marvel Comics, the very same company I had once visited a few years earlier in the company of a young woman I was dating at the time. She worked as a freelance letterer for Marvel, and had taken me inside the company headquarters a few times to drop off and pick up work.

June was well-liked, and seemingly quite popular, and it was fun walking down the hall with her.

We passed Stan Lee’s office, his door was open– and he was rocking back in his chair, with his big brown boots on his desk. He was talking on the phone. He looked up as we passed, and I thought I detected a nod of his head and a toothy smile directed toward us, but it could have just been my imagination. I tightened my lips across my teeth, raised my eyebrows and cast a sheepish look in his direction, just in case. He let us pass without beckoning us to enter.

We stopped by a little dark room with one light on a desk. Behind the desk sat a bald man in a white shirt and maroon tie. He was coloring comic book pages. My girlfriend introduced me to him and they chatted amiably for a minute or two. There was a jar of water which sat on the desk in front of him. He held a brush in one hand and every ten seconds or so dipped it into the jar of water. It made a very pleasant sound like a bell as he tapped it against the side of the jar to clean it and switch to a darker color. His name was George Roussos, and he had several aliases, one of which was George Bell.

Proceeding down the hall a little further, suddenly the light in the hallway became noticably darker, as a huge figure of a man entered the hallway from a doorway at the far end. He was so large, he barely fit through the doorway and once in it, he blocked the light. One or two others who also happened to be in the hallway at that moment, stopped as if they had done this many times before, and pressed their backs to the wall in order to let him pass. We also stopped.

This person weighed about 400 pounds and was smoking a pipe of the same type and shape as one I had seen in an old Sherlock Holmes movie many years before.

The giant figure didn’t so much walk, as it lumbered toward us. Then it stopped for a moment and looked down at us in a casual, disinterested way, in the same manner that perhaps some ancient Norse God might have regarded two small birds fluttering through a passing cloud far below. I was introduced to my friend’s boss. This was John Verpoorten.

Next stop was the “stat” room, where I was cordially introduced to one of my friend’s favorite Marvel staffers,“Stewie” Schwartzberg, a man of thirty-five or so, who seemed as mellow and relaxed standing on his feet all day working a big room-sized camera taking photostats of comics pages, as he would had he been couched in some overstuffed leather chair in front of a fireplace while dressed in a padded silk bathrobe and a pair of slippers.

Then we entered the “bullpen” and I was introduced to the artists who worked there.

First we came to Frank Giacoia, an “inker”. As my friend exchanged pleasantries with “Frankie”, he didn’t so much hold, as he “wielded” a sable brush in one hand, and continued inking newspaper strips which he systematically shuffled periodically and set aside to dry. As they talked, his drawing hand never stopped moving. From time to time, he would dip his sable brush into a jar of ink an arm’s length away at the upper right corner of his drawing board. I noticed that although the opening of the jar was very small, every time his brush went in search or more ink, he managed to dip the brush into the ink without the brush ever touching the sides of the tiny glass jar.

To me that was amazing.

It was like watching someone thread a needle without even looking at the needle! The other arm he kept rigid– and its corresponding hand gripped the top of the drawing board firmly as if to prevent it from flying off somewhere or escaping. Frank seemed to me to be at his second job, his first job, being somewhere in Central Casting for a Damon Runyon film about a former police detective who spends his nights as a private investigator. As if to complete the illusion, his Fedora hat and trenchcoat hung from a hook on a nearby wall.

Then I was introduced to Marie Severin a solidly-built woman in her early 40’s. Marie had an odd energy about her. It was the kind of energy children have when they run down the stairs in their pajamas on Christmas morning. Marie had apparently stepped away from her desk and she held a cigarette between her lips and a comics page in her hand. She had apparently just finished it and was taking it down the hall to Sol Brodsky, whoever he was…..

My girlfriend asked to see it. There was a large green monster-looking character on it. It looked like a friendly Frankenstein in purple pants. I found out later “it” was called The Hulk.  

Continuing on, we came to a man in a yellow sweater. He looked to be in his early 50’s. I was twenty-six. This man reminded me of Perry Como, a singer who was popular on TV and with my grandmother when I was a kid. The fellow looked up from behind his drawing table and smiled as my friend said, “Hi, Tartag.” I thought what an odd name for such a sedate, gentlemanly-looking man in horn-rimmed glasses.

“Tartag—?” That sounded like some kind of game that kids in reform school play during recess.  

In time, we passed the desk of Morrie Kuramoto, another man who looked to be in his early 50’s. He had one cigarette with a couple of inches of ash hanging from it in his mouth and another one with three inches of ash on it  burning in his ashtray.

My friend said, “Hiya, Jap!!” to the guy.

I was shocked and embarrassed.

He put down his racing form and looked at her over the tops of his glasses. Then he grunted, “UHNNN….” 

We walked on.

We entered a small office. There were all kinds of charts with dates on them and X’s. Seated behind the desk was a portly-fellow in his late 40’s with large dark eyes looking at us over the tops of half-glasses. He was talking on the telephone. One elbow was propped on his desk. A long spiral cord stretched between his right hand and the telephone. His other arm formed a right angle and his empty hand rested on his left knee. He brightened as my friend entered the room, winked at her and called her “Junie”.   He seemed to know her better than I did.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t planning on ever having to get a real job.

I was quite sure that as soon as I started showing my artwork to galleries in New York, I’d be selling paintings and sculpture and spending my time in a big studio with fifteen foot ceilings and a giant skylight overlooking the Empire State Building.

But I do remember thinking at the time, “This would be a pretty cool place to work if I ever needed one.”

I didn’t want to work at the same place as someone who I was dating. And I especially did not want to be competing with her for work.  

But about six months later when she announced, to my surprise, that she was “getting married and moving to Tuscon”,  it ocurred to me that perhaps the time had come to try to get freelance work while waiting for Leo Castelli to call.

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