(Welcome to week five of the Friday Afternoon Serial. If you haven’t had an opportunity to read Chapters 1-4, we highly recommend doing so before delving forward into Chapter Five. Otherwise, enjoy. Pass it on. After the jump, Bobby Lee shares the stage with a comic book legend.)
“FROM STAN LEE TO BOBBY LEE: DECONSTRUCTING |
THE MYTH OF THE MODERN SUPERHERO”
This is what is written on the banner hanging overhead.
It is Thursday afternoon and I am onstage at New York Comic Con – the east-coast edition of an uber-popular comic book convention, held at the Jacob K. Javits Center in midtown Manhattan.
Industry legend Stan Lee is sitting directly across from me, and he is seething.
Stan Lee is seething because he was under the impression he would be delivering a keynote address, not participating in a lowly panel discussion. He is seething because he regards me as a know-nothing hack who fell ass backwards into the DC universe. He is seething because every time he and I make a public appearance together, it always leads someone to ask if the two of us are related.
The two of us are not related.
Regardless, it’s the question, not the answer, which gets Stan Lee so twisted up in knots.
Stan is twisted up in knots right now, perhaps anticipating the question being asked yet again. He’s gripping the arm of his chair so tightly I can see the whites of his knuckles. His legs are crossed and he’s anxiously tapping his foot against the air, like some oversized Jack-in-the-box that’s threatening to blow its top.
In person, Stan Lee is thinner than you might expect. He walks with a rubbery bounce, as if there were Slinkies in the soles of his shoes. Today, he is wearing a cream-colored V-neck sweater with razor-creased khaki pants over Spiderman socks and brown-leather loafers.
I am wearing boot-cut blue jeans and a gray sports coat over a black t-shirt
with the words “I FEAR BROOKLYN” written across it in big block letters.
At this particular moment, I do not fear Brooklyn.
But I do fear Stan Lee.
Stan avoided me backstage. When we were introduced, he shook hands with the moderator, then offered me little more than a sour grin and a slight wave before taking his seat. Both of us were afforded equal time during the 45-minute discussion period.
But now we’re taking questions from the audience, and almost every one has been directed toward me.
This is not because I am more popular than Stan Lee. I am not. It’s because Stan Lee has been interviewed so many times over the years that there’s very little any hardcore comic book fan can think to ask him … except, of course, whether he and I are related.
I, on the other hand, am like a cult hero at these events, which is wonderfully refreshing. In Rosemont, I’m fortunate if the mail carriers can remember my name. Yet, in comic book circles, I am considered the reclusive rock star, the gentleman farmer, Harper Lee with a penis.
My reclusive rock-star status causes fans to assume I possess some sort of arcane wisdom about the meaning of life and the purpose of living it.
I do not possess any such wisdom.
But I’ve become an expert at saying wonderfully cryptic things that lead hardcore fans to believe I do. I regularly refer to Subhuman, the fictional comic book character I created, as a metaphor for existentialism. I refer to Subhuman’s lair inside East End Penitentiary as a symbol for the emotional walls we build around ourselves. Three years ago at a conference in Phoenix, I responded to a question about the spiritual significance of Subhuman’s cowl by reciting the entire first verse of Billy Joel’s “The Stranger.”
And you know what? Those lovable little bastards ate it up. They always do.
Unfortunately, Stan Lee does not share their enthusiasm.
“I notice Subhuman’s greatest triumphs over evil always seem to give rise to even more sinister plots, perpetrated by even more diabolical villains,” Justin Fargo, a long-time fan, points out, reading his question from an index card. “Is that a commentary on the human condition, or is it purely coincidental?”
“Great question, Justin,” I say, acknowledging Justin’s deep, philosophical view of the narrative form. “Believe it or not, there’s actually an industry term for what you just described: It’s called a long-term marketing strategy.”
This evokes a whopping laugh from the crowd, the majority of which finds my cocksure irreverence charming. Once the laughter dies down, I settle into the meat of my response, which is, in fact, total bullshit.
“All kidding aside,” I say, shifting into a more somber tone, “while I no longer have anything to do with the direction of Subhuman’s ongoing storyline, I can tell you the character was originally created with the idea in mind that – much like any great hero – his work on this planet would never really be complete. The focus would simply change from one epic conflict to the next. Call it what you will. Call it the Law of Conservation of Comic Book Heroes, if you like. But the point is, as a writer, you never really want the evil to completely disappear … I mean, otherwise, there really wouldn’t be any need for heroes, would there? In fact, there wouldn’t be any need for struggle or justice either. And, when you think about it, what good is a world without struggle? It’s what makes us who we are. When I originally wrote Subhuman, I wasn’t nearly as interested in exploring the nature of good versus evil as I was in negotiating a balance between the two. In that sense, Subhuman was and always will be – at least in my mind – a radical expression of Buddhis … “
“Oh, this is such poppycock,” Stan Lee blurts out, springing from his chair, wagging his finger in my face. “You want to know what Subhuman is? Do you? He’s Batman with a bus pass, that’s what. And I WILL NOT sit here for one more second and dignify your passing him off as some sort of modern-day evangelical.”
Stan Lee attempts to storm off stage, but his legs get caught up in the wire from his body mic, and he spends the next 30 seconds fumbling about the set, trying desperately to remove the clip from his collar. The microphone is brushing up against Stan’s sweater now, sending a muffled echo through the house speakers that sounds like the rushing of a thousand gales through a 40-foot sail.
Stan Lee stops and looks directly at me before exiting stage right. At least I think he is looking at me. It’s difficult to tell sometimes with those Ambervision glasses he wears. Either way, I am intimidated. Sure, Stan Lee’s “bus pass” comment was slightly off the mark. But I know what he meant and – what’s more – I know he was right. I allow it to roll off my shoulder and I wait for the room to settle, watching as Stan Lee leaves via
a fire exit backstage.
Once he is safely out of earshot, I pound my fist down on the table in front of me, growling, “HULK MAD!!!” directly into my microphone.
This shatters the tension. And it allows the moment to pass. Minutes later, fans are asking questions again, and I’m providing answers that have absolutely no base in reality.
These appearances are really no different than anything else in my life.
I’m a big hit with my fans. I am the scourge of my critics.
Some people call this the price of fame. I call it natural selection.
After my appearance, I have agreed to meet my literary agent, Ben Butler, for dinner and drinks at 107 4th Avenue – a West Village wine bar located just off of Bank Street.
When I arrive, the bartender looks up from his newspaper. Then he immediately looks back down. The bar is quiet and empty and it smells like a combination of burnt toast and bleach. Ben Butler is sitting on a stool near the front door. We shake hands. We half hug. I point to Ben’s empty pint with my index finger and signal the bartender for two more.
The bartender acknowledges me with a nod, and goes back to reading his newspaper.
“The Waverly’s right around the corner,” I say, motioning with my head. “Why didn’t you just get us a table there?”
“I tried,” Ben says, half-heartedly, “They’re booked.”
“Booked?” I say.
“Booked,” Ben says.
“Do you want me to walk over and see if I can get us a table?” I ask.
“They’re booked,” Ben insists, sliding a menu in front of me. “Let’s eat.”
“Eat?” I say, clanking the lip of my glass against Ben’s. “Fuck that. Let’s drink.”
This type of back-and-forth is the reason Ben Butler and I work so well together.
We share banter. Banter makes for buoyant conversation and great buddy films.
Ben Butler is 42 years old – tall and athletic with long, slicked-back hair. Ben wears expensive suits with bright red suspenders, accented with matching handkerchiefs. Ben is calm and professional. He speaks and listens with tremendous conviction. This is, in large part, what makes Ben Butler a good agent.
It is also, in large part, what makes Ben Butler a good friend.
Ben brokered the publishing deal for my first – and only – book, and he was instrumental in negotiating my contract with DC Comics. It is no longer accurate to call Ben my literary agent. He’s more like a full-time manager, aggressively pursuing high-profile speaking engagements for me at colleges, conventions, movie openings, film festivals, boat shows … You name it.
Ben Butler keeps me on the circuit for 20 cents on every dollar. He’s good at it and he doesn’t push me to accept gigs that don’t interest me. Plus, he’s willing and able to tolerate my constant neurosis, which makes him an invaluable asset.
“What are you working on these days?” Ben asks, knowing full well I’m still working on the same thing I was the last time we spoke, which is nothing.
“I’ve actually started working on a long-range project,” I say, clocking Ben’s reaction.
Ben Butler perks up immediately, leaning forward in his chair, as if we’re about to exchange trade secrets.
“Yep,” I continue, drawing Ben in further. “I’m writing the first chapter – and only the first chapter – for 50 different novels. I call it 50 … First … Chapters.”
I emphasize each word in the title with my hands, as if they’re being displayed across a giant marquee. Then I fall back on my stool and smirk.
“Why do you torture me so?” Ben asks, sipping on his beer.
“Oh, come on,” I say, dismissing him with a wave of my hand. “I’m just playing about.”
“Well, you’ve been playing about for the past 10 years,” Ben says, straightening his tie. “Don’t you think it’s time you stop playing and get back to what you do best?”
“And what exactly would that be?” I ask, only half joking.
“Writing about the character that made you a bona fide millionaire,” Ben says.
“I don’t even own the rights to that character anymore,” I say. “Don’t you remember? That’s essentially what made me a bona fide millionaire in the first place.”
“OK, so maybe you don’t own the rights anymore,” Ben says. “So what? Do you have any idea how much DC would be willing to pay for an entire Subhuman storyline written by the original creator? The readers would go apeshit. And here’s the beauty part: Not only would you make a ton of cash up front, you’d also be entitled to 4% of everything DC makes on the back end.”
“How much?” I ask, staring into my glass.
“How much what?” Ben asks.
“How much money would DC be willing to pay to have an entire Subhuman storyline written by the original creator?”
“High six figures,” Ben says. “Maybe seven.”
“Is that just a flat fee, or are you including the back end as well?” I ask.
“Flat fee,” Ben says. “The back end’s all icing.”
“How much icing?” I say.
“I have no idea,” Ben says. “It depends on how well the thing does.”
“I just thought you might have some type of estimate regarding the back end,” I say, “considering this is pretty much your stock-in-trade.”
“I sell authors, Bobby, not books,” Ben says, clearly offended by my sarcasm. “And I definitely don’t sell comic books, despite your attempts to convince me otherwise. I can get you the deal, which would provide a major boost for both of us. Anything you make on top of that is play money. On top of which, your appearance fee would almost double overnight.”
“I don’t need it,” I say, shrugging off the idea.
“Well, I do,” Ben says. “And god knows I’ve put my ass on the line enough times for you that I deserve a little payback.”
“Oh, please,” I say. “Don’t play Joan of Arc with me. The three or four public appearances I make every year keep your money green, not to mention the commissions you earn from anything that has my name attached to it. We’re a team, Ben. We’ve simply diversified into new markets.”
“Sign the deal,” Ben says, flatly. “Develop the storyline.”
“I can’t,” I say. “I don’t even know who those characters are anymore.”
“You are those characters,” Ben says.
“I was those characters,” I say.
“Don’t you think you could be them again?” Ben says.
“Doubt it,” I say. “DC has added so many twists and turns that I barely even recognize those characters anymore. No six-issue storyline is going to change that.”
Ben and I go back and forth like this for several minutes. Eventually, he relents and asks how my wife and kids are doing. I lie and tell him we’re all doing just fine.
I tell Ben Butler about the episode with Stan Lee. Ben Butler tells me I’m an asshole.
I do not argue the point.
Our conversation is mostly centered upon what’s going on in my life. Ben Butler does not discuss his personal affairs with me, or anyone else, for that matter. He is single and his immediate family lives on the west coast, so there’s not much to talk about in that regard. His professional life revolves around me, so we generally discuss how I – or, more to the point, my name – can help Ben Butler earn a better living.
By the time I’ve finished my fourth beer, the conversation has come full circle. Ben is pleading with me to develop a Subhuman storyline for DC. I, in turn, am drinking much faster now, and – as such – I have lost the ability to mince words.
“I’d rather blow a monkey with AIDS,” I say.
“Is a monkey with AIDS going to hand you a six-figure check when you’re done?” Ben asks.
“Probably not,” I say. “But at least I won’t wake up every morning feeling like I’m someone else’s whore.”
“OK, I’ve got a better idea,” Ben says. “Why don’t we head out after dinner? Do some shots. Score some coke. Stay out way past our bedtime. Somewhere around 3 AM, when you’re blackout drunk, maybe I can talk you into signing a legally-binding cocktail napkin that states you’ll agree to write the storyline. What d’you say?”
“No can do,” I say, finishing my beer. “I need to head back to the hotel and get some sleep. I’m booked on an early-morning bus back to Philly tomorrow. Big day. Laura needs my help.”
With that I pay the check, shake hands with Ben Butler, and hail a cab over to Black and White on East 10th Street, where I proceed to drink myself sloppy until 4 AM. After last call I hail a cab to the Port Authority, where I pass out on a bench, using my sports coat as a pillow and my sunglasses for shade.
I lied to Ben Butler.
Tomorrow is not a big day. Laura does not need my help.
No one needs my help, come to think of it.
Well, no one except Ben Butler, of course.
And we see how all of that worked out.
©Copyright Bob Hill
(Next Friday: Subhuman: Volume One, Chapter Six)