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Friday, June 22, 2012


Stan Lee is the only guy I know who looks perfectly natural wearing sunglasses indoors. And here he was now - sitting across from me and Chris - sunglasses, steely gray hair, cool mustache… the whole Stan The Man Magilla.

He looked and acted more like a Southern gentleman than somebody from the tough streets of the Bronx. And when he spoke, his voice was just soft enough to make you bend a little closer to listen.

And he was saying: "I've been wanting to get some Prime Time writers in and when Kenny told me about you two, I thought - This might just be what I looking for to goose the show."

 Stan was referring to Ken Johnson, exec producer of The Incredible Hulk, a TV series based on the big green angry guy created by Stan and fellow Marvel Comics' genius, Jack Kirby. And the show Stan wanted us to goose was "Defenders Of The Earth" - featuring Buck Rogers, The Phantom, Mandrake The Magician and his trusty sidekick, Lothar, as well as that evil son of a raygun, Ming The Merciless.

"Here's my problem, boys," Stan went on. "We had to make Defenders kid friendly for the network. So besides the adult heroes everyone knows and loves, we had to give them four kid counterparts - adolescent versions of Buck, The Phantom, Mandrake and Lothar."

Chris said, "Do you have a witch by the name of Susan Futterman as your censor?"

Stan puzzled at Chris. Censor? Then the light dawned. "Oh, you mean Program Practices." Shook his head. "No Susan Futterman among them that I'm aware of."

"You'd know," Chris said gloomily, no doubt flashing on our own experiences with Ms Futterman on not one - but two shows. Glenn Rip-Off-Artist Larson's Galactica 1980, and Irwin The-Towering-Toupee Allen's Code Red.

Then he brightened. "Well, you should be okay then." This was followed by a laugh. "Not that you couldn't handle Futterman. After all those years going nose to nose with the Comic Code boyos you've probably got a pretty tough hide.."

"Tough, but scarred," Stan admitted. "But back to our show. With the kid connection there's a danger of writing  down to the audience. Which is why I wanted to get in a couple of Prime Time boys. Thanks to the strike, you two are available."

He was referring to one of the perennial Writers Guild Strikes  - which one, I don't recall. But I do remember getting our butts handed to us by the studios that time out. The main thing is that thanks to Studio machinations, animation writers weren't  Guild members, so it was okay for us to jump genres and grab a few bucks to help finance our novel writing careers. I think we were working on Sten #3, The Court Of A Thousands Suns, about then.

Stan added, "Also, you've written for one of my favorite creations - The Hulk. So, I'm pretty sure you have an idea where I'm coming from."

"It's a fun show," I put in. "But not easy. Chris compares it to Kabuki Theater. One thing out of place and the whole story collapses."

Stan laughed, knowing exactly what we meant. "If you screw up and make Bruce mad at the wrong time, you'll have an inconvenient Hulk appearance."

"They call it a Hulk out," I  said.

"Do they now?" Stan said. "Amusing."

Chris said, "I've been wanting to ask - How come they changed Banner's first name from  Bruce to David? Bruce is what everybody always knew him by until the TV series came along. And that's what you still call him in the comics."

Stan's mustache twitched. "The Network said 'Bruce' didn't sound manly enough. I wanted to point out that there are Biblical scholars who say David was bisexual. But held my tongue."

After we chuckled over this, he added, "Another thing… For some reason Kenny wanted to make the Hulk red, instead of Green. On that score, I put my foot down. He stays green!" (For more about the MisAdventures of Bunch & Cole on The Incredible Hulk, see Episodes #23 through #27. 

After a little more chit-chat, we got down to the all important pitch. Ran two stories past him, which he liked, but didn't pull the "Who's your agent, boys" trigger. No matter. We always pitched the "sure sale" third, for reasons I explained in Episode #9: Buck Rogers Is A Fatty, Ardala Definitely Isn't. 

I said, "This one we call The Carnival of Doctor Kalihari."

"Carnivals!" Stan enthused. "Always loved carnivals. And this Kalihari fella - a mean and evil carnival master, I assume?"

"He could give Ming lessons in mean," Chris said. "A rogue magician - which will put Mandrake's back up."

I said, "The word's out that bad things are happening at the carnival. Our guys investigate - taking the kids with them. While the kids are enjoying the show, Mandrake, Buck, and the others poke around and come across a stash of nasty potions."

Chris said, "One of the bottles tumbles off a shelf, releasing some kind of gas and suddenly our four heroes are shrunk to the size of mice."

"And then it's Land Of The Giants - with Doc Kalihari and his thugs as the giants - and the normal-sized kids trying to rescue their half-pint-sized dads."

"Love it," Stand said. Then, he pulled the trigger: "Who did you say your agent was?"

We reminded him.

Time passed. Wrote the script. Got notes. Did a final draft. Spent as much time as Stan could spare for us to pick his brains about animation and super heroes… and all the things any red-blooded Marvel fan would ask if given the chance.

Over lunch one day, Chris asked: "What frosts your ass the most in your line of work?"

Stan's answer was instant. "Artists with no imagination," he said. "They get stuck in a copy cat rut. The latest hot comic or animated film, and that's all they can talk about. Then they start trying to change my projects so they resemble the other guys'. They sit around second-guessing my every move until I can't bear it any longer then I have to crack the big damned black whip!"

"There's a lot of people on staff in Prime Time with the same disease," I observed. "Especially on new shows. You write the script based on the show Bible, then when you come in for second draft notes you get all kinds of strange demands. Things that make no sense. The main character, for example, might be a smooth, wise-cracking detective. But then you find out they just saw some big Clint Eastwood movie and the guy is suddenly a 'Make my day… Do you feel lucky, punk?' kind of guy."

"At least in live action," Stan said, "if the writer describes the hero as 'handsome,' and the love interest as  'sexy,' the casting director pulls out all stops to find a handsome actor and sexy actress. But with an imagination-impaired artist you're just as likely to end up with a thug and a plain-Jane girlfriend."

"Let me guess," Chris said. "When you bitch they blame it on the writer."

Stan lifted one edge of his mustache in a wry grin. "You must have been eavesdropping on our production meeting " he said.

Although the strike ended not long afterward and we went back to prime time work, we still hung out with Stan whenever possible, learning all we could about animation.

We discovered, for instance, that only a small portion of the artwork was done at Stan's studio. In an action sequence, his artists would sketch the figures and the background in a series of key poses. These would then be shipped to South Korean animation factories  where low wage artists - mostly women - would complete the hundreds upon hundreds of frames it took to make the characters walk, talk, run, fight and save the day at the end. Recently, I saw a hilarious, but disturbing, episode of  "The Simpsons" self-mocking this very same process.

Over time we occasionally dipped into animation again, writing bibles for new shows and key episodes of long-running ones. Most of them at Stan's recommendation. We even wrote a two-part Scrooge McDuck takeoff on Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves for Disney. They later turned it into a straight to DVD movie, leaving us uncredited and unpaid for all but the initial episodes. (I mentioned, did I not, that animation writing was non-union?)

Then, just about the time that Ronald Reagan was removing the Communist threat from the mighty Citadel that was Grenada, we got the call.

It was Stan Lee. We both got on the line. 

"Boys, I've got a problem that not even The Silver Surfer can solve," he said. "Program Practices has reared its hydra head." 

"You've been Futtermaned," Chris guessed, a verb he had coined back in our Galactica days.

"Not her, exactly," Stan said. "But several of her counterparts." He paused, then said: "I suppose you've heard about Nancy Reagan's 'Just Say No' campaign? "

Having spotted an item in Variety a few days before, I said: "Let me guess. The Network's license is up for renewal before the FCC?"

"Right," Stan said.

"And they need to kiss White House ass?" I added.

Stan sighed. "That's about the size of it. Then he added: "In our case, we've got to do it twice. Once for drugs. The other for alcohol. I've got a writer to do drugs…  and I was hoping I could put you guys down for booze."

"Shit, Stan," Chris said, "we'd feel like hypocrites."

"It pays double," Stan said.

"Suddenly, the feeling vanished - didn't it partner?" I suggested.

After a long pause, Chris said, "I just had an idea that might do the trick, Stan."

"Let's hear it," Stan said.

Chris said, "Did you ever hear of the Mulholland Road Racing Association?"


Over the noise of a powerful engine, the kid shouted: "You're Stan Lee!"

Instead of trying to compete with a full-throated muscle car, Stan just nodded that he was.

"Far fucking out," the kid shouted, then turned and made a chopping noise to the driver. The engine noise stopped. He called out to his friend: "It's Stan Lee, man! Spiderman's daddy."

Stan made an apologetic shrug. "I get a lot of that," he told us. "In fact, Spiderman is just as much Steve Ditko's baby as mine. But Steve is pretty shy when it comes to publicity."

The kid didn't give a damn. He shoved a grease pen at Stan. "You wouldn't autograph our car, would you, Mr. Lee?" He indicated the left fender of the muscle car.

Stan kindly blessed the car with his distinctive signature. The kid thanked him, then jumped into the passenger's seat and they took off down Mulholland for the starting line, the big engine rumbling impatiently and the sweet smell of gasoline drifting back to us.

It was about ten o'clock on either a Wednesday or Friday night. I forget which, but the Mulholland Racing Association always met on those nights. As we explained to Stan, it wasn't a formal association at all - just a bunch of guys, and even a few ladies, who got together to put pedal to the metal to test their nerves against the fifty miles of twists and hair-pin curves that was Mulholland Drive.

The two-lane blacktop runs from the Hollywood Hills, over the Santa Monica Mountains all the way to Ventura County and then some. James Dean was a regular Mulholland daredevil in his Porsche Super Speedster, which he called "The Little Bastard."

"One time Eartha Kitt gave Dean a ration of shit for scaring hell out of her on this road," Chris told Stan. "Some say he raced the 'Little Bastard' against a couple of hot rods on Mulholland the night before he ate the big one out on Route 466."

Chris indicated the lights of the city below us. "You should see them flashing by you at 90 per," he said. "No guard rails most of the way. Just a sheer drop into the canyon. It's like a roller coaster ride, coming down the hills into short straight-aways and then it's all you can do to keep from breaking loose and going over the side."

"What about the cops?" Stan asked.

"About the only time you see a cop on Mulholland," Chris said, "is when they've sweet-talked some honey to take a drive up here with them in their cruisers."

"Some of the residents get pissed off at all the noise," I put in. "We used to get calls at the newspaper I worked at. But it didn't do much good."

Chris said, "They get so frustrated they hose down the curves in front of their house to make the road too slippery for the racers."

"Does it stop them?" Stan asked.

Chris laughed. "Not if they're all beered up, it doesn't," he said. "The only effect is that if they're going for pinks, they might end up with nothing but a wreck when they win."

Stan puzzled at him. "Go for pinks?"

"That's when they're drunk enough, or trying to impress some chick… or both… and bet their cars on the outcome," Chris explained. "Put their pink ownership slips on the line."

"When I was at the paper," I said, "some civic-minded types got together with the cops to lure some of the kids away from Mulholland. They set up a whole racing thing out at one of the speedways. It was legal. Supervised. And they even got some of the NASCAR stars to come out and give the kids driving tips."

"Did it work?" Stan asked.

I shrugged. "Some say it did. The kids loved it - especially with the NASCAR angle. But then the speedway got into financial difficulty and the program ended."

Chris pointed to a group of kids down at the bend in the road. They were all swilling beer and hooting and hollering and gunning their engines. "Bet those kids would go for it in a second. I talked to some of them for a Car And Driver piece. Sometimes they scare hell out of themselves and would dearly love a chance to beg off without losing face."

"Okay, boys," Stan said. "I already bought the story, but I like it even better now that I've seen for myself."

There came the thunder of big engines. We stepped further away from the tarmac as two hot cars came rumbling past. One was a by God 1974 Pontiac GTO - A Goat. The other was a ridiculous looking little thing - a 1960's Nash Metro, painted a bright orange. But the ridiculousness ended at the engine compartment, into which had been stuffed a big-fat Chevy V8.

"What the hell?" Stan laughed.

"The Goat better watch out," Chris said. "That little Nash might eat his dinner big time."

Stan gave Chris a curious look. "You ever race on Mulholland?" he asked.

"I used to run my bike on it," Chris said. "But, Cole won't let me anymore..."
We wrote the episode in two days flat, thanks to some heavy nips from a bottle of Scotch to help get our "Just Say No To Driving And Racing" mojo on. With plenty of "Defenders Of The Earth" type action wrapped around the plot to help the medicine go down.

Time passed. Phone rang. It was Stan.

"You'll never believe this, boys," he said. "Your episode was not only nominated for a Humantas Award, but it made it all the way into the Finals."

"No shit," Chris said. "Hell, and that was just on one bottle of Scotch. Imagine what we could have done on two."





The MisAdventures began humbly enough - with about 2,000 readers. When it rose to over 50,000 (we're now knocking at the door of 135,000) I started listening to those of you who urged me to collect the stories into a book. Starting at the beginning, I went back and rewrote the essays, adding new detail and events as they came to mind. This book is the result of that effort. However, I'm mindful of the fact, Gentle Reader, that you also enjoy having these little offerings posted every Friday to put a smile on your face for the weekend. So I'll continue running them until it reaches the final Fade Out. Meanwhile, it would please the heart of this ink-stained wretch - as well as tickle whatever that hard black thing is in my banker's chest - if you bought the book. It will make a great gift, don't you think? And if you'd like a personally autographed copy you can get it directly through my (ahem) Merchant's Link at Click here. Buy the book and I will sign it and ship it to you. Break a leg!



Told in four parts, Episode One now appearing in Diaspar Magazine, the best SF&F magazine in South America! And it's free! Here's the link. 
Sten debuta # 1 en español! Narrada en cuatro partes, Episode One ahora aparece en la revista Diaspar, la mejor revista de SF & F en América del Sur! 
Two new companion editions to the international best-selling Sten series. In the first, learn the Emperor's most closely held  cooking secrets. In the other, Sten unleashes his shaggy-dog joke cracking sidekick, Alex Kilgour. Both available as trade paperbacks or in all major e-book flavors. Click here to tickle your funny bone or sizzle your palate.    

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