Still, I haunted the newsstands to buy the latest Marvel Comics. Though Mort, an excellent, if harsh, teacher, taught me much about writing comics and writing in general, Stan Lee was still my greatest influence. I felt guilty, vaguely traitorous, but I continued to study every Marvel Comic I could lay hands upon. I comforted myself with the knowledge that Mort himself read all the Marvels. I’d seen stacks of them around his office the first time I’d visited New York. The simple truth was that little-but-growing Marvel Comics had become the leader in the comics field and the the other companies, including huge-but-declining National Comics, scared. Time after time, Mort tried to respond to the rising Marvel threat. He tried using odd panel shapes, as some Marvel artists did, to “make the page layout more exciting.” He tried running bright colors in the panel gutters to make the pages gaudier and, in theory, more exciting. He tried imitating the wisecracking humor, both in the dialog and in the editor’s notes, the extreme action, the gutsier characterization and every other superficially apparent quality of Marvel Comics. Nothing worked. The secret of Marvel’s success remained a mystery to him.
During all this, an odd dichotomy emerged. Mort, and everyone else at National it seemed, resented the idea that Stan and Marvel had something which they didn’t and couldn’t have. Marvel was a dirty word. Even while struggling to imitate the Marvel books, Mort and company would pooh-pooh the notion that Marvel’s success was any more than a fluke, a short-lived freakish phenomenon which would vanish like hula hoops. The “Marvel Style” was an object of derision and scorn at National–which put me in an interesting position, since my stuff was so clearly influenced by Stan’s. My ability to write stuff “like Marvel’s” was all at once my main strength, the reason I was hired in the first place, and also my greatest liability. Mort told me that around National’s offices I was referred to as their “Marvel writer,” and that he, Mort, was frequently criticized for using someone who wrote “like Stan Lee.” Wow.
Once Mort even went so far as to command me not to read any more Marvel Comics because he feared their “bad influence” on my slowly developing skills. I remember that in the same conversation he made reference to an issue of The Fantastic Four and spoke at length about how the dialog was natural and unforced. I kept reading Marvels.
Worse still, when Stan started his Marvel fan club, the “Merry Marvel Marching Society,” I couldn’t resist joining to see what came in the membership kit. Stupidly, I used my own name. Later, when Stan announced that he was going to print the name of every single M.M.M.S. member in the comics, for months I lived in fear that Mort would spot my name and fire me.
It’s interesting, come to think of it, that in all of my conversations with Mort Weisinger, with all of the speculating he did about the “secret” of Marvel Comics, that he never asked me, his “Marvel writer,” what I thought it was. Mort was not the easygoing kind of guy to whom you might casually volunteer your opinion about anything. My end of the conversation was generally restricted to “yes, sir,” and the like–but I wonder, if he had asked, and if I had answered, would it have made any difference?