"Face Front! Clap Your Hands, You're on the Winning Team!"
Rolling Stone Vol. 1, #91 (Sep 16, 1971)
by Robin Green
It was three ago that I went to work at Marvel Comics. I replaced Flo, whose place I really couldn't take. Fabulous Flo Steinberg, as she was known to her public, was as much an institution in Marvel's Second Golden Age as Editor Stan (The Man) Lee himself. She joined Marvel just after Stan had revolutionized the comic industry by giving his characters dimension, character, and personality, and just as Marvel was catching on big.
Now there's a sign on the door of the office which says SORRY, NO VISITORS to those who manage to find Marvel's hidden location. But in Flo's days the office was located at 625 Madison Avenue, just as it says in the comic books. There was a reception room and Flo would go out to meet the fans.
She was the only one they ever saw. They called her "Miss Flo" because "Flo" was too personal for them. Most of them were nice, the little ones were really sweet. But sometimes there'd be older ones, 12 and 13, who would try to get past her. She'd put her foot out and trip them, and say, "I'm sorry, are you all right? Poor thing."
And sometimes they'd come convinced that Spiderman himself was right there behind the door. She'd say, "Oh, I'm sorry, he's out covering a robbery." Because she didn't feel it was her place to destroy fantasies.
Hundreds of letters came in every week from fans, and Flo was the one who opened them. One time there was a letter addressed to Sergeant Fury from a man in Texas, a real right winger, who said, "I notice in Sergeant Fury that you're anti-Nazi. Well, if you're anti-Nazi, that must mean you're pro-Commie, and you're all a bunch of no-good dirty kikey commie pinko people, and I have a gun and I'm going to come to New York and shoot you." It was addressed to Stan Lee and the Marvel Comic Group.
Flo passed the letter around the office and everyone got hysterical because this guy was going to come and machine-gun everybody. Flo didn't know what they were hysterical about because she was the one who went out to meet the people. Flo was loyal, but for a hundred bucks a week you don't get shot. So they called the FBI and a man came down. He said, "Wilkins, FBI," and Flo said, "Steinberg, Marvel."
But Wilkins was very serious and he handled the letter with a handkerchief. Of course they had already put their hands all over it. He said he'd forward it to the anonymous letters file in Washington, and see what could be done. They gave him a whole bunch of comics (their usual tactic, cover them with comics). And for days everyone avoided the reception room and sneaked out early.
I visited Flo at her apartment in New York. She's changed her style. Her hair is long, she looks good. She's thinking of moving to California. She still hangs out with comic book people -- underground comics people. We got stoned and drank some wine, and she talked about the fans and their letters. Flo laughs a high-pitched laugh that sounds like electronic music. And when she smiles her eyes close to crescent shapes. She smiles so hard that she can't keep her eyes open at the same time.
"Yeah, the fucking mail. Remember how awful it was? I felt every little creature should get some sort of an answer. I really took it seriously, each little letter. One thing that's awful, when I go to the Comic Convention they have in July at the Hilton all these tall thin fellows come up to me and say [deep voice], 'Hello, how are you?' and I'll say, 'Who are you?' and it'll turn out they're these kids who used to come up and see me in the reception room. That was eight years ago. And now they're young men with girlfriends, who go to school and work. I can't believe it. It's sort of depressing.
"When the kids heard I was leaving Marvel, they sent me really nice letters. They felt bad." She showed me some of the letters, and some pictures that they'd sent of themselves and Flo in the reception room, pictures taken by their mothers. They signed everything with their numbers, their Merry Marvel Marching Society membership card number. Like Larry Schwartz, MMMS #18756.
The Merry Marvel Marching Society is the club that Stan made up for Marvel fans to join. You send in their money and you get a membership card, with your very own membership number and name on it, and a record with Stan and the rest of the Marvel Group saying lines from a script Stan wrote. Corny jokes, in jokes. But most important, the voices of the people who make Marvel Comics.
"OK, out there in Marvel land--face front. This is Stan Lee speaking. You've probably never heard a record like this before because no one would be nutty enough to make one with a bunch of off-beat artists. So anything is liable to happen."
"Hey! Who made you a disc jockey, Lee?"
"Well, well--Jolly Jack Kirby! Say a few words to the fans."
"A few words."
"Look, pal, I'll take care of the humor around here."
"You, you've been using the same gags over and over for years."
"Well, you can't accuse me of being fickle, can you? By the way, Jack, the readers have been complaining about Sue's hairdo again."
"What am I supposed to do. Be a hair-dresser? Next time I'll draw her bald-headed!"
"Boy, I'm glad we caught you when you were in a good mood."
"Oh, Stan, do you have a few minutes?"
"For our fabulous Gal Friday? Sure! Say hello to the fans, Flo Steinberg."
"Hello fans. It's very nice to meet you. As Marvel's corresponding secretary, I feel as if I know most of you from your letters."
And there was Jolly Solly Brodsky, Adorable Artie Simek, Kid Daredevil Wally Wood, Dick Ayers, and the idol of the Iron Man fans, the Ace of the Avengers, Don Heck.
There was also a Merry Marvel Marching Society song:
You belong, you belong, you belong,
To the Merry Marvel Marching Society!
March along, march along, march along
to the song
Of the Merry Marvel Marching Society!
Be a little brighter, try to be ambitious!
Eyes a little wider, try to be judicious!
Be a good advisor, never, never vicious!
Then you will belong!
Face Front! Clap your hands. You're on
the winning team!
Hanging on the wall in Flo's bedroom were some cartoons left over from her days at Marvel. Once showed Flo lying down with a huge thumb in her stomach, blood all over the floor, and bloody footprints walking away from the scene. Another was a cartoon of the rut Flo was in--two angry eyes peering out of a crack in the ground, and a sign "rut" next to a pail and shovel. That's how the people in the office at Marvel communicate the best, by drawing pictures. That's how they tell you they love you, or you did a nice thing, and when they're angry with each other they get it out by drawing a cartoon and everybody laughs.
The cartoons on Flo's wall were done by Marie Severin, the only woman artist at Marvel, maybe the only one in the professional comic book world. "You can dearly love people," she says, "but they sometimes become awful pests and you cannot verbally assault them because they'll never forgive you. But a picture, they are so flattered that you took the time to do it, they don't realize that you are getting rid of this anger. Comic book artists are always excreting all this stuff all over the place, and thank goodness. We're like Peter Pans. We refuse to grow up but we get paid for it. Which is fortunate. We're channeling all this immaturity into something instead of standing on street corners making obscene gestures."
When I walked into the Vision building, where Marvel is located, I said hi to Frank the doorman, and it was as if I'd never left two years ago. There was that new NO VISITORS sign on the office door, but the door was still open. There was a new face at the front desk, not nearly as pretty as Linda Fite's--it belonged to Allan Brodsky, a comic fan who had made the big time. Inside it was still warm, light green and friendly. The superhero-size Spiderman poster was still hanging on the wall at the end of the hallway. Posters of Hulk, Captain America, Daredevil, and the Fantastic Four hung along the sides.
When I walked into the bullpen, the men said, "Hey! Legs is back!" and I remembered how it used to feel to be "Legs Diamond." The place looked much the same, except there was a xerox machine where Marie Severin used to be. She had her drawing board in a different room now and the main bullpen had become a kind of men's den, with pictures of naked women, some playboy types and some drawings of comic book characters as they will never appear in Spiderman. Some of them were downright pornographic, and you couldn't talk to Tony Mortellaro without a tit or an ass staring you in the face.
It felt good to be back in the bullpen again with Ring-A-Ding John Romita, artist for Spiderman, Happy Herbie Trimpe who had just switched from Hulk to Sergeant Fury, Merry Marie Severin, Stu Schwartzberg, Morie and Allan. It was a fine reunion until I mentioned that I'd come to write an article about them and then--whoosh--they all disappeared back to their drawing board. I was no longer Stan's former leggy secretary, but an emissary, but an emissary from the "real" world, which is a different world from the one inside the office door.
The people at Marvel are paid to be professional children and the atmosphere around the office is correspondingly chaotic, moody, riotously emotional. Unlike most Madison Avenue offices, Marvel makes no attempt at decorum. I was always very grateful for that. You could dress the way you wanted to, say anything you wanted to (the key to the bathroom was called the shithouse pass), and you even worked because you wanted to because there was very little supervision.
All the bullpen people have an interest in telling stories by pictures. That's the thing about comics. Most of them are really hooked on that kind of work and over the years they compromise themselves because of their desire to do it. It's one of the few businesses where individuals will take a cut and still stay in the business. The artists just had a cut at Marvel. Instead of 20 pages in a book there's really only 19 pages of artwork and that means they do less work and get less money. And management doesn't tell the artists what the sales figures are because "they're afraid you'll ask for a raise or something."
"Face Front! page 2"Go to part 2
(c) 1971, Rolling Stone