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GK: At Marvel, how did you begin to start writing for some of the flagship books? Did you have to pitch a lot?

RS: The closest I ever came to making a pitch was telling an editor that I would be willing to write a title. Seriously. Things were a lot looser in those days.

In the very beginning, I was a warm body, I was there on staff, and I could string sentences together in a way that made at least a little sense. That’s how I wound up writing the last three issues of Marvel Presents [Guardians of the Galaxy] and an issue of Omega the Unknown, when Steve Gerber fell behind on some deadlines.

GK: Then those were the books that got you more work and proved to editorial that you could write monthlies?

RS: They led to that. Len Wein liked my work on Guardians enough that he asked me to co-write a Thor Annual with him. And Archie liked my writing enough that one day he walked into the Bullpen, told me that Jim Starlin was leaving Doctor Strange, and asked if I wanted to write it.

GK: What was your first on-going monthly?

RS: My first monthly book was the Incredible Hulk, though at first I thought I was just helping Len out of a deadline bind. Then he left the book, and I wound up writing it by myself. Shortly after that, Kenneth Johnson made a couple of TV movies about the Hulk, which led to the weekly series, which helped increase sales on the Hulk comic and made me a rising star. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but with more people reading my work, I did become better known to readers. Years later, I met Lou Ferrigno at a convention and thanked him for helping launch my career.

Let’s see…after I signed a contract to write full-time for Marvel, Denny O’Neil asked me to write Spectacular Spider-Man...

The only book I ever actively sought out at Marvel was Avengers. And I asked for that assignment only because I knew that Jim was leaving the series, and I’d always loved the characters.

GK: Did you write full script or Marvel Method for your Marvel work?

RS: Marvel Style, all the way. It was Marvel Comics, right? And I got to work with a lot of artists who were great storytellers. For instance, it would’ve been ridiculous for me to write a full script for Sal Buscema. Sal’s storytelling was excellent. He always made me look good, no matter what crazy premise I gave him.

I did write a couple of humor strips for Crazy that were full scripts, but everything else I wrote for Marvel was plotted first, and then scripted from the penciled art.

GK: What were some of the hardest challenges of having so many monthlies? Did you plot way ahead of time?

"Home Fries!" featured in Marvel Fanfare #18 by Stern, Frank Miller, and Joe Rubinstein. Hard to believe that one of Cap’s best tales was originally a mere inventory story.
RS: I don’t think I ever wrote more than two monthlies and a bimonthly at the same time. I tried to plot as far ahead as possible – I never wanted to be responsible for artists sitting around, waiting for a story. Coming up with ideas never seemed too big a problem. The biggest challenge was the schedule, which kept shifting. You’d get within hailing distance of a deadline, and they’d change it on you. That was maddening.

GK: It seemed like you had a lot of ease for writing Marvel characters; did you feel more of an affinity to writing Marvel characters? Was Stan Lee an influence in your approach to writing for Marvel?

RS: Actually, I’ve always said that my writing has been heavily influenced by the work of Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh, and Bob Carroll. If the names aren’t familiar to you, they should be. They were the head writers of I Love Lucy. Those three were masters of pacing. Now there were other television writers who influenced me – whoever wrote for Benny or Burns & Allen, or Gleason – but unfortunately I know very few of them by name. Interestingly enough, Harlan Ellison may have been an influence on me. Thanks to cable, I’ve discovered that he wrote some of my favorite episodes of shows like Burke’s Law. Other writers I remember from my childhood were Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, and whoever was "Victor Appleton II."

But, yes, of course Stan was a major influence. You couldn’t help but be influenced by Stan. He wrote the book on who those characters were – literally.

You have to remember I started writing stories for Marvel in 1976. With the exception of Cap and the Sub-Mariner, the longest that any of those characters had been around was fifteen years. I had been reading Marvel Comics for ten of those years, and had read all of the stories that came before, thanks to back issues and reprints. In fact, I’d read them all several times. The Marvel characters were like old friends by then.

GK: How was the transition from editorial to writing? Once you stopped being an editor, did you move out of New York?

RS: Oh, no. In fact, I still came into the office every day. There was always a spare desk or two that freelancers could use, and I was used to being there anyway. So I would come in and write in the office, just to establish a routine of writing every day, no matter what. I still wrote at home, too, of course. But I walked every day to 575 Madison Avenue – Monday through Friday, except on holidays – for close to two years.

Then I moved upstate.

GK: Do you remember how you got Captain America? And how John and you were paired up for Cap?

RS: I honestly don’t remember how that assignment came up. I know that Captain America didn’t have a regular writer at the time, because I’d been the book’s editor. You might ask Jim Salicrup if he remembers, because he took over my old editorial position. I know that when I was about to go under contract to Marvel, someone suggested that I write Cap. As I recall, I told John that I was going to be writing the book, and he said, "Great! I want to draw it!" And that was a good thing, because the book didn’t have a regular penciler either.

GK: Did working on the book improve relations with John? Or did it test it?

RS: Well, we spent a lot more time on the phone. We were already friends, and I’d say working together only brought us closer. We’re both history and science buffs, and Cap played to all of our strengths. It was a good partnership.

GK: What was your approach to writing Cap? How much research was generally done – especially for the 40th anniversary ish? What were some of your favorites from the run?

RS: I was always big on research, George. Cap is such an iconic character, I thought it was especially important to get into his head...and to me that meant reading about the era in which he grew up, the years between the two World Wars. There are a couple of great books by Frederick Lewis Allen – Only Yesterday and Since Yesterday – that I can’t recommend enough. And there’s a book by Richard Lingeman called Don’t You Know There’s a War On?

Plus I reread all of his Cap’s modern comics appearances, starting with Avengers #4. For the 40th anniversary issue, I pored over all the various versions of the origin, and John and I tried to distill them all into one cohesive whole.

As for favorites...well, we did just nine issues (that saw print, anyway), and I enjoyed them all, for different reasons. The Machinesmith trilogy introduced – and then killed off – a new/old villain for Cap, plus it introduced Bernadette Rosenthal, who became his love interest for several years. The "Cap for President" story was interesting as a change-of-pace head piece. The "Batroc and Hyde" two-parter was an opportunity to get Cap into another great death trap and set him up against a couple of classic Kirby villains. (And it was part of my on-going plan to show readers just how tough and nasty Hyde could be.) The Baron Blood two-parter was John’s idea, and it was a fun opportunity to acknowledge Cap’s past with the Invaders. It was also sort of our own fan letter to Frank Robbins. And the 40th anniversary story was just a straightforward melding of all of the versions of Cap’s origin.

Years later, [artist] Paris Cullins told me that he’d been in the Marines when our CAP stories were coming out, and that they were the hit of the barracks. That was good to hear, even if it did make me feel very old.

GK: How did the "Cap for President" issue come about?

RS: A "Cap for President" story had actually been suggested by Roger McKenzie and Don Perlin when they were working on the book, a year or so before John and me. As the book’s editor, I had originally turned the premise down because they wanted to have Cap win the election and operate out of the White House for the next four-to-eight years. I thought that would stretch the readers’ suspension-of-disbelief past the breaking point.

Okay, now jump ahead that "year or so"...John was in New York for a visit, and he and I were having dinner with Jim Shooter and Ralph Macchio. So, of course, we were all talking shop, and the question of what to do for Cap #250 came up. John and I already knew that we wanted to re-establish Cap’s origin for issue #255, the 40th anniversary story, so we needed something else – something really special – for issue #250.

Since that issue was going to be on sale in the summer, right around the time of the political conventions, Jim suggested that I think about the "Cap for President" scenario. I was still skeptical about that. I said that I didn’t think Cap was the type who would be interested in running for office. And Jim said that that should be the point of the story – who Cap is and why he wouldn’t run. From there on the story just fell together. But I made sure that 1) Roger McK. and Don knew about it, and 2) they were credited with the idea on the letters page.

GK: Was Capra's John Doe a little bit of an influence on it? And does the Arnold for Governor campaign serve as a chilly reminder about these celebrity elections?

RS: I honestly don’t remember if I had yet seen Meet John Doe all the way through, when we were working on Cap. But I had seen bits and pieces of a lot of Capra flicks on the tube, so there may well have been some subconscious influence.

As for the celebrity connection, I don’t think there’s that much of a parallel to the Schwarzenegger campaign. After all, Cap isn’t an actor who plays war heroes. Within the context of the Marvel Universe, he is a war hero. A closer real-world parallel for Cap would be Audie Murphy or Eisenhower....or possibly Wes Clark.

GK: What sort of role did you intend for Bernie Rosenthal to have with Cap?

RS: She was the May to Steve Rogers’ December in a May-December romance. Even though they were physiologically about the same age, he was literally a man of an earlier era. I’ve always regretted not having been able to explore that relationship further.

GK: Can you explain why John and you left Cap after #255?

RS: That gets a little complicated. Marvel was starting to crack the whip on deadlines, and all the editors were under pressure to get their books on time. I’d had some stomach trouble midway through our run on Cap, and John was about to get married, and Jim Salicrup was understandably worried that we would fall further behind. I thought we could pull ahead in just a matter of weeks – my digestion was already back to normal, and I knew that John’s work ethic was as strong as mine – and to prove it, I sat down and plotted the next three issues straight through. Jim was still uneasy about the deadlines, and so he decided to schedule a fill-in by another writer. I pointed out that we already had a fill-in underway; Frank Miller was drawing a stand-alone Cap story that I was going to script. (It eventually saw print in Marvel Fanfare.)

"By the Dawn’s Early Light!" featured in Captain America #247 by Stern, John Byrne, and Joe Rubinstein. The first issue with Rog and his collaborators in their short-lived classic Captain America run.
In those days before royalties, Marvel had what was called a "continuity bonus." If you wrote or drew six consecutive issues, you got a bonus. And so on for the next six, and the next. A fill-in before issue #258 would set all of our bonuses back.

But beyond that, I was worried about losing sales momentum on the series. We’d been working hard to build up the readership, and I knew from my days as an editor that fill-ins usually cost you readers.

Back during those early days of the Direct Market, when the greatest percentage of sales still came from the newsstand, it was a given that sales would dip after each fill-in. It could take a book’s regular creative team as much as three issues to get the readership back up to the pre-fill-in level.

Well, I couldn’t persuade Jim not to schedule a fill-in. And, looking back, if I had been in his shoes, I might have done the same thing. But I wasn’t in his shoes. I was the freelancer, and I didn’t like the way we were being treated.

I’d worked with Jim a long time and I really didn’t want to come to loggerheads with him. So, I took back all three plots, tore up the vouchers, and stepped away from the book. I figured, better to leave Cap on an up note with the 40th anniversary issue.

GK: And what were your plans for the storyline that would have followed it?

RS: That was going to be our Red Skull trilogy. After we left Cap, I toyed with the idea of turning the story into a graphic novel. But later writers did some things with the Skull that would have invalidated the story. A couple of years ago, there was some talk of having John and me revisit the story as a special project – sort of "What if Roger and John hadn’t left Captain America?" But then John started having major creative differences with Marvel. I guess the story will have to remain "The One that Got Away." For now, at least. I never say never.

GK: Your take on Peter Parker/Spider-Man was always very humorous, yet at the same time it was very down to earth; was this part of your design?

RS: Well, thank you. I was just trying to write the kinds of stories that I remembered from the Lee/Ditko and Lee/Romita days. Stan’s Spider-Man was always a wisenheimer, and he always faced a lot of mundane, down-to-earth problems. Remember when he used to take a break in the middle of fighting a roomful of thugs to hunt down a phone and assure Aunt May that he was all right? I loved that stuff! (Of course, now he’d probably just crawl up in a corner someplace and pull out a cellphone. I wonder if there’s room for one next to the extra web cartridges on his belt?)

GK: Parker's always had his little personal quirks, but your Spider-Man seemed a lot more realistic with his shabby apartment and personal dilemmas…did any of this come from your experiences in New York?

RS: I don’t think that any of my apartments were quite as shabby as Pete’s...well, maybe one of them. I relied mainly on exaggeration. No matter how bad my day was, Pete’s was worse. But living in three out of the five boroughs over six years did give me a pretty good feel for the sort of world Spider-Man inhabited. Peter Parker was supposed to have grown up in Forest Hills, after all, and I actually lived in that neighborhood for a while.

GK: Was the Jack O'Lantern in Spectacular Spider-Man #56 meant to fit into the Hobgoblin saga?

RS: No, Jack O’Lantern appeared in Spectacular Spider-Man because I liked the character when Tom DeFalco and Steve Ditko introduced him in MACHINE MAN. I thought he would be a great villain to fight Spider-Man. "Look! A brand-new Ditko bad guy versus Spider-Man! Let’s see what happens."

GK: And did Shooter really do the layouts for that issue?

RS: Absolutely. In fact, Jim also did the layouts for issues #57 and 59. For some reason, Spectacular had become the bastard stepchild of the Spider-Man titles. We had a devil of a time finding a regular art team for the book. Marie Severin was supposed to be the regular penciler, but she was always in demand for special projects, like the St. Francis comic. I worked with so many different artists on that book. You’d have thought it would be easy to find someone who wanted to draw Spider-Man every month, wouldn’t you? Not in those days. I guess it became easier once royalties were introduced. But that was pre-royalties.

Anyway, Jim stepped in to lay out the book while we were looking for a permanent penciler. He was a Godsend. Jim gave me nice, clear storytelling and there was always plenty of room for copy.

GK: Any pressure working that close with him?

RS: Hah! The pressure was all on him! He had to find the time to lay out those stories at night and on his lunch hour while he was being editor-in-chief.

Here’s another funny story. On issue #59, as a goof, I credited Jim’s layouts to J. Strzltski – that being the spelling of his family’s name pre-Ellis Island. Well, we got a number of letters wondering who this J. Strzltski guy was. One fan wrote, "You can’t fool me…this is really Steve Ditko working under a pseudonym." Needless to say, Jim was very flattered.

GK: In reading The Ringer issue (Parker #58); I have to say that's one crazy laugh-out-loud ish. How did Byrne land the art chores on that issue? You do know once you got through with The Ringer, his major heavy days were pretty numbered.

RS: Well, that was the idea. The Ringer was nowhere near being in Spider-Man’s weight class.

Right around that time, John was slated to become the regular penciler on the book. We wanted to work together again after Cap, and he figured that he could easily pencil Spectacular and write and pencil Fantastic Four. But then, he wound up having to ink the FF as well. And because the deadlines were getting tighter, he had to give up Spectacular – at least until he could get the FF ahead of schedule. And by that time, I had moved on to Amazing.

GK: Was working on Spectacular Spider-Man the road to Amazing Spider-Man?

RS: That’s certainly the way it turned out. When Tom DeFalco became the Spider-Man editor, he offered me the assignment to write Amazing. I had been writing Spider-Man stories for over a year by that point. And Amazing, after all, had a regular penciler – and a good one! I would have been crazy not to switch titles.

"Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New!" featured in Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #58 by Stern, Byrne, and Vinnie Colleta.
GK: In the past you've said that when you write, your goal is to have the stories be entertaining. How do you go about that?

RS: George, if I knew the answer to that, writing would be so much easier. I don’t know. Sometimes a story just comes to me. Other times, I come up with a premise, and see where it takes me. When I start getting excited – or start laughing – along the way, I know that it’s coming together.

GK: Are you your own toughest critic?

RS: Probably. I think most writers are. There are times, especially in the early stages of coming up with a plot that I want to smack myself upside the head. I’ll look back at earlier stories and wonder, "How did I come up with that? And how do I top it?"

GK: In writing Amazing, were there things you felt you had to change in your take on Spider-Man?

RS: No. By that time, I felt really comfortable writing Spider-Man. I just sort of continued doing what I’d been doing. Which is why the Foolkiller story I had set up in Spectacular finally came together in Amazing.

GK: What was like working with John Romita Jr. so early in his career?

RS: It was great working with J.R. He was already good, and he got better and better with every issue. Some of the early inking – while technically all right – didn’t really do his pencils justice. Towards the end of our run, when guys like Dan Green and Klaus Janson started inking the book, things really started to shine.

GK: Were you and he on the same page in the approach to story?

RS: I’d say we were within a paragraph or two of each other. Our differences were mainly cultural. J.R. is the hip young guy from the city, and I’m the shlub from the Midwest. Now that I think of it, he’s Spider-Man and I’m Peter Parker. Together, it all worked out pretty well.

GK: What led to the creation of the Hobgoblin? Couldn't you have just brought the Green Goblin back again? Or was this a chance to do something differently and a tad darker?

RS: Well, at the time, I was trying to avoid using the same villains that Spider-Man had fought a dozen times before. The Vulture was really the only major established Spider-Man villain that I used a lot. And that was mainly because I thought of the Vulture as the perfect enemy for Spider-Man. You can have your Doctor Octopus and your Kraven the Hunter. Give me the Vulture anytime. It’s old age and sneakiness versus youth and determination. Where was I? Oh yeah…

We’d seen Spider-Man fight Doctor Octopus over and over, and ’way too often it was the same story. I wanted to have Spider-Man fight guys that he couldn’t beat in his sleep. That’s why, early on, I had him facing down Marvel villains who weren’t traditional Spider-Man foes. What does Spider-Man do when faced with, say, the Juggernaut, who is basically unstoppable? How does Spider-Man survive fighting Nitro, a guy who can blow himself up again and again?

And I really wanted to introduce some new Spider-Man villains. But a lot of the readers wanted to see the old villains return, even if it was for the umpti-umpth time. And at the time, the Green Goblin – the real Green Goblin – was dead. Harry Osborn was never really the Green Goblin to me. Harry’d had a drug-induced psychotic episode and just thought he was the Goblin. He didn’t have the Goblin’s great strength. (That, alas, came later. Poor Harry.) Harry’s shrink, Bart Hamilton, was just another pretender. And I never considered a resurrection.

The Hobgoblin was my solution to the Goblin question. I’d introduce a new villain who had stolen some the Goblin’s gear and concocted a new identity. As with the Green Goblin, neither Spider-Man nor the readers would know who he really was. And unlike the Goblin, he wouldn’t be clinically insane. The Hobgoblin was going to be as coldly calculating as I could make him.

GK: I remember always feeling that Lance Bannon was going to revealed as the Hobgoblin, you certainly dropped clues. Yet you were somewhat in disagreement with Ned Leeds being Hobgoblin. Why? What were your plans?

RS: Oh, I tried to throw in as many red herrings as I could. The only regular members of the Spider-Man cast who absolutely couldn’t have been the Hobgoblin in those first stories were Peter Parker himself and Joe Robertson – because Robbie had been shown with Pete while the mysterious figure who was to become the Hobgoblin was getting the ball rolling.

I had people guessing everyone from J. Jonah Jameson (too out-of-character, but a surprisingly popular choice) to Willie Lumpkin, the FF’s mailman. Ned was another popular choice among the long-time readers who’d never forgiven him for coming between Pete and Betty Brant. But Ned wasn’t a bad guy. I actually like Ned. I never would have made him a villain. That would have been ’way too much of a cliché. Nope, the Hobgoblin was intended to be Rod Kingsley from the moment I scripted the closing pages of Amazing #238.

"Shadow of Evils Past" featured in Amazing Spider-Man #238 by Stern, John Romita Jr., and John Romita Sr. Not only did this issue feature the first appearance of Spidey heavy Hobgoblin, but is also came with a free tattoo!
GK: There were a lot of memorable issues, during your run on Amazing. Which were some of your favorites? How did you keep your momentum up writing the other monthlies?

RS: Favorites? The Daydreamers story [ASM #246]...the Juggernaut story [#229-230]...the annual that introduced Captain Marvel...Cobra & Hyde [#231-232]...and any issues with the Vulture or Hobgoblin. Oh, and "The Kid…"

I can’t explain momentum. It was just such a joy, working with J.R. and Tom [DeFalco]. One story just led to another.

GK: When I was a kid I was a little disappointed that you had left Spider-Man because there seemed to be a lot of storylines you had going on. Plus the Hobgoblin story wasn't completely over and you had also done some of your best work on the title. Was there something going on behind-the-scenes?

RS: Just the usual creative shuffles. Towards the end of the run, Tom DeFalco left to get Marvel’s Star Comics line started, and J.R. picked up the X-Men assignment. Danny Fingeroth became the new Spider-editor. Danny is a good guy, but...you have to understand, as far as Spider-Man was concerned, Tom and I were absolutely on the same wavelength. When he left, it just wasn’t the same without him. I didn’t have to explain every little detail to Tom, the way I did with Danny.

I liked Danny – I still do – but I could see that if we kept working together, it would drive at least one of us crazy. Maybe both of us. After about six months, I called J.R. to discuss it with him, and he said that he was thinking of leaving Amazing to spend more time on the X-Men. And that made it easier to leave the book.

Of course, if I’d known that Ron Frenz was going to take over as the new penciler, I might have stuck around. I’d had so much fun working with him on "The Kid..." I finally got to work with Ron again on a Superman Annual and a couple of miniseries [Spider-Man: Hobgoblin Lives and Spider-Man: Revenge of the Green Goblin], but it would have been even better to work with him on Amazing. He and Tom produced some really great stories on that book.

GK: I'd be shot if I didn't ask you about "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man." What was the process behind it? It's a real change of pace from the other issues.

RS: It was a change of pace. That was a story I just literally woke up with one morning. In fact, it was so fully formed that I was certain that I must have been remembering some other story. I was afraid that my sleeping brain had half-recalled a Superman story that I’d read as a boy and substituted Spider-Man into the mix. For a few days, I went around buttonholing other writers and asking them if they remembered the story. When none of them did, I figured that I must have come up with the thing myself. I didn’t even write it down at the time, because I could see it so completely in my mind.

When I did finally write the plot down, it just sort of flowed out of the typewriter. The script did, too. Of course, I had Ron Frenz’s pencils in front of me as inspiration, and that helped. That was our first story together.

But when I first came up with the story, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I knew that "The Kid..." was a short story – not a whole issue or a scene in a larger story. For a time, I thought that I might write it up as a special feature for an annual. But then, Assistant Editor’s Month came along and the story wound up as half of issue #248.

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