Friday, March 26, 2010

Interview with Suzan Loeb AKA Suzan Says!

Hi there, romance comic book lovers! I am sorry I have been gone most of the week. I have been preparing for a conference that I am presenting at next week -- so I have been quite the busy little bee with that! However, as Women’s History Month draws to a close, I have something very VERY exciting that adds one more piece to the puzzle concerning the women that were working on romance comics during the 1960s and 1970s.

Fortuitously, Suzan Lane Loeb née Pasternack, the original writer on Marvel’s token advice column of the era -- “Suzan Says,” found Sequential Crush through her daughter and contacted me. I of course had about a billion questions for her! Suzan is the kindest woman you would ever want to meet, and graciously accepted my request for an email interview. Suzan penned the "Suzan Says" articles for issues #1 (September 1969) through #10 (March 1971) of My Love, and issues #1 (October 1969) through issue #10 (April 1971) of Our Love Story.



Put your snuggie on, settle in with a nice cup of tea and enjoy the interview!!!


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Sequential Crush: How did you get your start working for Marvel?

Suzan: I graduated from State University College at Buffalo with a degree in English Secondary Education, but after a few years of teaching in the NYC School System, I realized I wanted to do something in journalism. One of my college suite-mates put me in touch with the Goodman Group. I interviewed and was sent to their Marvel Comics Group division, as a "Girl Friday." Isn’t it interesting to note how job titles have changed through the years...

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Sequential Crush: What was a typical work day like as a “Girl Friday” at Marvel?

Suzan Lane - Our Groovy Gal Friday
Bullpen Photos from Fantastic Four Annual #7 (November 1969)

Suzan: My tenure at Marvel was “BC”…before computers. Everything was done by hand. So, my duties in addition to manning the phones and fielding questions, were answering the mail, filling requests for back-copies of recent issues, reviewing gorgeous artistic samples from budding artists and hopeful young cartoonists, and passing on suggestions for story-lines. The offices were located on 59th and Lexington. My desk was in the front of the office area shared by Sol Brodsky and Roy Thomas, right across the hall from Stan Lee's office.

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Sequential Crush: How much interaction, if any, did you have with the artists drawing the romance comics?

Suzan: “The Bullpen” was inhabited by Marie Severin, Tony Mortellaro, Herb Trimpe, and John Romita, and wow, I got to see them every day. Their work was done in the office daily, and the other greats, including those directly involved with drawing the Romance Line, would stop by from time to time. I remember the laughter and camaraderie in The Bullpen...and was awed by the talent and watching a blank board come alive with blue pencil as the panels in the story took shape.
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Sequential Crush: How did you get involved in writing the advice column “Suzan Says”?

Suzan: Stan and Sol knew I was taking grad courses at Hunter and that I was a writer and English major. One day, I was called into Stan's office and he told me Marvel was going into the Romance business. He told me he wanted me to write a page to keep the continuity with the “Stan's Soapbox” concept. He even discussed the persona he thought he wanted me to assume...a divorcee with lots and lots of experience; but then ultimately decided on a young woman about my age.
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Sequential Crush: Who came up with the concept and the title of the column?

Suzan: It was Stan Lee himself who came up with the title, “Suzan Says”…as my first name is Suzan and I was going to be writing the column…and he liked the idea of an advice-to-the-lovelorn type, but he gave me free reign to write my pages; starting with three per issue, then sometimes only one or two.

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Sequential Crush: Is the picture based on your likeness?

Suzan: Sure is, but much, much more flattering. Can you imagine my incredulous delight when Stan asked Spider-Man’s Johnny Romita to pen my likeness for the banner for my column?!?!?!

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Sequential Crush: How old were you when you were writing “Suzan Says”? Do you feel that your age influenced the way you gave advice?

Suzan: I was in my mid-twenties when I began writing “Suzan Says”…a few years out of college and with two years of teaching experience behind me. I became engaged to my first husband while at Marvel. I don’t feel it was my age that influenced me. I believe what I brought to the job…who I was, my morals, values and ethics, and what I thought…most influenced me. When I was asked to write “Suzan Says”, the woman’s movement was just underway, and consciousness-raising groups were beginning and gaining in popularity. We were forced to connect with ourselves and be proud of being women who were in touch with our emotions.

Remember, this was the Pre-Computer Age... There was no Internet…no “Google”…no Facebook…nothing. The concept of sending letters provided readers with a format to pose real questions of concern and seek advice while also remaining anonymous…only first names were used in-print.
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Sequential Crush: Sometimes the letters sent in seem almost too unbelievable to be true! To what extent were the letters real in “Suzan Says”?

Suzan: The column encouraged write-in questions about personal issues and I was to select “universal” ones and answer with sound advice…from my “gut”. Remember, this was a “first” and the waters were virtually untested. When the initial wave of fan-letters came in, I was overwhelmed – by the volume and by the personal information shared in those letters.There had been no discussion with me, so there was no preconceived notion, as to who the audience of these romance comics was going to be. I just knew Marvel was interested in being part of a market that was out there and untapped…and that I was going to be a part of a new launch, and I was thrilled!

If you were thinking the audience was for pre-teen girls in those days, let me tell you the letters came from females and from males spanning all ages and all walks of life. The letters usually started with the person’s name and age, and were hand-written. Just by looking at the penmanship, if not stated, you could approximate the age of the writer. The tales that unfolded were real and very touching…men and women reaching out for answers that would resolve their loneliness and help gain them romance.I remember discussing this and expressing my concern regarding my qualifications to give advice that someone could take to heart and possibly use. The prevailing attitude was “it’s a comic book…keep that in perspective.” Yes, that remark came from a male staffer.

But, I was so moved personally by the issues presented and felt each person who took the time to write needed to know the letter was received and read by me. The volume made that impossible. A “form letter” response carrying my banner and signature was produced, basically thanking the reader for sending the letter; that the issue raised was of great importance and interest; but because of the volume of letters and time constraints, each letter could not be answered personally. The reader was encouraged to continue reading the comics and to look for an answer in either a story line or in a future column. Each letter received did get a copy of that letter.

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Sequential Crush: Did you prefer answering letters or writing the more straightforward advice based on a specific topic?

Suzan:
As for the letters themselves, some shared such pain and personal agony that I couldn't read them without getting involved. Because of my interest in reaching everyone who wrote, I thought about their questions “collectively”; then proposed a question based on points raised.

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Sequential Crush: Were you given a topic or did you come up with them on your own?

Suzan: I thought about my own experiences - nothing out of the ordinary - and realized that the romantic problems I faced were universal. I picked topics I felt I could answer appropriately and reach a vast audience. I guess the editors agreed with my decisions and choices because they printed what I wrote.
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Sequential Crush: To what extent did you draw from your own experience when giving advice? Where else did inspiration for writing the column come from?

Suzan: In addition to my own experiences, I drew on those of my friends…and believe it or not, on the themes of great romance novels. Remember, at the time, I was doing grad work at night at Hunter College studying English Literature.

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Sequential Crush: Did you have a good idea of who the audience you were writing for was demographically?

Suzan: I don’t think anyone realized how far-reaching this column was in its infancy. The newspapers’ version of advice columns were really geared toward answering “adult” problems…that was the demographic they played to. The romance comic reached a younger and more specific audience who could vent and speak directly to their personal issues without fear of judgment or reprisal.

Those letters...All ages, all walks of life, and from all over the country.

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Sequential Crush: You always signed “Suzan Says,” with a “Love ya!” Your voice was that of a concerned friend. Did you feel a connection to the audience you were writing for?

Suzan's first Our Love Story column
Issue #1 (October 1969)

Suzan: Absolutely! I felt a very strong connection to the audience I wrote for and I think those in charge of production thought so too, because even after I left, my columns were reprinted in subsequent issues.

Every one of us has, at one time in our life, needed a friend to turn to. Sometimes the problem we faced was too hard or embarrassing to discuss with a friend, and that’s where I stepped in. I could be that friend without judging you or jeopardizing our confidentiality.

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Sequential Crush: Having been a teacher, did you feel that writing the column was somewhat akin to teaching?

Suzan: No..I never made that connection or thought of that possibility until now with you asking that question. I felt that was I was doing was soooo very far from the teaching arena that I never drew the conclusion that I was teaching a lesson to make a point. My answers were straight from my heart; much the same discussions I was hoping I would have with my own “somewhere in the future” children.

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Sequential Crush: Did you ever have any input on the story lines for the sequential romance stories?

Suzan: No. I did attempt a few storyline suggestions, but none were deemed worthy of producing.
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Sequential Crush: Did you read any romance comics at the time, including the advice columns of the other companies to see what you were up against?

Suzan: Nope…I never looked at another comic product other than Marvel. I wanted to keep my own perspective and my own approach.

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Sequential Crush: Did you feel that the romance comics were authentic representations of the experiences of young women?

Suzan dishes out fashion advice in
My Love #2 (November 1969)

Suzan: In those days, yes I did. I really believed in the product and what it was saying. Most of the story lines were devised by men…remember the composition of the workplace and what women’s positions were in those days. I grew up with comic books and they were a very real part of all of our lives. They got people reading and learning about so very many things…romance included. Of course, most stories painted a most glorious happy-ending; and a few were heart-breaking. But, you know what…that’s a reflection of what real-life is all about. I think these comics did represent a myriad of experiences of young women, in a specific format. But the themes were very real.
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Sequential Crush: How did you feel about men writing romance stories – did you feel they were they legitimate authors of stories intended for young women?

Suzan: I think they did a fantastic job! I think they were the forerunners of the concept of men getting in-touch with their feminine side. They really understood what was going on, and were able to write from the woman’s point of view…without losing or compromising their own masculinity.

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Sequential Crush: Do you still stay in contact with anyone from your Marvel days or attend comic book conventions?

Suzan: No. Unfortunately when I moved out of NYC, I lost contact with everyone at Marvel. I have not yet had the opportunity to attend a comic book convention, but would really love to.

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Sequential Crush: Do any specific columns that you wrote stand out in your mind? Have you had a chance to go back and read any of your columns recently? Do you feel your advice has stood the test of time?

Suzan: Although each column has very specific meaning to me, I think the one that stands out the most, is the very first one when I introduced myself. I felt I had a lot riding on it because it was my first attempt to write something for Stan Lee. I was so happy when he accepted what I wrote without changing a word.

When you and I first connected I pulled out all of my issues and re-read them. Memories flooded back and I recalled, amazingly, what I was thinking and feeling at the time I wrote each of them. Funny, because sometimes now I can’t remember if I ate breakfast.

While the issues have changed and life and romance has become so much more complicated, I feel my advice was sound. Kept in the confines of the age in which it was written, it was appropriate for the time and yes, I do feel it still stands up.

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Sequential Crush: What are you up to these days?

Suzan: Using Marvel and my writing experience there as a “springboard” I developed a most interesting and satisfying career. I was an editor and writer for a now-defunct newspaper in the Bronx; spent many years on the West Coast; wrote descriptive plaques for museum pieces; worked and traveled nationally and internationally for non-profits – crafting speeches, brochures, newspaper articles, and the like; and now write the obituaries for a large city newspaper in the South. I did drive the Weddings Desk for a while…very interesting…
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Sequential Crush: Any other memories of your Marvel days that you would like to share with the readers of Sequential Crush?

Suzan: Other memories that stand out:

Had I stayed with the company longer than I did, Marie said she would help me learn to be a colorist.

When I was getting married, John told me “Don’t get fat!”…wish I had listened…

Once I was given a treat by one of the artists…He was drawing a series of stars in a panel and I got to draw one!

But, most importantly…Working at Marvel taught me something that stayed with me my entire career. If you can’t wake up in the morning looking forward to going to your job, then you’re in the wrong line of work! There was not one day at Marvel that there wasn’t joy and fun…getting the work done in an environment that applauded creativity and celebrated with joy, the individual.

Just look at all the people we reached…and through you, Jacque, and what you do…are still reaching!


Isn’t she great, ladies and gentleman? I don't know about you, but I feel inspired!!! How cool to have been a part of such a dynamic company during such an innovative time! Thank you so much, Suzan for sharing your memories with us. Knowing more about the contributors to the romance comics is such an exciting thing and really invaluable for fully understanding the medium! Have a great weekend everyone and in true "Suzan Says" fashion...

Love ya!

10 comments:

  1. Jacque: What a wonderful interview - full of fascinating memories. I loved that Susan and others at marvel all were a little surprised, it seemed, but the amount of pain and personal suffering expressed in the mail; and that Susan had the integrity to question her own qualifications for responding to such pain.

    Her interview is filled with such spirit and warmth; it seems another perfect example of Stan Lee and his unwavering ability to select the right person for the job. "The prevailing attitude was “it’s a comic book…keep that in perspective.” Yes, that remark came from a male staffer." Man, I loved that.

    And finally, she looked just like the Romita portrait! I find that very satisfying.

    Great work, Jacque! A real treat. -- Mykal

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  2. Congrats on the scoop! I always assumed Suzan was a fiction, that all the romance columnists, as well as the letters, were fakes.

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  3. Wow, amazing! Thanks for posting this wonderful interview, I love hearing about stuff like this.

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  4. Jacque,

    Thanks for interviewing the "real" Suzan and digging up some undiscovered history. I think it also shows how unformal Marvel was in relationship to other companies at the time. Its also good to know that readers were getting a woman's perspective, and from someone who was genuinely concerned about what she was saying. Great stuff!

    Nick Caputo

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  5. Coincidentally, I just re-read my runs of MY LOVE and OUR LOVE STORY about a month ago. They are great comics! Like theseditionist, I had my doubts about whether Suzan was real or a construct. Thanks for this interesting interview!

    --Marshall

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  6. Thanx Suzan & Jacque for a truly illuminating interview~! I am so happy Suzan gave props to the Men of Marvel who wrote most of those stories. Her remark about them being in touch with their feminine sides is so true~ going all the way back to Romance Comics in the 40's (artists usually are more sensitive, eh ? unless you are Ernest Hemingway~!)

    Jacque: you forgot to ask how she came to spell Suzan with a Z. And: you have a LOVELY signature~!

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  7. Thanks, everyone! I was really excited when Suzan contacted me... I couldn't wait to share with you all! I had always thought that all the advice columnists were editorial characters, so it has been great to find out that some really were real! Now if I can just find Marc! :)

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  8. Wow! Very cool - thank you so much...

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  9. Great job. Thanks. This was a great bit of reporting.

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  10. So glad you enjoyed it, Eddie and Whalehead King! Thanks for stopping by!

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