The 1960s were a time of social upheaval and artistic revolution and, shall we say, chemical experimentation — but the Marvel Comics offices were a more straight-laced than you might have expected.
That is, according to legendary comics editor Denny O’Neil, who at New York Comic Con 2018 shared the story of the time another writer dared him to spike the notoriously straight-edge Stan Lee’s coffee with LSD.
O’Neil is best known for his work at DC Comics, particularly on Batman — where he guided the path of Batman comics for close to two decades and invented characters no less influential than Ra’s al Ghul. But in the late ’60s, as he explained during a panel titled “1968: The Year That Changed Comics and the World,” his career was just beginning.
At that time, he was a young journalist who had just accepted a job writing for Marvel Comics because he’d almost been run out of his small midwestern town for writing too many anti-establishment exposes. That made him one of the youngest and most counterculture guys in the Marvel Bullpen.
“Stan [Lee] was not a hippie by any stretch,” O’Neil shared on the panel, “Flo Steinberg tells the story of when I had a ‘Let’s Legalize Pot’ button on my jacket,” he continued, “and Stan came into the office [going], ‘Ahh! What are we wearing today?’ and his face dropped. He said, ‘Listen, if you’re going to work for me, there’s certain things you gotta be above, and that’s one of them,’ and tore it off. And left four people [going], ‘What just happened?’”
O’Neil acknowledged that part of Lee’s brilliance at Marvel was to realize that college students were a fertile market for superhero comics, not just kids up to the age of 12. But that new demographic was the one that readily assumed Marvel Comics writers were under the influence. According to O’Neil, rock musicians like Country Joe and the Fish regularly visited the Marvel offices for tours, and fans would call up to ask which drugs Lee and artist Steve Ditko had been on when they made Doctor Strange comics.
“If there are two guys on the island of Manhattan,” O’Neil said, “less likely to use drugs than the two guys you’ve mentioned — especially not Steve — I don’t know who they are.”
But the real highlight of O’Neil’s description of the Marvel Bullpen came when former DC Comics president and editor Paul Levitz (also a panelist) asked him to tell the story of the time he was asked to spike Stan Lee’s drink.
“[Writer] Jules Siegel, young hip guy, wanted me to spike Stan Lee’s coffee with LSD,” O’Neil said. “And I was not so dumb even then as to allow myself to be enlisted in this. I’m sure nobody here has ever experimented with LSD. Because, you know, we’re, we’re Christians here. [...] Anyway, that’s the story of my being enlisted to, really, probably drive Stan over the edge.”
The real irony for O’Neil was that despite his reputation — and the button incident — he never touched marijuana. It made him sick.