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The Complexity of a Fantastic Four

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During a single year of the not-great Harding presidency, four great cartoonists came into the world.

Two of those 1922-born men died recently -- "The Family Circus" creator Bil Keane in November and the Joker creator (some say co-creator) Jerry Robinson in December. "Peanuts" legend Charles M. Schulz passed away in 2000, and "Spider-Man" superstar Stan Lee is still very much with us.

I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing this quartet many times during the years I covered newspaper syndication for Editor & Publisher magazine. One thing that sticks in my mind is that all four exemplify how entertainment celebrities can be more well-rounded than their public persona might indicate. People often view the famous through a certain lens: this actor plays bad guys (even though he can also handle heroic roles), and that author writes mass-market fluff (even though she can also write serious fiction).

For instance, the mythos surrounding Schulz was that of a very nice, insecure, mild-mannered man -- all true! But there was also a confident and competitive side to the "Peanuts" creator, as this anecdote illustrates:

In 1995, the people behind "Garfield" announced that Jim Davis' cat comic might have surpassed "Peanuts" in worldwide sales. I checked with the "Peanuts" camp, and it turned out Snoopy and friends still had an edge: 2,595 newspapers to 2,547. So I wrote a story to that effect, and thought the matter ended there. But several months later, Schulz tapped me on the shoulder at a meeting.

"How are you, David?" he asked in his congenial way.

"I'm fine, Mr. Schulz."

Then his voice became less congenial. "You know 'Garfield' never had more newspapers, don't you?"

"I wasn't sure," I replied nervously. "That's why I checked with your syndicate."

"Are you sure now?" he continued, with a stern expression that contained a hint of a smile.

"I guess I am."

Ouch.

That's one of the anecdotes in my recently completed memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional. Given that I usually write for "HuffPost Books" rather than "HuffPost Entertainment," I thought I should mention a book!

The partly shy Schulz was also a good dancer. I watched him move gracefully around a hotel ballroom with several of his female peers at a National Cartoonists Society (NCS) gathering in San Antonio in 1999 -- just months before the "Peanuts" creator was slammed with health problems.

Another example of how entertainment notables can be more complex than they seem: Bil Keane's "The Family Circus" humor comic was warm and sentimental, so its creator was also warm and sentimental -- right? Well, there was that side to Bil, but he also displayed a sarcastic wit when on a speaking podium.

While talking about a profit-minded syndicate exec, for instance, the Arizona-based Keane quipped: "He came out to visit us one day, and we said 'our house is your house.' So he sold it!"

And at the 1992 NCS meeting in Washington, D.C., Bil joked that when attendees had the chance to meet (the first) President Bush, he filled out a form that included the boilerplate question about whether he advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government by force or violence. "I put down violence," deadpanned Keane.

Yes, Keane and Schulz did not fit into a narrow box -- and the same could be said of Jerry Robinson.

Robinson was best known for the Joker arch-villain who arrived in Batman comic books in 1940 and later came to vivid life on movie screens via Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger. Jerry also gave Batman's sidekick the name Robin (after the Robin Hood stories Robinson loved as a kid, not after his own last name).

But Jerry also became a newspaper cartoonist, authored a number of books, and founded a syndicate that distributed the work of cartoonists from all over the world. Plus Jerry was as much a fan of cartoons as cartoon lovers were fans of him. I remember "walking in Memphis" with Robinson (during a 1991 editorial cartoonists convention) when we stumbled on a comics store. I've never seen anyone rifle through cartoon-related merchandise with more enthusiasm!

As for the also enthusiastic Stan Lee, he is more than the co-creator of "Spider-Man" for comic books. He subsequently brought that character to newspapers (with a daily/Sunday strip) -- and then came the Spidey movies and Broadway musical. Lee also co-created iconic characters such as Iron Man, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, and the Fantastic Four; served as a Marvel Comics executive; and has even had cameos in various movies starring his superhero characters. The friendly, outgoing Lee is a screen natural.

But perhaps his biggest accomplishment was making Spider-Man (aka Peter Parker) an everyman superhero rather than an almost god-like one. He's "treated like a real human being," Lee told me in 1983. "I tried to give him the problems any normal guy would have."

So Spider-Man/Parker was and is more complex than one would expect -- like those four famous cartoonists born in 1922. You may have your own examples of entertainment figures (including authors) who can't be defined in a one-track way.