Stan Lee, the legendary creator of Marvel Comics, has made himself a household name by virtue of his sly appearances in Marvel movies.
But it’s his amazing career that puts him in a class by himself.
Born into poverty, he personifies the American dream.
While still in his teens, Lee discovered his talent for drawing. And over the course of 70 years, he not only created Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and Daredevil, he turned Marvel Comics into a financial behemoth.
At one point he ventured into running the company, but his first love has always been artistic expression.
And this has been the key to his still vibrant personality. Even at 93, he’s as young in spirit as his pre-teen readers, proving conclusively that if you can convert something you love to do into your life’s work, you have found the key to ultimate happiness.
And unquestionably Stan Lee is a happy man.
At his press conference for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, he’s as spry as ever and much funnier than you expect.
Your cameo appearances in Marvel movies have become legendary. Was it really (director) Bryan Singer’s idea?
It all came about accidentally. Bryan needed someone in a scene and he said, “Stan, why don’t you stand there? You are selling hot dogs on the beach, and when the man passes, just go Oooo!” Which took a lot of acting!
So, I did that. And then when they did a Spider-Man movie, the director said, “Hey you were so good in the X-Men, I will give you a cameo in Spider-Man.”
And then after a while it just became like a habit.
What inspired you to create those superheroes? Was it because you were bullied as a child?
You know, it would make such a great story if I could tell you I was picked on as a kid and that’s why I wanted to invent superheroes, but the truth is I had a very peaceful childhood.
If anybody wanted to start a fight with me, I would talk them out of it. I would talk so much they would forget what they intended to do and leave me alone.
No, my inspiration was Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and all the good writers. All their heroes were superheroes to me. My favourite was Sherlock Holmes. To me, Sherlock Holmes was the greatest.
And then when Superman came along – and I am ashamed to say I did not create Superman – my publisher said to me why don’t you do some superheroes?
So, that’s when we started with the X-Men and Spider-Man and Hulk and all the others.
What ignites your imagination?
I don’t know. Maybe just thinking. For example with Spider-Man, it’s really a funny story. I had already done The Fantastic Four and The X-Men. I was working for a publisher and the publisher said to me, “How about coming up with another superhero?”
When you work on a superhero, the first thing you have to think about is what is his or her superpower.
So, I saw a fly crawling on the wall, and I said, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great to have a hero who could stick to walls?” Then, I needed a name. First I thought Fly Man? No. Insect Man? Nah. Mosquito Man? And then I thought of Spider-Man, and it sounded dramatic.
I thought I would make him a teenager, because there were no teenage superheroes and that would make him different.
And finally, I thought I would give him a lot of personal problems, because again, the other superheroes I knew didn’t have personal problems. I got so excited, I ran to my publisher and I said, “I have a great idea for you!”
I told him, and this was the reception I got, “Stan, that is the worst idea that I have ever heard!”
He said, “First of all, people hate spiders, so you can’t call him Spider-Man. And you can’t make him a teenager, because teenagers can only be sidekicks. And you want him to have personal problems? Superheroes don’t have personal problems, that’s why they are superheroes!”
I was an unhappy man when I left the office. But at the time we were killing a book, Amazing Fantasy; it was going to be the last issue, and when you kill a book, nobody cares what you put in the last issue.
So, to get it out of my system, I had the strip drawn and I put it on the cover, Spider-Man, and I forgot about it. We sent the book out.
A month later the sales figures came in, and my publisher came running over to me, and he said, “Stan, Stan, do you remember that Spider-Man, the character of yours that we both liked so much, let’s do it as a series.”
And that was a very long answer to a very short question.
What do you consider your most important contribution to the comic book culture?
When I started in the business, there weren’t very good comics being written because most of the writers assumed that comics were read by very young children.
So, when I started doing comics, I decided I am going to write for grown-ups, for me, the kind of story I would like to read. I decided to use a college vocabulary. I figured if a kid didn’t know what a word meant, he would understand by the use and the sentence, or if he had to go to the dictionary, that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
So that is my main contribution. I wrote the kind of stories that I would want to read. Most writers write for someone else, maybe a story that would be good for people 14 to 18 years of age, or from 20 to 30. I never think that way. Every story I write must be something that I would like and hopefully a lot of other people will too.
The great Italian director Federico Fellini was a huge fan because, as he said, you humanised your characters, and no one had done that before. Did you ever meet him?
Yes, he came to visit me once. I had an office in New York City, he came with five assistants and they were all dressed the same way – with black raincoats – except Fellini had his raincoat over his shoulders.
We had a narrow little walkway in our office, so they came in single file, Fellini was first, and they all followed according to height. It played out like a scene in an animated cartoon.
But he was a great guy, and when my daughter went to Italy a few years later, he showed her around; he was a very great director and a very nice man.
Was there always a rivalry with DC Comics?
You can’t be rivals with somebody that you are so much better than. I used to joke about that, but I knew them very well, and of course we are all friends. But I was always teasing them.
I will give you an example how dumb they are. We used to be called Atlas Comics, and when our books became really popular, I said we ought to get a new name. And I thought of Marvel Comics, because I like advertising, and with a name like Marvel, you could say, welcome to the Marvel Age of Comics, or Marvel Marches On.
There were so many things you could do with that word, so I changed the name to Marvel. Now, they had been called National Comics, and when we changed our name to Marvel, they decided to change their name. So, get this: we became “Marvel” and they became DC. Need I say more?
When you first created these characters did you ever think one day they would be made flesh and blood on a big screen?
I never in a million years thought they would become movies. The only thing we, the artists and the writers, hoped for was that the books would sell well enough, so that we would keep our jobs and be able to pay the rent.
Which of the Marvel movies do you think captures the essence of what you created?
I thought they were all good, but Iron Man stands out. They were lucky to have Robert Downey Jr play the role.
And the first Spider-Man I think is very good. But most of them are pretty good. The X-Men are good. I don’t even remember all of them because there are so many, but I remember my cameos.
You have a lot of young fans. What do they say when they meet you?
They think I’m Santa Claus. But children are so nice. Sometimes I will be sitting in a restaurant and a woman will come over with a little kid, “Excuse me, I don’t want to bother you, but my son recognised you and he wants to have his picture taken with you.” And I love it.
Some of your characters are on television. Do you watch those shows and what do you think of television in general?
I know about the shows, and I wish I could watch them. I hate to sound like I have one foot in the grave, but because I don’t hear too well and it’s hard for me to see what’s on the screen, I don’t watch those shows.
But I read about them and I know how they are doing. I think I have done a cameo or two in some of them. Which is of course why they are so successful.
But I am sorry to say, I can’t even enjoy the movies. I go to the screenings when they have a red carpet opening, and I sit there, and I see the pictures on the screen, but I can’t make out who they are really and I can’t make out what they are saying. And so I sit there and when it’s over I applaud like crazy, but I don’t know what I was looking at.
Your stories always have social and political underpinnings. Do you keep up with what’s happening in the country?
I try to. I listen to the news on the radio a lot, so I know what is going on a little bit, and oh sure, whatever is happening in the world, we try to let those things touch on our stories too, so the readers feel like they are reading something that has some meaning to it.
That was another thing we did that hadn’t been done before. If you think about it, Batman lived in Gotham City, and Superman lived in Metropolis.
But I had our characters living in New York. So we tried to keep everything realistic and relevant to whatever was happening in the world at the time. Even though these were comic book pages, they had authenticity to them.
Over the years did you ever consult with scientists?
I always tried to make things sound authentic. For instance, The Fantastic Four, they got their power because they were bombarded by cosmic rays. And Bruce Banner became The Hulk because he was subjected to gamma rays.
Now, I have to be honest with you, I have no idea what a cosmic ray is. I wouldn’t know a gamma ray if I saw it. But it sounded scientific. That’s why people think I am this great scientist.
The Marvel movies gross billions of dollars. Have they made you a rich man?
Now you’re breaking my heart. No, no I don’t get any residuals. But that’s OK. They treat me nice. I get my cameo.
And as executive producer?
Yeah, they put my name on the screen as executive producer so my wife doesn’t forget about me when she goes to the movie. But it doesn’t translate into money.
Is she your inspiration? (Lee married voice actress Joan B. Lee in 1947)
She was the greatest inspiration, because she left me alone. Seriously, I spend almost all day at home on the typewriter; most wives would say, “You never pay any attention to me, and why don’t we go out? You are sitting here at the typewriter all the time.”
But my wife was able to keep herself busy; she loves decorating our house, and whereas most women are particular about wearing a new dress whenever they go to a party, my wife is that way about the house.
If people come over, she has it all decorated nicely, and if the same people are going to come over the next week, she changes all of the decorations!
So, she keeps herself busy with her house and with worrying about my daughter. We also have dogs,
But she lets me work, which was wonderful. I don’t think she has ever read a comic book. As long as I bring home enough money to pay for the dog food and redecorate the house. But I am the luckiest guy in the world. She’s wonderful.
What would you say was the highest and lowest point in your career?
The highest point for me was when that Spider-Man comic book sold after my publishers had said how terrible the idea was. And the lowest point was years ago, when Marvel had a number of different owners who ran the company.
I said to one of them, “You know, we ought to make movies of these characters.” And that idiot said to me, “No, I don’t want to!” I asked him why and he said if people don’t like the movie, they won’t buy the comic book anymore.
So, DC got there first with the Batman movies, and we had to wait until we had somebody smart enough to figure we ought to do movies too.
Your next superhero is Chinese. Did you go to China to research the character?
Just the way that I didn’t have to go to a science laboratory to learn about cosmic rays. No, it’s easy enough to write about a Chinese person or any other because I know what Chinese people are like.
If I had to go to all the places where my stories take place, I would never have time to write the stories, I would be travelling all the time.