Ordinary Superhero: Stan Lee (1922-2018)

Photo by Gage Skidmore

By Leo Partible

Stan Lee is a rock star. He is the Elvis of comic books. He didn’t create the medium, nor did he invent the superhero, but he was responsible for popularizing both for the masses. Like Elvis, he understood the possibilities, molding and reinventing the story and structure of the comic book, as well as deconstructing and reconstructing the mythology and the archetypes of the superhero story. Blessed with both a literary sophistication and the soul of a childlike dreamer, the witty and gregarious Stan Lee was the first comic creator to have a personal connection with his audience. And in doing so, he became the name and the face synonymous with the art form.

Elvis was the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and today, still in the prime of his life and still creating new concepts, Stan Lee is the King of Comic Books. But even more, because of the phenomenal success of the films based on his Marvel Comics characters, Stan Lee is a brand name. He is Walt Disney.

As we sat down in his Beverly Hills office, Stan Lee settled into his chair. For a moment, his eyes focused on the familiar symbol hanging from the chain around my neck. He asked with a tinge of concern, “Is there a reason you have Superman symbol on your chain?” I understood the implication, wearing merchandise associated with Stan’s competition. I answered with a slight crack in my voice, “Is that heresy?” He broke out in a warm and reassuring smile and pointed to a picture on his bookshelf. There was Stan in an iconic pose, ripping open his shirt to reveal the famous Superman logo. I laughed and added, “I also noticed you have a big picture of you in your lobby outside – the one where you’re sitting next to a life-size statue of Clark Kent. That was taken inside the DC offices, wasn’t it?” Stan snickered like a kid caught in the act, brushing off the obvious irony. “You realize you probably saved the character as well as the rest of DC Comics,” I said with great affection. He beamed. “I suppose I did.”

[Editor’s note: This interview appeared in Risen Magazine in July/August 2007.]

What was your first job in the industry? Or is this the only job you’ve ever had?

Stan Lee: No, I’ve had other jobs. I was an usher at a theater before I got into this. I was an office boy in the second largest manufacturer in the world, located in New York. I was a writer; I wrote publicity for a hospital in Denver. And I wrote obituaries for a news service … you know when famous people will die, the obituary is written. So my job was writing obituaries of famous people in advance. And it was terrible writing about living people in the past tense. In fact, that’s how you know you’re a celebrity. I’d like to think my obituary is already written in the Associated Press. [Laughs] And then finally I got this job at what was then, l think, called Timely Comics. And the rest is history.

Did you stumble into the comic book business?

In a way. I knew somebody. The fella who owned the publishing company was my cousin-in-law [Martin Goodman]. I heard there was a job open. And I didn’t realize it was in the comic book department because he also published regular magazines. And I thought, “Boy that’s great.” I never thought about being a comic book writer. But I thought, I’ll try it, get some experience, and then I’ll go out into the real world. It seems that I never really got enough experience, but I stayed there for all those years.

How has the idea of a hero changed since you started in comics?

I’d like to feel that we at Marvel had something to do with the change. Originally these heroes, the superheroes, like Superman, like Batman … to me they were a little bit one dimensional. They were just people who had secret identities and whenever something bad would happen, they put on their costume and went out and fought the villain. But we never knew much about their personal life. And what we at Marvel tried to do was flesh them out more, make them more into real characters, so that even if they didn’t have their superpowers they’d still be interesting. And I think that was the big difference. Suddenly the books we were doing at Marvel caught on because, as in the case of Spider-Man, people felt they could know Peter Parker and understand him, and understand what motivated him. And they cared about his personal problems and his romances and so forth. So to me that was the big change. I think that comic books became a little bit more adult. And I don’t mean in a sexy or violent way. I mean more in an intellectual way, because of Marvel. At least, I’d like to think so.

Leo Partible and Stan Lee, 2007.

Speaking of intellectual, you gave [the character] Thor a Shakespearean lilt. And it was language you would find in a King James Bible. The Silver Surfer frequently spoke in these poetic monologues. Where did you get the idea to use that in comic books?

Well, I like writing and since my only vehicle of expression was comic books, I tried to put in whatever I could. And I love dialogue. And I like to have every character speak differently. In the Fantastic Four, I tried to have the Thing speak differently than Reed Richards. Reed used big words and he was little bit like me. He got to be boring after awhile. He talked too much. [Laughter] The kid, Johnny … I tried to get him to talk like a typical wise guy teenager. And so forth. So when it came to Thor, I thought, “Well, he’s supposed to be a thunder god.” He wouldn’t walk into a room and say, “Hey guys. What’s shakin?” How would a thunder god say it? And I tried to write it that way. I borrowed a little bit from Shakespeare, a little bit from the Bible, put them together and thought that’s a good way for gods to talk. With the Silver Surfer – he was from another planet. He was also one of my favorite characters because I was also able to express some of my own philosophy through what I had him say. And I didn’t want to give him a dialect or an accent, but I didn’t want him to speak like any guy off the street. So I used some effects, for example, if he wanted to say, “I possess cosmic power,” he wouldn’t say that. He would say, “I possess the power cosmic.” So by reversing the words I felt it gave it a dramatic feel. I enjoy doing that.

So, in essence, you were preserving Western Culture. You were adding a little bit of Shakespeare here, Mary Shelley here, as in the Hulk. You know, Jekyll and Hyde, even Dickens. What’s interesting, even in the Fantastic Four, you were hip to the times. Back then, you added the Beatles in an issue! Why did you do that?

I liked ’em! It’s funny because now one of the projects I’m working on is a film with Ringo Starr. And I’m making him a superhero. He’s going to do the voice of Ringo Starr and he’s going to do the music. Funny you should mention the Beatles.

Well, that’s all part of this because U2’s doing the musical – the Spider-Man musical, right?

Oh yeah! The problem with a Broadway musical … it’s very frustrating. I don’t know how I could do a cameo because I couldn’t go to New York every night! [Laughter]

You did a lot of cameos, actually. Just like Alfred Hitchcock.

I like the way he did it!

How does it feel to see the flesh and blood versions of your characters?

It’s indescribable. It’s the greatest feeling in the world. Especially since it’s done so well. We have been so lucky. I mean, Sam Raimi on Spider-Man, Bryan Singer having done the earlier X-Men. And then Brett Ratner doing them. Tim Story doing the Fantastic Four. And on and on …

Ang Lee on the Hulk …

The movie didn’t do so well, but Ang Lee brought so many innovations into that movie. The way he directed it, set up the scenes. Brilliant. It’s funny. These incredibly talented people are doing such a magnificent job on the movies and I sit here getting a lot of credit for it! And I had nothing to do with the movies!

But you were the inspiration.

That sounds good. [Laughter]

When did you realize that comic books had a potential audience beyond children?

I realized that in the late ’60s. When we started, when I first wrote the Fantastic Four. Then I wrote Spider-Man, then the Hulk, and Daredevil, and Iron Man, and all the others. Originally, when we started, we had never gotten any fan mail before. Suddenly we started getting fan mail. And in the beginning, it looked like it was written in crayon. [Laughter] Little by little, it was written in pencil. After a while we started getting letters written in ink. And then, unbelievable as it may sound, some of the mail was typed. And they didn’t have computers then. But, I began to realize that the age of our readers … they were getting older: They were in high school. Then we started getting mail from colleges. In fact, some kids from Princeton came into my office once and gave me an award. It was such a thrill. So by the time I realized that we were being read by college students, and we hadn’t lost the younger ones, that was the great part about it. We had advanced the age of our readership without losing the younger ones. By then I realized that anything would be possible.

You mentioned getting fan mail and, what was neat about Marvel Comics is the way you gave creators an identity.

Oh, I had to. Or they would’ve killed me. [Laughter] I wanted to make the comics more like movies. And I wanted the readers not to feel like readers. I wanted them to feel like we’re all friends, kind of a secret little thing that the people who weren’t in on it didn’t even know what was going on. And I wanted them to feel that they knew me and I knew them.

What influenced you to create “Stan’s Soapbox?”

I wanted to talk to the readers cuz I realized, with all the fan mail, that we had a relationship. So I wanted the relationship to remain and to get stronger. I mean, you can’t have a one-sided conversation. If they were gonna talk to me in the fan mail, I had to talk to them.

Growing up, I read the soapbox. One of my favorites was when you tackled the issue of bigotry. And I thought it was very sophisticated, and as a reader you felt like, “Stan’s tackling bigotry! We’ve gotta tackle it as well!”

That’s good! That’s just what I wanted to accomplish.

It was actually an early blog, when you look at it.

Yeah, I know what you mean.

Was there ever a time in your life, personally or professionally, where things got so tough, and in almost a superheroic pose, you kneeled down and you said, “God help me. What do I do next?”

Only once. We had another daughter who died at birth. And before she died I was praying, you know, “Don’t let her die.” It didn’t do any good. That was the only time. Everything else … [voice trails off]

What do you think makes your films so wildly successful? The Marvel brand? Because it is … it has become on par with the Disney films …

It’s so simple. It’s because they are so well done. But I think also it’s because the characters are so relatable, because we took so many pains to make them seem so realistic. Even though every one of our stories had a fantasy angle to it … I mean, Spider-Man could shoot webs and he could crawl on walls. He has the proportionate strength of a spider. Daredevil has this amazing hearing and so forth. The Human Torch could burst into flames and could fly. There was always something besides the fantasy. We tried to make everything else as realistic as possible. They lived in New York City. And Johnny Storm drove a Chevy Corvette. He didn’t drive a Whiz Bang V-8. If they went to the movies, they went to the Radio City Music Hall. They didn’t go to the Bijou. They didn’t live in a fictitious town like Gotham City. These are real people who just happened to have super powers.

What keeps your creativity fresh? Is there a spiritual dimension to what you do?

I never thought of it. No … I’d love to say yes and I’d love to sound more profound than I am. But it’s just a case of there’s a story that needs to be written and I’d like to write it well enough so that people can enjoy reading it. That’s about as deep as I’ll get. I’ll admit that when I write it, I try to make it as good as I can and if I can put in a little message … like I tried to do with the Silver Surfer … I tried to do it with Spider-Man with the drug issue, which you may know.

Sure. From the early ’70s …

I tried to do it. I remember there was a Thor story where he’s talking to a bunch of teenagers. That was the time when we had these hippies that were dropping out. You know how it was, young people disenchanted with the way things were and Thor said, “You gotta plunge in. You gotta be an activist.” Whenever I could I’d put that in. But I didn’t want the readers to think I was preaching. Whatever I did had to be part of the story. It seemed to belong. Nobody really likes to feel like they’re being preached to when they’re reading something for entertainment. So any little preachments that I would include had to be a little bit subtle and palatable. And I never tried to inflict my own feeling about religion or anything very personal. I tried to be very general. Don’t take drugs – I’d be general. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. That’s general. But I never said follow this religion or that. I never tried to act as if we were siding with one political party. I didn’t feel that was my place.

Now you have [the company] POW Entertainment. And you’re creating new heroes. What changes do you see in the horizon in this new technological world with the Internet and everything else?

Basically, what I do is write stories. Now, we made a deal with Disney. We’re doing a movie that I’m producing. We’re doing something for the Internet. I’m doing a movie with Sony. A television series we’re doing with Sony. We have two animated DVDs now on sale. One’s called Mosaic and the other, Condor. Condoris about a Hispanic superhero. I thought it was time we had a Hispanic hero. We have a TV show, Who Wants to Be a Superhero?

Very successful on the Sci-Fi Channel …

The only thing I miss … in comic books everything is fast. You get an idea for a story, you write it and draw it and maybe in a month or two, another couple of months it’s on sale and bingo! You work on a movie, three or four years go by before it hits the screen. And I’m an impatient guy. And that’s the reason we work on so many projects. If I had to put all my energy on maybe one movie, and I had to wait three years before it was out there, I’d go crazy. So I keep busy so I don’t have time think, “Geez, when is this thing ever going to be produced?”

Leo Partible is an animator and master teacher in the screenwriting program at Act One in Los Angeles. © Leo Partible. This interview originally appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Risen Magazine. Reprinted here by permission.

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