Sunday, April 18, 2010

Comic Book Superhero Stan Lee Talks About His Legacy, Spider-Man and the Disney-Marvel Deal

Explaining his success, comic book legend Stan Lee has no time for false modesty.

"First of all, you have to start by being incredibly brilliant."

He says it with a wink and a smile, but he's really not kidding.

In the world of superhero fanboys, there are few people as idolized and revered as Stan Lee.  The co-creator of such iconic characters as Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, X-Men and many others, Lee spent over 65 years at Marvel Comics as editor-in-chief and publisher, and remains the chairman emeritus of Marvel Enterprises, Inc.  In 2005, he co-founded POW! Entertainment, an independent media company that develops movie, television, home video and online properties.  POW! created the digital comic book "Time Jumper" with Disney and is currently working with them on several other projects--none of which he can talk about.  "And it frustrates the hell out of me," says Lee.

At last week's National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas, Lee sat down for a conversation with Chris Hardwick, host of's Web Soup.  At 87-years old, Lee is sharp, funny, honest, and is clearly having more fun than anyone else in the room.  And that's hard to imagine, considering the audience is comprised mostly of 30- and 40-something males paying tribute at the Church of Stan.  Even yours truly had a hard time keeping his geek under control, but during the audience Q&A, I was lucky enough to be able to ask Lee about Disney's recent acquisition of Marvel.  Below are excerpts from this very entertaining interview.

About his early days in comics, and the stigma attached to it at the time:
In the 1940s, being in the comic book business, it was like Rodney Dangerfield.  You got no respect.  I'd go to a party with my wife and somebody would come over, "Hey, what do you do?"  I knew what was going to happen, so I'd say, "I'm a writer," and try to walk away.  And they'd say, "Oh, what do you write?"  So I'd say, "Magazine stories," and I'd walk a little further.  They'd keep following me.  Finally, I had to say "comic books," which at that time the person would turn around and walk away.

My publisher told me back in those early days..."Stan, don't use words of more than two syllables.  Don't give me talk about characterization and plot.  Give me a lot of action.  I want a lot of fight scenes, because our readers are either really young kids or illiterate adults." Nobody ever thought that anybody who was educated would read a comic book--and that was the business I was in.

Lee eventually tired of the all-action, no-depth school of comic book writing.  So, in the 1960s, he pressed for more complex characters in real-life situations:
("The Fantastic Four") was the first book we did where I said, "The hell with it!"  I'm going to let them talk like real people might talk and react to each other and have personalities and so forth.  I was trying to be realistic in the sense that if Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, was going to drive a car, it wouldn't be a whiz-bang V8, it would be a Chevy Corvette.  And then, if they'd go to a movie, they wouldn't go to the Bijou, they'd go to the Radio City Music Hall.  And they lived in the east side of downtown Manhattan instead of Metropolis or Gotham City.  I wanted it to be realistic.

The move to realism paid off and Marvel started receiving fan mail. At first, "written in crayon," jokes Lee.  There was a moment, however, when he knew Marvel had made it:
I'll never forget.  Four kids who were members of the Cliosophic Society--I don't know what that means--from Princeton came to the office...and they wanted to make me an honorary member.  So, I said, "We have arrived!"  Comic books have now reached the proper level.  (The Cliosophic Society is the oldest college literary and debating club in the world.)

Where did the idea for Spider-Man come from?
I have told this story so often, that for all I know it might even be true.  I was trying to think of a new hero and we had done everything.  We had the Thing, who was the strongest guy around.  We had the Human Torch, who would burst into flames and fly.  We had the Hulk.  I thought, "What can I do that's different?"  And it occurred to me while I was sitting at my desk, I saw a fly crawling on the wall.  Now, I don't want you to think my house is filled with flies--it was one little fly...And I said, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool..."--no wait, I'm lying.  In those days, there wasn't the expression "cool."  I said, probably, "Wouldn't it be groovy if a superhero could stick to the wall like a fly?"  So, I said, "That's a good idea!"  But Fly-Man didn't do it for me, so I went down the list: Mosquito-Man, whatever insect I could think of.  And then I got to Spider-Man.  Now, I want you to think (lowers voice), "Spider-Man."  I mean that sounds dramatic.  It had to work.  So, I said, "I'll call it Spider-Man."  And lo, the legend was born.

Did he ever have a character or story idea that just didn't work?:
Now, this will sound terrible, but every one of them worked.  I never had a rejection, but it's not as good as it sounds and I'll explain.  I was the editor-in-chief.  I was in charge creatively.  I'm also my biggest fan.  So, if ever I would come up with an idea, I'd say, "Gee, that's great! Let's do it!."  I was the guy who said "let's do it."  So, everything I did I thought was terrific.  So, I got no rejections because I would've been the rejector--and I'm not going to reject my own stuff.

On perfecting the "Marvel Method" of writing and illustrating comic books:
I was writing almost all the stories for all the characters and, fast as I am and wonderful as I am, I was having trouble keeping up.  Now, the artists were freelancers.  They weren't on salary, which meant if they had nothing to draw, they weren't getting paid.  So, if Steve Ditko was waiting for a script for Spider-Man and I am still writing the Hulk for Jack Kirby, let's say, Steve had nothing to do and wasn't getting paid.  So, instead of me waiting until I finished the script for Jack Kirby, I would say, "Look Steve, I'll tell you what.  Here's the plot I would like for Spider-Man.  Let so-and-so be the villain.  Let this happen.  You go ahead and draw it any way you want to.  I'll fill in the dialog later."  So, I was able to give Steve something to draw while I finished writing the Kirby script.  When Steve brought his artwork in, all I had to do was put in the dialog and the captions--maybe make a change or two, but that was it.  So, I realized I can do that for most of my artists.  I could give them the plot and let them draw it any way they wanted to and then I would put in the dialog.  So, in that way, I kept a lot of guys working at the same time.  And I began to realize it's the best system of all because instead of me writing a complete script and saying, "Panel H2, draw a closeup of this and a long shot that and a medium shot that," let the artists decide what to do.  That's why they're artists.  They're good at it.  And they all had great story senses.  I worked with the best in the business.  They made me look good, thank God.

On the relevancy of comic books and why they make great movies:
Every form of the media tells a story in ways that the others can't.  I mean, a movie tells a story in a way that a television show can't.  A television show tells a story in a way a magazine can't.  They're all different.  A comic book is really like when you do storyboards for a movie.  The good thing about comics now, people in Hollywood really don't have the time--and most of them don't have the interest--to read a full script.  So, if somebody wants to sell a script to a movie company, a distributor, a producer, there's very little chance the guy is going to read it.  But, it's so easy for anybody to look at a comic book.  You can thumb through it in a couple of minutes and say, "Hey! Wow! These pictures are great!  Oh, that scene would look terrific on screen.  There's a lot of action.  Yeah, I want to do this movie!"

On the first "Spider-Man" film:
I thought it was a great job.  Sam Raimi really kept it true to the spirit of Spider-Man.  He only made one blundering mistake, but I forgive him for it.  I understand how it was.  He didn't make me play the part of J. Jonah Jameson, the irascible newspaper editor.  And I was born to play that role, just like I'm amazed they don't have me playing Odin in the Thor movies.

On comic book conventions and how they've changed over the years:
I don't know how many of you have been to a comic book convention lately, but the way they used to be, they were all kids, little kids, and occasionally you'd see an adult or two--the parents who the kids dragged to the place because they were too young to come by themselves.  Now, all you see are grown-ups with a few kids that they couldn't leave at home because they couldn't get a babysitter.

It's a totally different thing.  For example, the biggest convention is the one in San Diego
(Comic-Con).  There are over 150,000 people there, I think.  And it's all movie people, television people, media people.  And they're all looking for the next hot movie, next hot TV show.  And the poor kids, they're outside with their noses pressed against the window because they can't get in.

Was Disney's acquisition of Marvel in 2009 a good thing?:
I think the Disney acquisition of Marvel is a very good thing.  The people at Disney are very smart and they're very powerful.  And they know enough to let Marvel do what Marvel does.  They don't interfere.  But now, Marvel has all the weight and the power of the Disney distribution machine and all the things that Disney can offer.  A lot of people think, "Oh, now Spider-Man is going to have Mickey Mouse ears."  It's nothing like that.  Nothing will change except for the better.  Marvel will do what Marvel does, but they've got Disney behind them, supporting them.  And I've worked now with the Disney people for a few years, and I've got to tell you they're great.  They're very creative.  They're very understanding.  They know the market.  They know what they're doing.

On the legacy of Stan Lee and his stories:

A lot of people do come over to me and they say, "Gee, I want to thank you for the stuff you wrote years ago, because it meant so much to me, and it affected my thinking and it affected when I was unhappy and confused, and I read these stories and I felt better."  I'm not sure how that happened, because I wasn't trying to write therapeutic stories.  But, if people felt that way, I'm very glad about it.

With the X-Men...there was an underlying theme of anti-bigotry, but that was an underlying theme.  I was really, mostly trying to just tell an exciting story.  And with Spider-Man, I was again trying to tell a story that people would enjoy reading.  But, I find no matter what you write, people read things into it that you may not even have consciously put there.

On whether technology has hurt the comic book industry:

I don't think it hurts anything.  Everything changes things.  I think there will always be comic strips the way there'll always be books, there'll always be movies, there'll always be television.  I remember when TV first came out, everybody said, "That's the end of books.  Nobody's ever going to read a book.  They're just going to stay looking at their TV screen."  There's still a book business. 

Whether this is good or bad, I don't know, but there'll always be comics.  They may not be as big as they were, or they someday may be bigger than they were.  You know, a lot of these movies that are based on comics make people who enjoy the movie want to go read the comic book series.  So it works both ways.  One hand washes the other.

I love technology.  I don't understand it.  I'm no good at working anything, but I love the idea of all these new things.  And all that they do is keep people interested in new ways of looking at a story, of being involved in a story.  And with video games, they're part of a story.  So it's a fascinating age we live in.  It really is.

One piece of new technology Stan Lee has kept up with is Twitter.  His feed is one of the most entertaining ones out there.  Follow him at

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