Stan Lee still turns up all over his Marvel universe — and at Planet Comicon
Most comic-book writers and illustrators toil in anonymity, seeming less real to their fans than their alter egos on the page. Stan Lee is a notable exception.
Starting in 1961, the onetime editor and later publisher of Marvel Comics helped introduce the world to Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, X-Men, the Silver Surfer and Iron Man. The heroes he created with artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko came with recognizable insecurities and issues that readers could relate to, so it’s not surprising that they’ve remained popular.
Lee is coming to Planet Comicon at Bartle Hall May 20-22, signing merchandise and meeting with the legions of fans who cheer his cameo appearances in every Marvel movie. Contacted by phone in Los Angeles, the 93-year-old icon explains why he and his characters have been so enduring.
The Pitch: How are you doing today?
Lee: So far, so good, if you treat me OK.
How did you decide to give comic book characters real world neuroses? In the first Fantastic Four books, the Storm family bickers the way a real one would.
Well, it’s a funny thing. I was always a little embarrassed that I was writing comic-book stories because in those days nobody had any respect for them. Most parents didn’t want their children to read comic book stories. I thought, What if you tried to write them a little bit better? What if you write them for intelligent people with characters who have their own personality, their own neuroses, their own problems, their own quirks, and they still get involved with adventures? So, just to make myself feel better, I tried writing stories about characters who, if they weren’t superheroes, perhaps could be in any normal novel. I was just doing it to make myself feel better, really.
Do you think that’s why the characters have lasted so long?
I hope that one of the reasons they’ve lasted is that we’ve made them interesting enough. For example, when I was younger I loved Sherlock Holmes, and I would read anything about Sherlock Holmes, and I’m sorry that Arthur Conan Doyle died because I’d still be reading those stories. I’d still be buying them. I think that if you make characters that interesting, enough people continue to want to read them, and it almost doesn’t matter what age they are. What I tried to do was write stories that were simple enough for a youngster to understand and enjoy, and yet hopefully intelligent enough for older people.You and your collaborators also explored subjects like drug addiction that weren’t normally examined in superhero stories.
Whenever I could I tried to put in something that could be helpful or give a little advice to the readers. I remember we did a story with Thor, the God of Thunder. Where he came down to earth, and he was in, of all places, an elevator with a couple of teenagers, and the teenagers were talking about how they wanted to drop out. In those days, that was the popular thing to say. And Thor gave them a little lecture, saying that if you’re not satisfied with the way things are going, you accomplish nothing by dropping out. The thing is to pitch in, to get involved, to make things better. I wrote a whole goddamn speech about it, and you don’t find things like that in the average comic. I tried to do things like that to make it more what the public’s perception of what a comic book was.
One intriguing aspect of X-Men is that their situation resembles real-world prejudices.
I intended it to. That was the purpose. It was an anti-bigotry series. That was the underlying purpose for it.
What’s it like to watch a Marvel movie now that audiences wait for your cameos in them?
It started out as a gag, but now it’s really such fun for me. And the audience seems to enjoy it. This is something really new. I don’t think there’s ever been a cameo specialist. I know that Alfred Hitchcock would put himself in movies, but he would be walking by in the background in some scene. He didn’t make a big thing of it. I have become the world’s first cameo specialist.
You even played a character you created in the first Tim Story Fantastic Four.
That’s right. I played the postman, didn’t I? It was more than a cameo. It was almost a supporting role. I’m waiting for them to give me a longer cameo where I can be part of the story, but they’re too smart to do that. They don’t want me to ruin the movie. [Laughs]
That said, Kevin Smith, who’s also coming to Planet Comicon, gave you several minutes of screen time playing yourself in Mallrats.
That was more than a cameo. That was the reason that the movie did so well. [Laughs] That was really fun. I got a big kick out of that. I think, basically, I’m a frustrated actor. If I were able to I would have wanted to be a professional actor. Fate had other plans for me, but having a chance to get in front of a camera for a little bit, it’s fun.
Why do you think that Iron Man, who used to be considered a minor character in the Marvel universe, became so popular once he started showing up in movies?
Well, first of all you have a great actor playing the role in Bob Downey Jr. With Iron Man, I wanted a different kind of character. I wanted to go against the popular conception of what a hero should be. In the days that I came up with the idea for Iron Man, the main comic-book readers, the teenagers and slightly older people, they were against war. They were against the military industrial complex. They were against people who made money in munitions, and they weren’t even that happy with people who were billionaires. And I thought it would be fun to take a person like that and actually make a hero out of him. It was just like a challenge, so I took a guy, I made him a billionaire. He manufactures weapons and so forth. And luckily, it worked. In the movies, he’s been incredibly popular, and as I said, Bob Downey has been really responsible for that. His performance has been wonderful.
Why do you think the recent Marvel movies have gone over better than the DC ones, like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice?
I don’t know how to answer that. We’ve spent so much time at Marvel catering to the public, trying to do stories that the public would care for that all the things that we have learned in so doing we apply to the movies. I can’t put my finger on anything, but basically we do the type of movies and comic books we ourselves would want to see and read.The thing that I taught people on the staff for years is, don’t write a story and say, “I’ll bet they will like it.” Write a story and say, “Wow! I like it!” Because if you like it, you’re probably not that different from most other people. But when you try to write something for other people, you can’t know those other people as well as you know yourself. Or am I becoming too complicated there?
You have your new memoir now, Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir. What was it like to explore your life again?
I couldn’t believe they were doing that book or wanted to. It’s amazing. I even love the title they gave it. However, I must be honest with you, I have not read it because my eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be, and I can’t read the small print anymore. But I’ve looked through it. It looks great. I hope it reads as well as it looks.
What’s it like to meet with fans and know that your work has had an impact on their lives?
I’m very proud, and it’s a great feeling. It really is. So many people have told me that when I go to comic book conventions. Men come over to me and say how important these books were to them when they were younger. They gave them a feeling of always doing the right thing and so forth. I cannot tell you how good it makes me feel.Whenever I go to a comic-book convention. It’s almost like I’m home with family. I feel like I know these people, and they act as if they know me, and it’s really a great feeling.
Your friend and former collaborator Al Jaffee has turned 95, and he’s still doing fold-ins for Mad. What’s it like to still have something offer at this time in your life?
You know the old saying “They died with their boots on”? I’d like to die with my comic book on.