At 91, Stan Lee is what you might call a superhero emeritus. His epic adventures are mostly behind him and his powers are on the wane. (He can’t hear or see so well, and a pacemaker regulates his heart.) But the comic-book writer who dreamed up Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four still works five days a week, travels wherever convention geeks gather and tops each autograph with his trademark “Excelsior!”
The son of poor Jewish immigrants from Romania, Stanley Martin Lieber (he later shortened it legally) never became the novelist he aspired to be while growing up on New York’s Upper West Side. But fantasizing about radioactive arachnids, magnetic force fields and vixens such as Black Widow gave him a great living and a legacy that will outlive us all.
In 1939 Lee’s uncle helped get him an assistant’s job at Timely Comics, a company the boss, Martin Goodman (a relative of Lee’s), later renamed Marvel. Showing early promise providing text for Captain America, Lee was installed as a Marvel editor at the age of 18, an “interim” gig he ended up keeping until 1972. For much of that time Lee plodded away in the Marvel writers’ bullpen to the point of burnout. Only after his wife, Joan, a British former model, pushed him to create characters “the way you’ve always wanted to” did Lee’s career take off.
Between 1961 and 1965, in one of pop culture’s most remarkable creative bursts, Lee, working with freelance artists including Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, created the key characters in what became known as the Marvel Revolution. (Kirby’s estate would later sue for pieces of that action.) Superheroes were no longer two-dimensional goody-goodies but quirky, angst-ridden and flawed. The Fantastic Four bickered. The Hulk and the X-Men struggled with their alter egos. Even Spider-Man, a character who came to Lee—or so the story goes—as he observed a fly walking up a wall, was a wreck inside.
Today Lee’s creations are enjoying their widest audiences ever. After declaring bankruptcy in 1996, Marvel powered back with blockbuster movies, digital entertainment and, yes, more comic books. Disney acquired the company for $4.2 billion in 2009, though, surprisingly, Lee didn’t see a dime of that. By then he had formed his own company, POW! Entertainment. But he will always be Mr. Marvel.
Contributing Editor David Hochman, who last interviewed Sean Hannity, spent a couple of days with Lee at his Beverly Hills offices. “Stan has the sandpaper growl of a bygone era, but he’s remarkably sharp, plugged in and quick with a comeback. We should all be as cool as Stan Lee at his age.”
LEE: So Playboy wants to know all about my sex life?
PLAYBOY: If that’s where you would like to begin.
LEE: It’s interesting. Years and years ago the magazine was considering doing one of these interviews with me, but I guess it wasn’t the time. One of your editors said, “We know Stan Lee. We love Stan Lee. Stan Lee is a friend of Hef’s. But Spider-Man is more famous than Stan is.” Does this mean I’m finally bigger than Spider-Man?
PLAYBOY: The case can certainly be made. The characters you created decades ago dominate pop culture. Iron Man 3 was the highest-grossing film in 2013. Marvel’s The Avengers was 2012’s biggest. X-Men: Days of Future Past could easily rule 2014. Not to mention TV, publishing, merchandising and gaming. How do you account for the continued success of these vintage superheroes?
LEE: It’s because I wrote them so magnificently, don’t you think? Actually, I have a theory. May we become philosophical?
LEE: It’s an extension of the fairy tales we read as kids. Or the monster stories or stories about witches and sorcerers. You get a little older and you can’t bother with fairy tales and monster stories anymore, but I don’t think you ever outgrow your love for things that are fantastic, that are bigger than you are—the giants or the creatures from other planets or people with superpowers who can do things you can’t.
The added appeal of so many of these characters is that they were extraordinary but ordinary at the same time. That made them relatable. The Fantastic Four had unusual powers, but they were also a kind of family with foibles. Mr. Fantastic, for instance, could be a real bore. And Spider-Man was like a lot of teenage boys—confused, troubled. He had problems trying to make his way in the world and coping with being a superhero. The Thing and the Hulk were disoriented monsters—monstrous freaks, as it were—which gave them a certain amount of pathos. The X-Men were magnificent misfits. Then you had Daredevil, who was blind but could do things better than most sighted people. I did not create Captain America, but I attempted to make him more than just a strongman who fought the bad guys. I tried to give him a personality and his own fears and hang-ups and frustrations. Or how about Doctor Strange? I love that guy, a surgeon whose hands get shattered in an accident. He has to struggle to find his way and eventually learns magic in the ancient mystical tradition. He becomes the most powerful magician the cosmos has ever known. They haven’t made a Doctor Strange movie yet, but they will.
So you see, comic books to me are fairy tales for grown-ups. Iron Man, the Avengers, Spider-Man and all the rest are popular for the same reason “Jack and the Beanstalk” is still popular after a million years. They’re good stories about characters that are like us but also larger than us. That’s the end of my philosophy lesson. It should be carved in stone.
PLAYBOY: From a creative standpoint, what were you experiencing during that intense period from 1961 to 1965 when you wrote The Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers—which included the characters Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man and Loki—Daredevil and The X-Men, among others?
LEE: To be honest, I could have done it earlier; I could have done it later. It was only because my boss asked me to do it. For instance, after I had done Fantastic Four, Martin, my publisher, said, “Give me another bunch of heroes.” He also wasn’t thrilled that our competition, DC Comics, had the Justice League. So I did what I knew how to do. I created another group of characters.
First I had to come up with an origin. How does this group get their superpowers? Well, the Fantastic Four had been clobbered by cosmic rays. The Hulk was hit with gamma rays. Incidentally, I had no idea what cosmic rays or gamma rays were, but they sounded good. And they were the only rays I knew. I had run out of rays, so what the hell was I going to do for this new group? I took the cowardly way out and said they were born that way; they’re mutants. In fact I called them the Mutants. Martin hated the name, so we changed it to the X-Men. At a certain point we had every variety of superhero with every possible origin tale and power.
PLAYBOY: Yet somehow they all lived in New York City.
LEE: Oh, that was convenient for me since I lived there myself. To me, these characters existed only if I could picture them around town. Tony Stark, Iron Man, for example, was very wealthy and lived in a mansion on Central Park. The Fantastic Four lived in the Baxter Building, which was farther downtown. They could then guest star in one another’s books. One day I wrote a story in which Spider-Man, who lived in Forest Hills, Queens, decides he’s not making enough money being a superhero and thinks maybe he’ll join the Fantastic Four. There might be a buck in it for him. So he goes to the Fantastic Four headquarters and swings into the window. He says, “I want to join you guys.” They say, “We’re not looking for anybody.” So he doesn’t join them.
I had fun with all these characters because I literally knew where they lived, as well as what their personalities were. All that was left for me to do was make up the villains, which was even more fun than making up the heroes. Until I ran out of animal names, I was okay. There was the Lizard, the Scorpion, Doctor Octopus, the Vulture, the Rhino.
PLAYBOY: It sounds like fun, but the pressure must have been intense. By 1968 Marvel was putting out 50 million comic books a year.
LEE: Pressure is not the word. I was always on the precipice. If anything went wrong, I’d fall. You see, I was not only the head writer but I was also the editor. It was my responsibility to make sure the books were sent to the printer on time. If we ever missed a printing date, we had to pay for that printing time anyway, which would be thousands of dollars.
Some months we were doing 40, 50 books. And not only superheroes. You had all those other types too—My Romance, Her Romance, Their Romance. My publisher loved Westerns with the word kid in them, so I had Two-Gun Kid, Texas Kid, Rawhide Kid, every other kind of kid. In those days I was just grinding out stuff.
PLAYBOY: What’s your role at Marvel today?
LEE: Mostly I’m just a pretty face they keep for the public. My entire career, I treated Marvel like one big ad campaign, with slogans like “Make mine Marvel,” “Welcome to the Marvel age of comics” and so forth. After a while, I became Marvel’s ambassador to the world. I’ve lectured in every city in the country probably two or three times. I’ve been to China, Europe, Japan, Australia and every place in between. Today, my main focus is my own company, POW! Entertainment, which stands for Purveyors of Wonder, and we have projects we’re doing independent of Marvel. We have a television movie, another movie we’re doing with partners in China, as well as one in India. We’re doing a line of children’s books and Stan Lee’s Superhumans series on the web.
I have no standing at Marvel where I decide what projects get made or who gets hired, and certainly none at Disney, which now owns Marvel. I’m a guy they hire as a writer or producer and also to go to conventions and do things like that.
PLAYBOY: Just to be clear, you don’t own any rights to the characters you created.
LEE: I never did. I was always a Marvel employee, a writer for hire and, later, part of management. My role at Marvel is strictly honorary. Marvel always owned the rights to these characters. If I owned them, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you now.