Photo courtesy of POW! Entertainment
Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Hulk, Doctor Strange: Stan Lee was there at the creation. [29:56]
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Kay Ryan: I demand a lot of sound from a poem.Joe Haj: The arts are filled with people who are nontraditional thinkers.Jo Reed: The arts are a wonderful window onto the soul of America.Stan Lee: I started ending my columns by saying Excelsior!(Brubeck fades to piano piece by Todd Barton)Azar Nafisi: Reading awakens your senses. Kay Ryan: If you write well, you are utterly exposed.Olivia de Havilland: A voice said, "This is George Cukor."Brenda Wineapple: Its value will never be diminished.Marilynne Robison: The oldest art we have is narrative literature.Lee Childs: The arts are what makes us human.Tim O'Brien: There is a reason that fiction exists.(Piano fades to Rain by the Birmingham Sunlights)David Newell: Theatre can really change people's lives; it can be profoundly about human experience.(Rain fades into Zydeco by Queen Ida)Queen Ida: They crowned me Queen Ida, queen of the zydeco music.("Take Five" theme music playing in backgroun)>Announcer: The National Endowment for the Arts presents Artworks.("Take Five" music fades out)
Stan Lee: I had Spider-Man -- Peter Parker, was bitten by a radioactive spider. That's easy. You can say that in one sentence. He became Spider-Man. He was bitten by a radioactive spider.
Jo Reed: That was Stan Lee, former chairman of Marvel Comics. He's the guy who created Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and of course Spider-Man. Tireless and prolific, Stan Lee is justifiably famous for his fabulous creations, but he's also appreciated for his successful effort to raise the profile of comics from fringe entertainment to a well-respected multimillion-dollar enterprise. In 2008, Stan Lee was given the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor bestowed on an artist by the federal government. I spoke with Stan about his career and how he became the master of Marvel Comics.
Jo Reed: Stan Lee, you were born and raised in New York City, and that's exactly where the action of most of your comic books take place. Coincidence?
Stan Lee: They live in New York because when I wrote them I try to be incredibly accurate, everything I do, and I felt if I had the stories take place in New York I would know what I was writing about. For instance, I had Peter Parker live in Forest Hills. Now if I was from Chillicothe, Ohio, I would not have thought to have Peter Parker live in Forest Hills. So you see it all holds together beautifully.
Jo Reed: Well, I think it also holds together in a different way of what you gave superheroes, which is very human qualities. Usually, they live in Metropolis or Gotham, but there's a real specificity to your characters down to where they live.
Stan Lee: In fact, I tried to be incredibly specific as you say and if one of our characters would go to the movies I'd have him go to the Radio City Music Hall or Loews State. Let's see, in the Fantastic Four the Human Torch, Johnny Storm, who was a teenager at the time, when he drove a car I'd have him drive a Chevy Corvette rather than a whiz-bang V-8 or something, you know, so I love to try to inject little things like that in to make it seem as if these ridiculous stories were somehow plausible or possible.
Jo Reed: What made you want to fiddle with the whole model of the superhero the way you did?
Stan Lee: In all honesty, I didn't realize I was fiddling with anything. I just wanted to write the kind of stories that I thought I would like to read, and I like things that while they may not be accurate they have the seeming of accuracy. For instance, when I was a kid I loved to read Sherlock Holmes and I had his address. He lived on Baker Street, you know, and it seemed real to me. Later when I went to England, of course, I went to look at his house in Baker Street, and I understand half of the tourists in England go to see his house on Baker Street, so little touches like that I just feel ... they're nice because they give you the feeling of wanting to believe in the stories you're reading. For instance, with the Fantastic Four, they had to have a headquarters building so I said it was on the east side of lower New York, around in the thirties, and a lot of people have told me when they came to New York they'd looked for the Baxter Building as I called it. I'm sorry I wasn't wealthy enough to build a little building there so they would have said, "Gee, he was right." <laughs>
Jo Reed: How did the Fantastic Four come into being?
Stan Lee: Well, I had been writing a lot of stories for this publisher I worked for and after I think it was about 20 years I really wanted to quit because the stories were fine and I was getting paid fairly I thought, but he didn't believe that anybody but very young children and not very intelligent adults read comics, and he might have been right in those days. So he didn't want me to use too much dialog, he didn't want me to concentrate on personality or characterization, and he just said, "Give me a lot of action, you know, a lot of running around and fighting," And that's fine and it's easy to do but as I say when I finally grew up I felt gee, I think I'd like to do something different that would mean something and I was about to quit. And my wife, bless her, she said, "You know, Stan, if you want to quit anyway, why don't you write one book the way you would like to do it? The worst that can happen is he'll fire you but you want to quit."
So that's when I wrote the Fantastic Four and I tried to violate some of the usual comic book rules. I felt I wouldn't give them secret identities because I've always felt if I had a super power, which is not to say that I don't, there's no way I would want to hide the fact I mean, I'm a conceited guy. I'd run around, "Hey, look at me. I'm super." I wouldn't wear a mask and I certainly wouldn't walk around in a stupid costume. I'd wear a suit or jeans or something. I wouldn't want people to stare at me like I'm a nut. So none of the things in comics really seemed that real to me, so I didn't give them a secret identity and instead of the girl being somebody that the hero always has to save and the hero doesn't let her know that he's really Superman, he's only Clark Kent, I figured they're all gonna know each other so I let the girl be the fiancée of the hero and instead of the requisite teenage sidekick I made the younger teenager. He was obligatory. You had to have a teenager, but I made him the brother of the girl so they were like a little family group. And the fourth member of the Fantastic Four, I made him sort of a semi-ugly monster -- there weren't too many heroes who were like that in those days -- and I thought okay, I've got that. And I had a lot of dialog and I made the leader of the group, Reed Richards -- Mr. Fantastic as he modestly called himself -- I made him like me a little bit, very loquacious. He used a lot of big words that most people didn't understand and he was a crushing bore. They couldn't shut him up and he really bored everybody except his fiancée who kind of liked him but the other two members would say, "Jesus. Is he never gonna stop talking?"
So I had fun with them and I think, Okay, the ax will fall as soon as my publisher reads this book. But what happened was the book sold very well so the next thing I knew Martin -- that was his name -- Martin came in to me and he said, "Hey, Stan, how about trying another superhero book?" I forget which it was. I think the next one might have been either the Hulk or the X-Men, but again I tried to do something different. With the Hulk I thought it would be fun to get a monster and make him a hero, because I always used to love the movie Frankenstein, but I always thought the monster was really the good guy. He didn't want to hurt anybody, but those morons with the torches were always running up and down the hills chasing him. So I thought I'll get a good monster. But just a good monster running around could get a little boring. So I remembered Jekyll and Hyde and I thought I'll give him a secret identity and sometimes he's a monster called the Hulk and sometimes he's a scientist named Bruce Banner who like Dr. Jekyll wishes he hadn't become Mr. Hyde. I'll make this guy be spending most of his life trying to stop being the Hulk but he can't figure out how to do it, and that could be interesting and give me a lot of complications.
Then with the X-Men of course I figured everybody loved teenagers in stories in those days because they were the ones reading the books, and everybody was looking for a good group series because the Justice League was doing well and the Fantastic Four was doing well and they thought let's get another group. So I thought I'll get a group of teenagers and I'll give them each a super power. But by now I had run out of ways for characters to get super powers because I'm not very good at that. I mean I take the simplest, easiest way, the coward's way out. I had Spider-Man -- Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider: That's easy. You can say that in one sentence. He became Spider-Man. He was bitten by a radioactive spider. The Hulk, Bruce Banner, was subjected to gamma rays. There was a gamma ray explosion. He got caught in it. I have no idea what a gamma ray is but it sounds pretty scientific, logical. Well, now I had already done radioactivity. I had already done a gamma ray. What am I gonna do next?
So I again, as I am tempted to do usually, prone to do, I took the cowardly way out. I said, "They're mutants. They were born that way. I don't have to explain anything. I don't have to worry about any more rays so that's it. A bunch of mutants get together." So when I finally wrote the thing and I brought it to Martin, my publisher, I wanted to call the book The Mutants. He said, "Stan" because he still didn't have much respect for the readers in those days. He said, "Nobody is gonna know what a mutant is. You can't call them the Mutants." So I went back and I thought for a while and the leader of the group was called Professor Xavier with an 'X,' and these were all a bunch of kids with extra powers so it occurred to me I'll call them the X-Men even though one was a girl but I hoped nobody would notice. So I said to him, "Okay. Instead of the Mutants we're gonna call them the X-Men," and I was amazed. He said, "Yeah, that's a good name," and I thought to myself as I left his office if nobody is gonna know what a Mutant is how is anybody gonna know what an X-Man is if he sees that on the cover?" But I had a name. I had won my battle. I didn't want to have any problems and you know, on and on. Then I did a lot of others and we were lucky and they sold and now I'm talking into a microphone for the whole world to listen. This is what happens when you write about monsters who have Jekyll and Hyde tendencies.
Jo Reed: What's the origins of Spider-Man?
Stan Lee: He was bitten by a radioactive spider.
Jo Reed: No. I know, but what made you think Spider-Man?
Stan Lee: I always start by saying this -- I've told this story so often that for all I know it might even be true -- when you want to do a superhero the most important thing you have to do is figure out what is his or her super power, and I had already written about the strongest guy in the world and a fellow who could burst into flame and fly and a girl who was invisible and on and on. And I was thinking what else is there? But I had to come up with something or I might have lost my job and I saw a fly or a bug or something on the wall and I thought hey, what about somebody with the power of an insect who can stick to walls and climb up and down a wall and be on a ceiling? So that sounded cool to me. No -- in those days I don't think they had the word "cool." It probably sounded groovy to me <laughs> at that time.
At any rate, okay. So now I needed a name, so I went down the list. Fly-Man didn't sound that good. Mosquito-Man, I don't know. Bug-Man, Insect-Man, and I got to Spider-Man and somehow Spider-Man -- and also when I was a kid there was a pulp magazine called The Spider, Master of Men, had absolutely nothing to do with spiders but he was a guy who wore a mask sort of like the Spirit -- if you remember that -- and a hat and a coat and he went out and fought crooks, but they called him the Spider. And I read those things when I was about eight years old and I thought it was so dramatic. So everything fell in place and I thought I'll call him Spider-Man, and the rest, as we say in the NEA, is history. <laughs>
Jo Reed: How did you first begin to write comics?
Stan Lee: Accidentally. I wanted to be a real writer, you know, novels, movies, things, so I remember when I was a little kid I used to walk around. When I'd walk around the street I carried a little briefcase with me. Nothing was in it, but I kind of thought it made me look like a writer. I was a big phony even in those days, and I just wanted to be a writer because again when I was very young I had written a composition in school and the teacher said, "Oh, boy. That's pretty good." So <laughs> that's what happens when a teacher says that's pretty good. My whole life changed and "Oh, I'm gonna be a writer,"
Anyway I had a cousin, a girl cousin, who was married to a guy. That was this fellow Martin, the publisher, so my cousin's husband had a publishing company and published a lot of things, comic books, pulp magazines, slick magazines, movie magazines, and I heard that they were looking for an assistant up in that office in the comic book department. I mean I had read comics, but that was the last thing I had ever thought of but I applied. I figured I'll get some experience if they hire me, stay a little while, and then I'll get out into the real world, and they did hire me and there were only two guys at the time there. There were two artists named Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Joe was sort of the artist editor and Jack was more like the artist writer although they both wrote, and they were brilliant and I was the guy who assisted them. I'd fill the ink well -- in those days they had ink wells that they dipped their pens into, and I'd run down and get them lunch, got them sandwiches, and I would erase the pages when they needed it, and I proofread, things like that.
Jo Reed: Did they call you "kid"?
Stan Lee: Oh, absolutely. They had trouble remembering my name in the first few months, but something happened after a while and Joe and Jack left and I was the only fellow left, and Martin came in to me and said, "Stan, do you think you could kinda put out these magazines while I look for somebody else to replace Joe and Jack with?" Well, when you're 17 years old what do you know? I said, "Sure, I can do it," so I started writing the stories and I was dealing with the artists, and I think Martin forgot all about it. He never did hire anybody else and I stayed there, and just through longevity I guess I became the head writer and the editor and the art director and I was having fun. By the time I was 18 or 19, I was running the comic book department, which was really a kick for me. And I was working with people who were much older than I was, and I'll never forget one day I was in the reception room. I had just said goodbye to somebody, and before I left the reception room somebody walked in, an artist, a regular man, a guy about 28, 30 years old, and he said to me, "Hey, kid, I'm here to see the editor." <laughs> I couldn't embarrass him by telling him that I was the editor. I said, "I'll go in and see if he's free." <laughs>
Jo Reed: Now when you worked with the artists, let's say when you were thinking about the Fantastic Four, how did it work? Did you talk to the artist about each character and--Stan Lee: Yeah.
Jo Reed: How does it work out between you and the artist especially at the beginning, at the conception of a series?
Stan Lee: What happened was for the first 15 or so years that I was there, 15 or 20 -- I don't know -- I wrote all the scripts, and you'd write a script the way you write a movie as screenplay. You write the description of each panel, what the artist should draw, and then you write the dialog. After a while some of the artists that I worked with were so good at what they did and they understood telling a story visually that in order to save time, because there was a time that I was writing about -- I don't know, 20 books a month -- I started just telling the artists what the story was, what the plot was, and instead of me writing "On page one, panel one, draw this, panel two, draw this" I left it to them how they would tell the story visually. "Here's the story," and I told it to them, "Now you draw it any way you want" so they did. They would bring it in to me in pencil and I would letter in all the dialog, which didn't take long because you're looking at the picture, and it's so easy to think what the characters would be saying.
I liked working that way much better than working than writing a script, a) because it was much faster, but b) I realized I'm getting better stories that way because the artist was drawing it his own way, putting in whatever he thought would be the most exciting or dramatic picture. When I wrote the dialog, instead of writing it in a vacuum with nothing to look at I was looking at the picture so I could pinpoint that dialog exactly so it matched what the illustration was. So it was faster and I think we got much better stories that way. And in those days Jack Kirby was our top artist and he was really a writer also but he wrote with illustrations and he contributed a lot to... I would give him the basic of the story and he would add so much, and then there were other artists. There was Don Heck with whom I did Iron Man. I was so lucky because I worked with these artists who were wonderful. They were all freelancers but I had an artist on staff named John Romita, and he was -- great is the only word for him because any artist doing any other script that was late with the script or was ill John could fill in and do it and he did it as well as the other artist. John was the most valuable guy you could ever have on a staff so I was the luckiest guy in the world. I could do nothing wrong with artists like that.
Jo Reed: Tell me. How did Marvel Comics get started?
Stan Lee: After we did the Fantastic Four, which was really a whole new type of magazine for us, and it started selling and the Hulk and the X-Men and Iron Man and Daredevil were selling, I decided we ought to change the name of the company, so I said, "Let's call ourselves Marvel Comics" because the first magazine Martin had ever published was called Marvel Comics before I got there and I thought Marvel was a great word. See, I love advertising and I love catch phrases and I thought with a name like Marvel I could promote the company and the books so we called it Marvel Comics. And then I started writing columns and editorials and I'd use phrases like "Remember wherever you go and whatever you do always say 'Make mine Marvel," you know, and "Marvel marches on" and "Welcome to the Marvel age of comics," and I had all those
Phrases, and after a while they became well known, you know, and people would talk about "Oh, this is the Marvel age of comics."
Jo Reed: How did you come up with the word "excelsior"?
Stan Lee: Well, you know, when I was writing these columns at Marvel I used to -- I told you I liked advertising and slogans and catch phrases, and I said, "Damn, I've got to come up with something that a) they won't know what it means or how to spell it and b) then therefore they won't copy it." So I thought and thought and I remembered the motto of the State of New York. The motto on the seal of the State of New York says "Excelsior" and of course It's from an old English thing. It means upward and onward to
greater glory. So I started ending my columns by saying "Excelsior," and I was right. They never tried to copy that so it became a little catch phrase for me and I love it. The only bad thing about it: If you look it up in the dictionary, "excelsior" the first definition, it's that kind of sandy stuff they use when you wrap a package and you don't want it to break you spell "excelsior" in the box, so I got so many letters from kids. "How come you end your column with stuff that stops packages from breaking?" So I had to answer and tell them, "You got to get a big dictionary and look for the second definition, which is upward and onward to greater glory or, as we say in my circle, excelsior."
Jo Reed: Stan, you know, it occurs to me over the course of your career you really have seen such an evolution of comics. I think you're the one who said it was the lowest on the cultural--
Stan Lee: The lowest rung of the cultural totem pole, absolutely.
Jo Reed: Yeah, I think that's your line. Now it's considered an absolutely legitimate art form.
Stan Lee: Oh, we have people who are Hollywood writers, novelists, television writers, fighting to write comic books and they're all in the field now.
Jo Reed: But that's an amazing transformation of the field.
Stan Lee: It absolutely is, and of course the movies have had so much to do with it. When Batman was first a hit-- by the way, I was friendly with Bob Kane who created Batman, and he always used to rib me. When the movie Batman came out- - It was before our movies had come out, and he said, "Well, now you know which is the best, Stan, Batman, not Spider-Man," and he teased me about that and I sure wish he was here now so he could see what we've done. We'd still be kidding each other.
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Jo Reed: You interjected social issues into your comics.
Stan Lee: I am fearless <laughs> as long as nobody is threatening me. <laughs> You know what it is? It's very tough to write about anything without injecting some angle or thought or bit of philosophy of your own, and since I had the freedom to do it and the two big things -- beause I didn't feel it's my place to preach to anybody, kids are buyingand older people are buying these books for entertainment. I'm not supposed to be a minister or a psychologist, but the two things that I did try to stress in our stories, even those I didn't write but especially those I wrote, was good moral values, and we always would try to make the hero the glamorous one, the one that the reader would want to emulate rather than the villain. We didn't want to draw tough guys villains who'd seem more macho and more glamorous than the hero as they often do in movies now. And another thing, we tried to as much as possible give the feeling that bigotry is a terrible thing. In fact, I remember I did a book called Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos, which was a very popular series of war stories. Sergeant Fury was...it was in World War II and Sergeant Fury led this commando squad, and this was the first as far as I know ethnically mixed platoon in literary history. I had a black fellow named Gabriel Jones, a Jewish fellow named Izzy Cohen, an Italian, Dino Manelli, and on and on. The whole platoon was totally racially mixed and everybody said to me, "Stan, that book won't sell in the South. It won't sell in the East. It won't sell in the North or the West, on Mars." But it sold all over. It was one of our best-selling books, which gave me a great feeling about the real American public. I mean the book did so well and it had all these mixed people.
Jo Reed: Your heroes have moved so seamlessly on to the screen so it seems.
Stan Lee: Yeah. I wish I could take credit for that, but I had very little or really nothing to do with the movies. They just based them on things that I had written and the other IMB artists had one, and I guess it's a monument to the fact that basically I guess those were fairly commercial stories. And it's wonderful the way -- I mean I am so thrilled with the success of those movies and I'm thrilled that they give me a little cameo in each one. That is more fun doing those cameos.
Jo Reed: And you get great reviews.
Stan Lee: Yeah, of course.I understand Robert Downey Jr. is really angry. Nobody mentions him in Iron Man. All the talk is about me. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Tell me about POW! Entertainment.
Stan Lee: I thought you'd never ask.
Jo Reed: I'm about to.
Stan Lee: Well, obviously you know what POW stands for. <laughs>
Jo Reed: POW.
Stan Lee: You should have figured it out. Everybody figures it out in a second. POW stands for <clears throat> Purveyors of Wonder.
Jo Reed: How did I miss that?
Stan Lee: I know. Well, we'll talk about that later, and there's an exclamation point after it because we don't want it to be confused with Prisoner of War. At any rate, I have a very unusual, wonderful contract. I'm allowed to do whatever I want to do to form my own company and even if it's competitive with what Marvel is doing, not that I could be any competition for Marvel. So anyway, POW! is a new company that I formed with two other men, and we're doing movies and television shows and cartoons and things on the web and things on telephones, So we have projects going on all over the country. We've had different producers. We don't do the actual production, which is easy for me. I come up with a concept let's say for a movie and if POW! sells it to some movie studio we function as executive producers and of course we have a lot to say about the movie, but we're not financing it and we're not working with it day by day so that means we sell it to one company and now I write something for another company and then for another. So we've got about 30 or 40 things now floating around all over Hollywood in various stages, and it's really I think the most exciting time of my life.
Jo Reed: And there's a documentary.
Stan Lee: Oh, I forgot about that. Well, that's embarrassing. That's...
Jo Reed: Oh, go ahead.
Stan Lee: They're doing this documentary about my life. They've been working on it for about a year and a half now and I think it'll be finished by the end of this year or certainly by January, They've put so much work into it and they've interviewed a million people. Have you seen any?
Jo Reed: I saw the list of people they interviewed. Who didn't they talk to? It's amazing.
Stan Lee: Oh, well anybody who isn't interviewed in my documentary, I mean they- they'd be embarrassed to show their face. <laughs>
Jo Reed: What was your response when you heard you had been given the National Medal of Arts?
Stan Lee: Well, I figured, "What took them so long? " <laughs> No. I'm only kidding. At first I thought it was a gag, you know, but then I realized they were serious. Need I say I was thrilled? I really was. I can hardly believe it. I mean when you realize that there I started out doing these comics which nobody had a good word for years ago and now to get this award -- I mean it's very dramatic.
Jo Reed: And it is so well deserved. Stan Lee--
Stan Lee: Oh, I couldn't agree more.
Jo Reed: I couldn't be happier. Thank you so much for giving us your time.
Stan Lee: Hey, it was a pleasure talking to you.
Jo Reed: I really appreciate it. Thank you.
Stan Lee: Excelsior.
Jo Reed: Bravo.
Stan Lee: <laughs> Okay.
Jo Reed: That was National Medal of Arts winner Stan Lee, the king of comic action heroes. You've been listening to Art Works, produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out more about the NEA, go to www.arts.gov. That's ARTS dot GOV.
Artworks theme music is Paul Desmond's Take Five performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet and used courtesy of Desmond Music and Derry Music Company.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
<"Take Five" music plays>
Excerpt of "The Spider-Man theme" song, music by Paul Webster and performed Bob Harris, published by permission of Webster Music and Hillcrest, and used courtesy of The Disney/ABC Television Group.