Stan Lee, Mastermind Of The Marvel Universe

Stan Lee built Marvel Comics into a multimedia giant. The comic book legend took the post of publisher of Marvel in 1972. Lee co-created Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man and many more iconic characters.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Forty-two years ago, a devilishly handsome young man recorded one of his very first interviews with a legend in the comic book business.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

CONAN: My name is Neal Conan and I'm in the studio with Stan Lee, the single person most responsible for what many thousands of people call the Marvel Age of Comics. Stan, at this point, you're the editor as well as writing several of the magazines yourself, isn't that right?

Mr. STAN LEE (Comic Book Writer): That's right, Neal. I think I'd rather you had said millions of people. We tell ourselves we have millions of readers.

CONAN: Stan Lee and a very nervous kid in the studio of WBAI in New York back in 1968. In those days, I thought Stan Lee was old. Today, we all know he's immortal. The co-creator of "Spider-Man," "The Fantastic Four," "The Hulk," "The X-Men," "Iron Man" and too many others to name, Stan Lee also guided Marvel Comics from brand (unintelligible) to a multimedia giant.

If you'd like to talk with him about his characters and his comics, the phone number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's in npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

A book called "The Stan Lee Universe" comes out this December. It will feature rare and unpublished materials, including a portion of my interview from 1968. We should also mention another new book, "Stan Lee's How to Draw Comics." And the man himself joins us now from a studio at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills. Stan Lee, nice to have you with us today.

Mr. LEE: Oh, it's great to be here. Of course, it was tough getting here. My office is across the street. I had to walk that whole distance.

CONAN: Well, that's brutal. And amazing how little your voice has changed in 42 years.

Mr. LEE: Yeah. The voice is the same perhaps, but the rest of me has gotten a few years older.

CONAN: Well, Stan, first of all, congratulations on the new book. And do you still appear in a cameo in every Marvel movie?

Mr. LEE: Oh, I don't know. It's not obligatory. It's just whenever they're shooting something that's near Los Angeles and I can do it. It's fun. Now, I don't know if I'll be in the "Captain America" one. They're shooting that in London and I'm not able to fly there. But if they have a scene here, I'll be in that. I try to be in whatever I can because you probably know by now I'm the world's biggest ham.

CONAN: We figured that out, Stan.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You focused on giving the comics personalities. Before, there wasn't a lot of focus on speech pattern, on characters' outlooks and motivations. You made them more than just kids' stuff.

Mr. LEE: Well, I tried. I tried to make them the kind of comics that I would want to read if I read comics. And I was just tired of the same old idea that all you needed was a lot of panels of people fighting each other and that would get the readers. I felt it would be fun to learn a little about their private lives, about their personalities and show that they are human as well as super. So that was the whole idea.

CONAN: And in those days, it was thought that you were really aiming for a more teenage audience as opposed to younger kids. Has it surprised you that comics have grown up so much that now the demographic is a little older?

Mr. LEE: Actually, I was aiming for college professors and people of that ilk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEE: See, I always resented the fact that I was in a business that people really looked down on. They most people thought that comics were either for very young children or semi-literate or perhaps illiterate adults. And it's no fun writing when people have that opinion of the things you're writing or the audience you're writing for. So it was really great when we started increasing - or elaborate our vocabulary and we tried to get some personality in our characters and concentrate on characterization.

And slowly, the mails started changing. Originally, our fan mail was written in crayon. After a while, we'd get letters written in pencil, then in ink. Then we'd start getting typewritten letters. I mean, I could tell that the audience is getting older and smarter and that was very exciting to me.

CONAN: I spent some time traveling with Minor League Baseball teams and they don't live down to their stereotype either. But I do have to tell you the only person on those buses traveling up and down I-95 who read comic books was me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest is Stan Lee. Let's go first to this is Jerry(ph), Jerry calling us from Modesto in California.

Mr. LEE: Hi, Jerry.

JERRY (Caller): Hello. Mr. Lee, wonderful. I can't believe I'm even talking to you right now.

Mr. LEE: Well, you are. Just don't ask me any hard questions. I hope itll be an easy one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JERRY: Agreed, agreed. First off, thank you for spurring the imaginations of in my family, gosh, two generations. My boys are seven and 10, and they're absolutely hooked on "Spider-Man," "Iron Man." Did you have any idea that you would be creating something that would span generational bridges?

Mr. LEE: No.

JERRY: And how do you come up with these ideas?

Mr. LEE: See, I knew it would happen, a two-part question. No, actually I had no idea at all. In fact, in the days that I was writing those stories, I just hoped that the books would sell and I'd be able to get my salary and pay my rent. And the idea that someday I'd be talking on the radio to an actual fan never even crossed my mind or the minds of any of the people working there at that time. And I forgot the second part of the question. I'm sorry.

JERRY: Where do these I mean, where did you how did you spawn these ideas of these my favorite, of course, is just the normal guy, the Tony Starks...

Mr. LEE: Oh, yeah.

JERRY: ...Peter Parkers, just these normal guys with these extraordinary talents.

CONAN: I think Tony Stark would take umbrage of being called normal but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEE: Actually, with Tony Stark, what I was really trying to do I always liked reading about Howard Hughes. And I thought it would be fun to get a superhero who went against the popular notion of what the superhero fans wanted. Most of our readers didn't like wealthy people or industrialists or people who made war materials and so forth. And I thought it would a challenge to make them like a guy like that. So I made him, as much as I could, like a Howard Hughes character, but with a sense of humor and a little bit of tragedy thrown in.

And, you know, the funny thing about Iron Man, we got more fan mail from females for the "Iron Man" book than any other comic. I guess it was because he was rich and handsome and he did have a bad heart. And he needed someone to look after him. And that must have appealed to females very much.

JERRY: Yeah.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call.

JERRY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Here's an email...

Mr. LEE: Pleasure talking to you.

CONAN: We have an email from Frank(ph) in Morrisville, South Carolina. When I was eight years old, I would rush out our New York City apartment on Saturday mornings with the family shopping cart in tow, scouring the neighborhood for returnable bottles and cans. Six cans bought one 12-cent comic, and 13 cans bought an annual. I confess I started with DC Comics. But by nine, I have matured into manhood and embraced Marvel. Thank you for bringing so much to our lives.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEE: There is greatness in that man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Here's a call from Bill(ph), Bill with us from Stockton, California.

BILL (Caller): Hey. My question is really, really direct. Stan, did you happen to model Mr. Jameson after yourself, at least on a physical level?

CONAN: J. Jonah Jameson, the publisher of the Daily Bugle.

Mr. LEE: You caught me. I really did. I thought, if I were a grumpy, irritable man, which I am sometimes, how would I act? And that was it. So, you got me.

CONAN: Well, a lot of people saw Perry White in J. Jonah as well.

Mr. LEE: I can't answer that because, I'll be honest with you, I never read that much of the "Superman" stories. And I never read any "Superman" story in which Perry White appeared. I know the name, that's all.

CONAN: All right. Bill, thanks very much.

BILL: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to Carlos(ph), Carlos with us from Charlottesville.

CARLOS (Caller): Yes, sir. Mr. Lee, I'd like to ask you - and hopefully there will be another installment of the "Incredible Hulk" because I thoroughly enjoyed the both of them. But maybe in the third installment, if we could remain true to the gamma explosion that Bruce Banner was originally subjected to.

CONAN: Are you talking about a third movie?

CARLOS: Yes, sir.

CONAN: Because both of the Hulk movies - unlike a lot of the others but the Hulk movies have not has not done so well.

Mr. LEE: Well, the funny thing is, I thought that it was the result of a gamma explosion in the movie. But they did it in their own cinematic way. The only thing about the Hulk that they changed tremendously was they made him so big. And, you know, in our book, he was just about seven feet tall. And on television, of course, Lou Ferrigno played the role, and he was just a big guy. Now, they're going to do a TV series again of the Hulk. I don't know anything about it. I just know they're planning to do it. But itll be fun to see how that works out.

CARLOS: Well, I can't wait. And thanks also for many interesting and fascinating adventures over the years with Marvel Comics.

Mr. LEE: Well, bless your heart. Thank you.

CARLOS: Thank you.

CONAN: And Carlos, thanks for the call. I have to ask about this new book, "Stan Lee's How to Draw Comics." Stan, you've done a lot of things in your life. As far as I know, you've never drawn a comic.

Mr. LEE: No. You know, I did draw in the army. I drew posters for the army. And but when I got back to the civilian life, I saw how talented the artists were that were doing those comics. And I wasn't about to try to compete with them, so I stuck with writing.

CONAN: And did was - your brother, though, was an artist.

Mr. LEE: Yes. My brother, who also writes, but he know draws the daily strips, the syndicated "Spider-Man" strip. And he's been doing that for a number of years and doing a beautiful job of it.

CONAN: And you are listed as the author of those daily strips.

Mr. LEE: That's right.

CONAN: And do you write them?

Mr. LEE: Yeah. Well, I've been doing that since gosh, I don't know more than 25 years, I think, that strip has been running.

CONAN: And do you enjoy I mean, you don't have to do that anymore, I don't think.

Mr. LEE: Well, I have to if I want my name to stay on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, again yeah. But...

Mr. LEE: But I enjoy writing.

CONAN: ...I think you don't need to pay youd need it to pay your rent anymore.

Mr. LEE: No. My rent is taken cared of. But I do love to write and I'm always getting assignments from people. Would I write an introduction for this book or a preface for that book, or a little filler story for this comic? And even though I don't have the time to do it, it's hard for me to say no, so I end up spending as much time on things that have nothing really to do with my normal work as I do with my own work. But somehow, I'm lucky, I get it all crowded in.

CONAN: Our guest is comics immortal Stan Lee. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Matthew(ph), Matthew calling from Grand Rapids.

MATTHEW (Caller): Hi. First, of course, let me get out of the way what a big fan I am. And I really appreciate all that Stan Lee has done for comics. I was wondering if, Stan, you've ever had a character that you created that didn't really do very well as some of your other characters, who you thought should've had a lot more exposure to everybody, you just don't feel they had a chance at success?

Mr. LEE: The funny thing is the ones that I did for Marvel really all did very well. The only one that didn't become as - or the only two that didn't become as big because we didn't concentrate on them, were Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D and his predecessor, Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos. But I think if we had stayed with them, they would have been as big as Spider-Man and the others. And now, Nick Fury is going to become rather important in the Marvel movies to come.

CONAN: And Nick Fury - Jim Steranko, an artist named Jim Steranko did the Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D's" stories, and they were - I thought they were terrific.

Mr. LEE: Steranko was one of the real brilliant people in our business. And I might add, he and I are working on a project right now after all those years.

CONAN: Interesting. You have - thanks very much for the call, Matthew. You have worked, over the years, with so many people. And I guess it's inevitable in any business, we hear about, you know, feuds and who's not talking to whom. Any regrets over the years of, you know, some of the fights that you've gotten into and never got out of?

Mr. LEE: Well, there were no fights that I get into that I never get out of. I mean, there was a little problem with Jack Kirby at one time, but through the end we were very friendly. Steve Ditko is - who created "Spider-Man" with me and "Doctor Strange," he's a very private person. He doesn't do interviews and so forth. And he feels he doesn't want - he never wanted to draw "Spider-Man" or "Doctor Strange" again after he stopped.

But on a personal level, we're both still friendly. I respect the artists that I've worked with greatly, and I've always been friendly with every one of them, or tried to be.

CONAN: Here's an email from Jim(ph) in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. I want to thank you, in 1969, you allowed me and a classmate to interview you and Roy Thomas for over an hour at the Madison Avenue Bullpen. We say we were from the Yale Daily News and were doing a story. We were fakers. But we thought and still think the Marvel work fulfilled the mythological functions of the Jungians' archetypes. So we - see, we really were Yalies - just Yalie fans, not reporters. Thanks again. The story has gotten us a lot of mileage over these 40 years.

Mr. LEE: Well, that's a first for me. I haven't heard that before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEE: But I have been interviewed by, very often, by people from different colleges and I love it.

CONAN: And - well, I was a kid when you allowed me to interview you back at WBAI in 1968, and I thank you for that, though the interview sounds a little shaky today.

Mr. LEE: You're very welcome.

CONAN: Brian(ph) is on the line calling from Grand Rapids.

BRIAN (Caller): Good afternoon, Neal, and its a pleasure to talk to Mr. Lee. The question is, of all the characters you've made through the years, have they matured the way you wanted them to. And if they haven't, do you have any examples?

Mr. LEE: No, not really. I never wanted them to mature any way at all. When I was writing them, I had total control of them and they matured - if you want to use that word - the way I wanted them to. But I realized the minute you stop writing a series and other writers take over, they've got to do it their way. I know, if I took over a series that someone else started, I wouldnt want to just exactly duplicate what he had done because every creative person wants to put his own imprimatur on whatever he's doing.

So I can understand that every following writer made little subtle changes in "Spider-Man," "Iron Man," "Daredevil," "The Fantastic Four" and so forth. And again, that's what I would've done. So I have no problem with the fact that some of the characters have changed a bit. But the - usually, the most important quality of the characters has remained. The thing that makes the readers care about them, that is never really changed.

CONAN: Thanks, Brian.

BRIAN: You're welcome.

CONAN: Stan Lee, we mentioned, has had cameos in movie versions of several of his comics. In the first "Spider-Man" movie, he pulled a little girl out of harm's way. In the "Incredible Hulk," he walked through a scene giving a lecture to a security guard. In "Iron Man," Robert Downey Jr. mistook him for Hugh Hefner. Let's listen to a scene from "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," where Stan Lee showed up for the wedding of Sue Storm and Reed Richards.

(Soundbite of movie, "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer")

Mr. MICHASHA ARMSTRONG (Actor): (as Wedding Security) Invitation, sir?

Mr. LEE: (as Himself) I should be on that list.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (as Wedding Security) Name?

Mr. LEE: (as Himself) Stan Lee.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (as Wedding Security) Yeah, nice try, Lee.

CONAN: Really, he is Stan Lee. Now, he's made a cameo appearance on TALK OF THE NATION. Stan Lee, thank you so much for your time today.

Mr. LEE: Oh, it was great being here. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.

CONAN: Stan Lee, chairman emeritus of Marvel Enterprises and founder of PowEntertainment. The book, "The Stan Lee Universe," comes out this December. And he joined us from a studio at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills.

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