Stan Lee on Realism in the World of Comic Heroes

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Stan Lee reflects on a lifetime of creating comics, including some imperfect superheroes. Spiderman, one of Lee's best known characters, was human first and super second. Lee tells Renee Montagne how he brought realism to a fantasy world.


When comic book writer Stan Lee was a teenager back in the 1930s, there was really only one superhero around - an extraterrestrial newspaper reporter named Clark Kent, a.k.a. Superman. But Lee found Superman too perfect.

Mr. STAN LEE (Chairman, Marvel Comics): From what I recall, his biggest problem was hoping that Louis Lane wouldn't find out that he was really Superman.

MONTAGNE: In today's Long View Stanley reflects on a lifetime of creating comics, including some famously flawed superheroes. Lee's greatest creation along with illustrator Steve Ditko may have been the most imperfect of all. When high school student Peter Parker suddenly transforms into Spiderman, his first thoughts are not about helping the helpless, he's looking out for number one - exactly, Stan Lee believes what most people would do.

Mr. LEE: If I got a superpower I wouldn't say, oh, I got to get a costume and put on a mask. I would say hey, I can do something better than other people. How can I turn it into a buck?

MONTAGNE: For Spiderman that meant competing for prize money at a wrestling match where he happens to witness a robbery and doesn't use his new powers to stop the thief. The robber goes on to kill his uncle, which in turn gives Spiderman a bad case of guilt. This was Stan Lee's innovation, human superheroes. Sitting in his Los Angeles office surrounded by posters, statues, and toys of his many creations, Stan Lee says it was a concept he had been thinking about for years.

Mr. LEE: From 1940 to about 1960, I had been writing just regular comics, the way my publishers wanted me too. He didn't want me to use words of more than two syllables if I could help it. He didn't want me to waste time on worrying about good dialogue or characterization. Just give me a lot of action, lot of fight scenes.

I was good at that. I did it. It was fine. But when 1960 came around, my wife said well why don't you write one book the way you would like to do it just to get it out of your system? The worst that can happen is publisher will fire you, and you want to quit anyway. So that's when I did the “Fantastic Four.” And it sold very well. So then my publisher said hey, let's do another few books like that.

So I forget the exact the order. I think the next one might have been “The Hulk,” and then the “X-Men,” “Spiderman,” “Daredevil,” and then it became fun because I was now writing the kind of stories I wanted people who had real - I felt real personality. I tried to write different types of dialogue for each character. And I tried to merge the fantasy element with as much realism as I can put into the stories, and then I was off and running.

MONTAGNE: When Spiderman came on the scene, this was a real - first he was kind of young, but flawed as well as with regular human problems. I mean Peter Parker had dandruff. But he had also crushes on girls. He was a bit of a geek. I think it's fair to say. And he cried. He was vulnerable.

Mr. LEE: That's right. I wanted to make him as realistic as possible. I hated teenagers in comics because they were always sidekicks. And I always felt if I were a superhero, there's no way I'd pal around with some teenager, you know. At the very least people would talk. But I thought it might be interesting to make the teenager the actual hero. What would happen if a teenage kid got a power? And then I thought it'd be even more interesting to make him a kid with the normal problems that so many teenagers have.

He's not the most popular guy in school. He was busy looking after his aunt who was old, like 150 years old. He was always having to get medicine for her and worry about her. She didn't have enough money for the rent. And I wanted him to be the kind of guy who'd have allergy attacks, and ingrown toe nails, and occasionally when he'd have a fight with a villain his costume would get torn and he did know how to sew. You couldn't go to a tailor and say would you fix my Spiderman costume. So I wanted all those little things to happen.

MONTAGNE: Has your creative process - has it changed from when you first began creating your own characters? Or do you wake up every morning and essentially go through the same process.

Mr. LEE: I'm afraid I go through the same thing all the time. I'm not a guy who gets inspirations. I don't wake up in the morning and say, wow I've got a great idea for a story. But I sit down, and I figure well, let's see. What do I think I can sell today? If nobody is looking for a story, and I have no reason to write a story, I would really much rather to do anything else because it's no fun writing stories, particularly not for me. I just do it in order to sell them and make a couple of bucks.

MONTAGNE: But surely if you wanted to, you could retire? You could sit home all day long, or do whatever you wanted all day long. You would not to come to work and come up everyday with essentially new projects.

Mr. LEE: I have discussed this with people so many times. If I were retired I wouldn't know what to do because I'd have to think, well, now what is it I want to do? And what I want to do is what I'm doing. I enjoy coming up with new ideas, which if I'm lucky they might be good ideas. I enjoy seeing them take shape. And I'm having fun doing it. So I wouldn't know why I'd want to retire.

MONTAGNE: So it's not just to make a couple of bucks.

Mr. LEE: Well that doesn't hurt. But no, not primarily, no. It's just, it's fun to stay in the game.

MONTAGNE: If you would read - what amounts to sort of an introduction to Spiderman?

Mr. LEE: In the book, we have our last caption that reads while in fact Peter Parker says it's my fault, all my fault. If only I had stopped him when I could have, but I didn't. And now Uncle Ben is dead. And then the final captions read -

and a lean silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness. Aware at last that in this world with great power, there must also come great responsibility. And so a legend is born. And a new name is added to the roster of those who make the world a fantasy, the most exciting realm of all.

And sandwiched between those two captions is a shot of Spiderman walking away into the gathering darkness, into the distance.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Mr. LEE: Hey, it's really a pleasure. I kind of enjoyed it. I guess I enjoy talking about myself. That'll show you the kind of guy I am.

MONTAGNE: Stan Lee created “Spiderman”, “The Hulk”, and the “Fantastic Four.” Tomorrow, we visit the Los Angeles studio of Betty Saar, who looks back on what shaped her art.

Ms. BETTY SAAR (Artist): I'm 80 years old. I'm old school. I was raised with a grandmother that she was not a slave, but her grandmother was. And, you know, I have to honor those who came before me.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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