For the past 40 years, Stan Lee has been the most consistent and human face in the radically changing comics industry. During his glory days at Marvel Comics in the '60s, he and his artists, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby among them, co-created Marvel's stable of now-legendary characters, including Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men. In 1999, he launched Stan Lee Media, a multimedia company that aired Internet comics and cartoons at stanlee.net. Lee has been a ceaselessly enthusiastic promoter of the comics medium, an industry presence so ubiquitous and unchanging that he's become a brand name. In February, Stan Lee Media declared bankruptcy, but Lee himself is, typically enough, soldiering on; this year, longtime rival DC Comics plans to launch a series of Lee-scripted one-shot comics, Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating…, showing how Lee might have created a dozen DC characters, including Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Lee recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the Just Imagine series, his movie cameos, and why story creation is his first and best love.
The Onion: What's next for you in the wake of the Stan Lee Media bankruptcy declaration?
Stan Lee: All I can tell you is, we're trying to re-form the company, and I can't tell you at the moment how it's going to shake out. We have a number of options, and we're considering them.
O: So you haven't made any decisions about individual characters or series, whether you'll continue them on your own?
SL: I might. But the decision hasn't been made. At the moment, we're discussing, with a few different entities, the possibility of starting a new company. If we do, then those characters will probably come into the company. If not, we'll just have to wait and see. We're not finished with the bankruptcy yet, and that's kind of complicated. We have to get through with that first.
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O: Do you think this and Marvel's bankruptcy a few years back says anything about the state of superhero comics in America today?
SL: Not to me. Our bankruptcy really happened because, well, we had a problem with one of the people in the company who apparently was guilty of some stock manipulation. Actually, as a company, we were one of the most successful Internet companies, so the reason we failed really had nothing to do with the comics, or interest in them, or lack of interest in them.
O: You're credited as executive producer on Sam Raimi's Spider-Man and the upcoming Blade sequel. How much involvement have you had with those films?
SL: Not really that much. In the Spider-Man movie, my big thing is, I have a walk-on. But, unlike the walk-on I did in X-Men... Did you see me in X-Men?
O: You played a hot-dog vendor, didn't you?
SL: Yeah. It took a while, because Bryan Singer had to explain to me what my motivation was.
O: Trying to sell hot dogs, maybe?
SL: Well, it's not easy, you know. I mean, had I gotten rid of my supply, and was I hoping nobody else would come over? Or was I pushing to make my quota for that afternoon? Do I really care for hot dogs? Is this what I want to do with the rest of my life? Is it just a temporary job? I had to understand. I had to feel it. Do you know what I mean?
O: Did he give you any useful advice?
SL: I'm joking, you silly person. [Laughs.] But in the Spider-Man movie, I actually have a line or two to say, and in fact, it's a very big role. It takes, oh, maybe 15 or 20 seconds. The only fear I have… Sam Raimi, the director, sort of came up with the idea to oblige me, to get me into the movie, so it's sort of peripheral to the main plot. If the movie runs too long, they could easily drop it. So I'm hoping that the movie doesn't run too long.
O: Where did the concept for the DC Just Imagine series come from originally?
SL: My friend Michael Uslan is one of the producers of the Batman [movie] series, and he's very connected with the DC people. He said to me one day, "Wouldn't it be a good idea…" I don't know how he happened to bring it up. "It would be great to get your take on how you would have done these characters if you were creating them." I said, "Well, I never really thought about it." He said, "But wouldn't it be interesting to do?" And I said, "Hell, of course it would be interesting to do, but I have as much chance of doing those characters as a snowball in hell." And he said, "Well, suppose I could make it possible for you. Would you be interested?" So I said, "Sure," figuring there wasn't any way that he was going to make it possible. So he came back about a week or two later and said, "I spoke to the people at DC, and they'd love you to do a series of books about how you would have created these characters." And all of a sudden I'd gotten myself trapped. I've got, what is it, 12 books I've got to write, 40 pages each?
O: How are you scripting those? Are you turning in formal scripts, or using the old Marvel Method?
SL: No, I'm using my… What I do is, I write the story. Luckily, Mike Carlin, the editor, has found artists who are really good at working this way. So I break down a pretty detailed outline, and I give that to the artist, and he draws it, and then, when I get the artwork back, I put in the dialogue and the captions.
O: Just like you used to do at Marvel.
SL: Yeah, I love that system.
O: Does it work any differently than it did back in the '60s?
SL: The only reason this is a little tougher is, I'm not working as closely with the artists. In the '60s, when I started all these books, I would talk to Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, they would be right there in the office, and we'd go over the drawings. And I was the editor also. Now, Mike Carlin is the editor, and I essentially sent the story to him, and he sends it to the artist, although I do try to talk to the artist after that. And the artists are all far away, they're all in different cities, so it's not quite as close-knit a relationship. But it's the same method of working.
O: How much writing did you actually do between 1970, when you turned the Marvel scripting duties over to other writers, and the startup of stanlee.net, when you were scripting your new characters?
SL: Well, I was doing different types of writing. I was working on motion-picture projects, and TV projects, and some other things. I did very little comic writing, except occasionally someone at Marvel would ask me to write a special issue of something. And I was always writing introductions to books. I became a specialist at writing introductions. But I didn't do much comic-book writing.
O: Do you enjoy the role of promoter and executive more than the role of hands-on creator?
SL: I don't think I'm cut out to be an executive, really. I like the creative stuff. In fact, years ago I was president of Marvel for about a year or so, and I gave it up. I told them I didn't want to spend my time going to financial meetings, and working on three-year plans and five-year plans. I never know what I'm going to have for breakfast the next day. They were doing these big five-year plans, and I like to do stories. So I'm happiest when I'm working with artists and writers, and involved in stories, whether we're talking about animation or movies or comics or television. So I never thought of myself, really, as an executive.
O: Do you read comic books yourself?
SL: No. My biggest regret is that I don't really have time to read. I used to: A few years ago, I had a minimum of two books at my night-table, and I would read myself to sleep. And now I'm too tired. By the time I go to bed, I drop right off. During the day, I'm usually working all the time. The only thing I have time to read is the newspaper in the morning, so while I'm eating breakfast, I read the L.A. Times. I used to try to read the trades: I read Hollywood Reporter and Variety, and I read Comics Buyer's Guide, and I read Wizard. Now I don't have time for any of those. I have a fellow in my office read them, and I tell him, "If there's anything you see that's something I should be interested in, cut it out and let me see it." I hope he's not missing too many things.
O: So you haven't had a chance to read any of the alternative comics of the last decade?
SL: Not really, no.
O: Do you have any interest in that kind of thing?
SL: I have a reputation for doing superheroes, but I like all kinds of writing. In fact, hardly anybody knows this, but I've probably written as many humor stories as superhero stories. There was a time I had about five or six newspaper strips running that were all humor strips. I've done books like Monsters To Laugh With and The Best Of The Worst, and on and on. I love writing humor. Before Marvel, when I was doing the comics, I wrote Western stories, I wrote war stories, I wrote teenage stories, I wrote animated stories, I wrote horror stories. To me, writing is fun. It doesn't matter what you're writing, as long as you can tell a story. In fact, I remember one time, years ago, I needed to hire a writer, and a fellow came up to see me. And I said, "I have a Western strip for you." He said, "Oh, I don't do Westerns, I only do crime." I said, "What's the difference? In a crime story, you say, 'Follow that car!' In a Western story, you say, 'Follow that stagecoach!' Or in a crime story, you say, 'Take that, you rat!' In a Western story, you say, 'Take that, you coyote!' But the stories are the same. It's a good guy, a bad guy, and a problem." He never understood that, and I couldn't understand why he wouldn't take the assignment. Me, I'll write anything.
O: Comics historians often credit you with introducing humanity to superheroes, because you were an early champion of unconventionally imperfect characters like Spider-Man, who had constant problems in spite of his powers. Do you think that background in other kinds of stories freed you to avoid the standard superhero-as-god story clichés of the time?
SL: I think maybe it's the fact that I'm a human being. The thing to me that's fun is trying to make the characters seem believable, or realistic. And it's especially challenging when you're doing fantasy stories, when you're doing superhero types of things. So you say to yourself, "Well, I've got a character who can shoot webs and stick to walls. How do I make him believable? Well, I'll try to make everything else about him as plausible and humanistic as possible. I'll give him the same problems that anybody else will have." I used to try to do that with just about all the characters. I had a character like Iron Man, who seemed to have everything in the world—he was rich, he was handsome, he had that suit of iron armor that could do anything—so I gave him a weak heart. Because no one has a perfect life. Everybody has something that he wishes was not the way it is.
O: Comics in the '90s took that to something of an extreme, with the angst overwhelming the superpowers. Do you think they went too far?
SL: I don't know that it's too far. That's the way it is with the world today. It's the same thing in movies. The special effects have become, in some cases, more important than the story itself. You have something like MTV, where it's all this series of fast cuts. It's all so visual that there isn't time for anything else. We're living in a world where everything moves very quickly. We've become a very visual society, so I think it's a very natural thing that people are captivated with the illustrations in a story. Of course, when you think about it, no matter how good a story is, if you're at a newsstand and you see a lot of comic books, you don't know how good the story is unless you read it. But you can spot the artwork instantly, and you know whether you like the artwork, whether it grabs you or not. So, in a sense, the artwork is the most important thing in getting somebody to buy a book. The person probably won't buy a book if he doesn't like the artwork. Once you buy it for the artwork, you hope that the story will also be good. But we are definitely a visual society today, and I don't think that'll change for a long time.
O: Why do you think superheroes attract such devoted readers?
SL: Because they're bigger than life, and I think people have always loved things that are bigger than life, things that are imaginative. People love The Odyssey, where Ulysses fought the Cyclops. They love King Kong. They love Moby Dick, with the giant white whale. Frankenstein. Dracula. It starts off, I think, with your love of fairy tales as a child. Virtually every kid is exposed to giants and ogres and talking wolves, and so forth. And magic. And I think you never outgrow your love for those imaginative, fanciful, farfetched, fantastic characters and situations. And where better to get them than in superhero stories? It also has a lot to do with wish-fulfillment. We all wish we had super powers. We all wish we could do more than we can do. And it's fun to read. Even Sherlock Holmes… when I was a kid, I loved reading Sherlock Holmes. Now, you don't think of him as a superhero, but he was so damn much smarter than anybody else. You could walk into a room and he could tell you what you'd had for breakfast and what newspaper you'd read that morning. It was fun reading how he did it and wishing you were as smart as he was. I think people love imaginative things.
O: What's been the biggest single positive change in the comics industry since your career started?
SL: Gee, I don't know. I'm trying to think. [Pauses.] Well, maybe the printing is better. Yeah, the printing and the quality of the paper is better.
O: What about the single biggest negative change?
SL: Well, for my own personal taste, I think some of 'em have gotten a little too rough, a little too sordid, and a little too morbid. To me, they should still be more entertaining. But that goes for movies and television and everything else, and novels and so forth. The whole world is getting a little more that way, so I would like it if things were a little more fun. If entertainment was more fun than it is in so many cases.
O: Is there anything you'd like to see happen in the comics industry as the medium evolves?
SL: No, I never thought about it. I think comics will always be around. I think there's something nice about a comic book. People love to hold 'em, turn the pages, fold 'em up, roll 'em up, stick 'em in their back pocket, show 'em to a friend, and say, "Hey, look at this." They're a fast read and they're comparatively inexpensive. But I think they'll never be the enormous sellers they were, because there's just too much competition now, with computers and television and DVDs, and all the other things that are out there, interactive games. But I think they'll always be there, and they're nice. They're part of American culture.