Stan Lee: Talking Pictures
Written By, May 2002
Art by Jack Kirby
In the early 1960's, writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby populated the struggling Marvel comic book universe with THE FANTASTIC FOUR, X-MEN, THE HULK, THOR, THE AVENGERS - truly the first post-modern superheroes. Kirby's dynamic art provided the comic's visual power, while Lee's unique voice imbued these near-deities with mortal woes. This clever formula gave Marvel and their characters unprecedented success during the decade and beyond.
This surreal-realism had its roots in SPIDER-MAN. Here was not a square-jawed, barrel-chested superman, but a 90-pound weakling named Peter Parker, who gains amazing strength through a radioactive spider bite. The schism from geek to God elevated SPIDER-MAN to complex places unseen in comics of the day, mirroring the turbulent 60's. Peter Parker learns that being an urban savior exacts a terrible price, and SPIDER-MAN never shied from topics such as filial death, drug addiction, and the loss of ideals (a once-important theme in the 20 th century).
Lee's writing captured the exuberance of heroism while revealing its problems. Like the best fables, Marvel stories provided a moral point and counterpoint for youth - albeit between fantastic cityscape battles. Still, it's only been in the past 15 years that comic books have been recognized as an important American art form. Witness the success of Frank Miller's DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Robert Crumb's acceptance as a major artist, and Michael Chabon's Pulitzer for his novel THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & KLAY. Meanwhile, the phenomenal success of the SPIDER-MAN film has solidified the web-swinger to our culture.
In conversation, Stan Lee is funny and exuberant, and with his POW! (Purveyors Of Wonder) Entertainment busy as ever developing new film and comic projects, he shows no signs of slowing down.
WB: How does it feel to finally see SPIDERMAN on the big screen after all these years and have it become an enormous global success?
SL: It's about time! People have been saying to me for years, "Why isn't SPIDERMAN a feature film?" Now I don't have to answer them anymore. Sam Raimi did a magnificent job. He just showed me some rough effects for the next one with Dr. Octopus. It looked awesome!
WB: I think the film worked because, like X-MEN, they finally focused on the characters.
SL: That goes for everything. If you're not interested in characters, then it's hard to care. I think Avary Arad, who's developing many of these projects, is determined to see them done right.
WB: How did you get interested in writing?
SL: I was a voracious reader. I went to the movies a lot. People are inspired by everything they see, or hear. I read anything I could get my hands on: Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Nicholas Nickleby by Dickens, I loved Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, O. Henry. I loved little series for kids like Hardy Boys, Bomba the Jungle Boy.
WB: You read all the pulps.
SL: Oh sure, everything there was. H.G.Wells. And I read Shakespeare. I was too young to fully understand it, but I loved the words. I'm really big into the rhythm of words, which is why I like Poe, why I like the Rubiyat, the way the words string together impresses the hell out of me. And I read the Bible, I'm not a particularly religious person, but I love the phraseology: Thous, and Doths and Begets, so that was definteley in my mind when I was writing things like Thor.
WB: When did you first start to write?
SL: I was always writing little poems, jokes and stories. I used to draw little stories for myself. I would take a sheet of paper and draw a line horizontally across it, and that was my horizon. Then I would draw little stick figures and have them racing around, fighting.
WB: In a way, you were already writing comic books. Did you ever write for the pulps, or other magazines?
SL: The funny thing is that I didn't write short stories. I had a couple of friends when I was 13 or 14, and after dinner we'd go hang out and make up stories. I was the guy who made up the most of them, and I'd tell them to amuse ourselves. I never wrote them down. I wrote a lot of non-fiction. When I was 17, I was writing obituaries for the Associated Press -- obituaries for living people. They always have celebrity obits written in advance. So I gave that up because it was depressing writing about living people in the past tense. I got a job writing publicity for a hospital. I was never sure what I was supposed to accomplish, make people want to get sick so they could go to the hospital? At the time, the New York Herald Tribune had a contest called "The Biggest News of the Week" contest for high school students. In 500 words or less, you had to write what you thought was the biggest news of the week and describe it. I won it three weeks in running and the editor called me to stop entering the contest and give someone else a chance. He asked what I wanted to become and I said, "I'd like to be an actor!" He said, "You're a schmuck, why don't you become a writer?" And that was the first time I thought of it.
WB: Were you reading comics then?
SL: I read comics, but they were different. The comics in those days were reprints of the newspaper strips, Flash Gordon, The Katzenjammer Kids, Blondie....
WB: Did you later read the infamous E.C. Comics?
SL: I was a big fan of EC.
WB: Did the resulting Comics Code have an effect on you, or ever try to censor Marvel?
SL: No, it never bothered me because we didn't have stuff that was sexy or too horrible. We got along pretty well with the code.
WB: What was the process of writing a comic script?
SL: Once the characters were created and had their series, I knew who they were and would write each episode. I would come up with an idea for a plot; I didn't have time to write detailed outlines because I was writing a lot of stuff. I had a vague idea of what the story would be. I'd sit down, type it out, sort of how you'd write a screenplay: I'd write page one, panel one, and a description for the artist of what the drawing should be. Then I'd write the dialogue, or a caption. Then I'd write panel two, so on. Later, I developed what was called the "Marvel Style." I didn't have time to write full scripts, so I would tell the artist what I wanted the story to be and let him or her draw it whatever way they wanted. Then I'd get the pages back and I would write the dialogue and indicate where the dialogue balloons should go and it went much faster. I also got better stories, because the artist would re-interpret the plot anyway he wanted. The artists were wonderful visual storytellers so it gave them free reign. When I had to write the dialogue it was so much easier when you're looking at the drawings, expressions on their face, than looking at a blank sheet of paper.
WB: Jack Kirby did a beautiful job of illustrating the stories. You two were like the Lennon-McCartney of comic books.
SL: Thank you. He was a joy to work with.
Galactus from Thor #160 by Lee and Kirby
WB: I especially loved the THOR comics. You used rich, Shakespearean language for the mythological characters. Actually, my favorite comic page of all time is right here, THOR #154 circa 1968. Mankind faces Armageddon and Thor pensively walks the streets of New York. He encounters some hippies who mock him for his strange outfit. Thor challenges them to pick up his enchanted hammer, but they can't. Then Thor swings his hammer around and tells them, "'Tis not by dropping out -- but by plunging in -- into the maelstrom of life itself -- that thou shalt find wisdom! There be causes to espouse! There be battles to be won! There be glory and grandeur all about thee -- "
SL: "If thou wilt but see!" Oh my God! Are you kidding? That is one of my favorite things I've written and you're the first person to ever mention it to me! I am so pleased to hear you say that! Wow! At the time, I didn't think it was special. But I admit that when the book was printed, I thought, "That's good!" I'm my biggest fan. (Laughs) Very often, a kid will bring me a comic to sign that I wrote and I'll say, "Man, this is great!" But if it wasn't for those great artists, it wouldn't matter what I wrote.
WB: It's a beautiful scene because Thor isn't judging the hippies. He acknowledges that they have a pure spirit, but they don't know everything. In the 60's, Marvel had a huge counter-culture fan base. When did you realize that your readers were not kids anymore?
SL: I gauged it from the fan mail. The kids would write in pencil, even crayon. After awhile, they were written in pen and ink, or typed. Return addresses would be from a high school, later from colleges, so I began to realize the age of our readers was going up all the time.
WB: Did you adjust the subject matter based on that knowledge?
SL: If I did, it was subliminally or unconsciously. I always spoke to myself when I wrote. I was trying to write stories that I would like to read and I figured I'm not that unique, so there must be people out there with similar tastes. You can't be somebody else 100 percent -- but you can be yourself. And if you write something that makes you say, "This is terrific! I love this!" That was my test whether I was satisfied with what I wrote, not will an older or younger kid like it, but me.
WB: You also tapped into the 60's zeitgeist by making your super heroes have mundane problems. Every teen could identify with Peter Parker.
SL: I was trying to make 'em realistic. Now how do you make characters real without giving them problems? The whole idea was that up until Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spiderman, heroes never had a problem. I thought it would be fun to give them personal lives.
WB: Did you ever feel much writing pressure?
SL: I enjoyed it. I was also the editor, art director, head writer at Marvel, so I'd write at nights and on weekends. I was the editor-in-chief, writing most of the stories, and since I'm my biggest fan, I didn't have to make many changes.
WB: What was your favorite part of writing comics?
SL: When I finish. (Laughs) When you write the last panel, and you walk away from the typewriter (in those days I used a typewriter) and it's done and it's a great gift. Of course, a few minutes later I had to write another one. Actually, I hate to write. But once I'm doing it I get caught up in the story and I enjoy it. The toughest thing is to start.
WB: I think every normal writer feels that way.
SL: There's so many things I'd rather do: go to a movie, talk to my wife, look at television, anything! But then you start writing, and you wonder, geez, how I'm going to get this character out of it? It's like doing a crossword puzzle. Your mind is working all the time, trying to think of the best way to do something, and I enjoy that mental stimulation.
WB: Which Marvel character are you most excited about seeing on the screen?
SL: All of them. Soon, there'll be the Hulk, Daredevil, X-Men 2, Fantastic Four, God knows what.
WB: And The Black Panther, the first African-American super hero. How did you and Kirby come up with the Black Panther in the mid-60's?
SL: I wanted to do a black character, simple as that. I said, "Jesus Christ, Jack, they're ten percent of the population. We should give one his own book." And we made it up and there it is. I think he's a wonderful character -- I have to learn not to talk that way about characters I helped create (laughs). Actually, I'm not that involved with Marvel, except I write a few introductions.
WB: How do you look at comics today now that they're officially "respectable"?
SL: It's great. Comics are an art form, like film, television, anything. People who look down on comics, I give them this example: suppose Shakespeare and Leonardo Da Vinci were alive today. Suppose Shakespeare said, "Hey Leonardo, let's collaborate and do a comic book." And Leonardo painted it and Shakespeare wrote it. Would anybody say, "Eh, it's just a comic." It really depends on who's doing it and how it's done. You can't condemn the medium. There could be comics that are masterpieces, some that are a waste of time. But that goes for every other form of the media.
WB: After Peter Parker becomes Spiderman, he chooses not to stop a robber who eventually kills his Uncle Ben. That's when he learns that "with great power comes great responsibility." That could be the credo for all the Marvel universe. Do you think that's still true?
SL: I think it's true that anybody with a position of authority has a responsibility. Parents have a responsibility to their kids, government officials have responsibility to their cities or state. Everybody. And the more power you have, the greater your responsibility.