Like a lot of kids who grew up reading comic books, I wanted to be Stan Lee.
I had no interest, however, in following in the footsteps of Spider-Man or the Hulk or the X-Men or anybody else in his roster of legendary action heroes. Their form-fitting costumes and commitment to aerobic exercise just didn’t jibe with my prepubescent ambitions. But Stan “The Man” Lee had the kind of awesome-within-reason power that a kid could strive for. For one thing, his nickname was “The Man,” which isn’t a moniker that somebody can just give themselves. You can’t walk up to your friends and announce, “Hey guys, whaddaya say you start calling me ‘The Man’ from now on? You know, cause it rhymes with Stan?” It has to be bestowed on you. In hindsight, it’s actually remarkable that Lee got an entire generation of comic book readers to notice him at all, much less look to him as a role model. Even the most brilliant architects of youthful fantasies don’t usually get top billing. Plenty of young boys had daydreams of being Boba Fett or Han Solo. But being George Lucas? Not so much.
“The Man” is now 88, and he shows no sign of slowing down. I don’t mean that in the same way your mother might talk about your grandfather, in that he’s the fun one at his retirement community and doesn’t have any obvious symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Stan Lee, the former president and CEO of Marvel Comics and current founder and CEO of POW! Entertainment, is more productive and enterprising than most 30-year-olds. And not just because he’s making sure every comic character he ever dreamed up has his or her own movie — Who’s left at this point? She-Hulk? Dazzler, the disco singing mutant? — or somehow dodging the career shrapnel from the terrible-idea-from-the-beginning Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. He’s also inventing new characters. The National Hockey League recently hired him to come up with thirty original characters, one for each team in the league, which they unveiled at January’s All-Star Game. Many of his NHL creations are somewhere between confusing and crackbrained, like the Toronto Maple Leaf, who fights crime by shooting maple syrup out of his hand-branches. Batshit crazy, sure, but you try coming up with 30 superheroes based solely on hockey team franchises.
I called Lee at his Los Angeles office, and he didn’t waste a moment before cracking jokes with an energy you don’t usually see in guys on the downslide to 90. “You’d be a madman to quote any of this,” he told me towards the end of our conversation. He might be right. But let’s take a gamble and quote all of it.
Eric Spitznagel: There’s a part of me that’s a little disappointed you didn’t pick up the phone and say, “Excelsior!”
Stan Lee: Well sure, if you want me to. Excelsior! I usually end that way, you see. Instead of goodbye. But that’s O.K., I don’t mind saying it at any point.
Are you quoting your own superhero catchphrases all the time? In a private, intimate moment with your wife, do you ever shout out, “by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth?!”
Oh absolutely. I say that all the time. When I want my wife to make me a sandwich, I’ll say, “By the shades of the shadowy serapeum, will you please make me a sandwich?!” Doesn’t everybody?
What’s the formula for a really memorable catchphrase? Is it all about alliteration?
It has to sound good, whether it’s alliterative or just the right sounds. To me, a catch phrase is just good advertising. It’s advertising for superheroes. A superhero’s catch phrase should be like a really memorable advertising slogan. It sticks in your head and you can’t stop humming it. And let’s face it, superheroes are just really selling themselves as products.
At a press conference in December, Obama said something about Republicans realizing that “with greater power comes greater responsibility.” When you heard that, were you flattered, or did you immediately call your lawyer?
I just resented the fact that he edited it. It should be “with great power” not “greater power.” I thought about writing to him, telling him about the mistake. If you’re going to quote Spider-Man, at least get the adjectives right. But I figured, he’s busy, why bother him.
You’re a legend, an icon in the comic book business, but for some reason you keep working. Why have you avoided retirement?
Greed. I’m propelled by greed. No, no, the thing is, I enjoy what I do. Most guys can’t wait to retire so they can play golf with their friends. But I work with all my friends. And every day is fun. I’m having as much fun right now in the office, talking to you, as I would have on the golf course.
Are you going to be one of those guys who doesn’t quit until they find you dead in your office, face down in a pool of ink, surrounded by storyboards?
Oh, I don’t intend to die.
If you wanted to, couldn’t you just support yourself by selling off old copies of Marvel classics? How many copies of Amazing Fantasy #15 do you have lying around the house?
Zero. If I had any of those old comics, I would’ve sold them by now.
You’re kidding me. You have nothing?
It never occurred to us to save any of those things. We never thought they’d have any value later on. We worked in a very small office, and the printer would send back all the original pages of artwork, but we had no place to put them. So when we ordered food, from some sandwich place or whatever, we told the delivery guy, “Hey, would you mind taking these pages and dropping them in the trash on the way out?”
So either that sandwich delivery guy is filthy rich right now, or he’s as haunted by remorse as you are?
I’m guessing all that stuff is long gone. His mother probably made him throw it all away. [Laughs.] That’s what everybody tells me. “I would’ve had a great comic book collection but my mother made me throw them away.” By when I was growing up, my mother didn’t care. As long as I was reading, she didn’t care if my room was filled with comics. I could have saved everything. I was just too stupid to do it.
I’ve always thought that comic books have a very distinctive smell. Am I crazy?
No, no, I agree. I think everything you enjoy has a certain smell. My desktop has a smell. My car certainly has a certain smell. And comic books, you’re quite right, there’s something in their odor that’s just pleasant and comforting. You know what comic books are? They’re nice. That’s the best word I can think of.
As a kid, I was convinced that Marvel comics smelled different than D.C comics. Marvel comics just had a more pleasing scent, an olfactory familiarity.
You know, you happen to be not only a great interviewer, but a great critic. Your judgment is unsurpassed in this field.
In the late 70s, Marvel published a comic book about the rock band KISS, and Gene Simmons and the rest of the band donated their actual blood to be mixed in with the ink. Did you ever do something like that?
Did I put my blood into Marvel comics? Well, not literally.
What about other vital fluids? How much of your DNA was slipped into the printing press when people weren’t paying attention?
Not a drop. Unfortunately, there aren’t things in the world that I know that everybody else doesn’t already know. I wish I had at least one little secret that was just mine. Even if I’d wanted to, I never would’ve put any of my blood into our ink supply. I don’t like needles, and I’m a professional coward. Although actually, that isn’t true. I can stand any amount of pain as long as it doesn’t hurt.
What about the Comics Code, those champions of censorship and watchdogs of our comic-reading innocence? You must’ve pulled a few fast ones on them, right?
I wish. I couldn’t get anything past them! I remember once, I’d written a western story, and one of the panels was just a hand holding a six-shooter, and there was a puff of smoke coming out of the barrel, and a straight horizontal line, indicating the trajectory of the bullet. So that page was sent back to me from the Code office, saying that the particular panel was too violent. I asked them what they meant, and they told me, I swear to god, “The puff of smoke is too big.” Well of course. [Laughs.] So I had the artist make the smoke a little smaller. They okayed the page, and the youth of America was saved.
If it wasn’t for the Comics Code, would the Hulk’s pants have ripped off like his shirt?
I guess it probably would have. So you see, occasionally the Code did some good things.
Did you ever try to make sense of the Hulk’s magical purple pants? Why did they always conveniently remain intact while the rest of his clothes were ripped to shreds?
I just figured that Bruce Banner had probably been friends with Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic from the Fantastic Four) in the past and Reed had given him some elastic trousers. There’s an explanation for everything, but we don’t have time to go into the specifics. And you may not be technically advanced enough to follow me on all of this.
In the Kevin Smith movie Mallrats, Jason Lee asked you a question that’s crossed every serious comic book fan’s mind at least once in his life. You dismissed it at the time, calling it a “superhero secret.” Are you finally ready to answer Lee’s question?
“Is the Thing’s dork made out of orange rock like the rest of his body?”
I never gave it a thought. I guess common sense would say it was made of orange rock too. Why would that part of him be any different? I always thought it was more interesting to think about Reed Richards. As you know, he had the ability to stretch. And sexually, that would seem to be a great asset in many areas. But I’ve got to tell you a funny thing about Mallrats.
Are you changing the subject?
I am. In the movie, I gave some relationship advice to Jason Lee’s character. I told him that I had a girlfriend from my past that I wasn’t able to forget either. I went to the premiere of Mallrats with my lovely wife, and when we came home later that night, she had her hands on her hips and her eyes narrowed, and she said, “Who was this girl in the past that you haven’t forgotten?” I told her, “Honey, that was the script. I was just reading my lines!” I have to be very careful about the roles I play in movies from now on.
Does she ever read your comics and say, “Oh, so you’ve got a thing for redheads now?”
No, I’m very fortunate. She doesn’t read comics. Which is terrible. She’ll never know how incredibly talented I really am.
That may be the key to a successful marriage.
I’m only doing this interview because she reads Vanity Fair. This is my last chance to impress her. Make me look good, okay?
I’ll do what I can. Is this the wrong time to ask about all those wacky superheroes you created for the National Hockey League?
I was afraid you were going to mention them.
What in the hell, Stan?
I can’t remember half of those characters. They’re a blur. There are so many of them.
When you’re brainstorming ideas, is there any point in the process when you just throw up your arms in defeat? Where it’s just like, “Give him machine gun arms or something. I don’t care! The well is dry, you bloodsuckers!”
It sounds like you were right there, eavesdropping on us. No, seriously, it’s not that difficult. Coming up with characters is the easiest thing in the world. You just sit down, take a pencil in hand or sit in front of your computer, and you ask yourself, “What has nobody done yet?”
That’s it? That’s your secret to a comic book dynasty?
That’s all it is. Life can be very simple. People make it complicated for no reason. They refuse to look directly at the way things should be. Obviously you don’t want to write something that’s been done already, so you think of something that hasn’t been done.
Can you turn it off? When you’re off the clock and at home, do you ever catch yourself thinking, “You know what would be cool? If the dog could shoot lasers from his eyes!”
Never. The last thing in the world I’m thinking about is stories when I’m not sitting at the computer. There’s a whole world around us to be thinking about. I’ve always been a hack writer. I only write something when somebody says, “Hey Stan, I’ll pay you to write this.” So I write it and the minute I’m finished, I give it in to whoever paid me and then immediately forget about it. I have a terrible memory.
You really are a hack. And I mean that as a compliment.
Thank you. I take it as a compliment. I’m very proud of being a hack. It’s why I’ve lived as long as I have, I think.
How do you stay relevant? How does a 88 year old man know what a 14 year old boy wants to read?
I never think of age. People always ask me, “What age do you specifically write for?” I don’t write for any age. I just try to write a good story. And I try to write it clearly enough that a youngster can understand it and hopefully intelligently enough that a grown-up can enjoy it. I don’t understand the way they do it with television or movies, where something is written for a specific demographic, like 15-to-18 or 25-to-32. I don’t know how to write a story just for people 25-to-32. That makes no sense to me. So I’m alienating the 33 year old guy? Why would I do that? I just want to write a story that I would enjoy reading, and I’ve enjoyed reading since I was a little kid.
We should probably mention the Spider-man musical. Have you seen it lately?
Not lately. I went to a rehearsal a couple of months ago. I was fascinated by what I saw. I didn’t see the whole show, I just saw some bits that they were rehearsing. It looked wonderful.
Will you be at opening night next Tuesday, assuming it opens as planned?
I don’t think I’ll be able to make it.
Is that because you’re afraid actors might start falling from the sky and land on you?
Partly. That’s why when I do get a chance to see it again, I intend to keep a pillow on my head. No, no, I’m joking. I’m not the least bit worried. I’m sure they’ll have it all taken care of. I really admire (director) Julie Taymor. She’s brilliant, and she has so much enthusiasm. But if I may be frank with you, I am a little upset about the show.
Now we’re getting somewhere! What don’t you like? The dangerous stunts? The ballooning budget? The music?
I don’t know if I should put this on the record, but I’m surprised and a little hurt that they haven’t asked me to do a cameo yet. I realize that it might be difficult, especially since the show runs six nights a week, with a a couple of matinees. I don’t think I have the energy to do that. But I’m not sure how the show can succeed without a cameo from me.
I guess you’re right. You’ve been in almost every movie based on your characters. Not having a Stan Lee cameo could be exactly where this production went wrong.
I think it’s a pretty obvious.
Couldn’t they just find somebody who sorta looks like you?
There is nobody who looks like Stan Lee!
You don’t think they can find another 80-something man with a mustache and sunglasses?
I’m sure we can compromise. Maybe they make a life-size cardboard cutout that looks like me and pops up during a pivotal moment. I don’t know, we’ll work it out. My attorneys are talking to them now.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)