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, whaddya 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.
There’s a part of me that’s a little disappointed you didn’t pick up the phone and say, “Excelsior!”
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 catchphrase is just good advertising. It’s advertising for superheroes. A superhero’s catchphrase 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.