With Thor, X-Men: First Class, and Captain America: The First Avenger all hitting theaters, it’s been a mighty, uncanny, incredible, amazing summer for the Godfather of Comics.
When you were just a kid starting out at Marvel, did you ever think you’d conquer Hollywood like this?
No, in those days I never could have envisioned that these characters would be in films people care about all over the world. But I loved the movies, so in writing any character I always had an image in my head of an actor. For instance, I was a big fan of Errol Flynn, so whenever I’d have a comic hero doing something noble, I’d think of him. Or if it was a villain, I’d think of Boris Karloff.
We imagine the young Stan Lee hustling for work like Peter Parker at the Daily Bugle.
Oh, I hustled, all right! I was only 18, and in the early days it was pretty nerve-racking, because if the books we wrote didn’t sell, our publisher would’ve said, “Well, I don’t need you anymore.” Captain America was actually the first superhero I worked on.
What was the thinking behind Captain America?
We were all obviously concerned with the Nazis, and Cap was, as far as I know, the only character fighting Nazis. But after the war his popularity waned, so we discontinued the title. Then in the ’60s I decided to bring him back, but we always treated him like a relic of the past who couldn’t really understand how young people were today, making fun of the government and the flag. And they couldn’t understand him and his patriotism. I thought that made him an interesting character.
Marvel is gearing up for the Avengers movie, with Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and more. Did you always imagine your characters joining forces?
Well, I treated our characters a little differently than other comic book companies did. I had them all living in and around New York, so they could run into each other. Then one day I decided, “Why not let them form a team and work together?” Of course, the way to make that fun is that they don’t always work together in harmony: “Who said you should give the orders? Nobody tells me what to do!” So in addition to making them a team of superheroes, I tried to treat them as though they were living people with their own hang-ups.
So many of your characters have made it to the big screen. Do you have any favorites?
The actor who got closest to the way the character was envisioned in the comics was Michael Chiklis as the Thing in Fantastic 4. The way he looked, spoke, and acted was just perfect. And, of course, Tobey Maguire. I mean he was Peter Parker. And I can’t forget Iron Man! The luckiest thing we did was get Robert Downey Jr. He was born to be Iron Man.
The Hulk hasn’t made the jump to the movies quite as well.
I would have preferred if it were treated more like the television series: just a big guy with green makeup who you could make look even bigger. I mean, they could’ve made him look eight feet tall instead of 25 feet tall! That took some of the reality away for me.
Whereas a character like Spider-Man could be anyone.
One reason Spider-Man is so popular around the world is that his costume completely covers his body, so for all we know, under that costume he could be black, he could be Asian, he could be Indian, he could be anything. So any reader anywhere in the world could identify with Spider-Man and imagine, “That could be me.”
Like Donald Glover from Community! Did you follow his Twitter campaign?
I got a lot of tweets from fans saying, “Why don’t you make him Spider-Man?!?” I had to tell them I have nothing to do with the casting.
Do you still find yourself dreaming up new characters?
Of course! With my company, Pow! Entertainment, I’m coming up with new ideas all the time. The main difference is that in the past I wrote them all myself. Now other people write them under my supervision.
So do you spend your free time reading medical and technical journals, trying to find new special powers?
It’s funny, but I’m the least technical person in the world. For example, all I could think of with Peter Parker was he was bitten by a radioactive spider, and in those days “radioactivity” was a word that everybody was throwing around. I had no idea what it meant, but it sounded good. With Bruce Banner I had to find something different, so I made him the victim of a gamma ray explosion. I wouldn’t know a gamma ray if it walked up to me, but it sounds so technical and so perfect. So…gamma ray!
You’ve had cameos in a lot of movies, but who would play Stan Lee in a movie?
Well, let’s see. Johnny Depp is pretty busy now, and, um, I don’t know if Brad Pitt is good-looking enough…
And if you could trade places with any one of your characters? Would you want Hulk-like super strength? The ability to climb buildings like Spidey?
Oh, gosh, I never thought of that. Maybe Iron Man. He’s rich and handsome, and women love him and he can do whatever the hell he wants. But I wouldn’t waste a lot of time in that suit. It looks awfully uncomfortable. I’d spend time on my yacht! I hope my wife doesn’t read this.