if you ever get frustrated or depressed thinking about the high hopes you had for your career, the career that appears to be going off in a completely different direction than you had in mind, remember what happened to a boy from New York who had a vision for his career, too.
It took him to a place he never imagined — and he changed the world.
By 1991 when i met and interviewed him, Stan Lee was a legend. Almost royalty.
The Stan Lee – Marvel Comics story went back decades.
“I think it was about 1939 or ’40, when I was just a stripling right out of high school.”
“Did you have any inkling at all of what was to come?” I askwed.
“None at all. I thought it would be a temporary job, which is why I changed my name. I wasn’t born Stan Lee. I can’t picture anybody being born Stan Lee. People would say to me, Stan Lee what? And I’m thinking of changing my last name to What, so when they ask me that, I can say, you’re right,and that’ll really throw ’em a curve. My name used to be Stanley Martin Lieber, a regular, normal name. And I always wanted to write that great American novel, and when I went to work for a comicbook company I didn’t want to use my name for these lowly comics. So I cut my first name in half — Stan Lee. But as the years went by, and I stayed there, everybody knew me as Stan Lee and finally it was easier to change my name legally, so I’m now Stan Lee, which is a very stupid name but I’m stuck with it.”
In fact Stan Lee never did write that great American novel. In fact his writing career didn’t seem to be going anywhere near the direction he’d hoped it would.
“I used to be embarrassed working in comics when I first started. My wife and I would go to a cocktail party and people would walk over and say, What do you do? And I would say, I’m a writer, and I would try to get away, but they would follow. What do you write? And I would still try to be evasive: well, stories for youngsters in magazines. What magazines?
And eventually, I would have to say ‘comicbooks,’ and they would avoid me like the plague after that. Now, of course,it’s totally different. At a pary, they see me, they push past Dan Quayle and Steven Spielberg and Secretary Baker. ‘There’s Stan Lee of Marvel’! Things have changed, obviously.
And here’s how Stan Lee and Marvel transformed a medium once the exclusive domain of children into something much richer:
“When we started changing comicbooks by making them, I like to think, more intelligent, we started using college-level and above vocabulary. I mean, if we want to use a word like misanthropic, or cauterize, we do. And we don’t worry about the reader, because weknow they learn what the word means through the use in the sentence, or if they have to look it up in the dictionary that’s not the worst thing that can happen.
“I cannot tell you how many conversations I’ve had with parents who have said, We don’t understand it. We used to tell little Johnny not to read comics, and he did badly in English. Suddenly he’s been reading Marvel comics and now he’s getting A grades in Englsih.n W don’t understand it, but we’re delighted. And it’s been happening all over.”
And soon those childish comicbooks were finding a whole new — and, it turns out, exceedingly loyal — audience:
“When we started Marvel Comics, what with our college-level vocabulary, with the addition of some philosophy, satire, and more involved plots, better characterization, more realistics dialogue, we began to attract high school kids, and then college kids. For a period of fifteen years, from 1965 to about 1980 or so, I think I lectured in this country more than anybody else. I never went to less than two colleges a week, 52 weeks a year. And it was always talking about Marvel and the audiences got bigger and bigger.
“And one thing I noticed; these audiences that were really interested in Marvel comics, and comics in general, they were usually the more intelligent students. They were the ones studying literature, psychology, philosophy, science, And there were many, many teachers, also. And as I get older, the professors get younger. Sometimes I couldn’t tell the professors from the students! They dressed the same, with their little beards, their crewneck sweaters. You know, I’d be talking to a guy and say, what are you studying, son? [He’d say] Well, I teach philosophy.
Is there a competition between, say, Spiderman and Superman? Between Marvel’s superheroes and DC’s?
“Theoretically, yes, they are competitors, but our real competition .. it’s like the game of golf, where you’re supposed to compete against yourself. We compete against outselves. We’re always trying to top the last story we did. We do outsell the competition and we look at our own sales figures and figure, if we sold a million copes if this last month, maybe can sell a million and 100 thousand this month.
“The biggest problem we have .. you see, Marvel turns out, believe it or not, over a hundred separate titles every month. Month after month, a hundred new issues go out. The biggest problem we have is coming up with new ideas. How do we keep it fresh? How do we not get into cliches and stereotypes? So we almost don’t have time to worry about the competition.We’re just always working on our own product and trying to embellish it, trying to add new surprises, trying to put something in that’s going to keep the readers coming back.
And you know how much money some of those old, original Marvel comicbooks can fetch.
“It doesn’t surprise me, it frustrates me because I have never had the intelligence to save these old comics. we used to give these comics away. We gave the original artwork away. We never suspected it would ever have any value. So I’m one of the few people who doesn’t have any of the old books at all, and I hate to even talk about it ’cause it upsets me.”
Stan Lee passed away on November 12th, 2018. He was 95.