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Stan Lee: Comic Guru

Michael Goldman probes the life and times of Marvel's exuberant creator of such titles as Spider Man, The X-Men, The Incredible Hulk and many more.

Stan Lee

Stan Lee can't understand it. "What is taking the Pulitzer Prize Committee so long to call me?" he wonders. "They know where I am. They know how to spell my name. Their letter must have gotten lost in the mail." Lee then breaks into a robust laugh at the thought that his writing career, as prolific as it has been, should merit a Pulitzer. But for a legion of middle-aged adults and teenagers alike who have grown up on a steady diet of Spider-Man, The Hulk, Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer, among others, some sort of prize for Lee most certainly would be in order. After all, Lee is not only the person who created or co-created many of the most popular comic book characters of all time, he is also godfather to the modern comic book industry. Over the course of his 50-plus-year relationship with Marvel Comics, he has created a new methodology for writing and producing them. Lee has also been a central player in bringing Marvel super-heroes into the animation realm.

Fantastic Four is now being developed into an animated series.

Indeed, as Chairman of Marvel Studios and Publisher and Chairman of Marvel Comics, the "seventyish" Lee is still doing his best to keep Marvel's creative juices bubbling. These days, he concentrates on story development and works with the writers of all televised Marvel-based shows, especially when they first debut to help keep them consistent with Marvel standards. His role is now to develop animation and feature film scripts for the big screen, rather than for the newsstand. Lee is not currently writing any Marvel comic titles, although he does write the syndicated Spider-Man newspaper comic strip. "I spend most of my time in the office working on movies, television shows and animation," says Lee. "I'm not involved with the comic book operation day-to-day anymore. But I do keep my hand in it, and I regularly talk with our people in New York about characters and stories. Plus, I spend a day or two at home each week writing scripts and other projects I hope to see developed. I dream of the day we do a major animated film based on a Marvel super hero," with Thor or Namor, the Sub-Mariner being the two titles he thinks would best translate to the big-screen in animated form."

X-Men, the comic book from Marvel and ...

Marvel's Animated Hits

Lee sees animation as a great forum for his classic characters. His interest in animation goes back to the 1970s, when he began living in Hollywood part-time in order to supervise development of the original Fantastic Four program, which was then animated by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises. Eventually, at his urging, Marvel established a permanent animation operation in Los Angeles in 1980. Lee has worked full-time out of this L.A. office ever since, even as Marvel has gone through various ownership changes.

Marvel's corporate fate remains up in the air following attempts to restructure Marvel Holdings Inc. after a six-month war for company control between financiers Ronald Perelman and Carl Icahn. However, the value of the Marvel character library virtually insures the company will continue in some form, and plans to bring Lee's classic characters to new media formats continue unabated. "I stay out of all that business stuff because my area of concern is the creative end of things," Lee says. But he does point out that animated TV programs based on Marvel characters continue to perform to solid numbers on television, with the Spider-Man cartoon being one of the most successful animated shows in history. "Our animated product does very well," he says of shows such as Spider-Man, X-Men and The Incredible Hulk. "The business area is where they were having problems, not with the product. Our shows generally do very well and our comic books are still very high quality, and that's the most important thing as far as I'm concerned."

...a scene from the animated X-Men series by Saban.

Indeed, Marvel toons remain a major factor in children's television with Spider-Man and X-Men being very popular. Marvel Films Animation did the animation production on Spider-Man, while Saban produced X-Men. Both shows continue to air on Fox. Althoug they are now out of production, 75 X-Men episodes and 65 Spider-Man episodes are in the can. Meanwhile, New World Animation continues to churn out new episodes of The Incredible Hulk for an upcoming second season on UPN. All future animated Marvel shows, most notably Silver Surfer, currently being prepped to begin airing in `98, will be animated by Saban and will air on Fox. Besides Silver Surfer, Lee says another vintage Marvel character is being prepped for a television try. Unfortunately, he can't yet say which one. But no matter the show, the animation company or the network, Lee will continue to provide creative input on all programs, especially in that crucial development phase.

Lee is also gratified that, after numerous snafus over the years, some Marvel characters will finally begin hitting the big screen in live-action film formats. Blade, the Vampire Hunter, starring Wesley Snipes, is in the final stages of production for New Line Cinema and is slated for a February, 1998 release. Legal wrangling continues over James Cameron's plans to make a Spider-Man film, but industry sources expect those issues to be resolved and the film to be eventually made. Several other Marvel properties are in development at major studios, with X-Men, Silver Surfer, Fantastic Four and The Incredible Hulk all close to going into production.

The Good Ol' Days and "The Marvel Method"

For Lee and most of his fans, though, it all began with comics, and without the fertile creative explosion that occurred at Marvel in the early 1960s, the worlds of animation and feature films would be without some major action characters. Of course, when Lee was running "The Mighty Marvel Bullpen" in those "good old days," the comic book industry was much different than it is now. "When I was based at Marvel in New York, for a period of seven or 10 years, I had to write just about everything," he says. "I was the editor. I was the art director. I was the head writer. So because of that, for better or worse, I had my personality stamped on those comics. I was designing covers, writing cover blurbs, writing ads, the soapbox column, the Bullpen page, and so on. That's why those comics had a style that was connected to my personality. If any one person was doing that job in those days, those comics would have reeked of that person's style. It wasn't like I had a master plan to put my imprint on them. Now, they don't do comics that way anymore. There is a different person doing everything. The stories are done by different writers all the time. The artwork is done differently. There is not so much of a unifying thread. The editor-in-chief doesn't have the time to put his imprint on the books anymore. He's usually too busy making sure everything is on time for the production schedule, so he doesn't have time to get as involved in other things."

Spider-Man faces his creator.

But Lee was the person whose imprint got onto those characters, and it has stayed there ever since. Fresh out of high school, he originally answered an ad seeking an assistant in the publishing industry. "I thought that meant books or magazines," says Lee. "It never occurred to me until I got there that they were talking about comic books. In those days, I didn't know much about comic books, but I figured what the hell, maybe I can get some experience and then get out there into the real world." Lee was so unsure of a comic book career, in fact, that when he first started writing for Marvel, he adopted the pen name of Stan Lee. He thought he shouldn't use his given name, Stan Lieber, on "mere comic books when I was hoping to do much more important writing later." Of course, he ended up doing his "important" writing on comic books for decades, and eventually, he had his name legally changed to Stan Lee.

When Marvel editors Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left the company (years later, Kirby would return to team with Lee in the most fruitful comic collaboration in history), Lee suddenly found himself as lead editor before he was 18. A few years later, he went into the Army, but came back to the same job and has been with Marvel ever since. Before the `60s, Lee tried writing western comics, romances, war stories and humor essays. Then Marvel decided to concentrate on super heroes and Lee created or co-created characters such as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, the Iron Man, The Avengers, Silver Surfer (based on a Jack Kirby concept), and a host of others. This brought about good news and bad news. The good news was, Marvel's pedigree soared. The bad news was, it meant Lee and his Marvel teammates faced a virtual tidal wave of non-stop work. That's when he decided a new comic book production method was needed, and what is now referred to as "The Marvel Method" was born.

"What happened was, in those years, I was writing Fantastic Four, Hulk, Spider-Man, and a few other titles, and I simply couldn't keep up," Lee explains. "Up until then, the artists couldn't get started until I gave them a complete script, and I couldn't get scripts together for the various artists on the various books at the same time. So we sometimes had guys standing around, everything took longer and I was getting exhausted. So I came up with the idea of meeting with the artists and giving them the general story information in order to get them started before I had a script. In a half hour or so, I could tell them the plot, who the villain would be, what the problem the hero faces is, how he resolves it and how many pages it should be. Then I would ask them to draw it any way they saw fit. That not only kept the artists busy, but more important, it allowed them to contribute to the story in different ways. They might draw the scene with more depth than I envisioned it, and when they handed me the artwork, I could then fashion captions and dialogue that went along with that art. It ended up giving us greater continuity, and after a while, it became clear we were getting better stories. With this method, we used my story talent, the artists' visual talent, and then I could fit in appropriate dialogue and captions after the art was done. That became known as the Marvel style. I started doing it for expediency and ended up with better comic books. Now, virtually all of the comic book companies do their books this way."

A team of artists now create the art for comics like this recent issue of Iron Man published by Marvel.

Industry Woes

Marvel remains a comic power, despite its recent financial struggles. The advent of new technology and new avenues of entertainment have eaten into the comic book industry. Economic factors such as the growing cost of paper and ink have also made comics less affordable for youngsters. But Lee believes there is room for comic books, cartoons, CD-ROMs and the Internet to exist side-by-side. Creativity, he insists, remains the key. As a consequence, he is concerned about the increasing violent, adult content of comics and the movement away from good, old-fashioned story-telling with characters to which kids can relate. His philosophy is to create characters that, except for their super powers, are usually normal people with normal problems. For example, Spider-Man's alter ego, Peter Parker, is constantly worrying about how to make money and finish school. Lee feels these human elements are being dropped by many modern comic books. "Some of the new comics are good and some are bad, just like anything else," he says. "That's the way it was for us in the old days too. But the problem is the new type of books are a lot grittier, a lot darker, and more violent. The reason for that is understandable. That's the way movies are. It's the way television is. It's the way video games are and it's the way newspapers are. In that sense, comics are no different than any other form of entertainment: they reflect society. The world today seems darker and grittier and so do comics, but because of that, their appeal is more limited. They aren't always appropriate for younger readers and there aren't always characters that readers can relate to."

Stan Lee with his

Another problem, Lee says, is that since comic books are now mass produced, characterization and consistency are going by the wayside. "Many titles, both ours and the competition, take it for granted that you know everything about the character and his background," he explains. "If you aren't a regular reader, it is almost impossible to pick one up and know what is going on. The books have become hard for the transient reader to pick up and enjoy, and as a result, it is harder to lure in new readers. They tend to cater to the hardcore reader and forget that it is important to bring new readers into the fold. I've talked with our people in New York about fixing this with Marvel, but it is an industry-wide problem."

Whatever the future holds for his beloved "super powered children," Lee couldn't be happier about his past and present. He credits the support of his wife of 50 years, Joan, the hard work and talent of colleagues he has worked with, especially fellow comic book legends Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita, John Buscema, Gil Kane, Gene Colan and Don Heck, among many others, and a lot of luck with helping him get to the top of the comic heap. "I've been lucky all my life," he says. "I've always worked with people I liked and respected, and who were extremely talented. I'm also lucky in other ways. I'm lucky I answered that ad all those years ago. I'm lucky Marvel decided to concentrate on super hero books, and I'm lucky the readers liked what we were putting out there. I'm sure guys like Chuck Jones don't regret they went into the animation business, and in my case, I certainly don't regret going into the comic book business. I would advise writers or artists to go into comics or animation, but only if they really love doing it. That's the only reason I've been in it so long: I love doing it. I don't know what I would be doing today if I hadn't gotten into this business, but I'm sure it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun."

Michael Goldman is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor for a variety of publications, who has super-powers and fights for justice in his spare time.