Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Stan Lee: A Serious Interview

I've said this before: At the end of the day it won't matter who spins the history of the comics nor how they spin it. One fact will remain indisputable: Stan Lee changed comics, which changed most of us.

The first time I met Stan was in 1986 in Manhattan. He was in town for The Toy Show and I took the opportunity to interview him over lunch for Home Viewer, one of several new magazines that had sprung up around the burgeoning video industry of the mid-80s. Shortly after my article appeared, I was pleasantly surprised to find a letter in my mailbox from Stan. He wanted to thank me for the interview. Thank me!

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of Stan's company many times on the phone and in person. He's written generous introductions to a number of books that I've edited, as well as my forthcoming collection of essays and arguments Comic Book Babylon. I thought it would be fun to revisit that first conversation of ours from 24 years ago. Here’s a piece of it:

Meth: From a creative perspective, your legacy consists largely of expanding a superhero mythology that a new generation has come to inherit. Do you think that's an important contribution?

Lee: Yes. Everybody needs heroes. Everybody should have somebody to look up to, somebody to aspire to be like. In my case, I read legends, Robin Hood, The Odyssey, Sherlock Holmes. I saw Errol Flynn movies and I wanted to be Errol Flynn. Every time I left the theater, I had a crooked little smile on my face and I swashbuckled down the street. Until I was ten years old, I wished that I had a sword by my side. I would rather have been Errol Flynn or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan or Edgar Rice Burroughs or H.G. Wells than anybody else. All of these people were my heroes. I assume everybody is like that. We all have people we admire, actors we admire, fictional characters we admire, and if we didn't, what would we ever have to aim for? What goals would we have?

Meth: But Marvel’s heroes--Stan Lee’s heroes--are very unlike those character’s you grew up admiring. Your heroes have problems. Was that part of the formula, or just a sales angle?

Lee: Not at all! I'd been writing the old stories for years because I was the ultimate company man. I did what my publisher wanted because I felt that's the way it should be--you work for somebody you do what he says. For twenty years, I was grinding out the types of stories he wanted and I won't apologize for them. They were good for what they were. These were westerns: Kid Colt, the Rawhide Kid, the Texas Kid, the Ringo Kid, Apache Kid--we loved the named "kid". We did war stories: Battle Grady, Combat Kelly, real mass producers. I wrote virtually all of them.

And I always wanted to quit, because while I was making a living, I felt I wasn't getting anywhere. I told my wife, “Honey, I want to try writing other stuff. I'm going to give this up.” She said, “Stan, you've been frustrated for years because you never really wrote the kind of stories you wanted. Before you leave, why don't you just take some books and write them your way? What's the big deal? You want to leave anyway so what'll they do, fire you?”

So I started with the Fantastic Four. We didn't have any superheroes then. We were doing monster stories. My publisher said to me, “You know, I been looking at sales figures and D.C. Comics’ Justice League of America is selling very well. We should do a few superheroes and put them together.” I said, “Fine.” But I wasn't going to do it the former way.

Meth: Which was?

Lee: Bland. They all fight together, love each other. Typical group. I figured I would make one a monster, another the hero’s fiancĂ©, the third her kid brother who’s a little bit of an itch. I tried to do it the way I thought superheroes would be in real life. I even tried to be different by not giving them costumes, but that was a mistake. I got a lot of mail after the first issue: “Love your book! It's wonderful! Best thing I ever read! Congratulations! But if you don't give them costumes, I'll never buy another issue.” So I don’t have to be hit over the head. We put costumes on them. Everything else worked. I never thought it would sell well. I figure I'm getting it out of my system and then I'm going to quit. Well, it was the best selling book we had in years. So we brought out The Avengers, Spider-Man, and The Hulk.

Meth: How is your relationship with Jack Kirby these days?

Lee: I don't think we’re as friendly now. He isn't as friendly toward me as I wish he were. I'm not really 100% sure that I know what the reason is. Maybe he feels he is not as well known or he feels that I've achieved a little more something than he has. I don't know. He has never told me. Jack is certainly one of the most talented if not the most talented guy that the comic book industry has ever produced. He is the most imaginative, most creative guy I have ever known in this business. His mind is an endless source of stories, concepts, and ideas. He was a fantastic artist with one of the most powerful, dramatic styles you could ever find. I've always said that. I've always felt that about him and I still do.

Meth: Who are your favorite Marvel characters?

Lee: Maybe Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer. I got more philosophy into the Silver Surfer than anything I ever wrote. He was always giving his opinions about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I liked him because he was so offbeat. I think those 17 issues of Silver Surfer that I wrote and that John Buscema drew are the best 17 comics that have ever been done. They’re classics.

Meth: You’ve been in Hollywood for a long time now. Ever get the urge to return to writing comic books?

Lee: I must be honest and admit that I miss comics. I miss the excitement. Mainly, I miss the people; I loved the people I worked with. I also miss the fact that in the comic book business, you can get an idea for a book, get together with an artist, do it, and three or four months later the book is on sale. In the movie business, you can spend years before a project reaches the screen, if it ever does. However, I'm not the least bit tired of Hollywood. I'll never retire. I love what I do. I love the movie and TV business, and I've never had more fun. The only thing that would make my professional life even better would be if Marvel Comics was in the same building and I was working on the comics and the movies and the television and the animation at the same time. That would be heaven.

(part II coming soon... subscribe to this blog and you won't miss it... the subscription is free)


Yisrael Frenkel said...

Wow, great interview! I'm in awe that you got to have a conversation with Stan Lee. I would have loved to see a question about his Yiddishkeit... Maybe next time...


He's a nice man. You'd like him. And any discussions that I have with people about Yiddishkeit stays between me and them.