Conducted ~6/2000 & ~4/2002
I’m a comic fan. Despite what I think of the emaciated, dying industry as it exists today, I’ll forever hold fond memories of my comic book reading childhood.
And if you’re a child of comic books and Saturday morning TV (like myself), then Stan Lee is instantly recognizable as the creator (with artists such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, & Don Heck) of Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the Avengers, Daredevil, X-Men, and many, many more.
If that list reads like a story out of a Hollywood trade magazine, it’s because all of those properties have gotten - or are about to get - the big screen treatment.
As with many of my interviews, I got a hankering to chat with one of my childhood idols, and went out and did it. When chatting with Stan, you’re instantly aware that his mutant power is sheer, unbridled enthusiasm. He has been, and remains, a dynamo of boosterism.
And a fun guy.
Also, despite his claims that he has a bad memory, many a gem will slip from that forgotten treasure trove if the circumstances are right.
What follows are two of the interviews I’ve done with Stan, the first of which was while he was having huge success with the internet media start-up Stan Lee Media - which would end the year under a dark legal cloud (through no fault of Lee’s) that would decimate the company.
The second interview followed about 2 years later, and was mainly me taking a promotional opportunity just to chat with him again.
And on a quick tangent, here’s a bit of fun I was able to arrange to celebrate Halloween last year, after joking about it with him in one of my interviews - Stan Lee reading Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven…
And now, without further ado, delightful discourse with the dandily dignified (and definitely dear) Stan Lee…
KEN PLUME: If you were to sum it up, what was your introduction into the comics industry?
LEE: Well, I applied for a job in a publishing company… I didn’t even know they published comics. I was fresh out of high school, and I wanted to get into the publishing business, if I could. There was an ad in the paper that said, “Assistant Wanted in a Publishing House.” When I found out that they wanted me to assist in comics, I figured, “Well, I’ll stay here for a little while and get some experience, and then I’ll get out into the real world.” In those days, it just didn’t seem like comics was the kind of field that anybody would want to make a career in. They were the absolute bottom of the cultural totem pole. Nobody had any respect for comic books in those days.
PLUME: So this is, what, the early 40’s?
LEE: It was either 1939 or ‘40 when I started… I can never figure out which year it was.
PLUME: You described it as a temporary job…
LEE: I thought it was at the time…
PLUME: So what exactly were your aspirations at the time?
LEE: I just wanted to know, “What do you do in a publishing company?” How do you write… How do you publish? I was an assistant. There were two people there named Joe Simon and Jack Kirby - Joe was sort-of the editor/artist/writer, and Jack was the artist/writer. Joe was the senior member. They were turning out most of the artwork. Then there was the publisher, Martin Goodman… And that was about the only staff that I was involved with. After a while, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left. I was about 17 years old, and Martin Goodman said to me, “Do you think you can hold down the job of editor until I can find a real person?” When you’re 17, what do you know? I said, “Sure! I can do it!” I think he forgot about me, because I stayed there ever since.
PLUME: And it was Timely Comics at the time, wasn’t it?
LEE: Yeah, it was Timely Comics.
PLUME: What did the position of editor entail at Timely?
LEE: I was responsible for all the stories, either writing them myself or buying them from other people. In comics - in those days, anyway, and always when I was there - being the editor meant being the art director too, because you can’t just edit the stories without making sure the artwork is done the right way so it enhances the stories… And the stories have to enhance the artwork. They have to go hand in hand. So I was really the editor, the art director, and the head writer.
PLUME: So you were a jack of all trades?
PLUME: The 40’s and 50’s have always struck me as a very nebulous time at Timely… What exactly were the events that led up to the boom of the early 60’s?
LEE: Well, what happened was that - until the early 60’s - I did everything the publisher wanted, and his way of publishing was to follow the trends. Whatever was selling at the moment - he would publish books in that genre. For instance, when it looked as though Westerns were hot… we added a lot of Western titles. When Romance stories were doing well… we published a lot of Romance books. Then we did a lot of War magazines. Then Horror. Then Crime. Then the Animated-type of characters… The Terrytoons-type of things. We did Teenage titles. We never were leaders in the field - we always followed the trends. In those days - until the early ’60’s - comic books were very cyclical. There were trends… One year, Romance books would be hot… One year it would be Horror stories…whatever… and we just went along. We were like a production house - we just kept producing whatever was hot at the moment.
All during that time, I kept wanting to quit, because I felt, “There’s no future in this.” I’d say to my wife, “I’m going to give it another few weeks and then I’m getting out of there.” Then I’d get a raise, or we’d add some new magazines, and I’d get a little bit interested in them and I’d figure, “Well, I’ll stay a little bit longer.” Somehow, the years just kept falling away and, before I knew it, I’d been there for 20 years.
It was now 1960. By now, I really wanted to leave, because one edict that my publisher had was that the stories had to be geared towards young readers - or unintelligent older readers. We weren’t supposed to use words of more than two syllables, and we had to have simple plots - no continuing stories, because he felt our readers weren’t smart enough to remember from month to month where they had left off. It was really boring.
In either ‘60 or ‘61 I said to my wife, Joanie, “This time, I’m really going to leave.” She said, “Well, if you’re determined to leave, why don’t you first do a book or two the way you wanted to, no matter what the publisher says? The worst that can happen is that he’ll fire you. You won’t care, because you want to leave, but at least you’ll get it out of your system.”
It happened that - at that time- my publisher had been playing golf with Jack Liebowitz, who was one of the bosses at DC comics - which in those days was called National Comics. Jack Liebowitz had told him that he had a magazine called The Justice League, which was selling very well, and it was a group of super-heroes. So Martin came to me and he said, “Hey Stan… Why don’t you do a group of super-heroes?” Again, this business of following the trend.
I figured, “All right, but this time I’m going to do it my way.” Instead of the typical heroes that have secret identities and nobody knows who they are, I did The Fantastic Four - where everybody knew who they were. And instead of the girlfriend who doesn’t know that the hero is so-and-so, I had the girl in the series actually be engaged to the hero, and she was a heroine - she was part of the team. Instead of the typical junior sidekick, I had a teenager who was also the brother of the heroine - and the hero would soon marry the heroine, so they would be brothers-in-law. The fourth member of the team was a monstrous-looking guy, called The Thing, which was not a typical super-hero type in those days. I also tried to give them fairly realistic dialogue, and I didn’t have them wear colorful costumes. I always felt that if I had super-power, I wouldn’t immediately run out to the store and buy a costume. Somehow or other, the book caught on. We had never gotten fan mail up until that point… Sometimes we might get a letter from a reader that would say, “I bought one of your books and there’s a staple missing. I want my dime back.” And that was it. We’d put that up on the bulletin board and say, “Look! A fan letter!” Suddenly, with The Fantastic Four, we really started getting mail… “We like this… We don’t like that…. We want to see more of this.” That was exciting! So I didn’t quit. Then we did The Hulk, and that did pretty well…. And then the rest is history.
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