My comic book tastes ran to Classics Illustrated. Seriously, what's scarier than the graphic images of "Crime and Punishment" and Raskolnikov -- the existential "superman," not the caped one -- whacking the pawnbroker with an ax? Can I, then, hold my own with Spider-Man's spiritual father, Stan Lee, a genius of comics for 70 years? The progenitor of scores of graphic heroes and villains, "starred" on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this year, he's huge at the summer box office, with "Thor," then "X-Men: First Class" and, due out in July, "Captain America: The First Avenger." Twentysomethings may be kings of entertainment, but Lee is the emperor. He's chairman emeritus of Marvel, the venerable comics company that's grown multimedia and merchandising wings; he works with Disney through his POW (Purveyors of Wonder) Entertainment company. He's crafting a Chinese feature-film superhero, and he searches for real people with superhero powers on the History Channel. Biff! Bam! Boom! "I don't want anyone to think I'm retired," Lee says.
The ads in old comics used to offer advice on how to go from being a 98-pound weakling to a powerhouse. How did you do the same for Marvel?
We were lucky. We came up with the right type of stories; I worked with artists who made my stories probably look better than they deserved to look. It was a combination of characters the readers liked and wanted to see more of and artwork [that] was so exciting. When the movies started, we had directors like Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi, all the way to "Thor" [and] Kenneth Branagh.
Like Alfred Hitchcock, you appear in cameos in your films, but not "X-Men: First Class."
They shot it too far away! It could be considered a scheme on the part of the producers, [that] people will come out of the theater and say, "Wait a minute: I missed Stan's cameo. I better buy another ticket and go back in because I don't want to miss it." They're going to sell twice as many tickets! It was very clever of them.
Did you miss your calling as an actor?
No, as a cameo star. Anybody can be an actor, but it takes a certain talent to do cameos. Say, if you write this down as if I'm saying these things seriously, I'll shoot you!
Did you read good stories when you were little?
I read a lot, like most kids. I read "Tarzan" and "Sherlock Holmes" and all the Greek and Roman gods and the stories in the Bible; anything that was bigger than life. I went to movies like "King Kong" and "Frankenstein," so my mind was always all full of fantasy.
Comics have gone from being despised and derided to an art form. How did that happen?
I'd like to think Marvel had a lot to do with that. When I started, I worked for a publisher [who] used to say: "Don't use words of more than two syllables. Don't worry about characterization or dialogue. Just give me pages with a lot of action."
And I did that for years, and then I got really sick of it.
So I started using a college-level vocabulary. I felt the reader would look it up in a dictionary, which wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, or get it by osmosis. The publisher really hated that, but it didn't hurt the sales of the books. I also started playing up the characterization so you differentiated between one and the other.
We used to get fan mail written in crayon. Then the next thing I knew, they were written in pencil. Then they were written in ink!
And movies and television series and video games are based on the comics; it has given the comics a great respectability that it never had.
I used to go to parties and somebody would say to me, "What do you do?" I'd say I'm a writer and I'd walk away. But he'd follow me and say, "What do you write?" I'd have to say "Spider-Man," and he'd walk away. Now I'll be at a party and somebody across the room will say, "Excuse me, President Obama, I see Stan Lee over there." I'm exaggerating, of course! But it changed totally.
Now people brag, "I do comic books."
It's a great art form. People used to say, "If you read a novel, you can use your imagination; when you read the comic, you're not using your imagination." But the answer I give to that is: "Why would anybody go to see a Shakespeare play? Just read it." It's a ridiculous argument. I was with Steven Spielberg years ago -- I don't want to sound as though we're drinking buddies, I just happened to be with him that one time. He said: "You do pretty much what I do, except my pictures move."
One of your hallmarks is the flawed hero, not the unassailably virtuous hero.
It's not always just the villain fighting the hero. In the old "Iron Man" stories, he had all these personal problems. With Spider-Man, Peter Parker had all these personal problems: He had to go save the world at one end of town but his aunt needed her medication at the other end of town.