In remembrance of Stan Lee, who passed away today at the age of 95, Super is reposting this 2002 interview with Lee during the run-up to the premiere of “Spider-Man” starring Tobey Maguire. Lee is one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century, and the most iconic of comic creators. This is the 79-year-old Lee, before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, talking about the character he is most identified with and what it means to be Stan Lee. Excelsior!
This article originally appeared on April 15, 2002.
WHILE it can be argued that a radioactive spider, gamma rays and genetic mutation created Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and the X-Men, respectively, the case can also be made that they were all created by the cosmic imagination of Stan Lee. Arguably no single person has had a greater impact on the comic book as an art form than Lee. With his penchant for realistic story lines and engaging characters, the prolific Lee molded Marvel Comics-known as the House of Ideas-into the comic book superpower as he had a hand in crafting practically the entire Marvel Universe. Among the other characters he helped summon from the ether: The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The Mighty Thor, the Silver Surfer and Doctor Doom, classic characters all.
Lee (born Stanley Lieber) joined Timely Comics in 1939, where he worked with another comic legend, Jack “King” Kirby. Lee rose to top writer at the young age of 20. Timely, now known as Marvel, fought a losing battle against DC’s Silver Age resurrection of Superman and company. In a stroke of genius, Lee thought up of fresh, new characters dealing with everyday problems like the rest of us, which would turn out to be a Lee staple. The 1961 arrival of “Fantastic Four” #1 ushered in Marvel’s rise to industry dominance. The upsurge saw its defining moment in 1963, when Lee and artist Steve Ditko introduced the teenaged Peter Parker in “Amazing Fantasy” #15. Spider-Man was born and the rest is web-slinging history.
During his tenure at Marvel’s helm, Lee played a part in the creative vocabulary of countless readers and made his signature sign-off (“Excelsior!”) part of the pop culture lexicon. Today, although Lee is no longer involved with Marvel’s day-to-day operations, every Marvel comic still bears the phrase “Stan Lee presents.”
Known to comic fans as “Stan the Man,” the 79-year-old Lee hasn’t rested on his laurels, either. He helped bring the various Marvel characters to TV, put up a short-lived Internet company Stan Lee Media, and has just put up a dynamic new company called POW! In a stunning turnaround, he even joined forces with rival DC Comics on a daring and popular “Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating” series that had Lee reinventing classic DC properties like Wonder Woman.
Marvel has also shown resilience, bouncing back from bankruptcy to attain its current cutting-edge status. And after years of seeing DC properties like Batman occupy the big screen, the success of the “Blade” and “X-Men” movies indicates a shift in power. Now, with the pending box-office invasion by director Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” starring Tobey Maguire (“The Cider House Rules”) and Kirsten Dunst (“Bring It On”), Stan Lee and Marvel are hotter than ever. “Spider-Man” opens in Metro Manila theaters on May 3. The INQUIRER and The Man engaged in an energetic e-mail exchange regarding the world of Peter Parker and company:
You have been instrumental in ushering in comics’ modern age with the rise of Marvel and your helping create characters like the Fantastic Four, The Uncanny X-Men, The Incredible Hulk and so on. It is Spider-Man, however, who has proven to be your most popular creation ever since his first appearance in “Amazing Fantasy.” Today, he sells millions of comic books. What do you think makes him so enduring, so compelling compared to your other creations?
Perhaps it’s because he’s the most “human” of all the superheroes. He has his own personal problems, he isn’t perfect, he doesn’t always win- and he has more thought balloons than any other character, so the reader gets to know his innermost thoughts
Beyond the comic pages, Spider-Man has been depicted many times on television either in live action or in animation. But he is only now being featured in a big Hollywood movie. How do you feel about the Sam Raimi film and the hoopla surrounding it?
Sam Raimi is an excellent director. I have high hopes for the movie. As for the hoopla surrounding it, I find that very exciting and flattering. If people didn’t care as much about Spidey, there wouldn’t be so much hoopla.
After years of virtually no big screen presence, “Blade” and “X-Men” were hits, while projects ranging from “Black Panther” to Ang Lee’s upcoming “The Incredible Hulk” are now in the celluloid pipeline. Do you think it’s Marvel’s time to be a movie powerhouse?
I think it is absolutely Marvel’s time to be a movie powerhouse. Marvel is like a locomotive racing downhill-nothing can stop it now!
How does it feel to be one of the most influential creators in comicdom and to have worked with all those great talents such as the late Jack Kirby?
It feels great! I’ve been very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with so many wonderful artists.
Speaking on a delicate issue regarding collaborators, it’s been reported that you had a falling out with Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko for many years. How is your relationship today?
As far as I’m concerned, my relationship with Steve is fine. I think he’s a terrific guy and a brilliant artist and storyteller.
You’ve created a wide variety of characters, many of them still world-famous today. What common element do you grant them, what makes them all Stan Lee creations?
I’d like to think it’s because I try to combine realism with the fantasy-and I try to get them all to talk like real people. I used to spend a great deal of time trying to give each character his or her own speech mannerisms.
You always ended your bullpen bulletins with “Excelsior” and loved using big but fun words in your messages. How did this come about and why are you Stan “The Man”?
I don’t know. I guess I just like playing with words. I like the sound of words, especially the combining of different words. I’m not sure how it started, but years ago newspapers and magazines started referring to me as “Stan the Man” and the name just sort of stuck.
When Marvel Comics rose to prominence, it was due to the reality that you brought to the world of fictional characters. Was this intentional on your part?
Absolutely. I always tried to play up that feeling of reality.
Marvel Comics has been through quite a wild ride. After declaring chapter 11 and bought by ToyBiz, it is now back to being a “House of Ideas” with its cutting-edge ideas. What do feel about Marvel’s new, daring direction under current editor in chief Joe Quesada?
Joe Quesada is doing a fantastic job. He’s brought new ideas and great new talent to Marvel. We’re lucky to have him.
You were identified with Marvel for so long, yet you recently shocked the comics world by writing the “Just Imagine” series for Marvel’s blood rival DC Comics. Why did you do it and how did that go?
I did the “Just Imagine” series for DC because it was such an interesting challenge that I couldn’t say no. But I’m still connected with Marvel. I never left Marvel. That series was just something I did for fun. It seems to be selling very well.
You were involved with the now-defunct Stan Lee Media and are now involved with POW! What are your goals with this new entertainment tie-up?
With POW! Entertainment I’m concentrating exclusively on movies, television and animation-nothing to do with the Internet. I’m working with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and enjoying it immensely.
You’re 79 and it seems you’re not slowing down at all. What do you like doing in your spare time to relax?
I don’t have any spare time! My work is really my relaxation. I love what I do.
Do you have any intentions of retiring someday, or is there still a specific goal you wish to achieve?
No, I have no specific goal except to create a lot of new movies and TV series. And I don’t expect to retire until the day I’m unable to work any more, which I hope won’t be for a very long time.
Ultimately, you will be identified with Spider-Man more than any other character. What character trait do you share with Peter Parker?
We both have a beautiful wife! (Not the same one, of course!)
Last question, Mr. Lee. Should we all swing over to the theater and catch “Spider-Man”?
You’ll be missing a helluva great time if you don’t!