Man in Motion

UPDATED: May 10, 2011
PUBLISHED: May 10, 2011

Strike up a conversation with the co-creator of some of the world’s most enduring superheroes and hang on for one pellmell ride. In two words, Stan Lee = energetic + focused. At 88, his repartee brims with the exuberance of a teenager. Rapidfire bursts of information come streaming out, punctuated by frequent jokes—mostly self-deprecating.

For his more than seven decades energizing gangbuster teams of artists, this grand collaborator gleefully shares credit with Steve Ditko as co-creator of Spider-Man and with Jack Kirby as co-creator of the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Iron Man and the Hulk. As a metric of Lee’s impact, the X-Men enjoy 90 percent name recognition among the 6- to 14-year-old demographic.

But all that was yesterday. What’s happening now?

Plenty. Despite early challenges of radically novel staging, Spider-Man coils his muscles for a grand leap onto Broadway in Turn Off the Dark with music composed by U2 bandmates Bono and The Edge. Even as Lee’s superheroes blaze new territory on the Internet, he and his inner circle hatch plans for television shows and video games. The presses keep churning out millions of traditional hard-copy comic books. And along with the already impressive catalog of movies based on Lee’s characters, a bevy of X-Men, Spider-Man and Iron Man adventures are now filming or in post-production. Captain America, for whom Lee was an early writer, will also make his big-screen debut, featuring a cameo by Lee. And most recently, Lee was on the development team for The Governator, an animated TV series featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a crime fighter.

Seriously: How can anyone manage such a blizzard of activity?

“I’m pretty organized. I go to sleep around midnight, then wake up about 5,” Lee says, pausing. “Doesn’t everybody get up that early? “I shave, shower, eat breakfast, read the LA Times—of course not neglecting the comics—and I’m ready for the office.” Lee’s morning repast includes an initial jolt of caffeine, but otherwise he is self-motivated, relying on the stimulants of bottomless fonts of ideas and delight in synergy.

Photon Man enjoys smart people: He inspires them, he depends on them, he revels in teamwork and he celebrates talent. He understands that it never hurts to spotlight a job well done; if people feel their contributions are valued, naturally they will do their best. Decades ago, Lee introduced credit panels naming everybody involved in crafting a comic—not just writer and penciller, but inker and letterer, too. ‘

More Power to ’Em’

This penchant for giving others credit parallels Lee’s personable manner as he draws on his own strengths, simultaneously encouraging others’ fortes. The man recognizes his limitations, too; should he lack the requisite expertise or enthusiasm for any facet of a project, somebody else can handle it.

Take the example of three-dimensional film projection—an obvious application to action films. On this subject, Lee’s voice goes abruptly flat. “3D? That means nothing to me,” he says in a spare-me-the-gimmicks tone. “Say we have a film under way and our producers decide it’s worthwhile to present in 3D, fine—those guys are the experts, so I won’t stand in the way— but otherwise, the production must be completely solid.”

Lee isn’t a detractor, even if something is not his particular cup of tea. Whether he’s saluting his contemporaries in the comic industry, praising Hollywood associates or welcoming rising stars, Lee peppers his conversation with the rally cry, “More power to ’em!” Driven by creative restlessness, he revels in the exclamation point. “Excelsior!”— his customary written benediction in commentary and correspondence— exhorts readers to aim high.

Lee staunchly opposes dumbing down to reach a mere common denominator. In fact, he bristles at the notion of condescending to an audience. “Why would we do that? It’s insulting. I start with the basic assumption that people are reasonably intelligent, and I approach them as friends.

“But I don’t take it for granted that we share a vocabulary based on common experience. Like back when I wrote instructional texts in the Army. If I introduced a new technical or official term, I would define it—just to make sure that we were at the same place,so that anybody who read it would understand.”

Lee acknowledges that like any competitive and potentially lucrative field, some people in comics guard anything they learn with vehement jealousy. But he maintains that, “There are no secrets—no tricks. Without good ideas, you’re nowhere.”

Staying Ahead of the Curve

In the recently published Stan Lee’s How to Draw Comics, he shares what he describes as “common knowledge. We’ve just tried to gather it all in one place.” The new book showcases the graphic creations of Lee and 44 other artists, and Lee credits David Campiti’s “dazzling” narrative skills for the coherence of this fresh volume. The book is intended as a toolkit to enable “a complete newbie to produce something they would not find embarrassing,” he says. “For somebody with talent and experience, it might help them do truly good work.”

Since publishing the book’s predecessor, 1978’s How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, Lee acknowledges the industry has been revolutionized by computers and the Internet. Does the efflorescence of new technology in comics represent an unmitigated advance? “Technology is inevitable” he says, “so we’d better look at it as a good thing and go with the flow—or better yet, stay ahead of the curve and master it.”

Lee grudgingly concedes that modern electronic wizardry might camouflage a lesser talent, temporarily at least. “If somebody makes a splash without a command of the fundamentals, that would be exceptional—a flash in the pan—but if they lack basic chops, they won’t last. Nobody can fake it.”

Take that to heart; by now, you are aware that Photon Man knows whereof he speaks. After all, how many people repeatedly reinvent themselves for more than 70 years? No wonder he is frequently tagged as an icon or a legend—but don’t try hanging such a moniker on this man. It might slow him down.

Born Stanley Lieber in 1922, Lee shared a single-bedroom Bronx apartment with his brother and parents before graduating from high school at 16, then landed work delivering sandwiches, ushering in a Broadway cinema, then writing obituaries and press releases. Next he began an apprenticeship at fledgling Timely Comics (precursor of Marvel Comics), paying dues making coffee, running errands and filling artists’ inkwells. Lee’s first hands-on work was proofreading and erasing pencil lines from completed pages.

Becoming Stan Lee

Aficionados hearken to those rollicking Tin Pan Alley days as comics’ golden age. Back then anything seemed possible for enterprising young men like Stanley Lieber, whose first published work was a text filler in May 1941 under the pseudonym of Stan Lee. In the seven months between that modest foothold and Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, wunderkind Lee advanced to composing dialog, moving up to help create such characters as the Destroyer, Jack Frost and Father Time.

Lee recognizes and seizes opportunities in a flash. Before turning 18, he earned promotion to Timely’s interim editor. Through decades and several iterations, Timely Comics morphed into the Marvel Comics universe. Except for his military service during World War II, Lee has remained at or near the epicenter of Marvel.

Just as photons shed mass if they quit moving, success and financial security aren’t always enough to satisfy an innovation junkie. During the 1950s Lee nearly quit the comics business altogether; instead, heeding an inner voice to press ahead, he actively sought challenges penning short romances, westerns and science fiction and suspense stories. Lee also acted on advice from his wife, Joan, adding elements of humanity to his alter egos. In an arena dominated by noble figures with all the personal depth of Ken and Barbie dolls, Lee inflected characters with real-world foibles.

Rival DC Comics characters like Superman upheld duty staunchly. They never lied. By contrast, Lee’s characters fibbed to dodge landlords when the rent was overdue. In fact, his characters had worries, like bills to pay, because instead of inheriting empires like Bruce Wayne, they worked at humble jobs. They took casual abuse from bosses and co-workers. Sometimes they were misunderstood, and it bothered them equally to receive undue blame in the media or for somebody else to receive undeserved credit for heroic exploits. They caught colds or the flu, their feelings could be hurt—and they surely didn’t always get the pretty girl.

Moreover, the loneliness caused by being different from those they loved (and the mandate to save the day no matter how tired or unhappy they felt) could ruin the thrill of wielding superpowers. Sometimes they just wanted to be average.

Tackling the Issues

Such everyman characteristics endeared Lee’s protagonists to his audience, contributing broadly to his creations’ longevity. But that was only the first influx of reality he added to the mix. In the turbulent 1960s, Lee began a monthly text column titled “Stan’s Soapbox,” unflinchingly confronting weighty sociopolitical issues head-on. No mainstream publisher had previously included such thought-provoking work in the comics, until then a vehicle of purely fluffy entertainment; in effect, everybody perusing the “Soapbox” got a helping of vegetables to supplement their cotton candy. Likewise, Lee intentionally enriched the diction of his characters’ thoughts and dialog, commenting of readers: “Would it be the worst thing in the world if they used a dictionary?”

So, now: After more than 70 years of leadership in his field, with everything he has learned, if he could send a message back to 1941, what straight and punchy advice might the present-day Lee offer to that 17-year-old kid beginning his apprenticeship schlepping fresh coffee and ink?

“Wow,” Lee replies quietly. “Good question.” Peering so far into the past, he sounds momentarily flummoxed (Uh-oh:  Have we brought Photo Man to rest?  Picture a singular pedia-toned comic fram barren of text, as our protagonist stares blankly with his tie loosened.  Steam rises from his coffee cup.  The page turns as Lee snaps to.)  

"I'd tell the kid, 'Don't get yourself trapped in comics.'  I stuck with this business because I knew it, it was safe, I had to make a living and it was a reliable means of doing so [but] I should have entered this world sooner," he says of his alter egos' successful ventures into feature films, television and video games.  

 “Another thing: Serious writing. I’m confident that I could have written for Atlantic Monthly or The New Yorker. But for so long, the comics earned people in our business zero respect. If an editor had asked for my published clips, saying ‘Here, I’ve done comics’ would have been no recommendation at all.”

Boredom Is the Enemy

Lee reportedly reserved his surname of Lieber for “serious writing.” And although he may lack public renown as an essayist, the man has certainly expanded the envelope under the loose rubric of “comics,” dramatically increasing the use of text. Absent Lee’s influence, we can only wonder how widely accepted the graphic novel (such as Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Maus) might be.

But no use ruing the past. Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, Photon Man gotta hurtle forward.

One result of that lifelong forward momentum: Lee has spurred fundamental changes to the rules of comic creation. In 1971 he expanded the genre’s purview well beyond escapist fantasy in response to suggestions from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare by weaving an anti-drug message into Spider-Man’s plot when Peter Parker’s best friend grappled with addiction to prescription pills. Lee decided to publish without the customary seal of the Comics Code Authority, which then forbade any mention of drugs, period. Rather than prompting a showdown, that boldly unorthodox step prompted revision of formerly staid CCA guidelines.

Today, despite all his achievements, Lee refuses to downshift. “The minute you sit back to think ‘I’ve done it all,’ you’re through. You might as well be dead,” he says.

Lee continually recharges his batteries—all those synapses merrily popping away at the heart of a creative laboratory with simultaneous projects at various stages of completion. Such inveterate multitasking “definitely helps to keep things interesting,” Lee confirms. “I love to be busy. Boredom is my enemy.”

Aha! Thus Photon Man names his arch-nemesis. (Dramatic flourish from the bass section of the orchestra, replete with tympani.)

How to vanquish the evil Boredom? Let’s wait and see. The whole world is watching—and Stan Lee, the force behind it all, is having himself a genuine blast.

Excelsior, indeed, Mr. Lee! Long live Photon Man!