There are a lot of grown men and women around who spend their time doing things professionally that might seem silly and childish to serious people. After all, adults perform in kids' shows like Captain Kangaroo, they play little boys' games like football and baseball, they run for Congress, and so on. Being an adult doesn't necessarily mean giving up childish things, the apostle Paul not-withstanding. As a fan of comic books in my grade school years, I suppose I always knew that comics didn't just generate themselves spontaneously, but the notion that grown men and women could spend their lives doing nothing but making up ridiculous stories about heroes who can fly and jump over buildings and stop speeding trains...well, it never crossed my mind. What on earth would a grown man be doing writing comic books for a living?
Stan Lee admits that he has wondered the same thing for years. He hasn't come up with a satisfactory answer, even though he has been writing comic books for over three decades now. That's a lot of tall buildings and speeding trains. He used to write a complete comic book a day. "In fact," he says proudly, "somebody figured out for me once, that I have written more stories that have been published than anyone who has ever lived, since Adam and Eve." He sighs. "That's why I'm tired."
All that work has made Lee one of the real powers in the comic book trade. He no longer writes, although he still trains the writers who work for him at Marvel Comics. As publisher, Lee oversees an operation that controls forty per cent of the American comic book market, selling some six million comics a month. He takes his work seriously.
At the same time, Lee comes across as the sort of person who is almost never serious in casual company. He jokes continually, talks mostly tongue-in-cheek, and generally tries to reinforce the idea that what he does is somewhat ridiculous. He recalls how he got into the business: "Well, I wanted to be an actor, so it was the most natural thing in the world that I ended up being a writer. Years ago, there was this thing called the WPA Federal Theater--Orson Welles belonged to it, I belonged to it. I like to think that somewhere Orson Welles is being interviewed and he's saying, 'Yeah, Stan belonged to it.' You couldn't make any money in those days at it, and I had a family to support, so I got all kinds of little writing jobs. I worked for a newspaper syndicate service that wrote obituaries of people who were still alive, so that when they died, the obituary was all ready. I got tired of writing about people who were still alive in the past tense. I got very depressing. Then I did publicity for a cancer hospital, and I never could understand what the purpose was, whether I was supposed to be convincing people to come to their hospital or to get cancer, or what. Finally this job came along, with what was then Timely Comics. And it seemed like an easy way to make a living, writing comics. So I took the job, and the guy who had been editor left shortly thereafter, and there was no one else around, so they made me the editor."
To the uninitiated, it might appear that all comics are basically alike. Lee, perhaps not surprisingly, doesn't see it that way. Asked the difference between Marvel Comics and other brands, he responds confidently, "the difference between a Rolls-Royce and a skateboard. Marvel has a more adult vocabulary. Marvel has a sense of humor--everything is done in a lighthearted way. We have a lot of satire in our books. Our stuff is much more realistic. If we take a character like Spiderman, we say, 'What would it be like if there were a guy like Spiderman? How would he get along in the real world?' I don't think anybody ever thought that way at some of our competitor outfits. If there really were a guy with a big S on his chest, he wouldn't go into a phone booth to change."
According to Lee, when he arrived at what is now Marvel Comics, their comics weren't much different from those of their competitors. The idea to try what he describes as a different approach was, he says, "mine, all mine." The reason for the change was "sheer boredom. I figured, all right, I'm going to try and write the kind of stories I might enjoy if I read comic books. I figured, what would I like? I wouldn't want these card-board figures who are just one-dimensional--a character who's all good, and the villains are all bad. And at the end of the story, the villain loses and the hero wins." He continues, with mock earnesty, "I figured there must be more to life than that. So we came up with heroes who worried about dandruff, allergy attacks, bad colds, fallen arches, acne, bad breath. And we came up with some villains who we tried to make lovable. We tried to get a little satire into the stories, a little philosophy." He leans back in his chair, his expression grave. "We tried to make the world a better place."
Lee uses his character Spiderman, one of his most popular heroes, as an illustration of his approach. "He's got super powers, and he fights crooks; he's just like anybody else. So we gave him an aunt who's always dying of a heart attack; he has all these personal problems; he's sort of a nebbish."
In his collection of the original issues of Marvel Comics, Son of Origins, Lee describes Spiderman's creation: "we recklessly flew in the face of all established tradition and dared to create a hero out of a shy studious, insecure, mollycoddled momma's boy." As Lee puts it, "He's the Woody Allen of the superheroes."
Besides using more complex characters than other comics ("I'm a very complex man," he says), Lee insists on employing a more advanced vocabulary than his competitors. He claims that the vocabulary his writers use is "college-level, possibly much higher that that. If I want to use a word like cataclysmic, or neophyte, or proselytize, or monolithic, or anything that's germane, I go ahead and use it. And I figure the kids will either learn what it means by osmosis, or by the use in the sentence, or if they have to go to a dictionary and look it up, that's not the worst thing in the world." The result, he says, is that he has a lot of adult readers, as well as kids.
When I ask Lee if he has as many teenage readers as younger ones, he draws himself up in his chair with the air of a man about to reveal the answer to a profound moral question (expecting his reply to provoke dismay). "As Marc Antony said as he stood over Caesar's corpse, 'If you have tears to shed, prepare to shed them.' We have"--he pauses dramatically--"as many readers from age 16 to 25 as we have from age 6 to 15. As a matter of fact, you're almost too young for me to be talking to you." As for the kind of adults who read his comics, Lee says with apparent seriousness, "I do a lot of lecturing at college campuses, and my own personal survey has shown me that not only do a lot of college kids read them, but the most intelligent ones read them--those in the higher strata of college society. Of course, it would be the bright ones who are interested in fantasy and imagery and legends and stuff like that." Here he reverts to form: "I'm being very profound today." He has a succinct description of the kind of people his comics appeal to: "Those who are pure of heart, noble of soul, and look off to the far horizon and wonder what lies beyond."
But the fact is that Stan Lee does regard his work as a serious endeavor. He contends that his comics are very educational, and obviously has no worries about their potential for stunting the intellectual growth of young minds. Behind this view is a genuine belief in the validity of comic books as an art form. He regards Marvel Comics as the highest expression of the genre. "Our stories are very well-written for comics," he contends. "They're much better written than people would expect, which is why they like them when they see them. They're beautifully illustrated. It shouldn't be necessary to ask 'why do people read them?' any more than it's necessary to ask Kurt Vonnegut, 'why do people read your stories?' or to say to Truffaut, 'why do people see your movies?' Because comics are an art form. If Shakespeare and Michelangelo were alive today and they said, 'Hey let's collaborate on a comic strip' and Shakespeare wrote it and Michelangelo drew it, would you say to anybody, 'Hey, how come you're reading this?" The measures of comics' worth is just how well they're done, just as the measure of the worth of any book or movie or television show or ballet or painting is how well it's done. We try to get them done by the best possible artists and the best possible writers."
The success of Marvel Comics has certainly exceeded even Lee's expectations, and in fact they have branched out into other media. Some of his original comic book characters have appeared on their own Saturday morning cartoon shows for several years, although he has nothing to do with their production. He notes that Steve Krantz, of Fritz the Cat and Cooley High fame, is producing a feature film on Spiderman--not animated, but live action. Another director plans to put out a movie based on Lee's character the Hulk. And according to Lee, Paramount Television is planning a television series based on the Fantastic Four, another group of superheroes created by Lee.
Lee himself has a lot of plans. He plans to write a novel, and says he has been approached by publishers about it. He says his is now working on a movie with a French director, but he doesn't say what it's about or who the director is. He would like to have a television talk show, and a Marvel Comics television show, "like Walt Disney Presents." He is full of enthusiasm for all these ideas. "There's a million things I want to do."
But for now his major concern is his original brainchild, Marvel comic books. He regards his comics as the best in the world, and he won't let his other interests interfere with perpetuating them. He smiles shyly as he contemplates the burden of his responsibility to his artistic medium: "It's a mission. It's a calling. I figure there's Billy Graham, Mahatma Gandhi, and me."