The father of our favorite superheroes talks about his legendary ride in the world of comics. Excelsior!
Let’s put this out there right away: Stan Lee has a superpower. He cannot fly nor see through walls. He is incapable of catching bullets in his teeth or spinning webs, and he will also not live forever. Probably. (Though at 94, he’s more prolific than he was at 21, and makes Generation X look like Generation Zzzzzzzz). Lee’s superpower is decidedly subtler than those belonging to the expansive pantheon of gods, goddesses, mutants, monsters, superheroes, and uber-villains – from Iron Man to The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man to Thor, X-Men to Fantastic Four, Green Goblin to Speedball Revenge Squad – he co-created during a storied, revolutionary tenure at Marvel Comics.
To actually hear his superpower, though, you need to understand that Lee also doesn’t speak like you and me. Damn near a centenarian, Lee nevertheless brandishes a powerful baritone, affable and theatrical. It’s a voice borrowed from a Roman orator, a Renaissance thespian, or a carnival barker – someone who absolutely must reach the cheap seats with his words of wisdom. (It’s no secret that Lee is something of a ham; his cameo appearances in the Marvel-based feature films are small treasures of a Hitchcockian-Where’s Waldo kind). On further reflection, it becomes apparent – as he greets you, “Is this really you? I want to make sure it’s not an imposter!” – that he speaks in the burst balloons and bold-faced and teasing ellipses of comic book dialogue itself, each phrase dripping with import and destiny. But here’s the thing with Lee: it’s not some glib or showy affectation; it’s a worldview.
Lee’s earned the right to tell his story however he wants. Born into poverty in New York City almost a century ago, Lee scrapped his way through a series of odd jobs – delivery boy, obituary writer, newspaper salesman – during the Great Depression, then worked his way into the comic book business. His first industry gig? Filling inkwells for established artists. By 19, the ambitious and charismatic Lee was named the unlikely interim editor at Timely Comics, wrote on the Captain America title – a popular smash during World War II – and began dreaming up a roll call of comic book characters diverse in their powers, dramas, traumas, ethnicity, and need for a really good shrink. Indeed, the Marvel Universe is a veritable outpatient facility for the psychologically fragile – from the Hulk’s anger issues to Spider-Man’s adolescent anxieties – and the oppressed – the perennially harangued and exiled X-Men to the gruff and misunderstood Thing. This depth and breadth of characterization set Lee’s Marvel Comics apart from the work of rival companies during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s, where the sturm und drang of Lee’s heroes reflected the nation’s own strife.
My parents, my mother especially, encouraged me to read when I was very young. Those books that I read when I was little transported me to so many different places and started me really thinking about things. The stories just opened up a world for me. If not for those books, I was living a very tight, little, narrow existence in an apartment in the Bronx, New York, going to school two blocks away, playing with my friends in the neighborhood. That was it, my entire life, until I became an older teenager and got out of my house. My parents were pretty poor. This was the Great Depression. My father was, really, unemployed for most of the time that I remember. He was just unable to get work. We just kind of lived from hand to mouth. I think I might have been happier as a child if I didn’t always hear, “But how will we pay the rent this month?” That was the one fear they had constantly, my parents, month after month. But even though we didn’t have very much, they were good parents. They bestowed a lot of love on me, and later on my kid brother. And what they couldn’t give us one way, they gave to us in books and stories.
In the last many decades, you’ve become a brand unto yourself, a larger than life public personality. Before the world came to know you and your creations, what kind of a kid were you?
You mean, what’s my secret identity? (Laughs) I did reasonably well in school. I wasn’t a great student because I had trouble concentrating on what the teachers were saying most of the time. I would be thinking my own thoughts. I had trouble paying attention. I just always had something to think about. But I managed to get by with good enough grades. I wasn’t able to go to college. I worked while I was still in high school.
What were you reading in your teenaged years? Did any of that reading inspire the stories you would come to tell?
Oh, I read everything. Everything I could put my hands on. But there is a poem that really stands out for me, one that I feel really changed my life: “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.” I love the beauty of the words, especially in the Edward Fitzgerald translation, and I love the philosophy behind the poem. “There was a door to which I found no key/ There was a veil past which I could not see/ Some little talk a while of me and thee/ There seemed – and then no more of thee and me.” The idea that life is so short. It’s a magnificent poem, I think. I’m sure that’s inspired me in a lot of ways, not only as a writer.
Living through The Great Depression and World War II couldn’t have been easy. What were those days like for you?
When I think back on my life and on those years, it wasn’t really that difficult. When World War II started, I enlisted in the Army and I was sent to the Signal Corps. They taught me to splice wires. My job was supposed to be to go overseas and get ahead of the infantry and make sure the telephone communications were okay. I was going to climb telegraph polls in war zones. It would have been kind of dangerous, but in a crazy way I was almost looking forward to it. It sounded so adventurous. It might have got me killed. But before I shipped out, someone found out I had written some comic books and they transferred me to a branch of the service where I wrote training films and illustrated training manuals. When I got out of the service, I went to work in comics and I’ve been there ever since.
Some of your earliest professional writing was penning obituaries at a daily newspaper. What was that like?
Well, you’re writing about people who have died – and often times, you’re writing about them when they haven’t actually even died yet. Editors like to have that stuff banked so they can publish right away. I was just making ends meet, writing newspaper obituaries for famous people on their way out. When they’d go, my obit would be ready for print. That’s how you know you’re famous; your obit’s been written before you’re dead. It depressed the hell out of me, but I got paid to write. Incidentally, I hope my obituary’s lying around somewhere, ready to go!
A lot of your most famous characters are misfits, outsiders, young men and women who don’t fit in anywhere – until they connect with one another. Does that describe your younger years at all?
Not really! (Laughs) Well, it may have, but it never really felt like that to me. The one thing I always had was a lot of confidence. Even when I was first starting out as a writer, I would never write something and say, “Gee, I hope this is okay.” I would usually say, “Gee, I hope people are smart enough to realize how great this is!” (Laughs) I don’t know where that confidence comes from. Please say that I laughed when I said that so I don’t sound like the most conceited person on the planet.
After the war, you went to work full time in comic books. What was that like?
So many of us work jobs we hate and can’t wait until we’re old enough to retire. I will never retire – because my work is like playing. Other men watch the calendar or the clock for their golf game or whatever they do to try and enjoy life, but I truly enjoy going to the office. That’s why I’m busier in my 90s than I was in my 20s. It’s really been the greatest gift.
And your timing was perfect. You worked with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, some of the greatest comics illustrators of all time. Tell me about that.
I’ve been very lucky – very lucky – to have worked with some great, great artists. They made these strips look so good that even if the writing wasn’t that great, which it maybe sometimes wasn’t, the books would interest a reader because the artwork was so spectacular. I can’t say enough about their contributions.
In your opinion, what makes a great story?
When I write something, if I’m enjoying the story, I’m happy with it. I’m not so unique, I don’t think. If I like it, other people probably will too. You can’t tell a great story if you’re writing for them; you don’t know them. You can only know yourself, so be true to that. Please yourself. Apparently, there are enough people on this planet as plain as me. I’m not so extraordinary after all. Or maybe we all are.
Through the years, comics have been variously ghettoized, crowned as “the new literature,” and perhaps over-exploited by filmmakers. Did that ever bother you? Did you ever consider writing something more consistently, uh, respectable?
(Laughs) Well, when I was a kid, I thought, “Boy, I’m going to write the book that’s going to change the world.” That’s why I changed my name (from Stanley Martin Lieber). I didn’t want to “ruin” my real name on these dumb comic books. I was saving it for the Great American Novel. (Laughs) Maybe, in my way, I’ve changed the world here and there – for some people at least.
The characters you’ve created – literally, dozens of them – are known universally, many of them beloved. Do you have a favorite?
I’ve always had a very special place in my heart for The Hulk. The big green guy is one of my favorites. I always loved the Boris Karloff movie of Frankenstein, but I would get in a lot of fights with other kids – because I felt the monster was the good guy. The bad guys were the idiots with torches, the mob, chasing him up and down the cliffs and hills. Not too many kids saw eye to eye with me on that, but I always felt like there was something inherently tragic – maybe even loveable – about him. When I was a little older, I read the book and then saw the Frederic March film of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and that was just mind-blowing for me. Before that story, horror stories or monster stories were mostly just a monster running around, page after page, which can be kind of dull, so why not have a man who turns into a monster and he can’t control it. So I kind of took those two stories and made them my own thing. The Hulk is the myth and old stories I loved and things that interest me and, I don’t know, maybe there’s something in there that makes sense about the way people really behave too. I think that’s why these stories are having such an incredible moment in our culture today: we need our myths and comic book stories are, really, our modern myths.
The glare of the spotlight has been pretty bright in the life of Stan Lee. Is that why you wear your trademark shades?
(Laughs) I don’t know what it is. I’ve always worn sunglasses. They’re like my mask, I guess. (Laughs) It was probably just some silly affectation. When I was very young and just starting off as a writer, I always lit a pipe and held it in my teeth as I wrote. I hated smoking a pipe, but I felt it made me look older and like a writer. I was 18. Sunglasses are better for your health.
What about the origins of “Excelsior!”, your legendary salutation in letters and comic books – and even the name of your memoir? Where did that come from?
I used to write this column, “Stan’s Soapbox,” in the old Marvel books, and I’d always sign off with some catchphrase: “Hang loose” or “Whatever you do, make mine Marvel” or “Face front” or “True believer,” whatever the heck I wanted. Occasionally, I’d see these phrases pop up in competing magazines, and I said, “I’ve gotta come up with something they can’t copy because they won’t know how to spell it and they won’t know what it means.” Somehow I heard the word “excelsior,” which is on the great seal of the state of New York. I thought, “Yeah, that sounds like King Arthur and the knights of the round table. That’s great!” You find the right stuff in strange places sometimes, and then you make them your own. So “excelsior!”
From the Bio Archives: This article was originally published on June 2, 2015.