Stan Lee doesn’t sling webs or scale walls. Still, the man who helped to create Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and other iconic Marvel Comics superheroes has become a hero in his own right.
At 90, the legendary writer, editor, publisher and producer remains a creative powerhouse, launching his superhero characters onto television and the Internet and in a new line of children’s books for POW! Entertainment, the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based media company he co-founded in 2001.
“As long as I’m busy, I’m happy,” says Lee, former president and chairman of Marvel Comics, reflecting on his storied career during a recent interview with “American Profile.”
Born Stanley Lieber in 1922 in New York City, Lee was 17 when he began working as an assistant at Timely Comics, the forerunner of Marvel Comics. Two years later, he was promoted to editor, and ultimately became publisher in 1972.
“I always thought one day I would try to write the great American novel,” says Lee, who saved his given name for such intended literary works. “But I never had the time and I just lost interest because I realized I was reaching more people with my superhero stories.”
Indeed, Lee has exerted more influence over the comic book industry than anyone in history, creating or co-creating hundreds of characters. He received a National Medal of Arts in 2008 for being “one of America’s most prolific storytellers.”
Like his famous Spider-Man line that “with great power comes great responsibility,” Lee takes his celebrity influence seriously, personally answering fan mail and signing autographs.
“I think that superheroes do inspire many young people,” he says. “I’ve met middle-aged men who tell me Spider-Man was a great influence on their life and that Spider-Man helped them get through some very tough times while reading the books.”
Lee believes fans love superheroes because of the appealing idea of possessing supernatural powers, but also because they can relate to the characters’ personal lives. Lee injected his own teenage angst into Spider-Man’s Peter Parker and his love for the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” movie into the Incredible Hulk.
“A little bit of me is in all of them,” Lee says, adding that “maybe Spider-Man” is the closest to his personality.
His hometown of New York City set the stage for all of his stories. “I wanted to write about something I knew, ” he explains. “I tried to make my characters as if they were real people.”
In 1961, Lee helped to revolutionize the comic book industry by introducing the Fantastic Four, the first superheroes who struggled with realistic personal challenges to which readers could truly relate. Lee recalls a pivotal conversation with his wife, Joan, about the pioneering project.
“She said to me,” ‘What do you care? You want to quit anyway, so the worst that can happen is [your boss will] fire you. But get it out of your system and do a book the way you’d like to do it.’”
His wife’s advice inspired Lee to change the direction of comics. With artist Jack Kirby, he co-created the Fantastic Four characters to wrestle with relationships, greed, vanity, temper and other human struggles. Audiences responded enthusiastically as fan letters arrived at Marvel Comics written in crayon, then in pen, and later on a typewriter.
“We were getting an older readership, which made me happy,” Lee recalls.
Sales at Marvel Comics soared, and Lee developed into a larger-than-life personality in the entertainment industry. Lee and artist Steve Ditko followed up in 1962 with Spider-Man, Marvel’s most successful character.
Between cameo appearances on blockbuster Marvel superhero films such as “The Avengers” in 2012 and voice-overs for superhero cartoons, the man behind the mask of superheroes has become the subject of increased fan interest.
“It’s cool,” Lee acknowledges about his epic career. “I marvel at it myself.”