INTERVIEW: Stan Lee Looks Back on Building Marvel's Legacy

Stan Lee

He may be the man behind some of the most famous superheroes of all time, but over the course of his incomparable, nearly eight-decade comic book career, Stan Lee has become a hero in his own right to countless fans. And while do-gooders like Spider-Man rarely get thanks for their amazing deeds, the 94-year-old superstar in getting his due on Aug. 22 in a lavish tribute from the Hollywood community that’s embraced his creations.

"Extraordinary: Stan Lee" celebrates the life and career of the Marvel Comics stalwart with a "This Is Your Life"-style tribute featuring Lee recounting favorite memories from his storied past. Hosted by comedian and professional fanboy Chris Hardwick (Talking Dead), the event at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills also features a star-studded assortment of celebrities who’ve either embodied or been awed by Lee’s creations: Marvel stars Michael Rooker, Pom Klementieff, Kelly Hu, Lou Ferrigno and David Hasselhoff will attend in person, while Mark Ruffalo, J.K. Simmons, Karen Gillan, Seth Green and Marvel filmmakers Jon Favreau and James Gunn provide video tributes. Additional celebrities on hand include Alan Tudyk, Tom Bergeron and comic book talents Marv Wolfman and Todd McFarlane, plus additional video tributes featuring Aisha Tyler and Kaley Cuoco.

Speaking with CBR, Lee recalled how he nearly walked away from comics in frustration in the early 1960s after launching his career at Timely Comics as a teenager, feeling constraint by the formula insisted upon by his publisher. “He didn't want too much dialogue; he didn't want me to worry about characterization or story -- all he wanted was a lot of action,” Lee said. “He said to me ‘All these readers care about is action. Do a lot of fight scenes -- that's what they like. Don't waste time with dialogue and philosophy and characterization. That doesn't mean anything to the reader. Just give me action!’ So I was not a happy camper in the beginning when I was writing these stories.”

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But before he walked away for good, Lee gave comics writing one more whirl, this time writing them the way he wanted to: riding a resurgent wave of superhero popularity at other publishers, the writer/editor -- in tandem with some of the greatest comic book illustrators in the medium’s history -- created a new generation of offbeat heroes with angst, anxiety, envies and occasional feet of clay -- not to mention a degree of snappy, occasionally laugh-out-loud dialogue peppered through the epic adventures taking place in an innovative shared universe where every story both mattered and had potential repercussions on characters and storylines across the line.

Thus was born Marvel Comics -- and suddenly, Lee was having a blast in comics again. “It became fun when I was able to do the kind of stories I wanted instead of the kind of stories my publisher wanted me to do,” he said. “From that point on, it was fun, it was exciting, and I loved every minute of it.”

Another critical element of Lee’s success was a refreshingly chummy, convivial editorial style and a peppy, tongue-in-cheek sense of hype that made every Marvel reader feel like an insider -- a canny bit of brand-building that helped make Lee, as the Thing might say, “the idol o’ millions.”

“To me, the best thing about what I was doing was the fact that I had that personal relationship with the readers,” Lee said. “I like writing a little thing called Stan's Soapbox, and I would put little editorials in at the beginning and the end of a story whenever I could.”

“To me, if the readers felt that they knew you, that they knew the person who was writing the stories and we could communicate, then it wasn't just like ‘I'm gonna buy a comic book, read the book and throw it away,” Lee added. “I tried to make it like ‘I'm gonna buy a comic book and be with an old friend, and see what he has to say and how I feel about it then.’ I tried to make it personal.”

It worked: Marvel soon dominated the comic book industry, both in sales and in trendsetting style, and characters like Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Thor and Iron Man soon began to permeate the pop culture, in everything from toys and cartoons to t-shirts and video games.

Stan The Man Lee As Spider-Man Swinging Through New York City

“It was a wonderful feeling to watch the popularity of the characters grow and grow as these animated cartoons came out and these video games came out and all the adjacent things came out -- it was nice to have been a part of it all,” Lee recalled, who continued co-mingling his personal branding with Marvel’s, voicing read-along records and animated series. “It felt wonderful, and especially because I was even a part of it -- in a lot of the video games I'm in the game somewhere, my voice or my picture, so I always felt as though I'm a part of what's happening with all these characters, and that's a very exciting feeling.”

In the '70s, Lee -- who’d risen to the role of publisher -- put his day-to-day comics work aside and headed to Hollywood to spearhead an effort to bring his many characters to the screen: his early efforts were rewarded with live-action TV series like The Incredible Hulk and a steady string of animated series.

“I came out here to help set up the animation projects of ours, and it wasn't easy in the beginning,” he concedes. “But little by little we managed to get our characters into cartoons, and we managed to get the cartoons on television where the public could see them, and we managed to get more and more people to learn about our characters and to meet our characters.”

By the 2000s, Lee’s work in Hollywood finally began to pay off on the big screen, as films based on Marvel characters like Spider-Man, Blade, Fantastic Four and the X-Men began to lure masses of moviegoers into the theaters -- whether they’d grown up with the characters or not. And finally, Marvel eventually became a production entity in itself, with Marvel Studios responsible for creating a string of blockbusters – from icons like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor to multi-headliner groups like The Avengers to lesser known former B-listers like The Guardians of the Galaxy -- and popularizing the concept of an expansive shared narrative, already familiar to comic book fans, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“The one important thing to remember is it isn't just me,” Lee said, of the ever-increasing scope and scale of the popularity of the Marvel characters. “I came up with a lot of the original ideas and I wrote a lot of the original stories. But if we didn't have the great artists that we have, and if we didn't have the great writers who took over later on, and the great editors, I don't think we would be where we are.”

“We have been so lucky in having the most talented people come and join Marvel and want to be a part of Marvel, and I think that's one of the reasons for Marvel's success,” he added. “We have the best staff and editors and writers and production men and all of that that anybody could have, and I'm just so proud to be a part of that.”

As for the big celebrity packed occasion, Lee, who was also recently awarded with his hands and footprints at the TCL Chinese Theater, is taking it in stride. “It means another time that I've got to dress up and comb my hair, make sure I look okay and be polite to everybody,” he said with a laugh. “It isn't easy being a worldwide idol! it's very difficult!”

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