Comic Book Writer Stan Lee
Comic book writer Stan Lee. He was the leading creative force behind the rise of Marvel Comics and is responsible for many of the best-known comic book heroes. Forty years ago, he co-created the character Spider-Man. He also helped create The X-Men, The Fantastic Four and The Incredible Hulk. He is now Chairman Emeritus of Marvel Enterprises, and is executive producer of the new movie, Spider-Man. It stars Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe and Kirsten Dunst. His new book is called Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee.
Other segments from the episode on June 4, 2002
DATE June 4, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Stan Lee talks about his career and the creation of
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.
(Soundbite from "Spider-Man")
Unidentified Man: With great power comes great responsibility.
Mr. TOBEY MAGUIRE (As Peter Parker): This is my gift.
Unidentified Woman: Wow.
Mr. MAGUIRE: It is my curse.
Unidentified Woman: Who are you?
Mr. MAGUIRE: Who am I? I'm Spider-Man.
BOGAEV: And that's from the new feature film "Spider-Man," starring Tobey
Maguire, directed by Sam Raimi and based on the Marvel comic book character
co-created by my guest, Stan Lee. Starting in the 1940s, Stan Lee served as
head writer, editorial and art director, publisher and chairman of Marvel
Comics. He's now chairman emeritus of the company. Lee's superheroes were
distinguished by their psychological complexity. They were burdened with
self-doubt and existential angst. They include The Fantastic Four, X-Men, Dr.
Strange the Mystic Magician(ph) and The Incredible Hulk. Now in his 80s, Lee
continues a full schedule of work projects, including films and TV series of
his characters. He's the executive producer of the new "Spider-Man" film, and
of an Incredible Hulk film, directed by Ang Lee, which is due out next summer.
And Lee has just written a new memoir called "Excelsior: The Amazing Life of
Stan Lee." I asked Stan Lee about the origins of the Spider-Man character
Peter Parker, whether he first came up with the idea for a superhero who could
climb walls or one that was a geeky teen.
Mr. STAN LEE: Well, I think the geek part came first. I decided I wanted
somebody who every one of the readers could identify with because I think
every teen-ager thinks of himself or herself as somewhat geekish at some time
or other. Most teen-agers are somewhat insecure and shy and inhibited and
introverted. So I figured a hero like that would be very empathetic to the
BOGAEV: So in that way, was he kind of a reaction to superheroes like
Superman, who was so stiff and proper?
Mr. LEE: I guess you might say so. Up until Spider-Man and some of the other
characters that we did at Marvel, I always felt most superheroes were
really--they were two-dimensional or almost one-dimensional. I mean, they
were just good guys who went out to fight the bad guys. And you didn't really
know much more than that about them. They had virtually no private lives. It
was just a case of, `Oh, somebody's committing a crime. I'd better become
whoever my alter ego is and go get them.'
BOGAEV: So how did the spider element come in?
Mr. LEE: Well, with every new superhero, you have to have a new superpower
because, as I'm sure you're aware, the superpower is what makes them
superheroes rather than regular heroes. And we, of course, specialized in
superheroes. I had already done a book called The Fantastic Four, and in that
book I had a girl who was invisible, a man who could stretch any part of his
body, a fellow who could burst into flame and fly, and somebody who was one of
the strongest people on Earth at the time. And I was figuring, or I was
trying to figure, `What other power can I give somebody?' And I saw a fly
crawling on a wall. Now I've said this so often it might even be true. I
can't even remember anymore, but I saw this fly crawling on a wall and I said,
`Gee, wouldn't it be something if a hero could stick to walls and move on them
like an insect?' And that's how it happened. And lo, a legend was born.
BOGAEV: But why wasn't he Insect-Man or ...(unintelligible)?
Mr. LEE: As a matter of fact, he almost was because, having decided that was
the superpower I wanted to give him, I next had to come up with a name. So I
began to think--Insect-Man, Mosquito-Man, Gnat-Man. I mean, anything I could
think of. None of them sounded right. I finally got to Spider-Man, and
somehow it sounded dramatic, it sounded mysterious. So that was the name I
BOGAEV: So you presented the Spider-Man idea to the publisher of then--Marvel
wasn't Marvel yet. It was Timely Comics.
Mr. LEE: That's right. In those days, it was called Timely. And I told them
I wanted to call the hero Spider-Man, and, oh, man, he was dead set against
that. He said, `Stan, people hate spiders. You can't--nobody's going to buy
a book called Spider-Man.' And then when I told him I wanted the hero to be a
teen-ager, he looked at me as if I was from another planet. He said, `Stan,
teen-agers can only be sidekicks. A hero can't be a teen-ager.' And finally,
when I told him that I wanted our teen-ager to have a lot of problems that the
average reader could empathize with, problems like he didn't make out so well
on dates, the girls didn't particularly like him, he wasn't even that popular
with the boys, he had to worry about earning a living, he didn't have enough
money, he had family troubles, that's when my publisher said, `Stan, don't you
know what a hero is? Those things don't happen to heroes.' So I really--I
was striking out on all counts.
BOGAEV: Now why do superheroes all wear these spandex costumes? The question
of the ages.
Mr. LEE: That is a very interesting question. Let me take you back in time a
bit. Remember I mentioned before Spider-Man, I had done a book called The
Fantastic Four? Well, that was the first of the so-called Marvel Universe
characters. And I wanted The Fantastic Four to be as different from other
books as Spider-Man was. So one of the things I decided was I would give none
of those characters costumes because I always felt if I suddenly developed a
superpower, I don't think the first thing I would do would be run to a costume
store and say, `Quick, give me a mask and some spandex.' So I just gave them
regular clothes, and I published the issue. And we started to get a
tremendous amount of fan mail, and most of the letters said something of this
nature: `Stan, we love the book. The Fantastic Four is great. Oh, man, are
we excited about it. But if you don't give them costumes, we'll never buy
Now I don't know the reason for that. I have wracked my brain. I have tried
to research it. I don't know why, but it just seems that the people who like
superheroes like to see the superheroes in costumes.
BOGAEV: Well, let's talk about the "Spider-Man" movie. There are a lot of
poses directly out of the comic strip in the movie that re-create Spider-Man,
for instance, hanging upside-down with his knees up. That's a classic
silhouette for Spider-Man.
Mr. LEE: Yeah.
BOGAEV: And also swinging through the streets of New York with his arms
Mr. LEE: Steve Ditko, the artist, did such a wonderful job of those shots in
the beginning that he did of Spider-Man swinging and clinging to walls and
hanging upside-down. Most people who've read those early books still remember
BOGAEV: Yeah. What do you think that the movie got right in terms of the
Mr. LEE: Oh, I think the movie got virtually everything right. It got the
essence of Peter Parker, the shy young man who suddenly comes into his own
once he gets the superpower. It got his ambivalence, his feeling that somehow
this superpower he had gotten is as much a curse as a blessing. The only
thing--there was one little thing about the movie that I felt could have been
better. I never cared for the mask that the Green Goblin had. I think that
Willem Dafoe is such a fine actor, I would have loved to have seen his face
when he was the Green Goblin. I would have loved to have seen his
expressions. Somehow, the mask, which was solid and unchanging, to me wasn't
as dramatic as actually seeing his face would have been. But that is a small
complaint, and I thought everything else was absolutely wonderful.
BOGAEV: Now we have to get into the controversy that fans found troubling,
that Spider-Man's web powers in the movie were made organic. It was something
that grew from his genetically altered spider bite, as opposed to something
that, as you had written into the strip, something that he created as a
burgeoning young scientist.
Mr. LEE: Yeah. How about that? They dared tamper with my creation. Well,
let me tell you, if I had done the movie, I would have tried to keep it that
he created this little web shooter himself. I remember when Jim Cameron
thought that he would do the "Spider-Man" movie a few years ago, he did an
outline, a treatment for the movie, a very detailed one that was more than 50
pages. And he sent it to me, and it was a wonderful story. But I noticed
that he, too, made the web shooting organic. And I said to him, `Gee, why
don't you keep it the way it was in the book?' And he said, `Well, I think it
would be hard to make an audience believe that some kid could just create
something like that himself.' And then we talked about other things, and I
went home and I thought about it, and I thought the way I would have done it
would be in the beginning to show that Peter had always been--he was a science
scholarship student. I mean, that was a given. He was a very bright student
and he was winning a scholarship in science.
Now the one thing he was always trying to do--if he ever went for a doctorate,
this would be his doctorate thesis--he was trying to find something that could
be shot out of a tube and stick to walls and, you know, whatever. This web
was the thing he was trying to work on, but he never could get it right.
However, once he was stung by that radio--or bitten by that radioactive
spider, suddenly he knew how to do it. It not only increased his strength and
gave him spider power, but the bite and the radioactivity, whatever, made him
aware of how he could create that web shooter. Now that's the way I would
have done it.
But after I thought about it a lot and after I saw the movie, I'm inclined to
think that maybe Jim Cameron and Sam Raimi, who did such a wonderful job
directing the movie, maybe they were right. Maybe somehow it's more dramatic
to see him just do it the way he did, organically, and it also saved them a
lot of time because it would have taken quite a few extra minutes of screen
time to show it the way I had just mentioned. So I really have no problem
with it because when you do a motion picture, I think whatever makes the movie
good, well, that's the way you should do it. And it doesn't really contradict
the way I had done Spider-Man because the main thing is when I did it, he was
able to swing on webs. Well, in the movie, he's able to swing on webs. Where
the webs come from, that's really a minor difference. So it may upset the
fans, and I'm sorry it does, and I love them for their loyalty, but it really
doesn't upset me.
BOGAEV: Stan Lee is my guest. He is the former head writer, editorial and
art director, publisher and chairman of Marvel Comics. He was a leading
creative force behind Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, the X-Men and many
others. He now works in television and film. He is the executive producer of
the new "Spider-Man" movie.
And, Stan, we're going to take a short break, and then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: Back with Stan Lee. He was the longtime head writer, editor and
publisher of Marvel Comics, where he originated many of Marvel's most
masterful masked men, such as The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four, The
X-Men and Spider-Man. Stan Lee is chairman emeritus of Marvel Comics, and
he's also the executive producer of the new "Spider-Man" movie. And he has a
new memoir of his years in comics. It's called "Excelsior: The Amazing Life
of Stan Lee."
Now you grew up in New York during the Depression.
Mr. LEE: Mm-hmm.
BOGAEV: Did you read comics as a kid?
Mr. LEE: Yeah, but I read everything, and comics were included in the
everything. In those days, they had different kind of comics when I was a
kid. They were mostly reproductions or reprints of newspaper strips like Dick
Tracy and Barney Google and things that nobody would remember now. They
weren't the kind of comics they have today.
BOGAEV: And not superheroes, either.
Mr. LEE: No, not really. Well, they had, let's see, Flash Gordon. You might
call him a superhero.
BOGAEV: So how hard-hit was your family by the Depression? Did your dad have
trouble holding onto a job?
Mr. LEE: Oh, we were very hard--well, my dad was just not a lucky man when it
came to finance or to getting jobs. Unfortunately, most of my memories of
him, he was unemployed and he spent most of his time reading the want ads. He
had been a dress cutter, and I guess there were just no jobs for dress cutters
in those days. And I always felt tremendous pity for him because it must be a
terrible feeling to be a man and just not be bringing in the money that's
needed for your family.
BOGAEV: Did you feel that you had to rush through school to start work to
help out the family? I know a lot of Depression kids felt that.
Mr. LEE: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I worked while I was going to school. I
had a lot of part-time jobs, yeah.
BOGAEV: So how did you get your start in comics?
Mr. LEE: Accidently. I heard there was a job open in a publishing company
and I thought, `Well, maybe they publish books or magazines or'--I didn't know
that they published comics. I didn't know that that's where the job opening
was, in the comic book department of this little company. And I took the job
as an assistant. I did a little proofreading. I helped erase the pages once
they were inked. And I ran errands and did some copy reading. And after a
while they let me do a little writing, and then they let me do a little more
writing. And that was really how it started.
BOGAEV: And this was Timely.
Mr. LEE: Yeah, it was called Timely Comics at the time.
BOGAEV: So what kind of comics were they publishing then? And this
Mr. LEE: Mm-hmm. Well, they did all kinds, but they were just starting. No,
actually I think it was the--they started in the middle or late '30s. They
were starting with some superheroes. They had The Human Torch, the
Submariner, Captain America and a lot of other heroes who have been forgotten
as the sands of time have obliterated them.
BOGAEV: I think you resurrected the Human Torch, though, right?
Mr. LEE: Yes, that and the Submariner and Captain America...
Mr. LEE: ...'cause I liked all three of those characters, so when I started
the Marvel line of comics for the company, I brought all three of them back.
BOGAEV: Now radio was really big. Were you a radio fan?
Mr. LEE: Oh, yeah. I loved radio. Obviously, they didn't have television
then. You know, one funny thing that I've always remembered about radio, and
I still get a kick out of it. Sunday night especially, that was--in our house
that was family night. And we'd eat delicatessen. We'd have hot dogs and
beans and some sauerkraut if things were good. And we'd sit around the radio
set and we would listen to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny,
Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen. It was just wonderful. But the funny thing about
it was all the chairs were arranged--all the chairs--three or four of them,
they were arranged in a semicircle facing the radio. And we would sit and
watch the radio as if it was a television set, and almost everybody did that.
When you listened to the radio, you would seat yourself so you were facing the
radio. And it didn't seem strange to me then. When I think of it now, I
wonder, why did we do that?
BOGAEV: It's interesting, because the wonderful thing about your writing was
that it was so snappy. It seemed to speak to me of radio. And you loved
lots of slogans and alliteration, the Green Goblin...
Mr. LEE: Oh, yeah.
BOGAEV: ...and Doc Auch(ph), and Dr. Doom. And I remember some
incantation--What was it Dr. Doom used to say? `By the hoary hosts of...'
Mr. LEE: No, that was Dr. Strange.
BOGAEV: Oh, I get the doctors confused.
Mr. LEE: We had a number of doctors. Dr. Strange was a magician. I called
him the master of the mystic arts.
BOGAEV: That's right.
Mr. LEE: And obviously, he would cast spells and he would do magical things.
Well, I couldn't have him say `abracadabra' when he wanted to do something. I
felt I had to create little expressions for him, little incantations that he
could utter. So I'd have him say things like, `By the hoary hosts of
Hogith(ph), let though-and-such happen,' or, `By the crimson rings of
Sitirak(ph),' or--I just made up any silly thing that sounded the way I
thought it should sound. Funny thing about it was in later years I did a lot
of college lecturing. And very often people in the audience, during the
questions and answer period, would say, `Stan, we've been making a study of
the incantations of Dr. Strange, and my friends and I have come to the
conclusion that you were very heavily influenced by the ancient Druid
writings, or by'--and, you know, they would mention something very obscure
that I had never heard of. But it's funny how people will always read more
into what you write than you ever put in there.
BOGAEV: So you don't think you drew on your early reading or listening to the
radio or any of those...
Mr. LEE: Oh, sure.
BOGAEV: ...like pop culture pastimes?
Mr. LEE: Oh, sure I did, but only in a very superficial--what I mean is, I
didn't use expressions I remembered reading. I used expressions because I
remembered I used to like expressions. But I have no memory at all--I never
could remember a spec--the only thing I remember, when you were talking about
radio, there was a radio program I listened to--I must have been about eight
or 10 years old--I don't know--and I don't remember what the program was, but
the introduction, the announcement of it, I felt was the most dramatic thing
and it always stayed in my mind. The name of the show was "Chandu, the
Magician," C-H-A-N-D-U. And the way the announcer said it, there was a big
gong that would be--I guess you hit a gong the way--if you remember the old
J. Arthur Rank movies, when they would hit a gong when you saw the name on
the screen. Well, the announcer would say, `And now Chandu!' and at that
point, it would go `bong,' `the magician.' So him saying, `And now Chandu,'
and then that bong and then the words `the magician,' I tell you, to me that
was the most dramatic thing I had ever heard. So you could see I was corny
even as a kid.
BOGAEV: Stan Lee of Marvel Comics. He's an executive producer of the new
"Spider-Man" movie. He also has a new memoir, "Excelsior: The Amazing Life
of Stan Lee." We'll continue our conversation in the second half of the show.
I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite from vintage "Spider-Man" cartoon)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider
can. Spins a web any size, catches thieves just like flies. Look out, here
comes the Spider-Man. Is he strong? Listen, bud, he's got radioactive blood.
BOGAEV: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new suspense novel "The
Emperor of Ocean Park," and we continue our conversation with the man who
co-created Spider-Man and helped usher in the golden age of Marvel Comics,
Stan Lee. He has a new book about his life and he's executive...
BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Let's continue our interview with Stan Lee of Marvel Comics. Along with a
team of artists, which included Jack Herbie(ph) and Steve Ditko, Lee created
the hit series Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, X-Men, The Fantastic Four and
many others. He served as head writer, art and editorial director and
publisher of Marvel. He's now chairman emeritus. And at the age of 80, he's
working in television and film. He's an executive producer of the new
"Spider-Man" movie. He also has a new memoir of his long career in comics.
It's called "Excelsior: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee." Lee got his start in
comics in the 1940s in New York. In 1942, he enlisted in World War II.
During the war, what was your--you enlisted. What was your wartime
Mr. LEE: Well, it was very funny. I started out in the Signal Corps and I
trained to go overseas and do wire repairing and I would be the one who went
ahead of the troops and make sure that they had their communications set up.
But just before I was going to go overseas, somebody found out that I had done
comic book writing and I was transferred to the Army--to the Signal Corps--I
don't even know what the unit was called anymore, but it was stationed in
Astoria, New York, and they did training films and they wrote instructional
manuals. And I was one of the people who wrote the training films and the
instructional manuals. And I was with people like William Saroyan and--I
mean, some of the biggest names in Hollywood, and I was the token nobody
there. I guess they needed one guy that nobody'd heard of to show they were
democratic. And that's what I spent most of the war doing. I was writing
films and training manuals.
BOGAEV: Now after the war, people were really starting to get pretty serious.
They wanted to get back to their lives and certainly they were just relieved
and looking for entertainment. What kind of comics sold well in that post-war
Mr. LEE: Post-war environment was amazing. Everything sold but what happened
was the books--they worked in trends. All of a sudden, everybody would be
doing Western magazines and they'd be selling like there was no tomorrow.
Then one day, the sales would slump. So the publishers would start doing
crime--you know, cops and robbers stories and those would sell for six months,
eight months, a year. And then those sales would slump. And they'd start
doing romance stories, and then when the public got tired of those, there'd be
war stories. It was one trend after another. And no trend lasted much longer
than a year or so. And it's very strange because only when the superheroes
started, and I really think it's when Marvel started with its group of
superheroes, it's as though there were no more trends. Since the early 1960s,
superheroes have been the best-selling comic books ever until today.
BOGAEV: Now after the war, you were back at Timely. Hadn't turned to Marvel
yet. And you were there in New York and--did all of these trends--did you
just jump on them all in a row...
Mr. LEE: Every one of them.
BOGAEV: ...whatever DC did or whatever any other comic company would do,
you'd hop on?
Mr. LEE: Yeah. That was pretty much my publisher's formula. He would see
what was selling and then we would flood the market with books in the same
genre. And I can't complain. It worked. I mean, he did very well doing
that. We weren't that original. I created a few new things but none of
them--I realized later you can't sell something new unless it's promoted, and
we did not know or did not care to promote things.
BOGAEV: Now could we talk about the '50s? Because it was an interesting
progression, the red-baiting scare, McCarthyism, first it hit Hollywood and
there were congressional hearings into Hollywood, and then comic books came
under attack, too. There was a congressional hearing also which investigated
links between comics and violent crime and juvenile delinquency, and I think a
New York psychiatrist, Dr. Fredric Wertham, led a kind of comic book
witch-hunt. What are your memories of this Dr. Wertham's most outlandish
arguments? It almost sounds like a comic book.
Mr. LEE: Well, I was very unhappy about Dr. Wertham because I had read a
book he had written--I may have mentioned, I was a voracious reader when I was
young. He had written a book--I think it was called Dark Legend, about a boy
who had murdered his mother, and it was a case history that apparently Wertham
had been involved in. I read it when I was about 13 or 14 years old and
thought it was one of the best-written, most absorbing books I had ever read.
And I figured this Wertham must be a great guy. And then years later, to have
him be the one who attributed every ill that flesh is err to, to comic books,
and to be this ranting, raging, rampaging fanatic against comics--I was very
disappointed in him. But he literally started a crusade against comics. And
in those days, crusades caught on. Anything that any doctor or person who was
a psychiatrist or had any title in front of his name said, people would be
influenced by, and he really caused a lot of trouble. A lot of comic book
publishers went out of business because of his diatribes and tirades. The
BOGAEV: Well, what were some of his arguments? I think there was something
about Robin of Batman and Robin...
Mr. LEE: Oh, yeah, he...
BOGAEV: ...he was tremendously offended by the legs, Robin's bare or--legs in
Mr. LEE: He would say ridiculous things like the fact that Batman had this
young sidekick Robin, he'd say, `The readers know what the real relationship
is between Batman and Robin and Robin's legs being exposed the way they were.'
I mean, the things he said were so insane, and it's almost embarrassing to
mention them. But he did get the ear of Congress and a company like DC
Comics, which now publishes Mad, they had a lot of books called The Crypt of
Horror(ph) and the Vault of Terror and things like that. He totally put them
out of business. Luckily, they came out with Mad which was better than any of
them, and they've succeeded, but if not for Mad, they would have gone bust.
He was a very dangerous person because he could see evil in anything that was
written or drawn. And unfortunately, for a while, a lot of people listened to
BOGAEV: Were you fed up by all this? I mean, was this a point in your career
where you thought `Maybe I should just get out of this business. This is
Mr. LEE: Yeah. I wanted to get out. Not because of Dr. Wertham, because
that was just insanity. That didn't bother me. But what happened was I
realized by early 1960 that I had been in this business for about 20 years and
I was still writing pap. I was writing things for young kids. My publisher
had said, `Don't use words of more than two syllables. Don't worry about too
much dialogue. Don't worry about characters. They shouldn't--just tell the
simplest stories possible.' As you can imagine, I felt what I'm doing is
worthless. I'm not getting anywhere. So I was about to quit and then my wife
said to me `You know, Stan, if you're going to quit anyway, before you do, why
don't you do one book the way you'd like to do it? The worst that can happen
is he'll fire you. And you want to quit.' So that's when I did the book
The Fantastic Four. And I tried to make them more believable characters and
to give them different personalties and I paid attention to the dialogue and
so forth. And from then on, everything was great because the book sold and I
tried to do all the other books I did in the same style, so then I was happy
and I stayed with the company.
BOGAEV: Well, The Fantastic Four really pretty much marked the rise of Marvel
Comics. That was a real turning point for the company. And what people most
remember about The Fantastic Four I think is that they were so dysfunctional.
It was kind of like a bickering, dysfunctional superhero family.
Mr. LEE: Well, you're absolutely right. And again, I think that's one of the
reasons that they were popular, because just like Spider-Man's Peter Parker
being the kind of teen-ager that the readers could identify with, I think for
the first time, The Fantastic Four was a group that readers could identify
with. They were not dissimilar to their own families. And see, I didn't have
a girl, for example, who had no idea that the hero was really a--that the man
she loved was really a superhero. She knew who he was. In fact, she was
engaged to him and she was part of the team, and there was a...
BOGAEV: This is Sue Storm, you're talking about...
Mr. LEE: Sue Storm, the...
BOGAEV: ...one of The Fantastic Four.
Mr. LEE: That's right.
BOGAEV: She was Mr. Fantastic's girlfriend, The Invisible Girl.
Mr. LEE: Exactly. Mr. Fantastic, as he modestly called himself. It was
his girlfriend. And then...
BOGAEV: I mean, it really was a soap opera, right?
Mr. LEE: It was. It was. But you see, to me, every story should be done
like a soap opera because that's what people like. If you don't have the
characters' personal problems, if you don't have people who are having
difficulty relating to other people, if you don't have characters with
problems that seem unsolvable and you wonder, `How will they ever get out of
this?' then what have you got? You've just got a series of incidents and you
don't care about those, because if you don't care about the characters, you
can't care about the story. At least that's the theory I've always used.
BOGAEV: Stan Lee's new memoir about his career with Marvel Comics is called
"Excelsior: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee." We'll continue after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BOGAEV: I'm talking with Stan Lee. He was the longtime editor, art director
and publisher and later chairman of Marvel Comics. He now works in television
and film, and he's the executive producer of the new "Spider-Man" movie. He
also has a memoir out about his time in comics. It's called "Excelsior: The
Amazing Life of Stan Lee."
Now The Fantastic Four was a big hit, and somewhere in this stretch of the
'60s, you put out a series called Sergeant Fury and His Howling Commandos.
Mr. LEE: Yeah.
BOGAEV: Very different from The Fantastic Four, and I believe that that
series started because of a bet? What was that all about?
Mr. LEE: Well, what happened was we had been doing very well. The Fantastic
Four was a hit, The Hulk was a hit, The X-Men were a hit, Spider-Man was a
hit. We then did Ironman, Dr. Strange, Daredevil--I'm probably forgetting a
few others--and they were all doing well. I mean, we now had what we called
the Marvel Universe, and we had become the biggest and most successful comic
book publishers. So one day, again, I was talking to my publisher, who's a
great guy, but we often didn't agree on things, and he said, `Stan, what is it
that's making these books sell so well?' You know, immodestly, I wanted to
say, `It's because I'm writing most of them,' but I didn't. But he said, `I
think it's the titles. I think they are great titles.' I said, `That has
nothing to do with it.' So then I said, `Look, let me prove to you the titles
have nothing to do with it.'
Suppose--oh, no, what it was, I said, `It's the style of the writing,' and I
mentioned what we just said. Even though they're superhero stories, I'm
trying to treat them like soap operas, where the characters' personal lives
are important. He didn't see it that--he said, `No, I don't think that's it.
I think it's the titles.' So I said, `OK. You know what I'm going to show
you, what I'm going to do for you? I'll make you a bet. I'm going to put out
a book with the worst title I can think of, and I'm going to put it out in a
field, in a genre that nobody is interested in,' and at that time, nobody
wanted war stories. I mean, people were sick of them, they were sick of war.
I said, `I'm going to do a war book,' and I thought and I thought, and I came
up with the title Sergeant Fury and His Howling Commandos, which is much too
long a title and nobody...
BOGAEV: Well, it doesn't alliterate.
Mr. LEE: That's right, it wasn't...
BOGAEV: That's another problem.
Mr. LEE: ...alliterative, and nobody knew what a howling commando was. So I
said, `If I can make that sell, would you believe that--and the fact that it's
a war book, there's no reason for it to sell, but if it does sell, it's going
to be because of the style in which it's done.' So we did it and luckily,
sure enough, it sold, and he grudgingly admitted maybe I had a point there.
That we couldn't kill the book--personally, I hate war stories, so after--I
don't know--a year, two years, whatever it was, I dropped the book and we got
so much mail from readers, we had to continue it. I didn't want to do new
stories. I just reprinted the ones we did. Those sold just as well as the
original ones. In fact, we kept it going for years. And the character was so
popular that today, we have him as a colonel, he's no longer a sergeant, we
have him in the present a colonel, the head of a group called Shield.
But I've got to mention one other thing. It was also a book that had the
first ethnic group of heroes. In Sergeant Fury's platoon, we had a Jewish
soldier named Izzy Cohen, we had a black soldier, an Italian soldier, a
Scandinavian soldier. We even had a gay soldier. And this was in the middle
1960s, and I think it took a little courage to do it then, and everybody said
to me, `Oh, the book won't sell in the South, it won't sell in the East, it
won't sell in the West.' It sold all over, proving that people are really
more broad-minded and smarter than anybody gives them credit for.
BOGAEV: So tell me about this gay character. What was the story with him?
Mr. LEE: The gay character? Oh, well, he was just one of the members of the
platoon. His name was Percy Pinkerton. He was English, and his weapon--he
carried an umbrella. I mean, he also carried a gun, but he would use the
umbrella also to confuse people. And, I mean, I didn't play up the gay part,
but somehow you could assume he was gay in reading the stories. But he was
brave and nice and friendly and everybody liked him, and he was one of the
platoon, one of the guys.
BOGAEV: A lot of kids who grew up in the Depression felt very insecure
financially and chose very stable careers. Did you ever feel that this just
is not the career for a grown-up and just not stable and financially secure
enough for you?
Mr. LEE: Well, I think for the first 20 years, I felt this is definitely not
the career for a grown-up, and very, very often I wanted to leave, to quit,
but I would get a raise or I'd work with a new artist and get interested in
what we were doing or something would happen to make me decide to stay a
little longer. But my biggest regret was during those early years, nobody had
any respect for what I was doing. Nobody cared about a fellow who wrote comic
books. I would be at a party and somebody would come over and say, `Hey, what
do you do?' and I knew what was coming, so I tried not to tell. I'd say, `Oh,
I'm a writer,' and I'd start to walk away, but the person would follow me,
`Really? What do you write?' `Oh, stories for young people,' and I'd walk
away further, but finally, `What kind of stories?' At some point, I had to
say comic books, and at that point, the person would turn away as if I had the
plague. I mean, it just was the bottom of the cultural totem pole.
Now it's changed now. Now every movie producer is looking for a new comic
book to make a big-budget movie out of, and it's a whole different world. But
in those days--another bad thing about it, I thought `Even if I quit, what
would I do?' I couldn't go to Time magazine and say, `Hey, I'd like to work
for you now. I used to do comic books.' You know, nobody would be impressed.
I felt I had wasted so many years because it wasn't leading to anything, and
that was another reason that I kind of just stayed there.
BOGAEV: Did it make you nervous, though, and maybe accounts for the real
drive that you seem to have had? I mean, you had a huge creative drive.
Mr. LEE: Yeah. Well, you know what really made me that way perhaps? It was
my father. I used to just wish that that poor man could find a job, and I was
stupid. That's why I'm not a businessman. Instead of me wanting to maybe
create comics for myself and form my own company, which I could have done, all
I wanted was a steady job. To me, it seemed as if having a good job, a steady
job is the greatest success a person could attain, only because my father
never had one. And I think that's another reason that kept me at Marvel, or
at what was then Timely so long, because I felt at least I've got a job,
you know, and I really should have left and tried to start a little something
of my own, but, well, I didn't know.
BOGAEV: Stan Lee, I want to thank you so much for talking with me today.
Mr. LEE: That's it? I'm just getting started.
BOGAEV: Stan Lee is an executive producer of the new "Spider-Man" movie. He
talks about his long career with Marvel Comics on a new DVD made with
filmmaker Kevin Smith called "Stan Lee's Mutants, Monsters and Marvels."
Coming up, a review of the new suspense novel by Law Professor Stephen L.
Carter. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Positive review of the new book "The Emperor of Ocean
Park" by Stephen L. Carter
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:
It almost seems a requirement these days that thriller writers attend law
school first and then begin their successful literary careers. Think of John
Grisham, Lisa Scottoline, Brad Meltzer and Scott Turow. Aside from Oliver
Wendell Holmes, it's much more unusual for a well-established legal scholar to
attempt to write imaginative literature. Now Yale Law School Professor
Stephen L. Carter has broken that precedent with his new suspense novel "The
Emperor of Ocean Park." Book critic Maureen Corrigan says it's a no-fault
case of terrific storytelling.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
For the past 20 years, Stephen L. Carter has been a professor of law at Yale
University. He's also become prominent in the world beyond the academy
because he's an African-American scholar who argues passionately against
affirmative action. In addition, Carter has written seven polemical books for
a wide readership on subjects like civility and the conflict between secular
law and religious belief. But man, has this guy ever been wasting his time.
All these years Carter has spent intellectually noodling around, he could have
devoted to what clearly now turns out to be his true calling, writing
brilliant suspense fiction. The evidence: a page-turner of roughly 600 pages
called "The Emperor of Ocean Park," which is surely going to be the smarty
set's must-read vacation book this summer. I say smarty set because, along
with murders, missing manuscripts, double agents, tricksters and plot twists
aplenty, Carter also tosses in sharp, droll insights here on identity
politics, grade inflation, affirmative action, the decline of morals and,
infecting every page, America's chronic case of racial sickness.
Like other first-rate thriller writers--Graham Greene, John Le Carre, Ken
Follett on a good day, Don DeLillo when he's in a certain mood--Carter
gleefully realizes that the suspense genre is social commentary that packs a
pistol. In "The Emperor of Ocean Park," Carter leads his readers into worlds
within worlds, the upper echelons of academia, the law, the federal government
and, foremost, the neighborhoods and social haunts of the black bourgeoisie.
Carter escorts us into the elegant urban mansions along Washington, DC's Gold
Coast that are owned by wealthy African-American professionals. He also takes
us out to the historically black resort town of Oak Bluffs on Martha's
Through his beleaguered hero, Talcott--nicknamed Tal--Garland, who, like his
creator, is an African-American law professor, Carter probes deep into the
necessarily paranoid double consciousness of a successful black man in
America. Tal is a guy who recognizes from hard experience that no matter how
many academic degrees he attains or how many crimes he solves, he'll never
clear himself of the suspicions his skin color automatically generates among
so many white Americans.
The baroque plot of "The Emperor of Ocean Park" is so ingeniously and
frantically constructed that it defeats summary, but here's a shallow attempt.
Tal's father, the eminent Judge Oliver Garland, dies or is murdered in his
Gold Coast house one evening. The judge was a cryptic, embittered man given
to referring to his fellow African Americans as `the darker nation.' At one
time nominated by Reagan for the Supreme Court, the judge was defeated and
publicly humiliated by his questionable friendship with a major criminal.
Upon the judge's death, Tal is besieged by a crowd of weird characters who
insist that he knows the secret location of the judge's arrangements, whatever
they are. Slowly, Tal is drawn into the mystery of hunting for this
maguffin(ph), this Rosebud, eventually catching on that the obsession with
chess he shared with his father may be essential to decoding the clues that
are coming to him via the mail and the morgue,
Meanwhile, Tal's promiscuous wife, a preppy black attorney nicknamed
Kimmer, has been nominated for a federal judgeship and she warns Tal that
if he doesn't stop his embarrassing investigations, the marriage is kaput.
Like many another suspense hero, however, Tal is caught between the proverbial
rock and a hard place, because he's also been anonymously threatened that if
he does stop hunting for the arrangements, his wife and his beloved
three-year-old son will be subject to a grisly fate.
Carter's humor, his gift for drawing out the Gothic atmosphere in the vast
shadowy houses and Ivy League buildings Tal inhabits, his unapologetic delight
in melodramatic literary trappings like moonlit cemeteries and his unflagging
ingeniousness make "The Emperor of Ocean Park" a first-rate suspense tale.
But above all, it's Tal's upright sensibility and his depressive, smart voice
that lingers. Listen to him here talking about the contemporary state of
legal education. `Nowadays I earn my bread by writing learned articles too
arcane to have any influence and trying to stuff some torts or administrative
law into the heads of students too intelligent to content themselves with B's,
but too self-absorbed to waste their precious energy on the tedious details
one must master to learn A's. Most of our students crave only the credential
we award, not the knowledge we offer. And as generation after generation,
each more than the last, views us as merely a vocational school, the
connection between the desire for the degree and the desire to understand the
law grows more and more attenuated.'
Tal is the kind of straight-arrow, Jimmy Stewart type scrapper you would want
to have beside you when the bullets are flying, as well as in front of you in
the classroom, educating you about the law in the books and the law of the
BOGAEV: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University.
BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.