Remembering Stan Lee: The origin story of the writer who gave humanity to superheroes
Farewell to the man who knew heartache makes a hero stronger.
As fans the world over mourn the passing of Stan Lee, who died Monday at age 95, I was reminded of meeting him for the first time many years ago and hearing the astounding true story of Marvel’s mightiest heroes from “Stan the Man” himself.
It was April 2002, and we were sitting in the Santa Monica offices of his new company POW! Entertainment — except Lee wasn’t really sitting. He was up and antic, slinging his hand out in the Spider-Man pose and telling war stories of a battle with Green Goblin. Even at age 79 he was practically crawling up the walls himself.
The first Tobey Maguire webslinger movie was set to debut in a few weeks, and hopes for its success were Empire-State-Building-high after 2000’s X-Men proved to studios that comic book movies were maybe, kinda something audiences were excited to see.
Remember, this was six years before Iron Man and the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The films were not yet interconnected, not that there were many to string together. Stan Lee cameos were not yet a phenomenon. He had played a beachside hotdog vendor in the X-Men film. That was it. (“You missed me?” he teased. “I was like the lead of the movie!”)
A crowd scene in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man would be only his second “Stan Lee appearance,” but when I sat down to interview him for the Associated Press, he was a little worried because he’d seen a rough cut of the film already and his sequence had been significantly shortened.
“The [original] idea was, I was selling sunglasses in Times Square and I was talking to this little girl, showing her a pair of glasses as Peter Parker walks by,” Lee recounted in his gruff, nasally voice. “So I reach out to Peter Parker and say, ‘Would you like a pair of these? They’re the kind of sunglasses they wore in X-Men!’”
He clapped his hands and rocked in his chair, a big grin spreading beneath his peppery mustache. “It would have gotten the biggest laugh! But they cut it out because the film ran a little long.”
He shrugged. He still made the final cut, and Raimi included one of the changes that Lee suggested. After creating so many heroes, Lee wanted to play one himself. “The Green Goblin drops a bomb and we all ran,” Lee said. “After he shot it, I said. ‘Sam, that isn’t right. I shouldn’t leave that poor little girl and go running for my life. I’m going to carry her with me.”
A HERO … STUMBLES
On the next take of the scene, Raimi gave him the go-ahead. But there was another problem: she may have only been a little kid, but he was a skinny old guy. “I tried to lift her and tried to lift her and I couldn’t!” Lee cackled. “She was only a little girl, but she must have weighed 500 pounds.”
He ended up grabbing her hand and leading her away instead. (In Spider-Man 2, he turned up to do a similar task as a man who pulls a woman away from a chunk of falling concrete.)
“Ang Lee is doing the Hulk,” he said. “There’s a scene for me, so I’ll go to San Francisco and make a fool of myself again. Another guy is doing a Daredevil movie.”
Lee sighed. He crossed his arms in his mustard-colored cardigan and shrugged. How long would this superhero movie thing last? He didn’t know. He was glad to be along for the ride. Happy to see the old characters he helped create being brought to life onscreen.
We began talking about the origin of Spider-Man, born in 1962 after a string of other successes had made Stan Lee a powerhouse scribe at Marvel Comics.
He had started working there when he was 17. Back then, Marvel Comics was known as Timely Comics, and he was known as Stanley Lieber, son of Jewish Romanian immigrants from the Bronx. His dream was to become a writer. A novelist, maybe.
But before any of that could happen, he earned cash by working a series of small jobs. As a theater usher, his first claim to fame was tripping and falling while showing Eleanor Roosevelt to her seat. (“Are you all right, young man?” she asked.) He also delivered sandwiches for a deli, and became an office assistant at, in his words, “the world’s second-largest trouser manufacturer.”
His writing career began with obituaries. Many of them were about famous people, and he was required to prepare them in advance so newspapers could rush them to print when the celebrity died. “I got depressed writing about living people in the past tense,” Lee told me.
He didn’t want to write about death. He wanted to write about things that were larger than life.
THE BIRTH OF SPIDEY
Lee’s big break came when his cousin-in-law, Martin Goodman, hired him to work at Timely, penning Westerns, love stories, and comedy cartoons.
“When I got into comics, nobody, nobody had any respect for them,” he told me. “Even most of the people in the field were embarrassed. It was no job for a grown man, doing these silly comics that other people looked down their noses at.”
That’s why he created a pen name by cutting his first name in half. Decades later, he described it as his biggest regret.
“My name was Stanley Martin Leiber,” he said, his outstretched hand marked the syllables in the air. “A real legitimate name — with a lilt! I used to write it out as a kid all the time and think how good that would look on the Declaration of Independence. I always thought I’d be a really good writer someday.”
Superheroes weren’t part of the funnybook zeitgeist at that point, although Batman and Superman at DC Comics changed that. Goodman came to “Stan Lee” and asked for ideas that Marvel could pursue.
Instead of the loner hero, Lee proposed a family of heroes — and the Fantastic 4 was born. Then he thought he would take a villainous character — a monster — and make that the hero. The Incredible Hulk smashed his way into pop culture history.
“When you try to create a new superhero, you have to keep creating a superpower that’s different,” he said. “With Hulk I had the strongest living human being. I thought, ‘What’s left?’ While I was thinking, I saw a fly crawling on the wall and I thought, ‘That would be cool! … The next thing I needed was a name. Crawl-Man? Nah, that didn’t have it. Insect-Man? I ran down the list. Mosquito-Man, Beetle-Man, Fly-Man. Then I hit on …. Spider-Man.”
With those words, Lee’s hands flashed in the air. His eyebrows shot up.
“It somehow had a dramatic feeling, a scary feeling,” he said. “I thought, ‘That’s it!’ And lo, a legend was born.”
CREDIT WHERE DUE
One of the controversies surrounding Lee was how much credit he actually deserved. Many of “his” characters were crafted in concert with artists like artist Jack Kirby, who would take Lee’s concept and run with it.
Whether Lee grabbed more credit than he deserved, or merely attracted the attention by way of his natural showmanship as an extrovert among a team of introverts, I never found him to be anything except generous with praise for his artists. When we spoke, Lee himself went out of his way to shout-out his chief Spider-Man collaborator, Steve Ditko, who died this past June at age 90.
“I try to share the responsibility,” Lee said. “Steve is the guy who designed Spider-Man and gave Spider-Man so much of that eerie spidery feeling. Later, he helped with the plots and did the plots.” Lee beamed his signature smile again: “If there are any repercussions for this, Steve has to share the blame as well as me.”
The key to Spider-Man, he revealed, was failure. Peter Parker was a weakling, a teenager, and he wasn’t on a mission of revenge — he was fueled by regret because he already had his power and failed to stop the crook who would go on to kill his beloved Uncle Ben.
“With great power comes great responsibility” was a lesson that haunted him because he learned it too late.
“The most important thing is to make the reader care and sympathize with a character,” Lee said. “The more problems a character has and the more unhappy and troubled he is, it makes that person seem human to [the readers.]”
EVEN MORE FAILURE
Spider-Man is perhaps Lee’s most renowned creation … which is why it’s ironic that no one initially liked his idea about the kid who becomes a webslinger after being bitten by a radioactive spider.
“I was told in chapter and verse by the fellow who was then my publisher that it was the worst idea he’d ever heard,” Lee said. “’People hate spiders! You can’t call a hero Spider-Man!’ ‘Stan, don’t you understand that teenagers can only be sidekicks?’”
Lee had stumbled into the idea of representation — the young readers of comic books may like to see a hero who looks like themselves. It would be a lesson that led him later to co-create the first black superhero — the Wakandan warrior king Black Panther — as well as the first African-American hero, the high-flying New York protector Falcon.
After absorbing all the Spider-Man criticism, Lee delivered more bad news to Goodman.
“When I told him that I wanted Peter Parker to have a lot of problems and worries and be unsure of himself, he said, ‘Ugh! It’s obvious you have no conception of what a hero really is!’”
The thing that saved Spider-Man’s life was the death of one of the brands. “We were killing that magazine, much as I loved it,” Lee said. “We tried to do Amazing Adult Fantasy as The Twilight Zone.” But it hadn’t succeeded.
“When you’re doing the last issue of a magazine you’re about to kill, nobody really cares what you put in it. So I figured I’d get Spider-Man out of my system.” Lee and Ditko worked on the story together, and Kirby did the dramatic lead image of Spidey swinging through the streets of Manhattan holding a crook at his side.
“We put him on the cover and forgot about him,” Lee said. “Then a couple months later, when sales figures came in, the publisher came to me and said, ‘Stan, you remember that character that we both liked?’” The Stan Lee smile propped up that mustache again. “’That Spider-Man of yours…? Why don’t we make a series out of him?’”
Finding Humanity in Mutants
After about 100 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, Lee said he turned over the writing to Roy Thomas. By that point, he had too many characters to juggle without a large team. “It was hard of course, but I was letting go of all the characters at the same time — there was the Hulk, Doctor Strange, The Avengers, Iron Man, Daredevil, the X-Men. After that I got kinda used to it,” Lee said.
One of his proudest collaborations was the X-Men, which resulted in part because Lee had exhausted seemingly every possible excuse for how a human being could develop superpowers.
Weary of radioactive insects, toxic spills, and gamma ray bursts, he came up with a shortcut: They were simply mutants, born that way.
It gave the X-Men a surprising power in the real world as a metaphor for civil rights of all kinds.
“To keep it realistic, I knew most people dislike and distrust those who are different from them,” Lee thought. “I thought maybe we could even get a little moral lesson in this thing. Here are people who are good, who are trying to help humanity, and the very humans they are trying to help are hunting them and hounding them and harassing them.”
Lee’s own superpower was not just his imagination, but also his ability to create things that others could run with and make their own. His characters endure because, like Fantastic 4’s Reed Richards, they’re able to be stretched and changed to fit new storytellers and changing times.
Lee became the face of Marvel, the wisecracking “Stan the Man” who talked to kids in their own language (“’Nuff said”) without talking down to them. In his “Stan’s Soap Box” column, he often advocated for fairness and kindness to everyone — a grown-up message delivered via the funny papers.
Strangely enough, Lee said he would cast himself as the opposite of all that in his own imagination, drawing a comparison to the cynical, uncompromising newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson. “I’m very frustrated that by the time they made the movie I was too old to play the role,” Lee said. “I modeled him after me. He was dumb and loudmouthed and opinionated. He was me!”
Of all the characters he helped create, Peter Parker remained his favorite.
A Favorite Son
“In a way Spider-Man is more special than the others,” he said. “People seem to identify me with Spider-Man, a little like Walt Disney makes people think of Mickey Mouse.”
What made him Lee’s favorite? “Nothing ever goes right for Peter. I think for most people in the world, nothing ever goes right. He has his share of mistakes and his share of problems as he goes through life.”
Peter Parker also never gives up, a trait he shares with his originator.
“People always ask me, ‘Why don’t you retire?’ When you retire what do you do? You say, ‘At last I can do all the things I’ve always wanted to do. But I’m already doing the things I always wanted to do!” Lee said.
He had a child who died in infancy and one grown daughter, an artist, with his wife, Joan, who died last year, also at age 95. Back in 2002, he said that she was his fun. “When I go home I love being with my wife. I love watching television. I love sitting at the computer and coming up with whatever I come up with. Hobby is my work.”
Even after leaving Marvel and pursuing assorted other ventures, Lee remained the public face of the comic book company — as iconic as any of their heroes — and his presence as a Marvel ambassador and cameo king was a reminder that larger-than-life heroes we love are simply a representation of the ideals of a puny human (or team of humans).
He relished his newfound fame as a star. “I’m one of the top cameo actors,” he said. “If you don’t blink, you’ll see me running fearfully for my life.”
Apart from changing his name so long ago, and never writing that Great American Novel, Lee had only one other regret:
“I wish there was a cameo category in the Academy Awards.”