Stan Lee, creator of Captain America, Iron Man and more, would rather be rich than radioactive.
When you were a kid starting out at Marvel, did you think you’d conquer Hollywood?
No, in those days I never could have envisioned that these characters would be in films people care about all over the world. But I loved the movies, so in writing any character I always had an image in my head of an actor. For instance, I was a big fan of Errol Flynn, so whenever I’d have a comic hero doing something noble, I’d think of him.
We imagine the young Stan Lee hustling for work like Spider-Man runt Peter Parker at The Daily Bugle.
Oh, I hustled, all right! I was only 18, and in the early days it was pretty nerve-wracking. If the books we wrote didn’t sell, our publisher would’ve said, “I don’t need you anymore.”
What was the deal with the first superhero you worked on – Captain America?
We were all concerned with the Nazis [the comic debuted in 1941], and Cap was the only character fighting Nazis. But after the war his popularity waned, so we discontinued the title. Then I decided to bring him back in the ’60s, but we always treated him like a relic of the past who couldn’t really understand how young people were, making fun of the government and the flag. And they couldn’t understand him and his patriotism. I thought that made him an interesting character.
The all-star Avengers movie teams Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and more. Did you always imagine those guys joining forces?
I treated our characters a little differently than other comic book companies did. I had them all living in and around New York, so they could run into each other. Then one day, I decided, “Why not let them form a team and work together?” Of course, the way to make that fun is that they don’t always work together in harmony – “Who said you should give the orders? Nobody tells me what to do!” So in addition to making them superheroes, I tried to treat them as though they were living people with their own hang-ups.
So many of your classic characters have made it to the big screen. Do you have any favourite portrayals?
The actor who got closest to the way the character was envisioned in the comics was Michael Chiklis as The Thing in Fantastic Four. The way he looked, spoke and acted was just perfect. And, of course, Tobey Maguire. I mean, he was Peter Parker. And I can’t forget Iron Man! Robert Downey Jr was born to be Iron Man.
The Hulk hasn’t made the jump to the movies quite as well.
I would have preferred if it were treated more like the television series – just a big guy with green make-up who you could make look even bigger. I mean, they could’ve made him look eight-feet-tall instead of 25-feet tall! That took some of the reality away.
But a character like Spider-Man could be pretty much anyone.
One reason Spider-Man is so popular is that his costume completely covers his body, so for all we know, under that costume he could be black, he could be Asian, he could be Indian, he could be anything. So any reader anywhere in the world could identify with Spider-Man and say, “That could be me.”
Do you still find yourself constantly dreaming up new characters?
With my company Pow! Entertainment I’m coming up with new ideas all the time. The main difference is now other people write them under my supervision.
So do you spend your free time reading medical and technical journals, trying to find stuff like new special powers?
It’s funny, but I’m the least technical person in the world. For example, all I could think of with Peter Parker was he was bitten by a radioactive spider, and in those days “radioactivity” was a word that everybody was throwing around. I had no idea what it meant, but it sounded good. With Bruce Banner, I had to find something different, so I made him the victim of a gamma ray explosion. I wouldn’t know a gamma ray if it walked up to me, but it sounds so technical and so perfect.
Who would play Stan Lee in a movie?
Johnny Depp is pretty busy now, and, um, I don’t know if Brad Pitt is good-looking enough…
And if you could trade places with any of your characters?
Iron Man. He’s rich and handsome, women love him and he can do whatever he wants. But I wouldn’t waste a lot of time in that suit. It looks awfully uncomfortable.