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Like Walt Disney and George Lucas, Stan Lee has co-created some of the most iconic characters in pop culture: Spider-Man, X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and the Incredible Hulk. Movie’s based on his super-characters have generated more than $2.3 billion in U.S. ticket sales. Toys, books and games have generated billions more.
Lee is one of the most important figures in American popular culture. He began working for Marvel (then Timely) Comics in 1939, with his first published work appearing in May 1941. The following year, at age 20, he was editor and chief writer, creating stories for a variety of romance, horror, humor, science-fiction and suspense comics.
By 1960, competitor DC comics had launched a team of superheroes called the Justice League of America. Marvel publisher Martin Goodman demanded a response, and in 1961, Lee and Jack Kirby produced Fantastic Four No. 1. Fan response was phenomenal, with critics today calling the work a masterful step forward in comic-book evolution.
Lee would continue creating and co-creating characters for Marvel over the next two decades. Along the way, he published some of the market’s most valuable collectibles, with key issues of Marvel Comics often demanding more than a quarter million dollars.
With the Walt Disney Company in the process of purchasing Marvel Entertainment — further cementing his status in American culture — Lee is busier than ever. He most recently launched POW! Entertainment to create, produce and license new characters. He hosted two seasons of the Syfy channel show “Who Wants to be a Superhero?” And he’s executive producer of several motion pictures based on Marvel characters (Black Panther, Nick Fury, Thor) that are yet to be released.
Surprisingly, Lee does not consider himself a collector. “Collecting is great,” he says with a laugh, “if you have the time for it!”
Q: Of the 15 top-grossing movies in the United States, George Lucas’ characters have grossed about $1.2 billion in ticket sales and your characters have grossed $1.1 billion.
A: Damn! He’s always beating me! I don’t like being in second place!
Q: Do you consider yourself one of the most successful creators in Hollywood?
A: Of course not! Lucas does movies. I only wrote a lot of comic book stories which other people have made into great movies. I had nothing to do with the movies and yet I seem to get so much credit for them. I feel like a phony!
Q: But Lucas created Luke Skywalker, you created Peter Parker. He created Darth Vader, you created Dr. Doom. Lucas wrote the stories, you wrote the stories.
A: Yeah, but he also produced and directed those movies. I didn’t have anything to do with the movies. That’s the only thing. I think I was very instrumental in making these characters famous and successful as comic book characters. In the comic book field, I did very well and I am happy to accept all the credit that might be heaped upon me. But the movies that have made all this money you’re talking about, while they were based on things that I wrote, they were written and directed and acted by other people. I had nothing to do with that. So I would be an idiot to compare myself to a George Lucas. I think I’m cuter! [laughs]
Q: So there you are, working at Marvel Comics for more than 40 years, with comic books all over the place. But you never really collected them?
A: I never had time to be a collector. I was always too busy writing. You know, I’m probably one of the world’s greatest hack writers because I got paid for what I wrote. The more I wrote, the more money I made. So I was writing all the time so I could pay my bills. Collecting is great if you have the time for it! Also, when I was writing, I never for a minute thought that years later these comics would turn out to be collectibles.
Q: Your wife Joanie is a collector.
A: Her tastes are very catholic. She was the first person I know who years ago latched on to African art when nobody knew what it was. She was buying these bits of sculpture from Nairobi and God knows where else. She collects paintings, sculpture, antique jewelry, watches. Anything that she finds attractive, she collects.
Q: Even though you had a full plate at Marvel, but wanted to do more. In the late 1950s, you started a newspaper comic, Mrs. Lyons’ Cubs with artist Joe Maneely. Then in 1960, you and artist Dan DeCarlo created the Willie Lumpkin comic strip, and that was followed by The Virtue of Vera Valiant, which you did with Frank Springer. In 1977, of course, you launched the Spider-Man newspaper strip. Why the desire to produce a syndicated strip?
A: I was always trying to do something that would break out and be a huge success.
Q: But Stan, wasn’t creating Spider-Man keeping you busy enough?
A: I didn’t know Spider-Man was that successful in the beginning. It took a few years before I realized we were on to something. I wanted to do something big, but we had bad luck.
Q: But you wanted to be syndicated because …
A: In those days, newspaper syndication was the big leagues and comic books were the minor leagues, the bush leagues. Maybe if you were good, you would graduate to newspaper syndication. The funny thing is today it’s almost reversed.
Q: A few years ago, you started releasing, through Heritage Auction Galleries, your file copies from your days at Marvel. Those included Spider-Man #1, X-Men #1, Amazing Fantasy #15 and Fantastic Four #1.
A: Those books that went to auction were just books that somehow I had accumulated. I didn’t save them as part of any savings plan or collection. There might have been a story that I liked that I didn’t feel like throwing the book away that quickly. I was always giving the books away! These were just some books that I hadn’t gotten around to giving away!
Q: What about original artwork?
A: You know, we never had room. We worked in one little office. … So we’d give the artwork away, the original artwork, to kids who’d come up to deliver a sandwich, or to a cleaning woman who didn’t want it. We didn’t know. We’d throw them away. Who knew?
Q: Finally, I have to ask. Did you ever mail off $1 plus 25 cents for postage and handling to get your very own X-Ray Specs?
A: As a matter of fact, Johnson Smith was the company that sold a lot of that stuff. The thing I sent away for most – I sent off for it a few times because I lost one – they have a little gadget that I felt was the most valuable thing in the world, because if you had this, you could do anything! It had a little magnifying glass and a little compass and a little knife blade and God knows what else. How I loved it!