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'Fresh Air' Remembers Marvel Comics Writer And Editor Stan Lee


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to an interview with Stan Lee. He died yesterday at the age of 95. He co-created Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, Black Panther and other Marvel Comics characters. Over the years, he worked as Marvel's head writer, art director and publisher. When I spoke with him in 1991, he was overseeing the adaptation of Marvel characters into films and TV shows, and he had just written the introduction to an illustrated history of Marvel Comics. He told me how he came up with one of his most famous superheroes, Spider-Man.


STAN LEE: Before I came up with the name Spider-Man, I had decided I wanted a superhero who could crawl on walls, stick to the ceiling and so forth. And I said, gee, that's a real insect power. What'll I call him? And my first thought was insect man, and that just didn't do it for me at all. And then I thought, well, let's see. There's a mosquito man.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEE: That really had no appeal at all. And I went down a whole list. And when I got to spider man, I mean, it was like a bell rang. A light went off above my head. Spider man was it. And when I put the amazing in front of it, I knew we were home free.

GROSS: What makes a superhero a Stan Lee superhero? What are some of the qualities?

LEE: Well, it has to be magnificently written. The creation has to be a work of genius. But to be serious, (laughter), the one thing that I've tried to do is give them the most human and realistic qualities possible. Now, it may sound like a contradiction in terms because our superheroes are fantasy characters with superpowers that no human being possesses, and yet I try to be realistic about it.

But the basic idea is you take one fantastic element, like, well, with the Hulk, like somebody who's got the strength of 50 men and green skin. And then you say, suppose such a character really existed? What would his life be like in the real world? Where would he live? What would he wear? Who would he relate to and so forth? And having asked the reader to suspend disbelief in the area of the character's superpower, you then try to make everything else as realistic as you can.

And then the other thing that we try for very much is humor. Now, I guess before Marvel comics started, there wasn't too much humor in superhero adventures. But for instance, with Spider-Man, I tried, again, to inject the humor in such a way that it was realistic. For example, there was a time when he had received a check as a reward for something he had done, and he was so happy to have this money, this check made out to Spider-Man. And he went to a bank to cash it in his Spider-Man costume. And the teller behind the counter said, well, I can't cash this check. I need identification. And he said, I'm wearing a Spider-Man costume. He said, anybody could wear a Spider-Man costume. You know, who are you? And he said, I've got a secret identity. I can't tell people who I am.

And anyway, this went from bad to worse. And he was never able to cash the check. Now, to me the interesting thing about that was I really wasn't trying to be funny so much as I was trying to be realistic. Because what would happen if a guy in a Spider-Man suit had a check that he tried to cash?

GROSS: How did the superheroes that you created compare to the kinds of heroes in comics when you started working at Marvel back when you were a teenager?

LEE: Well, when I started working for the comics, all the heroes were really cut out of the same mold. They were tall and handsome and strong and noble. And as far as their dialogue went, I felt insufferably dull.

GROSS: Like, give me an example of the type of writing you thought was really square and dull.

LEE: OK. I want you to imagine something. I want you to imagine that you're walking down the street and you see a monster coming toward you. And this monster is 12-feet tall with purple skin, forearms, a tail, and he's breathing fire and he's got two heads. And in those days, if Superman or Batman or one of our own characters, Captain America or anybody, any typical superhero, had seen this monster walking down the street in one of the stories, I think the dialogue would have gone something like this. A creature from another world - I'd better capture him before he destroys the city.

Well, I would like to feel that in one of our comic books, one of our heroes, such as Spider-Man, might say, who's the nut in the Halloween costume? I wonder what he's advertising. And it was just that shade of difference. I tried to do dialogue that represented the way real, flesh and blood, three-dimensional people would talk and would react to things. And it came across as satire. But I wasn't trying to write humor. I was trying to be realistic. So I must be funnier than I thought.

GROSS: What about deciding on the alliterative sounds that you would use when somebody got hit?

LEE: I loved sounds. And again, I think what it is, I've always hated cliches. As you can imagine, formally in the comics, if somebody was hit or if there was a sound effect of a loud noise, the sound effect would be pow or bam or sock or bop - something of that sort. So I tried to make up crazy sound effects that would at least be original. I would have P-F-Z-Z-A-K-T, which I cannot pronounce.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEE: But that might be the sound of a bullet going through a wall or something. One of my all-time favorite sound effects was btkooom. And it was spelled B-T-K-O-O-O-M, with three O's. And then I put a little asterisk at the end of the word with a note on the bottom of the panel saying the third O, of course, is silent.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEE: And so I had fun with the sound effects. As far as the alliterative names, most of our characters had alliterative names. There was Peter Parker and Bruce Banner and Reed Richards. And I had a very pragmatic reason for doing that. I have a terrible memory, always did. And it was difficult for me to remember the names of my characters. But by having the same first letter for a - if I could remember the Peter, it gave me a clue that the last name also began with P. And I would eventually remember it was Parker, you see. So it made it easier for me to remember the names by giving them the same first letter.

GROSS: What was the comic book code like when you started working?

LEE: Well, it wasn't there when I started working. But when we began to have some pressures from certain groups, we instituted a code that was similar to the motion picture code at that time. And it was what you'd expect. There couldn't be too much untoward sex. The female characters had to be pretty covered up - just what you'd expect. There mustn't be any blood shown if there were any violent battle scenes. Nobody could have a head chopped off or, you know, the usual things.

GROSS: We're listening back to my 1991 interview with Stan Lee of Marvel Comics. He died yesterday at the age of 95. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 1991 interview with Stan Lee. He died yesterday at the age of 95. He co-created Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Black Panther and other Marvel Comics characters. He had been Marvel's head writer, art director and publisher.


GROSS: I'm sure you've been asked this before, but why do superheroes so often wear tights?

LEE: I don't know. I think it is simply precedent. It started out that way. The first books - and I wasn't around at that time - had them that way. The funny thing is when I did our first superhero book, the "Fantastic Four," in an effort to avoid the cliche, I told the artist, I don't want costumes on these guys; I just want them to wear clothes.

So they didn't have skintight costumes. We sent the book out. It was published. We received a lot of fan mail. The kids said they loved it. We knew we had a winner, and we were on our way now. But every - virtually every letter said, we think it's the greatest book; we'll buy it forever; we love it; turn out more; but if you don't give them colorful costumes, we won't buy the next issue. And I do not know. I think you'd have to be a psychologist or a sociologist or something and do an intensive study.

But there - for some reason, unless these characters are garbed in some sort of outlandish outfit, the readers don't seem to accept it. Even the Hulk - I had no great reason for giving him green skin, except I knew if he had normal-colored skin, we probably wouldn't sell as many books. There has to be something colorful about the way they look visually.

GROSS: Are you a colorful dresser yourself?

LEE: No, I'm the most conservative guy you'll ever see. I wear jeans a lot, but I don't know if that's very colorful.

GROSS: What about physically? Do you have any special physical strengths (laughter)?

LEE: Oh, I'm incredibly powerful.

GROSS: Right (laughter).

LEE: I mean, I've got these broad shoulders and bulging - no, I'm kind of tall and skinny. And I mean, nobody would ever mistake me for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

GROSS: I want to get back to what you were saying before, that you couldn't create a character without a colorful costume 'cause the readers swore they'd never read it...

LEE: Oh, I...

GROSS: ...No matter how they sell the character.

LEE: That's right.

GROSS: Yeah.

LEE: I could create it, but it's just - I don't think we would've sold it.

GROSS: Yeah. Right, right. Well, now with women superheroes, I bet the equivalent is no matter how wonderful the character, you have to give her a large bosom or else they won't buy it.

LEE: Well, I guess you're right. But I don't know that it's anything sexist as much as symbolic. For example, you'll find that most of the heroes, as I say, they have broad shoulders and big biceps and, you know, they were all sort of Schwarzeneggers. And most of the women are Marilyn Monroes. And I think it's just that the artist tried to draw idealized men and women. And I guess that's the way most people idealize people.

GROSS: What you've been doing for years now at Marvel is overseeing the adaptation of Marvel characters into television and film stories. So do you initiate these things or do people come to you and...

LEE: Well, it...

GROSS: ...Make you offers?

LEE: It works both ways. And I've been out on the coast long enough now that I know most of the so-called power players in the movie and television business. And it's taken a while to get started. But right now I think you're going to be seeing a lot of Marvel product on the screen or a lot of our characters.

Now, for example, Jim Cameron, who did "The Terminator," "Terminator 2," is about to do a - about to write, direct and produce a very big movie of Spider-Man. And I'm incredibly excited about that. I think he's the best possible person to do this movie. And I think it's going to be an absolute blockbuster.

GROSS: So how do you like being Spider-Man's agent...


GROSS: ...Instead of Spider-Man's creator?

LEE: Oh, I enjoy doing what I'm doing. I moved out to Los Angeles about 10 years ago to set up a Marvel animation studio. And I worked there for a few years to get that going. And then little by little, I got into motion pictures and television. And it's very exciting to be in a new field at a time when a lot of guys are starting to think about retiring. And I've got this whole world opening up in front of me, and I'm still able to keep in touch and keep my finger in - on the comic books. So I figure I'm about the luckiest guy around. I really love what I'm doing. And each day seems to be more exciting than the day before.

GROSS: So Stan Lee, maybe one last thing you can clear up for me before we have to say goodbye - your birth name is Stanley Lieberman.

LEE: No. No, dear.

GROSS: Oh, Stanley Lieber.

LEE: Yeah. I was...

GROSS: Stanley Lieber.

LEE: I was born Stanley Martin Lieber, which is a very, I think, lovely, normal name. And as I said, I wanted to write the great American novel. And when I got working in a comic book company, I said, I'm not going to use my name for these silly comics. So I - you know, I was 17. And when you're 17, you don't know that much. I thought, I need a pen name. And I made up the name Stan Lee. And I started using it. And what happened was everybody, as the years went by, started to know me as Stan Lee, and nobody knew me anymore as Stanley Lieber.

So I would go to buy something and tell them to charge it, and they wanted to see my identification. I said, charge it as Stan Lee. But I had to show them my driver's license, which said Stanley Lieber. And it got so complicated that I finally legally changed my name to Stan Lee, which was a dumb thing to do because Stan Lee is such a stupid name. And people always say to me, Stan Lee, what? So I'm thinking of changing my name now to Stan Lee What.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LEE: So when they say that, I can say, that's right (laughter).

GROSS: So is Stan Lee short for Stanley or short for...

LEE: Lieber.

GROSS: ...Stan Lieber?

LEE: I don't know. I don't know, really. I can't remember whether I cut Stanley into two names or whether I figured Stan from Stanley and Lee from Lieber. I don't remember what the thinking was. But I figured Stan Lee sounds right for comic books.

GROSS: Well, it certainly worked, hasn't it?

LEE: (Laughter) It hasn't hurt, really.

GROSS: Stan Lee, thank you so much for talking with us.

LEE: Oh, it's been a real pleasure, Terry. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: My interview with Stan Lee was recorded in 1991. He died yesterday at the age of 95. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Sandi Tan, the director of a new documentary called "Shirkers" about being conned by her own mentor, a man twice her age. Also, we'll hear from Steve Yeun of "The Walking Dead" and "Sorry To Bother You." He stars in the new film "Burning." I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.