This interview ran in The Comics Journal #181 (October 1995)
In preparing material for this issue, the Journal ran across the following interview, and we’re proud to present it here as a document of historical interest. Ted White captures Stan Lee at the peak of ’60s success. The transition from editor to media mogul is just beginning for Lee — his opinions are those of a participant and refreshingly free of the hype which is now almost synonymous with his image.
TED WHITE: You’ve been with Marvel since what … 1944?
STAN LEE: I’m pretty rotten at dates. But it’s been about 25 years, 27 years … something like that.
WHITE: But the new look in Marvel occurred relatively recently. To what do you attribute this?
LEE: Well, I guess it started with the first issue of Fantastic Four about five years ago. They were our first real offbeat superheroes. They sort of started the trend.
WHITE: What led you to do those? Up until then, there had been no superheroes for what … about five or six years in this company.
LEE: Before I could answer … Would anybody like a sourball?
WHITE: Thanks …
LEE: What color? I seem to have red, yellow, orange … couple of greens.
WHITE: I feel very strange conducting an interview with a sourball in my mouth.
LEE: Well, I guess we were looking for something to hook some new readers. Also, I think boredom had a little to do with it. We had been turning out books for about 20 years. Same old type all the time … so I figured let’s try something a little more offbeat. Let’s try to … I think the big policy was to avoid the clichés. For example, on The Fantastic Fours, first cliché was: all superheroes wore costumes. We soon learned that was a mistake because, much as the readers like offbeat things, there are certain basics that we must have, and apparently, superhero fans do demand costumes as we learned in the subsequent mail.
WHITE: They’ve been after you to change costumes around ever since.
LEE: Yes, in fact, they … costumes were nothing that I ever worried much about, but I see that the rabid fans are tremendously interested in the attire of their superheroes. The other cliché that we … I think we were probably the first to break, was the cliché of all the superheroes being goody-goody and friendly with each other. If they’re members of a team, they’re nice and polite, and … we had our Fantastic Four argue amongst themselves. They didn’t always get along well and so forth. And this seems to have caught on very well.
WHITE: Actually, doesn’t this go back to company policy back in the days of the ’40s when the Submariner and the Human Torch were fighting with each other?
LEE: Well, the only thing is … then the Submariner wasn’t that much of a good guy. It was sort of his personality that he would not get along well. They were natural enemies. Fire and water.
WHITE: Well, this was pretty unusual. I guess we can say that in the comics, Marvel pioneered the whole idea of the antihero … the superhero who isn’t really a hero.
LEE: Yes, I think, you could say that because I think certainly Submariner is the first one that I … that I can remember. Bill Everett did the first Submariner … he was a sort of hero-villain. He was really more hero than villain … but he wasn’t 100% hero in the sense that the heroes are today.
WHITE: The readers would see things from his point of view, of course. Now you’ve got a full-fledged line, and besides the superheros, of course, you have branched out a good bit. You’ve got Sgt. Fury, which is about 50% superhero and about 50% non-superhero, depending upon whether you read his adventures in World War II or his adventures today. And the newest thing you’re doing is the TV series. Can you tell us a little about that? How much work do the animators do on the original art?
LEE: Well, quite a bit. They use the actual story and art from the magazines. Basically, it’s using our still figures, our still pictures, our panels and then animating the panels.
WHITE: They go back to your original black and whites?
LEE: Yes. [Phone buzzer interrupts.] Excuse me. Yeah? … Why sure … Just one little interruption. Would you mind opening the door? I think it locks automatically, and Sol Brodsky is coming in. Thanks, yeah. He’ll be in in a minute, [Buzz.] Whoops! [Into phone:] Yeah? I’ll give Sol something, something to look at. [Sol Brodsky enters stage left and confers with Stan about a comics page.]
BRODSKY: Stan, he’s supposed to be catching him here on the rebound?
LEE: Or reaching for him.
BRODSKY: Reaching for him.
LEE: He doesn’t have to be actually catching him …
BRODSKY: Now he’s flying by this way … and the hand like this looks as if he’s throwing.
LEE: I thought the hand could just be like that as if it’s going to …
BRODSKY: Like this … lee Sure. Just reaching. Any way that will make sense … see … ’cause here he grabbed him. Instead of it being this way, we’ll turn it that way … and now he’s reaching to grab him, see?
BRODSKY: Yeah … we just drew it wrong.
LEE: Right. I just want to give you something. I understand Steranko is here. I’ll probably be another 20 minutes … so possibly he might want to look this over and then I’ll talk to him. [Brodsky exits.]
WHITE: We’re curious to know the exact procedure you follow when you brainstorm a story … especially one that will continue over several issues.
LEE: Well, what we usually do is, with most the artists, I usually get a rough plot. By a rough plot, I mean as much as I can write in longhand on the side of one piece of paper … who the villain will be, what the problem will be and so forth. Then I call the artist, whoever’s going to draw the strip … I read it to him … what I’ve written down, these few notes … and we discuss it. By the time we’re through talking for about 20 minutes, we usually have some sort of plot going. And we talk it out. Lately, I’ve had Roy Thomas come in, and he sits and makes notes while we discuss it. Then he types them up which gives us a written synopsis. Originally — I have a little tape-reorder — I had tried taping it, but I found that nobody on the staff has time to listen to the tape again. Later … so it’s just too much of a waste. But this way he makes notes, types it quickly, I get a carbon, the artist gets a carbon … so we don’t have to worry that we’ll forget what we’ve said.
Then the artist goes home … or wherever he goes … and he draws the thing out, brings it back, and I put the copy in after he’s drawn the story based on the plot I’ve given him. Now this varies with the different artists. Some artists, of course, need a more detailed plot than others. Some artists, such as Jack Kirby, need no plot at all. I mean, I’ll just say to Jack, “Let’s let the next villain be Dr. Doom.” … or I may not even say that. He may tell me. And then he goes home and does it. He’s so good at plots, I’m sure he’s a thousand times better than I. He just about makes up the plots for these stories. All I do is a little editing … I may tell him that he’s gone too far in one direction or another. Of course, occasionally I’ll give him a plot, but we’re practically both the writers on the things.
WHITE: He actually did do a script while you were away on vacation.
LEE: Yes. We had both plotted that out before I left, but he put the copy in on that one. I do a little editing later, but it was his story. Jack is just fantastic. We’re lucky. Most of our men are good story men. In fact, they have to be. A fellow who’s a good artist, but isn’t good at telling a story in this form … in continuity form … can’t really work for us. Unless we get somebody to do the layouts for him and he just follows the layouts. We’ve done that in the past.
WHITE: That’s what it means when you have a little note saying “Layouts by Kirby, Art by So-and-So … ?
LEE: Yes. Now that isn’t always because of the fact that the artist can’t do layouts. There are many extenuating circumstances. For example, an artist who hasn’t done a certain strip may have to do it because suddenly the other artist who is going to do it is ill or something. He isn’t familiar with the storyline, and I don’t have time to explain it. Now Jack has been in on most of these things with me. I can call Jack down. I can say, “Jack, make it a 12-page story, and, roughly, this is the plot.” Jack can go home, and the next day he has the whole thing broken down. He gives it to the artist, and the artist just has to worry about drawing his work on the breakdowns. It’s a lot easier than me spending a whole day discussing the philosophy of the strip with a new artist. Also, there are some fellows who are starting a new strip who are a little unfamiliar. They’d rather have Jack break it down for them once or twice until they get the feeling of it.
WHITE: Of course, Jack has a very good sense of action.
LEE: The greatest …
WHITE: And his perspective … things seem to be coming at you on the page. It seems to me that his layouts are a lot more dynamic … less static than a lot of the other artists who are working on their own.
LEE: Well, we refer to Jack — it started as a gag, calling him Jack “King” Kirby — but actually I mean it. I think that this guy is absolutely … in his particular field, he’s the master.
WHITE: Of course, he’s been working with Marvel on and off practically since Marvel started. He did the original Captain America, of course, but he was doing work back before Captain America, back before his long collaboration with Joe Simon.
LEE: I don’t know anything about that because I wasn’t here at the time … and I think he had been with another company before Marvel.
WHITE: He did Blue Bolt.
LEE: Yeah, I think that was for Fox. They’re now out of business. But Jack …
WHITE: No, actually that was for Curtis.
LEE: That who it was?
WHITE: They had a different name for the company.
LEE: Might have been …
WHITE: … because The Saturday Evening Post didn’t have anything to do with comic books.
LEE: Yeah, I seem to remember now. You’re right. But Jack … I’m probably Jack’s biggest fan. And, of course, we have many other talented men [phone buzz]. I think the staff we have now is really pretty terrific. Excuse me. ’Lo? Er … listen, ask him if it’s urgent. If it isn’t, I’ll get back to him in about a half hour … I’m in that conference now, OK? Thanks.
WHITE: Getting back to TV shows, you’re using your own original script from the books.
LEE: Actually, they have to be changed to some degree because some of them aren’t complete in themselves. And the animation studio has to change the ending or … It has to seem as if it’s a complete episode.
WHITE: How closely do you oversee this?
LEE: Pretty closely. In fact, I have some storyboards here. They give them to me in this form, you see, and I take them home with me and check them.
WHITE: These are Photostats of the original panels? Is that it? Then, of course, they’re going to work with those from the point of view of the animation.
LEE: Yes. So, I … I’m actually, I guess you might say, the story editor on the TV series.
WHITE: How closely do you feel that their animation has followed the style of the original artist, bearing in mind that so much of an artist’s style is in his handling of thickness of line and …
LEE: Oh, very closely, they shoot the actual picture and all that they animate is opening the mouths and shutting and opening the eyes and shutting and moving the arms and legs … but it’s the basic drawing that we’ve got there. I don’t see how anything could be more faithful to the original artwork. Now, naturally, they had to make some little changes … but, er … I’ve had experience with other people who’ve taken properties … they usually don’t even bother with the people whose property they’ve taken. They just go out on their own. This particular outfit, Grantray-Lawrence, they’ve been an absolute joy to work with. They check with us on everything, and they’re tremendously anxious to keep to the spirit of our own strips and stories. I couldn’t be more satisfied with what they’ve been doing. They’re trying their best to keep it in style, for better or for worse, the style that we have in our books.
WHITE: Did you ever see Jonny Quest?
WHITE: What did you think of that? Would you prefer to see that type of animation?
LEE: That type of animation didn’t bother me. I think it has a certain charm. I many ways I think I prefer that to full animation which can ruin a human-type character. It’s so hard to animate a human being. Technically, I think this is a very interesting … The way they’re doing our show technically … I’m delighted with that. I wouldn’t have been happy if it were animated like, you know, like Mickey Mouse … just regular animation.
WHITE: Do you feel that the form of animation they’re using is in another sense, somehow related to the mass audience concept of camp which had something to do with Marvel’s success with adults.
LEE: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but now that you mention it, it very well could be.
WHITE: How do you feel about the way in which the Marvel audience breaks down into age group? Have you made any effort to find out just what percentage is what age group?
LEE: No. I can just guess by the mail we receive, and the people I meet and so forth. I couldn’t give you a figure, but I would say we have a … a tremendous amount of young adults reading our books. Now whether this is 50% of our readership or 10% or so, I don’t know. But, as far as the mail is concerned, it’s about 50% of our mail … college students, soldiers …
WHITE: You’ve gotten a lot of attention on college campuses. I know a lot of the college magazines have devoted space to the Marvel characters.
LEE: And it seems to be growing all the time …
WHITE: It’s nice to see the Marvel shows taking away the lead Batman had two years ago.
LEE: That television show is so much the style of our comic magazines that, if we did our comic magazines live, we would almost look as if we were imitating Batman.
WHITE: Except that you do not present your characters in the light in which ABC presents Batman. It’s almost as if the producer is asking the audience to join him in sneering at the hero.
LEE: I agree 100%. You get the feeling that they’re ridiculing or laughing at their own characters. I would love from some of our characters to be done with the kind of budget Batman has. But er … I have no idea whether that’s in the works or not.
WHITE: It would be wonderful to see Fantastic Four done that way. Can you think of the special effects of Human Torch?
LEE: Yeah. Or I would settle for any of them. For something even simpler … like Spider-Man. I can see Spider-Man making a magnificent show.
WHITE: Have you had any nibbles from the movie studios for full-length movies?
LEE: No, not that I know of. Again, I don’t know. The front office may have had some — It’ s nothing that I really discuss with them until the thing is definite. But I haven’t been told of any. I wouldn’t be surprised, though.
WHITE: Has there been any conflict between your title The Avengers and the ABC-TV show?
LEE: No. Apparently, it didn’t mean anything to anybody.
WHITE: You were there first in this country.
WHITE: What is your feeling about the way in which … er … the Marvel Group has grown in terms of circulation? You see any leveling off? Is it still growing?
LEE: It’s just incredible. We just seem to be growing at the same steady rate year after year.
WHITE: Does it put more pressures on you? Does it take pressures off you?
LEE: Well, the only thing that puts more pressures on us is if we physically produce more titles, and we’re not. We’re sort of limited to the titles we have now. If our sales increase, the only pressure is one of jubilation. We … about five years ago I guess we were selling about 13 million. Now we’re selling about 45 million a year … and this has been a steady rise over the past five years … and there seems to be no end in sight I’m happy to say. I think we’re only limited by how many we can physically print and how many we can physically distribute. I think we can really sell many more if we can print them and distribute them.
WHITE: Well, you’re getting more competition all the time, of course. New companies keep coming into the superhero field all the time. There are the Tower people … and Harvey Comics … Those are the most flagrant imitators. How do you feel in general about the imitators?
LEE: I wish they would peddle their papers elsewhere. The flattery kick — we’ve gotten over that years ago. We realize that we are rather popular now. We appreciate it. But the thing that bothers me … corny as it may sound … We really are trying to make comics as good as comic can be made. We’re trying to elevate the medium. We’re trying to make them as respectable as possible. We … our goal is that someday an intelligent adult would not be embarrassed to walk down the street with a comic magazine. I don’t know whether we can ever bring this off, but it’s something to shoot for. At any rate, we try to do this. Now when other companies come out, and they try to make their books seem like our book as if they’re all in the same class, the same milieu … and yet the quality is inferior, the art is inferior, the writing is inferior, the plotting is inferior. I feel this does nothing but hurt us. The adults who don’t read comics, but who … whose youngsters try to convince them that comics are really pretty good. You know, who may read ours and like them, say “Why don’t you read one? They’re really good.” And the people who are uninitiated but who have heard about comic and might want to pick up one of those imitations, look at them and say, “Aw, I knew it That fellow who told me comics are good is really an idiot. They’re as bad as they ever were.” In this way, I think we can be hurt by imitators.
WHITE: The imitators make themselves look so much like your line that many readers may think they’ve gotten hold of a Marvel comic.
LEE: Exactly. Now … silly as this may sound, or hard to believe as it may sound, I wish our competitors did better books … If they put out books of comparable quality to ours. Now, I don’t like this to sound as if I’m an egomaniac, but I think you see what I mean. If … if I felt myself that the art and stories were as good as our books, I would be happier because I would feel that we’re all elevating the field … and we’re all going to benefit by it.
WHITE: It would put more pressure on you to get even better …
LEE: Right. But as it is, at this particular moment, I still think that we are doing the only somewhat significant work in this field. There’s the occasional exception.
WHITE: You’re up against something which is a periodic phenomenon in the comic book industry. Back in the early ’50s, the EC group set really high standards. I don’t think you’ve beat them on art yet. Er … when Mad came out, and it was a sleeper, someone realized, “My God! That thing is selling!” Suddenly, the stands were covered with Mad imitations. Whenever someone notices that someone is doing something original that is making money, they’ll all jump on the bandwagon. But for some reason, none of them bother doing anything which has the quality of the original.
It would seem that if someone wants to capture the Marvel audience … or enlarge upon it in any way … they should be less concerned with the superficialities … such as having “chatty” covers. That’s a gimmick they’ve taken from you, and now you’ve dropped it. They never attempt the quality of writing you’re doing. And you’ve kept changing your approach, evolving your characters. In Thor, for instance, you’ve gotten into some great mythological conflicts … and away from the nonsense with alter egos, the doctor turning into Thor and —
LEE: We’ve gotten many letters from readers who say, “Hey! We haven’t seen Dr. Blake in a while.” So, we’ re trying to see how we can get back to that a little bit. Although I will admit I myself would like to just keep him Thor and keep the stories as they’re going. It makes it easier and more palatable to me.
WHITE: Originally Thor was a very schizophrenic thing. You had the “Thor” feature at the front, essentially a standard superhero with his civilian identity and his civilian love life problems, and in back you had “Tales of Asgard,” which was pretty much pure myth reinterpreted in comic form. Now, although you are dealing less with myth in its original sense, you are including all the mythic figures … you’ve gotten into Grecian mythology … Pluto and the Underworld. That’s marvelous stuff; that’s sense-of-wonder stuff.
LEE: Oh, you’re quite right. Quite right. In fact, we don’t really have any set plan for anything … so you’ll always find changes in our books. One day I’ll wake up in the morning … or Jack will … or any of our artists … or Roy Thomas … or anybody … and say, “Hey! Why don’t we do this and such?” We’re very lucky that there is nobody clamping down on us and saying, “You have to stay within these prescribed channels.”
To me, any new idea is worth exploring. Even a bad new idea is better than a good formulized rut you might be in. So, I like to change these. As far as the FF goes, they are getting a little bit science-fictiony. I would like to give them a different feeling than, let’s say, Spider-Man, which isn’t science-fictiony. I’m very hard pressed to find out how to make Spider-Man very different from Daredevil. I, sooner or later, will find a way. I would like all of our books to be different from each other … to have their own individual style. It’s difficult … because we still don’t have enough artists. Consequently, I have to alternate. One fellow may draw Hulk this month. He may have to draw Daredevil next month … and so forth. We still don’t have one artist for one feature except in the case of Thor and Spider-Man and a few others.
WHITE: Why is this?
LEE: We just don’t have enough men. So, if one man is ill … or if one man breaks an arm … or anything … somebody else has to do his strip. Then the somebody else’s strip is now late. Somebody else has to do this. We’re continually running into crises of that sort.
WHITE: Is there any way out?
LEE: Just getting more artists. We’re looking all the time. But this is what we’re up against. The reason I mention this about the art is that it’s one of the reasons that it’s a little difficult also to stay with a definite theory for each book. As you change artists you change your approach, you see. But sooner or later things will level off. Maybe they never will because we’re always in a state of flux. But it keeps it exciting.
WHITE: Well, our time is up.
LEE: I’m awfully sorry. Nobody enjoys this sort of thing more than I do. I wish we had another 10 hours to go through it.
Originally published as “A Conversation with the Man behind Marvel Comics: Stan Lee,” Castle of Frankenstein #12 (1968).