Stan 'The Man' Lee still the idea machine behind 'Spider-Man'
By Anthony Breznican
Associated Press Entertainment Writer
SANTA MONICA, Calif. Spider-Man creator Stan Lee's philosophy can be summed up in one word: Excelsior!
The comic book scribe adopted that grandiose way of saying "onward and upward" as his motto during his lengthy and legendary tenure at Marvel Comics.
With the highly anticipated film version of "Spider-Man" coming out Friday, the term is more appropriate than ever but it probably deserves a few more exclamation points.
"People always ask me, 'Why don't you retire?"' says the 79-year-old Lee, who has an off-center widow's peak, salt-and-pepper mustache and sparkly eyes. "But when you retire what do you do? You say, 'At last I can do all the things I've wanted to do."'
Lee grins broadly.
"Well, I'm ALREADY doing the things I always wanted to do. Why would I stop?"
Besides serving as executive producer of "Spider-Man," Lee has consulted on other upcoming films based on his characters, including "The Hulk" and "Daredevil," along with a sequel to the blockbuster "X-Men."
Lee also is developing original characters and concepts at his new production company, POW! Entertainment; has written a soon-to-be published autobiography; and appears in the interview DVD "Stan Lee's Mutants, Monsters and Marvels."
Lee speaks about his work with boundless enthusiasm. If life were a comic, his dialogue would be written not in a bubble but a yellow star burst, the kind reserved for words such as "Ka-BOOM!" and "BLAMMO!"
He delights in movies, watching one every night at dinner with Joan, his wife of 54 years. His Santa Monica office would thrill any little boy, filled with racks of colorful comic books. A portrait of the snarling, green Incredible Hulk glowers from one wall, and Lee's desk is guarded by a life-size statue of Spider-Man, striking a dramatic, web-slinging pose.
"Stan became an ambassador of comics to the mainstream," said "Clerks" director Kevin Smith, a comics fan and friend of Lee's who conducted the interviews on the DVD "Mutants, Monsters and Marvels." "He's the face behind comics to people who don't read or identify with them. He took superheroes public."
Lee started as a writer at Timely Comics, which later became Marvel, when he was 17. Back then, there was more romance, comedy and Westerns in comic books than superheroism.
His cousin-in-law, Martin Goodman, was the publisher and Lee was looking for a break from a number of small-time jobs: theater usher, sandwich delivery boy, office clerk at "the world's second-largest trouser manufacturer."
The popularity of "Batman" and "Superman" at rival DC Comics had Goodman looking for some fresh superheroes of his own. Lee came up with the idea for a family of do-gooders, all with varying abilities. He called them "The Fantastic Four," and they became a fast seller.
Goodman wanted more, so Lee took the typical villainous monster and made him the hero. The result was "The Incredible Hulk," another runaway hit.
In 1962, Lee, seeking inspiration everywhere, spotted a fly on his wall that set him thinking: How about a hero who could crawl on walls?
"The next thing I needed was a name," Lee says. "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. ... That was it!"
But Lee wanted his hero to be different from others in more ways than just his kind of superpower.
He made Spider-Man's alter ego, Peter Parker, a teenager, an orphan, someone with financial problems, dating problems and general "normal" woes that contrasted with his cosmic clashes with the villainous Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus.
"I was told in chapter and verse by my publisher that it was the worst idea he'd ever heard," Lee recalls. "`People hate spiders,' he said. 'Teen-agers can only be sidekicks.' Then when I told him that I wanted Peter Parker to have lots of problems and worries and be unsure of himself, he said, 'It's obvious you have no conception of what a hero really is."'
Goodman eventually agreed to let Lee and Ditko slip the adventures of Spider-Man into the last issue of a "Twilight Zone"-style comic book called "Amazing Adult Fantasy" that was closing because of poor sales.
Months later, sales figures revealed the edition was a surprise top seller.
"The publisher came back to me and said, 'Stan, you remember that character that we both liked? Why don't we make a series out of him?"'
These days, he still writes the Spider-Man newspaper strip, and is finishing a series with former rival DC Comics called "Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating ..." in which he rewrites the origins of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and other DC heroes.
Director Sam Raimi even gave him a cameo appearance in the new "Spider-Man" film rescuing a little girl during the Green Goblin's attack on Times Square.
"After we shot this scene with all of us running, 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."'
For once, Stan Lee got to play the hero.