Stan Lee may be one of the most-read, most-influential authors of the last 50 years, and the characters he’s created may be among the most bankable Hollywood properties in modern cinema, but you wouldn’t know any of that by walking into his office.
The legendary comic book writer and editor presides over POW! (Purveyors of Wonder) Entertainment from an unremarkable, black-glass-paned mid-rise in Beverly Hills, Calif. POW!’s offices hide behind a door down a tiny, quiet hallway, anonymous except for the company logo printed on a piece of paper stuck to the entrance. There’s no reception area, no receptionist—just a small love seat and a spinner rack full of comics in front of a series of quiet, identical offices cluttered with copiers, printers and paper.
In his modest space tucked into the corner of POW!’s L-shaped halls, the 87-year-old Lee sits surrounded by his creations: A giant poster of the Silver Surfer graces the wall behind his desk, a pop-art painting of Lee staring down Spider-Man hangs across the room, and a nearly life-size statue of Spidey crouches in the corner, overlooking Santa Monica Boulevard. Framed photos scattered around the office hint that the man is important: There’s Lee with Ronald Reagan, Nicolas Cage, George W. Bush and Michael Jackson.
Lee himself, however, is as humble as his surroundings.
“I get embarrassed,” he says in reference to the attention fans pay to him, smiling as always. “All I did was write a few comic stories.”
(Las Vegas fans can pay attention to him during Stan Lee Tribute Weekend, May 6 to 8. See page 34.)
Those “few comic stories” have become a modern cinematic Valhalla. Iron Man 2, one of the year’s most highly anticipated movies, is the latest likely success to originate from Lee’s head. Along with its predecessor, and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2 is one in a series of films leading up to a long-anticipated blockbuster directed by Joss Whedon featuring The Avengers, Marvel’s flagship superhero team. If it all comes together, it will be a first for a crossover of such magnitude on the big screen.
Although it’s hard to imagine now, there was a time when the company that owns Lee’s characters—Marvel Entertainment—was a second-string comics publisher known as Atlas Comics, limply putting out anything that would sell, including westerns, romance, science fiction, horror and suspense.
Lee was hired at Atlas in 1939, and became the editor in 1941. By the late 1950s, he’d grown tired of tales of bland, generic do-gooders and was ready to leave the business to try something else. But with help from artistic giants Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, he created the gamma ray-powered Fantastic Four under the name of Atlas’ successor, Marvel Comics, ushering in the modern comic book archetype by crafting characters who were both superhuman and flawed. His heroes struggled to pay the rent, worked to salvage relationships and sneezed through colds while battling crime and villains, and exploring strange, new worlds. The formula proved very successful.
Beyond the stories, Lee changed the mainstream comics business itself. Under his watch at Marvel, creators no longer toiled anonymously; he ensured contributor credits appeared in every issue. He created a rapport with readers through his monthly columns. And though he was never adamant about the issue, Lee helped undermine the influence of the Comics Code Authority, an industry-sponsored censorship board established in the ’50s to weed out immoral and inappropriate content before the federal government got involved and did it for them. Lee indirectly challenged the CCA in 1971 by publishing a Spider-Man comic depicting drug use without the CCA’s seal of approval on the cover. He returned to using the seal later, but the success of the Spider-Man series demonstrated that it wasn’t necessary.
Even the way Lee worked with his artists—tossing them a loose plot idea, letting them run with it, then scripting the pages after the fact—was a game changer in the industry. It’s now known as the “Marvel method.”
Prior to launching POW! in 2003, Lee—capitalizing on the cache his own name carried after his $1 million-a-year lifetime contract with Marvel was nullified —launched an Internet-based entertainment company, Stan Lee Media. The company’s failure, resulting from a sudden loss of capital when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, led to a stream of legal troubles, including a securities regulation felony indictment for SLM co-founder Peter Paul, a trademark infringement suit initiated by Lee against successor company Stan Lee Media Inc., and multiple suits against both POW! and Marvel by Paul’s associates, claiming rights to practically everything Lee created and, concurrently, Marvel owns.
But POW! has forged on, poised for greater success. Earlier this year, the Walt Disney Co.—which purchased Marvel Entertainment in a highly publicized transaction—quietly bought a 10 percent stake in POW!, giving the Mouse a first-look option on all Lee’s intellectual property. The octogenarian is still an idea generator, churning out concepts for new consumable entertainment at every turn: An anime series. A live-action TV show. A manga comic. He’s the executive producer on all films featuring Marvel’s stable of characters, though unlike when he first moved to Southern California in the ’80s to develop animation and film properties at Marvel Productions, his title is ceremonial.
He’s happy with most of the cinematic takes on his creations—“The ones that do the best are my favorites,” he says—putting Iron Man near the top of that list. He does take issue with one at least one filmed interpretation, however.
“There have been changes I might not have made. For example, in The Hulk, I wouldn’t have made him so big. In the magazine, I told the artist to make him about seven, seven-and-a-half feet tall, but he’s just the strongest guy there is. However, I can understand—you’re doing a movie, it’s got a $100 million budget, you feel you have to give the audience something to see that will be spectacular.”
Although some of his post-Marvel output has been hit-or-miss (see Stripperella) Lee’s recent creations for the Japanese manga market have done well—Ultimo, which he co-created with Hiroyuki Takei, debuted in Japan but has been reprinted in English by VIZ Media and is due for adaptation into an anime series.
But most of his writing these days is limited to concepts and ideas. When he was editor of Marvel Comics in the 1960s, Lee worked from home two to three days a week to craft his words of wonderment. Five decades later, he has no such luxury. These days he shows up somewhere, then quickly moves on to the next meeting, convention appearance or comic book signing.
“I can’t get any writing done now that POW! is involved in so many different projects, and they usually expect me at most of the meetings. I have to save my writing for at night—if I’m not going to a business meeting—or weekends. There’s nothing else I can do.”
But don’t take that as a complaint.
“A lot of people say, ‘I can’t wait to retire, because then I’ll be able to play golf a lot,’” Lee says. “I don’t play golf. I’m with people I enjoy being with. I’m doing work that I think is such fun. When I was a kid, I never dreamed I’d be in Los Angeles, talking with producers and directors and actors and screenwriters. I’m doing everything I enjoy doing, so why wouldn’t I keep doing it?”