Long before Spider-man was an action hero on the silver screen, he was a star on the pages of Marvel Comics. He owes his existence to a man named Stan Lee. And as Lee admitted in a talk with our Lee Cowan, he's a lifelong admirer of movie derring-do:
Stan Lee's superhero was Errol Flynn. "I would leave the theater," he recalled, "and I had an imaginary sword at my side, and I'd be looking for some girl that some bully was picking on so I could run to her rescue!"
"Did you save some girls?" asked Lee Cowan.
"No, I never found that girl. I probably would have gotten beaten up anyway!" he laughed.
Lee might not have become Robin Hood, but he's certainly achieved superhero status.
At 93, he's as famous as his characters, regarded by comic book fans and convention-goers worldwide as one of the architects of 20th century mythology.
"He's basically responsible for my childhood," said Dan Shanihan, a fan who recently attended Stan Lee's Comikaze Expo in Los Angeles, dressed as Captain America.
Cowan asked the comic book king, "Do you feel like a rock star?"
"Sometimes they make me feel that way," Lee replied. "You know when they say, 'Can you take a picture with me,' or shake my hand or something? It's a great feeling that people really care that much. It is."
Name a superhero ... name a super-power ... and chances are Lee helped dream them up.
The list is long. From Spider-man to Iron Man, from the Hulk to Thor, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four -- all his in some capacity. He's essentially the God of the Marvel Universe.
But did he ever worry about running out of characters or super powers? "No, that never really occurred to me," he said. "It was too much fun doing them."
He didn't do it alone. While the characters and the storylines were mostly Stan's, they were co-created with the help of his graphic artists, like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who sketched out Stan's wild ideas in vivid detail.
"All of these artists made my stories look better than they were," Lee said.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Stan's story has just been put into comic book form, too -- a memoir the way only Marvel's master could deliver, published by Simon & Schuster (a division of CBS).
"I figured I've done everything else as a graphic novel -- why not my life?" he said. "That's fine with me!"
The comic starts out, as Stan started out, as Stanley Martin Leiber, born to Jewish immigrants in 1922. He grew up poor in a tiny Bronx apartment during the Depression.
When Stan was old enough, he started looking for jobs to help pay the bills, and in 1939 he landed at a publishing house which just happened to have a small division called Timely Comics.
"I'd fill the ink wells -- in those days they used ink!" he said. "I'd run down and get them sandwiches at the drug store, and I'd proofread the pages, and sometimes in proofreading I'd say, 'You know, this sentence doesn't sound right. It ought to be written like this.' 'Well, go ahead and change it!' They didn't care!"
Characters like Destroyer, Father Time and Jack Frost soon had Stan's fingerprints all over them.
He got so caught up in the battles of good vs. evil that after Pearl Harbor, it seemed only natural he join the Army.
"Oh hell, how could you not volunteer for the Army?" he said. "Hitler was over there doing all those horrible things."
But instead of fighting, Lee found himself drawing. His best work: a poster telling soldiers how NOT to get VD.
"I drew a little soldier, very proudly," he recalled. "And he's saying, 'VD? Not me!' as he walks in. They must have printed a hundred trillion of those! I think I won the war single-handedly with that poster!"
By the time the '60s rolled around, Timely Comics had become Marvel Comics, and Lee realized he could do more than just entertain; his characters could also offer social commentary, refusing to shy away from the issues of the day, like war, race relations, and drug abuse.
"I tried on everything that people were thinking of, that I was thinking of, that was concerning people at the time," he said.
His superheroes had flaws; they argued among themselves; they had hang-ups -- all key ingredients that went into his most famous character of all: Spider-man.
"I saw a fly crawling on a wall, and I thought, 'Gee, what if a guy could stick to walls like an insect?" Lee recalled. "That sounds good. So I started trying to think of some names. Insect-man? Nah. Mosquito-man? Nah. And then I got to Spider-man. Spider-man, ooh, that sounds dramatic! And if he has spider power, he can shoot a web also. And he could swing ... oh man!
"And then I figured I'd make him a teenager, and I figured I would do the unthinkable: I'd give him personal problems.
"I ran into my publisher and I said, 'Have I got an idea for you! His name is Spider-man ...' And I couldn't get any further. He said, 'Stan, that is the worst idea I have ever heard!'"
The rest, of course, is the stuff of comic book lore. Spider-man led what became known as the Marvel Revolution.
And then there are those Marvel movies. Stan Lee has made cameos in almost all of them, standing toe-to-toe with his big-screen pals:
Surprising to many of his fans is that although Lee created the characters, he never really owned them; Marvel did. Which is why, despite all the comic book sales and TV shows and blockbuster movies, Stan found himself largely cut out of the profits. The hundreds of millions that they've made at the box office have passed Lee by.
"No, I don't share in any of that," he said.
"But they're YOUR characters," said Cowan.
"Well, they're not MY characters. They belong to the company. It was my job to create them."
"Does it make you angry? Does it frustrate you?"
"I try not to think about it. I'm having too much fun with the rest of my life. There's no point going back and saying I should have done this, or I could have done that. You know, what does it gain you?"
It was only after Lee sued Marvel in 2002 that the issue came to light. He settled for an undisclosed seven-figure amount -- and Marvel did give Lee a title: Chairman Emeritus of Marvel Enterprises.
He currently heads up POW! Entertainment (POW! standing for Purveyors of Wonder), and he's far from out of ideas.
Does he think he'll ever retire? "Oh no, no. That's a dirty word."
"Why is it a dirty word?"
"Well, you know, retired to do what? I'm doing what I want to do. So why would I want to retire from it?"
For all the villains out there roaming the galaxy, let's hope Stan Lee has a few more super-powers up his sleeve to protect us all -- when we need a good escape.
Cowan asked, "Do you think, looking back now, that this is what you were born to do?"
"Probably. No, I really think I was born to be Errol Flynn, but I never quite made it" Lee laughed.
For more info:
- "Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir" by Stan Lee, Peter David and Colleen Doran (Touchstone); Also available in eBook and Unabridged Digital Audio Download formats
- Follow @TheRealStanLee on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube
- http://marvel.com/POW! Entertainment
- "With Great Power ...The Stan Lee Story" (DVD); contact Will at Emerging Entertainment