The Superheroes

Comic Books Make A Triumphant Return

There was a time in America, about a half century ago, when comic books were the rage, and kids made cultural icons out of superheroes like Spider-Man, Batman, Superman and Captain Marvel.

Superheroes were instantly recognizable — they were a bunch of muscular guys who wore capes and hoods, and their underwear on the outside.

Now they're back. Hollywood is engaging in big-time superhero worship. The latest production from Marvel Studios is "The Hulk," which came out last weekend and already has taken in more than $60 million.

"The Hulk" began life as a Marvel comic book called "The Incredible Hulk," created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

Last October, Correspondent Bob Simon talked to Stan Lee about another of his superhero creations, "Spider-Man."


The story begins with Stan Lee, who more than 40 years ago invented Spider-Man for Marvel Comics, creating the modern superhero.

How was Spider-Man born?

"I've told this story so often, and it may even be true," says Lee. "But I was watching a fly crawling on a wall. And I was looking for a new superhero, and I figure, 'Wow, wouldn't it be cool if a guy could crawl on a wall?'"

He had no idea that the idea was totally new: "I was just trying to make up some new characters so that I would keep my job, keep eating and paying the rent. And I hoped the books would sell. We didn't think we were doing anything revolutionary."

But Spider-Man was revolutionary. And Lee had broken the mold, creating something unheard of -- an action hero with psychological problems, a slightly neurotic and fragile superhero.

"He can be shot, he can be gassed, he can be hit very hard and knocked down," says Lee. "He's stronger than the average person, but he's incredibly vulnerable."

Spider-Man's alter-ego, Peter Parker, was just a dorky teenager: bullied by boys, rejected by girls, and indifferent about his superpowers. Yet he struck a nerve.

The spectacular success of Lee's Spider-Man at first seems bewildering. Who in his right mind would be interested in a nerdy loser who has no success with girls and is even ambivalent about his own superpowers?

The answer: All those ambivalent, nerdy losers in America who had no success with girls.

"As a matter of fact, my publisher hated it and didn't want me to publish it when I told him about it," says Lee. "He didn't like the idea of it being called Spider-Man. He said, 'Stan, people hate spiders. You can't give a book that name.' When I told him I wanted him to be a teenager, he said, 'But teenagers can only be sidekicks.' Then when I said, 'I want him to have a lot of problems,' he said, 'Don't you know what a hero is?' And he wouldn't let me publish it."

But, of course, Lee eventually prevailed. Which is why, more than 40 years later, Avi Arad is sitting on top of the world, arguably the hottest movie producer in Hollywood.

Arad's biggest blockbuster is "Spider-Man," which set a box office record last year, earning $120 million on its first weekend.

Arad says comics are the hottest thing in Hollywood. Why? "It's very simple. They make money. That's what makes them hot."

Arad produced "The Hulk," "The Daredevil," and he's contemplating producing sequels upon sequels of "Spider-Man" spinoffs.

"Looking at my birth certificate, I think I'll be involved with at least three, at least," says Arad. He believes the franchise will run "way past all of us."

But before Hollywood worked its computer-generated magic on Spider-Man, it was a plain old pencil that brought the superhero to life. Among the artists who wield that pencil today is Joe Quesada.

"This is the part of it that's still, thank God, it's still done by hand. If not, you know, I'd be out of a portion of my paycheck," says Quesada.

Quesada wears two hats at Marvel Comics. He's an artist, as well as Marvel's editor-in-chief. Quesada comes to work like lots of other New Yorkers. He enters an office building, rides an elevator. But as soon as he walks through the doors of Marvel, he's inside an extraordinary comic book universe, a playground where they manufacture superheroes.

It's a fabulous fantasy factory. The young men and women who work as the Marvel's artists toil to tickle the imagination of millions of readers, both young and old.

"What we do here is the equivalent of the cavemen sitting around the fire talking about the Great Hunt, or talking about the great God of Hunting," says Quesada. "It's no different. We're just storytellers. And we tell stories of the heroic ideal. It's that simple."

What kind of mind writes comic books?

"I think you could if you're a writer. In fact, that may not be true because I remember years ago Mario Puzo, who did 'The Godfather,' worked at our company. He said to me one day, 'Stan, I'd like to write a comic book. I need some dough.' So, I gave him an assignment. I didn't hear from him for a while. Two weeks later he came back. He said, 'Forget it, this is too difficult, I think I can write a novel instead.' And he went out and wrote 'The Godfather.' And I didn't even get any credit for that book," says Lee with a laugh.


Today, Stan Lee is now regarded as the comic book industry's grand old man. He invited 60 Minutes II to accompany him to the Golden Apple Comic Book Store in Los Angeles to survey his work — almost the entire Stan Lee collection.

Lee changed comics forever by bringing a modern sensibility to the superhero.

"I like to think that what we do is realistic fantasy. We have to suspend disbelief in the sense that our character is going to have some super power, is super strong, can crawl on walls, can fly in the air, whatever that is," says Lee. "But in order not to make it just a fairy tale, you have to believe in the person. And you have to believe that such a person might exist."

If Stan Lee revolutionized comics in the '60s, Art Spiegelman took the genre to a new level a few decades later when he created Maus. The first comic book ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, "Maus" told a Holocaust story. Specifically, it was the story of Spiegelman's father, a Polish Jew trapped by the Nazis. This was grown-up stuff, and it changed comics almost as much as Spider-Man did.

"Something's really afoot," says Spiegelman. "I couldn't have even said that as clearly six months ago or a year ago, where Maus, for instance, was seen as an anomaly. Now, Maus is seen as part of a larger picture."

The picture now includes serious comics, sometimes called 'graphic novels'—that just like Maus, are winning readers and winning awards.

For example, Chris Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth" blends words and images to tell a story with depth and complexity. And it's not just for kids. Ware is a Chicago artist and writer whose work recently won a British literary award.

"I still can't quite believe it," says Ware. "And it didn't actually dawn on me until I had left England that it had actually happened. I kept thinking, 'This is a joke.'"

It wasn't a joke. The graphic novel is carving out a niche for itself. Some are even being turned into movies, like the recent hit, "Road to Perdition." Suddenly, the stigma that's always been attached to comic books is lifting.

"Now it doesn't seem like you really have to be ashamed of yourself if you have a comic book in your possession," says Spiegelman. "Before, I'd hide my copies of comics inside a copy of Playboy so nobody knew I was reading one."

There was no shame in San Diego in August 2001 when thousands of people showed up for the annual Comics Convention. These were America's diehard comic book fans. But their numbers are dwindling — circulation is only a fraction of what it was a decade ago. And a far cry from the way it was in the 1950s when it seemed every kid had his face in a comic.

The irony is that while sales of mainstream comic books are down, Hollywood is feasting on the books, turning the old comics into a billion-dollar industry.

Arad says that each movie will bring in hundreds of millions, potentially bringing the total comic book movie pot to over a billion dollars. "It wouldn't be unusual," he says.

But Lee says none of that money is finding its way toward him. The creator of Spider-Man, who has always been and still is a salaried employee of Marvel, claims he hasn't made a penny off the "Spider-Man" movie.

"When I wrote these stories, I wrote them as a write-for-hire, so I don't own the characters," says Lee, who tries not to dwell on it because it's a little too painful.

But Arad says Lee is being treated fairly. "Everybody's getting a fair shake. It's years of work by many, many, many people. There's not one individual that is responsible for all of it," he says. "Stan created great characters, and, and, obviously, ask him. I think he's getting a fair shake."

Is he being screwed? "I don't want to say that," he says. "I mean, after all, I'm still a part of the company. I love the people. I love the company. And, as I say, I try not to think of it."

Lee says thinking about it only makes him unhappy. So what does he think about? Mostly about his next project. Lee, now 80, is still writing. When he does think about the past, he thinks about some of his favorite lines, like this one spoken by Peter Parker's Uncle Ben: "With great power comes great responsibility."

"That's a line I just tossed off, you know. And somehow people have remembered it and they've quoted it. And I'm delighted about that," he says.

Maybe that's the secret?

"Maybe," says Lee. "But I'm, I'm sure glad I wrote it."


Not long after 60 Minutes II aired this story last October, Stan Lee sued Marvel for a share of Spider-Man's profits. The case has yet to be resolved. To find out more, go to Comic Giant Sues Marvel Entertainment.