Stan Lee: Grand Master - Part Two

By Clifford Meth

Minimally credited as the man who "humanized" superheroes, Stan Lee joined Marvel Comics (then Timely Comics) as a 16-year-old writer in 1939. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, he was like any other writer cranking out formula stories for titles like Combat Kelly and Ziggy Pig. But failing sales combined with Stan’s own growing boredom finally causing him to buck the system in 1960 and begin writing comics his own way.

Here’s part two of a conversation Stan and I had 18 years ago:

Meth: Do you still have heroes?

Lee: Sure. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Woody Allen, Kurt Vonnegut, Gregory McDonald, who writes "Fletch." I go through life having heroes.

Meth: At their best, what do comic books accomplish?

Lee: Well, I’ve only thought about them from one point-of-view, and that is entertainment. That’s their primary function.

Meth: Ok. But you pushed the envelope—or at least some of your writers did—during the late Sixties. You were making at least an attempt at social commentary.

Lee: You’re absolutely right. But the first objective is to entertain. Then, what happens is when you’re writing a story, you cannot—at least I cannot—divorce yourself from the world around you. You’re writing a story to entertain, but while you’re writing it, you’re aware of the problems of terrorism, of poverty, of crime. And while you write, you can’t help but put your own philosophy into the stories.

Whatever I thought of, I used to write. And I always thought what I was doing was good. I’ve always considered myself one of the good guys—one of the guys wearing a white hat. So I never worried. I always tried to use my own personal opinions to influence kids about things that were purely my opinion. I never tried to discuss politics or religion.

Meth: The early X-Men seems to be an attempt at that—a not-so-subtle parable about prejudice and fear.

Lee: Yes. This was the basis of the original book. One of my biggest problems, when I tried to create characters years ago, was trying to find an excuse for them to wear masks and have secret identities. I used to think, if I were a superhero, I would want everyone to know. Why would I want to conceal my identity? So I had to come up with excuses.

With The X-Men, the excuse I came up with was people fear things that are different. They distrust superior people. Certainly, the X-Men were so superior that they realized that the only way they could live safely in our society was to keep their powers and identities unknown. I believe I established that in the first story, and it worked. Chris Claremont has carried it many steps further, but it’s still the same theory.

Meth: Let’s talk about the origins of Spider-Man. Why did you choose Steve Ditko over Jack Kirby?

Lee: I gave Kirby Spider-Man first. I told Jack I had this character I wanted to do, I described Spider-Man, and I said, "You know, Jack, what I want you to do for once—don’t draw him the way you draw all these characters," because Jack drew the most handsome, heroic, glamorous heroes you’ll ever find. I wanted Spider-Man to be just an ordinary guy—a little bit of a nebbish; no broad shoulders; glasses. And Jack brought in a page or two of Spider-Man and he sure as hell didn’t hear me because the character looked like Capt. America in a Spider-Man suit. I said, "Look, Jack—forget it. You have enough work."

Then I asked Steve Ditko to do it. To this day, I don’t know who made up the Spider-Man costume. It might have been Kirby who did those first few pages and Ditko might have copied Kirby’s costume. Or Ditko might have just made up the costume and disregarded what Kirby did. I can’t remember.

Meth: Which artists were you close with during the Bullpen days?

Lee: One guy who I miss tremendously wasn’t an official artist. Sol Brodsky. He was my assistant for years and the company’s production head. He could write, he could draw, he could ink—he could do everything. But he worked in production. And boy, that was a loss for them! Of course, there was Carl Burgos, who did the Human Torch, and Bill Everett, who did the Sub-Mariner. I admired them so much when I first got into the business.

Clifford Meth is the editor of The Uncanny Dave Cockrum Tribute—a 100-page bonanza that features art from such giants as Frank Brunner, Michael Kaluta, John Romita Sr., Will Eisner, Joe Kubert…and an introduction by Stan Lee. Order it now from

© 2004, Clifford Meth