Stan Lee on Stan Lee: Comic Book Icon Looks Back on His Career in Photos

6:00 AM 7/21/2016

by Andy Lewis

From his inauspicious start in the world of publishing as a paperboy to Spider-Man, the X-Men and beyond, the 93-year-old opens up about his 75-year career.

AP Photo/Nick Ut

Thanks for photo research help to Sean Howe, John Morrow, Frank Giella, Danny Fingeroth and With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story producers Nikki Frakes, Will Hess and Terry Dougas.

  • 1939: Paperboy

    Courtesy of Sean Howe

    "In high school, I was more like Peter Parker, only I wasn't as smart. I was too skinny to be on the wrestling team, but I did play baseball, and I sold subscriptions to The New York Times. I made a dollar or two, which mostly went to my parents. It was the Depression, and my father was out of work most of the time. He was a dress cutter. I remember him sitting at home reading the want ads. The poor guy."

  • 1941: Army Driver

    COurtesy of the Lee Family Trust

    "I was so proud of that car. It was my first. We had never had a car in our family. But I was able to buy that one for about 30 bucks or something. As you can see it wasn’t exactly a brand-new car. It was an old Plymouth. And the thing I loved most about it, it had a windshield. The front windshield [would open], and the air would come and hit you in the face. It was like a convertible except you’d go blind if you drove because everything would get into your eye. But they don’t make cars like that. They don’t make windshields like that anymore. I became damn good [at driving it]. I could get that car up to almost 30 miles an hour. [Any faster and] it would explode."

  • 1942: Army Playwright

    COurtesy of the Lee Family Trust

    "I was supposed to go overseas with the Signal Corps. I was practically waiting at the pier for the ship to take me overseas when I got a tap on the shoulder, and some colonel said, 'You worked in comics?' Yes. 'We have a job for you.' And he sent me to Astoria, Queens, where they had the Army's Training Film Division. The next thing I knew, I was writing training films, and I'm sitting next to [playwright] William Saroyan and Theodor Geisl [Dr. Seuss] and the guys [Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts] who wrote the Jimmy Cagney movie White Heat. I was churning this stuff out — it was the least I could do for my country."

  • 1950 and 2000: Scenes From a Marriage

    With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story/The Lee Family trust

    "My wife was English, and there was a guy she liked as a young girl who married someone else. And Joan was very high spirited — I think she thought, 'I’ll show him!' And she grabbed the first American Army officer that was stationed there and married him. I think mostly to show this other guy. So, she came over here and he was still in the Army over there. And I met her. And I realized she didn’t really love that guy and was probably planning to divorce him anyway. She was just what I wanted. I wanted to get her divorced quickly. So, I found out in Reno you could get a divorce in six weeks. All you had to do was establish residency. So, I sent her to Reno. She wrote to me every day. Along around the fourth or fifth week, I got a letter that said 'Dear Jack.' Now I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I know my name isn’t Jack. Maybe I better go to Reno and see what’s going on. So, I ran to the airline office or somewhere and said I want a ticket on the first plane to Reno, which showed how stupid I was because the first plane to Reno was the local milk run that stopped at every town between here and Reno. Anyway, I got there and here’s three guys with her. They all look like John Wayne. Big Western guys! Rugged! And I get off the plane fresh from New York with my little pork pie hat and a little scarf and my gloves. I thought, 'I don’t have a chance.'" 

  • 1958: Family

    Courtesy of the Lee Family Trust

    [Lee and wife Joan with their daughter J.C. (Joan Celia) about 1958-59]

    "Any kid who draws, if he's a guy and he isn't gay, he draws beautiful women. There was one girl I drew: one body and face and hair. It was my idea of what a girl should be. The perfect woman. And when I got out of the Army, a cousin of mine said, 'Stan, there's this really pretty girl named Betty. I think you'd like her. Why don't you go over and ask her to lunch?' I went up to this place. Betty didn't answer the door, but Joan did. I took one look at her. She was the girl I had been drawing all my life. She said, 'May I help you?' I think I said 'I love you.' I proposed to her at lunch."

  • 1961: Creating the 'Fantastic Four'

    Courtesy of John Morrow

    "I modeled the leader of the group a little after myself. He was the world’s greatest scientist. That is not after me. But he also talked so much that he would bore the hell out of you. That was me. And he used big words. And I liked doing that because that gave the Thing, the other character, the opportunity to always be insulting him. The “Gee, does the man never shut up?” And I made the boy, the Human Torch, the Invisible Woman's brother; I made it a family thing. He didn’t particularly want to be a superhero. He wanted to get a Chevy Corvette and drive around and impress girls."

  • 1961-66: The Marvel Age

    Courtesy of Marvel

    "I wanted to get characters that even though it was a comic strip they could have been in a movie or in a novel. I wanted them to have real personalities. In fact, after the Fantastic Four, I felt that way about everything we did, even though these are comic books."

  • 1963: Breaking the Fourth Wall

    Courtesy of Marvel

    [In the left corner Lee and Kirby inserted themselves commenting on the action in Fantastic Four No. 10 (January 1963).]

    "I loved this idea. I tried to do anything that was a little different. I’d say, ‘What would I like to see?’ I just always wrote for myself. I figured I’m not that different than other people. And if there’s a story that I like a lot there’s gotta be a lot of other people with similar tastes. So, I thought I would like to see the breaking of the fourth wall. At that particular moment; I don’t know what gave me the idea, but I thought I’d like to see it. By that time, Martin butted out. He was smart enough to know that he didn’t really know much about this stuff. I had pretty much free rein by now."

  • 1963: It Might Have Been 'Mosquito Man'

    Courtesy of Marvel

    "I was trying to think of something different, and I saw a fly crawling on the wall. I thought, 'Wow, wouldn't it be cool if a hero could stick to the wall like that?' So I went down the list. 'Insect Man? Nah. Mosquito Man? Nah.' Until Spider-Man. It sounded dramatic. Then I thought, 'What if he could shoot webs also like a spider? And to make him even more different, I'm going to make him a teenager. All the other heroes are grown-ups. And I'm going to give him personal problems. He has to worry about money. His aunt is always ill.' Things like that. So I ran into my publisher Martin Goodman's office so excited, and I told him. And he said: 'Stan, that is the worst idea I've ever heard. You can't call him Spider-Man because people hate spiders. You can't make him a teenager — a teenager can only be a sidekick.' I walked out of his office with my tail between my legs. But I couldn't get over the idea."

  • 1970s: Hitting the College Circuit as 'Speaker-Man'

    Courtesy of Frank Giella

    "One day I got a call from Bard College. Would I come speak to them? To be invited to speak at a college about stories that I was ashamed to tell people I was doing — it was such a thrill. So I got all dressed up, and I went to Bard College. And I noticed the people I was speaking to were all wearing jeans and torn T-shirts. I felt foolish. Two months later, I got a call from Princeton. Would I speak there? I'm not going to make the same mistake twice, so I wore my oldest clothes: torn sneakers and a dirty shirt. First thing, I get invited to dinner at the dean's house. It was served by a butler with white gloves."

  • 1970s and 1980s: Famous Fan Mail

    Courtesy of The American Heritage Center

    Stan Lee's archive at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming is full of fan mail from the famous, including these from Linda McCartney and Wes Craven. Sometimes Stan was the fan, as the letter from Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson attests. 

    Letter from Linda McCartney

    Letter from Wes Craven

    Letter from Bill Watterson

  • 1973: A Pitch From Oliver Stone

    Courtesy of The American Heritage Center

    "I don't remember this letter. All I know about Oliver Stone is he asked me if I would do a cameo in a movie [Natural Born Killers] — there was a prison break, and I was one of the men. I was caught in the middle. I found out later, they weren't extras. He was using real, tough killers for that scene. And there I am in the middle of it. There was rioting all around me, and I'm standing there. That's the only relationship I had with Oliver," says Lee. Stone's memory of this pitch is only slightly less foggy. "I have no idea what the material was about," he says. "I do remember I wrote quite a few comic- and fantasy-type treatments."

  • 1977: Blood Brothers

    Courtesy of Marvel

    "They had the idea they wanted to put some Kiss blood in the ink of the magazine. So anybody who bought a copy of the Kiss magazine would be getting some Kiss blood. In order to do that, they had to go to Buffalo, [N.Y.], where the printing plant was to drop some of their blood in the red ink. They invited me to come with them. We get to Buffalo. There are limousines waiting. There are cops stopping traffic while we go to the plant. All I kept thinking was, 'We are stopping traffic. What if somebody really needed a doctor?' "

  • 1980: Going Hollywood

    With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story/The Lee Family trust

    "When I first came out here, I wasn't that well known. I had come out here on business, and I drove along Sunset Boulevard, and the weather was so beautiful, I said: 'This place is paradise. I want to live here!' When I went back to New York, I said to all the executives at Marvel: 'You know, we should set up our own studio. I am willing to make the sacrifice to uproot my family and move out there to set up a studio.' "

  • 1981: 'I Was Always Looking for Publicity'

    With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story/The Lee Family trust

    "You know why I did that? There's a famous actor, Burt Reynolds, who did a photo like that for Cosmopolitan [in 1972]. The kids in the office were talking about that [nude] photo, and they said, 'Wouldn't it be something if we had Stan do the same thing? We could promote it and get the publicity.' In those days, I would do anything. It was done very quickly. You know, I was on the couch and went like that, and then it was over. I wasn't really naked under this, you know. I had a pair of shorts on."

  • 1988: The Gentle Giant

    AP Photo/Nick Ut

    "I was very much involved with the Hulk TV series. Lou Ferrigno was a gentle giant. He was the nicest guy in the world, but he made a great Hulk. I've had people say they want to do a movie about my life a dozen times. But I've been married to the same woman for 66 years. I've been doing the same thing. What would be interesting? And who could play me? Clark Gable is dead."

  • 1999: Michael Jackson: 'Spider-Man Was His Life'

    With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story/The Lee Family trust

    "I don't know how big a comic fan he was, but he was a big Spider-Man fan. Spider-Man was his life. He wanted to be Spider-Man. He wanted to produce Spider-Man. He wanted to direct Spider-Man. That's what he wanted. We had gotten very friendly, and he came over to my house once with his baby to talk about it. He gave the baby to [my wife] Joan to hold. She spent an hour looking after the baby while I was talking to Michael. He was a very sweet guy. I remember once he told me he'd like me to do a little scene with him [in a music video]. He was shooting it in Jersey in an abandoned aircraft airdrome. There were about 300 people there. I came in the back door, and he was onstage. All of a sudden, he said, 'Hold it. Stan, Stan, come on up.' I felt like the most important person in the world! Michael Jackson stopped what he was doing to say, 'Stan, come on up.' I'll never forget that."

  • 2015: 'My Favorite Cameo'

    Jay Maidment/Marvel/Disney

    "I created a new industry: cameos. And I'm the only guy in it. The one I most got a kick out of was when Thor had a strong drink, and I wanted a sip, and he said, 'No, it's too strong for you.' I drank it anyway. Next scene, they're carrying me out drunk. I liked that. It was the only one where I had two scenes."

  • 2016: 'Cosmic Crusaders'

    Courtesy of Legendary VR/POW!

    "I can't wait to bestow upon the world one of our latest creations, Stan Lee's Cosmic Crusaders [which premiered July 19 on THR.com and also can be watched in virtual reality via an app]. I've had one rule of writing all my life: I wrote things that I enjoyed and wanted to read. I never thought, 'I'm going to write this for 12‑year‑olds or 20‑year‑olds or 30.' I never thought that way. If I enjoy it, there will be a lot of other people who'll enjoy it. And it's worked out pretty well."

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