In the old days, you could go to the corner store and pick up a copy of “The Amazing Spider-Man” or “The Incredible Hulk,” and enjoy it in all of its newsprint, full-colored glory. That hasn’t changed — comics are still being printed and collectors still love those pages, even if they seal the book up in a plastic envelope so its future value isn’t damaged by dog-eared, stained pages.
But while Lee and his superheroes are still fighting crime and evil-doers, you’re more likely to see kids interact with them on the screen of an iPad as you are to see them nose-deep in the pages of a comic book. These days, fans watch their favorite superheroes at the movies, play them through a video game or even read them on a tablet. But Lee has proven to be a kind of superhero, too. The man behind most of our favorite superheroes isn’t resting on his laurels; he is also expanding his talents to include technologies to carry the spirit of the comic book world into the digital age.
After all, even the best superhero loses a fight if he lets villains best him with the latest gadgets. And at 90, Lee isn’t about to let that happen to him, especially when he’s not finished telling his stories.
From Stanley Lieber to Stan Lee
Born to Romanian-born Jewish immigrants on December 28, 1922, Stanley Lieber lived through monumental changes not only to his industry, but to the U.S. itself. Like many Depression-era children, he found escape in books and movies, like the ones Errol Flynn sword-fought his way through to rescue the damsels in distress. But the Lieber family had financial problems, and by the time Lee reached his teenage years, he, his younger brother Larry and their parents lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. He had dreams, though. He loved to write and got part-time jobs penning obituaries at the National Tuberculosis Center. The smattering of jobs also included delivering sandwiches for a pharmacy, working as an office boy for a trouser maker and selling newspaper subscriptions. And by 1939, when he graduated early from high school, he’d joined the WPA Federal Theater, a government-funded Depression-era project.
Fate soon stepped in when his uncle got him a job as an errand boy for Timely Comics, which in the ’60s would evolve into the Marvel Comics empire Lee would one day make famous. But his first job was to make sure the artists’ had their lunches and their inkwells were full. It didn’t take long for Lee’s genius to show, though. By May 1941, just months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Lee made his debut with filler copy for “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” in Captain America Comics No. 3, using the pen name, “Stan Lee,” which he would later make his legal name.
Then at 19, a company decided to shake up the management and he was promoted to interim editor, then the comic-book division’s editor-in-chief and art director, which he held until 1972. From 1942 to 1945, he joined the U.S. Army, but stayed stateside in the Signal Corps, serving as one of only nine men who had the title of “playwright.” After the war, the popularity of comics declined — Americans didn’t need heroes anymore, and Lee dabbled in different types of writing, including romance, Westerns and horror. He stayed in the comic industry, but adapted to the challenges of the time.
It’s Time for a Superhero
While Lee got his start with the Captain America, it would take nearly 20 years before he would get back into superheroes. In the late-50s, when rival editor Julius Schwartz brought back an updated version of the Flash and the Justice League, Lee’s publisher, Martin Goodman, wanted him to create a new superhero team. Lee’s superheroes were different, though. Above all, he was a talented storyteller, so his superheroes had interesting back stories. For example, Peter Parker, the real identity of Spider-Man, lives with the guilt of his uncle’s death, and The Hulk’s alter-ego, Bruce Banner, is a brilliant scientist whose formula went wrong. The flawed superheroes had complex and very human problems, and fans of all ages could see themselves in them while looking up to the heroes they became.
Superheroes fought crime, but they also had flaws that caused problems — a welcome, but gritty relief from the super-slick Superman and his ilk, bringing Marvel out of the idealistic ’50s and into the turbulent ’60s. Once again, Lee was able to reflect the changing times to stay one step ahead. Along with great artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, his co-creations included Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor and more. But the comic industry was about to face a new challenge for kids’ attention — the growing influence of television and the rapid advancement of technology.
Modern Times, Modern Challenges
When Lee started in the comic book industry in 1941, he couldn’t have known of the events to follow: wars, social upheaval and gadgets. Once astronauts landed on the moon, it just wasn’t as miraculous to see a superhero with the power of flight. But the one thing that hasn’t changed in all that time, Lee says, is the ability to enjoy a good story.
“All of us loved fairy tales when we were kids. Tales of monsters and dragons and witches and giants, but you outgrow the fairy tale,” he told Forbes in an interview. “You can’t read them when you’re an adult, but I don’t think you ever really outgrow your love for them. If you think about it, these superhero stories are fairy tales for grown-ups.”
But challenge remains — to present stories when the times are changing so rapidly not just in terms of content, but also by paying attention to how modern-day readers enjoy the material. Lee and Marvel are doing just that by tackling the online frontier. He keeps a Twitter account, where he interacts with his nearly 500,000 followers — a number any superhero would be proud to call his own. He also travels around the world and uses his iPad and an iPhone to stay connected with social media. “I think it’s not valuable, it’s invaluable,” he said in the interview. “I think that social media is the wave of the future. It’s the way all of us will be communicating and 90 percent of the way we’ll get all of our entertainment.”
His latest project is a YouTube channel, “Stan Lee’s World of Heroes.” It doesn’t just feature re-drawn comic books, but includes stories that people who love comics will enjoy, along with some funny rants from Lee himself.
“We have all sorts of new programming coming along on this channel and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun,” he added. “We have science fiction stories, we have funny stories and anything that in any way relates to superheroes or in some way relates to anything that is high concept, entertaining and exciting.”
Lee also co-founded “Pow Entertainment,” which teamed up with Michael Eisner’s Vuguru to produce original digital content, to produce and distribute studio quality films and episode-style series. Pow is also developing its first non-American superhero for a new generation of fans and Lee is directly involved in the creation, just as he’s been doing for more than 60 years.
He’s also working on a graphic novel, “Romeo and Juliet: The War,” taking the Shakespearean tale 200 years into the future to a time when two groups of superhuman soldiers turn the Empire of Verona into the most powerful territory on earth. The Montagues are powerful cyborgs made of artificial DNA and the Capulets are genetically enhanced humans. And of course, a young Montague boy and a Capulet girl fall in love.
Through “Kid Universe,” a joint project of 1821 Comics and Pow, he’s featuring a roster of kid-friendly and even parent-approved characters ranging from “The Fuzz Posse,” a group of police dogs, to “Reggie the Veggie Crocodile,” who loves his produce.
“The whole idea is to give them the kind of stories that they haven’t read before that they can easily understand and relate to,” Lee said in a statement. “While we want these to be reasonably educational and good for kids, our main purpose to be entertaining… kids have a great sense of humor if you can reach them the right way.”
Lee has been a writer for most of his 90 years, and while the ways people consume entertainment through the years has gone from the radio shows of his youth to digital content enjoyed on the most modern of equipment, his commitment to crafting a good story has never wavered. The new ventures, along with his embracing of social media and digital technology, show that while the times are changing, his creativity and talent has remained the same — and for millions of fans, he’s a superhero as well, and will likely be one for some time. ♦