Stan Lee: WNYC Radio Interview, October 15, 1970
Lawrence Van Gelder: There was a time about fifteen or twenty years ago when I guess most of the people our age stopped reading comic books, they thought they were too old for them, they thought t1-ley had grown uninteresting. But something new is going on today, and you're the man who I think is most responsible for it.
Can you tell us what is new and what is surprising in comic books today?
Stan Lee: Well of course none of it is surprising to me since I'm right in the middle of it. I guess the thing you're referring to as "newness" is the so-called relevancy that seems to be in the comic book magazines today. Jr stead of just a superhero trying to fight a villain who wants to blow up the world, or little green-skinned monsters from Mars, we try to set our
stories in in the real world. A character like Spider-Man will be involved in a campus protest and things of that sort.
Lawrence Van Gelder: Do you find that this has an impact among young people, that you get a response?
Stan Lee: Well, I would guess we get a response amongst people of every age. Actually we don't knock ourselves out for the so-called "relevancy" in the sense of getting political issues and so forth and dragging them in. We've been trying to do this for the past, I guess, ten years since Marvel Comics started its so-called "New Wave of Comics." We tried to get relevancy before there were these big burning questions that are playing out now, in the sense that instead of superheroes that are obviously cardboard figures, why not treat our superheroes as real people living in a real world. I think that the theme that we've had is that these are like "fairy tales" for grown-ups, but they were to be completely realistic except for the one element of a super power which the superhero possessed, that we would ask our reader to swallow somehow. You had to believe that somebody could climb a sheer wall or that his body could burst into flame or that he was a green-skinned monster. But excepting those sort of ridiculous points which just made for colorful stories, we tried to do everything else as realistically as possible. For example, if a hero had a superhero power, we didn't, ergo, just assume that he'd be lucky in love and have all the money in the world and everything would come his way. We tried to show that nothing really brings total success, and just because you have big muscles, this doesn't necessarily mean you're going to have big triumphs. And we wouldn't have a character in a silly costume walk down the street and have people not notice it, as they had been doing in comics for years before. We'd likely as not have another character in the story say, "Who's that nut in the skin-tight underwear prancing down the street?" and so forth. We felt that we were being relevant even then; we were trying to get people to act the way real people would act given a set of circumstances.
Stan Lee: well, in trying for realism of course, if something is going on today and something we're all concerned with, it's really almost , it's impossible to keep it out of a story. Now for example, pollution. We've had ecology stories in Sub-Mariner. One of our writers, Roy Thomas, has been doing many stories of that sort with great bearing on problems that concern people today. We've had ecology stories, I guess. . . . In fact we're big in ecology stories today, in Iron Man comics, Daredevil. . . . The one in Sub-Mariner dealt with the so-called surface race, which is polluting the seas, and Sub-Mariner, who as everyone knows is the king of Atlantis, he took a dim view about all this. We've had, as I've mentioned, stories about campus riots. We've had Captain America involved in student dissents. We've tried to do more than just involve the characters in these contemporary problems. We try to also show how our characters themselves react to the problems. And well, one thing that I try and do in my own limited way is to show that nothing is really all black and white. Captain America can't—although he's considered an establishment figure really—he's beginning to have second thoughts about the whole thing. He realizes he can't really side with the establishment 100 percent. He realizes that there are a lot of things that are wrong, and it seems that many of these things that are wrong, well, it seems to be no real simple, legal, effortless way to correct them short of extreme measures. By the same token he's always fought for law and order. He's afraid that too much violence will breed too much violence and where do you stop it. And, well, obviously this is really my own philosophy too. I have the toughest problem in the world in taking a definite stand on almost anything, and I have ambivalent feelings about virtually everything, and this is either going to make our stories extremely dull or extremely realistic. I don't know.
Lindsey Van Gelder: Well are these issues calculated because these are what kids care about or are these issues that your artists and writers and you yourself spend time off the job worrying about?
Stan Lee: Oh, I think you have to say that it's what we care about. I mean, after all, we writers and artists and editors are really, well, we were kids not too long ago, a little longer for some like myself. But we live in the same world as our readers, and certainly what our readers are concerned with, we are concerned with. And I think this is another reason that our books are somewhat successful over the past few years. We've never tried to anticipate our audience's desires. We never thought of ourselves as separate and distinct from our audience. We are our audience. And we've always felt that if we can do stories that interest us, stories about themes that interest us, well, they have to interest the public because we're part of the public. So far it's worked out.
Lawrence Van Gelder: In dealing with some of these problems, you take on problems that some people don't think are problems. I mean, they think that always the police are right, that always the establishment is right, always that the government is right. So in a way you are taking a political stance certainly in the eyes of some people who may disagree with you. Does this lead to a lot of critical comment from readers? Do you get mail from certain parts of the country from people saying, "Now look, this is wrong and how can you do it? You poison people's minds."
Stan Lee: We get such a minuscule amount of that type of mail. I'd think we might say that we almost get none. We either have the most broadly-minded, clear-thinking audience in the world, or else the nation isn't in as bad a shape as everybody thinks. Well, that may sound like a very self-serving statement, in other words, "if you like our stories, then the country's in good shape," I didn't mean it to sound that way. But what I mean, we get many letters from people who disagree with some of the points that we have in the books and take issue with us, but they are very rational well-reasoned letters. And as much as I can tell, they seem to be the letters of fairly reasonable people who have an opposing point of view. Well, my god, we have people in our office who have opposing points of view. I was working on a piece, booklet, for Ken Koch, the poet whose new book just came out—plug—and he's on the staff of Columbia, and the two of us were working on a comic book which would hopefully inform the voters as to which congressmen to vote for who might help end the war in Vietnam a little sooner. And we asked one or two of the people in our studio, the bullpen as we call it, to illustrate the book, and a few of them were desperately anxious to do it, and a few of them said, "Oh golly no, I'm no big dove. I wouldn't want to do anything like that." So even in our bullpen we have divergent opinions, which is something of course if you think about it, everybody belongs to a family, and how often in a family is there ever complete concurrence on every issue? And when you try to think of making the whole world harmonious, or getting people who are so totally different and have different interests throughout a nation to agree on any issue, why it's just a staggering concept.
Lindsey Van Gelder: I want to ask you about the age groups of the people who read Marvel. I've noticed that the letters to the editor column read like a, well, sometimes like a SST session. But usually it seems to be older people arguing very
cogent political points. What kind of letters do you get from kids, eight, nine, who might not be steeped in this, or are they?
Stan Lee: Younger people arguing cogent points. No, actually luckily we still seem to have a lot of young readers. We receive as many letters from the younger readers. Usually we don't print as many so it seems like we have perhaps an overwhelming amount of older readers. I think it's pretty well balanced though. You see, we try to keep our letters page interesting and indicative of the feelings of our readers.
Lindsey Van Gelder: They're great.
Stan Lee: Thank you. But what happens is that most of our younger readers will write letters such as "Gosh! Wow! Your last issue was groovy!" or "Take Stan Lee out and shoot him! That last issue was terrible! We know he can do better!" And that's about the extent of it.
Lindsey Van Gelder: Do they pick up on politics though?
Stan Lee: Not as much as the older readers, no. But they'll say things like "Sub-Mariner's trunks should always be purple, but in one panel they were green." Well, you can only print so many of those kinds of letters. It doesn't make for a real philosophical situation. So for that reason we do print the more interesting letters, which are nine times out of ten from older readers. But to answer your question a little more specifically, I guess I've strayed all around the point. We do get, an unexpected—unexpected, a few years ago—amount of letters from our readers which deal with politics. In fact, I just wrote a Soapbox column for a future bullpen in which I mention a fantastic thing, in Captain. . . . Oh, I might preface this by saying selfishly I use the letters to help me edit the magazine. It shows me what the readers want and don't want. And for the most part I try and follow their dictates because they're the ones that buy the books. Well, I've been very frustrated with our Captain America magazine. I find it's as if I've been left alone on an ice floe somewhere and I got to shift for myself. I don't know what the readers want
because every letter we've gotten for the past three months for Captain America has merely dealt with political issues. Nobody's said a word about the stories or the artwork themselves. Now I don't know if people are just reading the magazine just to pick out whatever philosophy or political connotations there might be. I don't know if anyone cares if we have super villains or if there's any action or anything. I put a little notice in the Soapbox asking a few readers to just kinda drop us a line and let us know if they are still reading the book.
Lindsey Van Gelder: How did you get the idea for the women's liberation issue of the Avengers?
Stan Lee: Oh, I didn't. That was probably Roy Thomas's idea. He wrote the thing. But I would imagine it's a question that almost answers itself. Women's lib is so big now, how can you not have a story or two about it?
Lindsey Van Gelder: Do you think you might let the Black Widow or Invisible Girl get her own book?
Stan Lee: Well, that won't have as much to do with women's lib as it does with if the book will sell or not. Actually we put the Black Widow in her own strip in one of our books.
Lindsey Van Gelder: She's with the Inhumans.
Stan Lee: That's right. It's either an "Amazing" or "Astonishing." I always get those two mixed up. We're just waiting for some sales figures. I think it will do well. If it does sensationally well, we'll take the two strips that are appearing in the one book and give them each their own book of course.
Lawrence Van Gelder: There was a time, and I'd like to go back a little to the fifties, when every time you picked up a newspaper or listened to a speech, some psychologist or some congressman was taking on comic books. That they were too violent, too gory. What's happened since then? It hurt the industry at that time, and I think it left a lot of people who are parents themselves with the idea that they didn't want their kids exposed to it. What governs you now?
Stan Lee: I'm sorry that every question seems to cause a speech on my part. I'll try to answer simply. We are living in such a fast-changing world that things that were bad, or . . . well, even women's clothes, if you could ever see a girl wearing her skirt as high as they've been wearing them in the mini-skirt age of a year ago, ten years ago it would have been impossible to even conceive of in the street. Now we accept it. I remember the Beatles' haircut when they first came out and everybody saw the Beatles' hair, you know. "Wow, how can they go out in public that way?" I just saw some old pictures of them recently, and they seemed so conservative. You sort of wondered what all the fuss was about.
Well, the reason I mention that in the age of Dr. Wertham and all the ... I shouldn't really say "all"—he was the leading opponent of comics and the most vocal one. At the time when he was having his big harangue against comics, people were very concerned about violence and sex and about,
well, I guess anything Dr. Wertham wanted to mention. And he would point out a panel in a book somewhere where a person was being killed, and he would make it sound so terrible, and the fact that he was a psychiatrist, this impressed parents and they began to think, "Golly, what's going on in these comics?"
Today—and this is why I mention it's a quickly changing world—today, and it's certainly not an original thought on my part, it's been said so many times, there's so much real violence in the world that we live in, you just have to pick up a newspaper. I don't think there's anything we could do in a comic book that would even approximate the terrible things that are going on in the world about us. Not that we attempt to. But I think it's been put in its proper perspective now. Comic books are just an entertainment medium. They are certainly written far better, illustrated more beautifully than they were, they are probably written better than your average TV show or grade B movie. Unfortunately most adults aren't aware of this because they don't think to pick up one and read it. They tell an exciting story with more imagery, more imagination, more fantasy and wonder than you can get anywhere else, except in an occasionally good new science-fiction story, and even that won't be quite as imaginative. That will just cover one point usually, whereas a comic book just seems to explore the whole realm of fantasy and wonder, and it's all for fifteen cents, and it's all in pictures. And I think a person would have to be paranoid to start criticizing comics today. I think they are virtually a public service, and they should be subsidized by the government! (everyone laughs)
Lawrence Van Gelder: Looking at the covers of them I think parents will notice that there's a little seal on them "Approved by the Comics Code," "Approved by the Comics Code Authority," and that is something that came in after the massive attacks on comic books in the fifties. Could you tell people a little bit about this code? I think it might set some parents' minds at rest.
Stan Lee: Well, it's headed by Leonard Darvin, a most capable attorney and most conscientious code administrator. And Len Darvin and his staff of experts or censors or critics or observers, I really don't know what to call them, his staff. They read everything that goes into the comics, and they put their seal of approval on every book before it goes to the engraver. Now this is not just a cover-up. It's not just some window dressing to impress people. Oh, we spend a lot of time arguing with the Code: "Why can't we have a story like this or a theme like this or a picture like this?" And he says "Well, you got to remember it may be okay for older readers, and I know you have many of them, but we still have a lot of younger readers, and we have to think of them." And he very often sets us back on possibly the right path of worrying about the really young readers. . .. So I think this mentioning of the Code, which I don't always agree with, as far as any parent being concerned with a young child reading these magazines; I think these magazines are policed as carefully and possibly more carefully than motion pictures or really anything else a child will read. I might add that because I am a big fan of children's books. I know many of the authors and illustrators, and I look at them occasionally. There is far more liberalism as far as giving an author and artist free reign to do things that might not have been able to have been done a few years ago for the children's market. There's more liberalism in the children's books then there are in comic books, and the average parent is not going to worry about children's books.
You know an interesting thing about my continuing argument with the Code. I've been wanting for the longest time to have stories that involve the theme of drug addiction, just as we have ecology and civil rights and demonstrations and so forth. And this is one thing the Code is very staunchly against. They think more harm can be done than good if we even mention drug addiction. My point, of course, is that it's a fact of life. It's like not mentioning the Sun, if for some reason you don't approve of the Sun. At any rate, just yesterday I received in the mail—and I can't wait until they contact the Code—I received something from the government, oh I forget which office, the office of health, education, and welfare or so, and from somebody apparently highly placed with all sorts of brochures, a lovely letter that I'm going to keep. "Dear Mr. Lee, we understand that Marvel Comics is very influential among young people and so forth. We'd consider it a very fine thing if you would mention drug addiction and do what you can, and here's. . . ." They enclosed a number of pamphlets to give me background. And I felt, by god, I cannot wait to call this guy and say "Don't send me the letter, call the Code and tell them this." Which is what I'm going to do as soon as I get off the mike here.
Lindsey Van Gelder: Stan Lee, what about sex and comics? I know that your competitors have story lines having Superman and Batman pretty well running away from women, and you don't. You've had some pretty racy implied sex which may have been in my imagination, but it's the last place you can read stories and use your imagination. I wonder how that can be handled within the framework of the Code.
Stan Lee: You scared me for a minute when you said sex and comics and your competitors had Superman and Batman. . . . You finished the sentence pretty quickly. . . . Well, actually as far as we're concerned we try to be reasonable and rational. Where you wouldn't see a girl wear her skirt above the knee years ago, but now you do, there might be situations. . . . For example, I can't see anything wrong if there's a married couple and you want to show them waking up in the morning in a double bed. But we don't concentrate on those things. I don't even know how the Code would feel about it. I don't even recall if we've done that yet. But we certainly have our characters fall in love, have romantic problems. Again, we try to make everything as realistic as possible without offending anyone. Without offending what we'd consider to be any reasonable person. Now, of course, you could have a radio show on "what is a reasonable person?" But we really have so many older readers and younger readers whose parents look at the books also—we've had no letters of complaint. So, as far as sex, I think we're probably handling the thing perfectly fine, and I know the Code has not complained, and I don't think we're doing it in the way you just described like the cowboy who will only kiss his horse. We sort of give the idea that our characters are reasonably normal human beings who won't turn the other way if a pretty girl comes by. We're not selling sex in our stories. Let me put it that way. We don't attempt to play up the sex in anyway. But if a story should call for somebody who is attracted to somebody of the opposite sex or whatever, we try to put it in so that it makes sense.
Lawrence Van Gelder: There was a time, I know, and I think it still goes on, when you go out and do a lot of lecturing on campus. I gather you get ideas from students. I wonder what feelings you get when you talk to them generally about the magazines.
Stan Lee: The same thing seems to happen. We start out talking about the magazines. And they are tremendously interested in the magazines, which is why I do receive so many invitations to lecture at about every college in the free world I guess. But a strange thing occurs. After we've been talking about oh, five or ten minutes about the magazines. Suddenly one student will say "Well, what do you think about Vietnam?" or "What do you think about Angela Davis?" or whatever.
And we're off and running on things that are far more relevant possibly than on whether Spider-Man should marry his girlfriend. And this takes up almost the whole seminar. In fact these things go on for hours. They're totally fascinating. If I've learned anything from the kids on campus, the thing I've learned is that you got to make your comic magazines or your televisions shows or your movies or whatever relate to the real world because unless they do, you have meaningless cardboard characters, and that's not really what people are into today. They want stories that will tell them something about the world they are living in now. If you are clever enough to make those stories entertaining or exciting and to use continuing characters that they want to read more of, I guess that's the ideal solution. But I've never known anything like [the way things are now].... Why, years ago I used to lecture, and the whole lecture was just about the comics. But now it seems every age group, whether they are radicals or whether they are conservatives, they want to know what about today? What about what's happening now?