Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Serious Interview with Stan Lee, April 1975!

This is an unusual interview with Stan Lee that took place in Fantasy Advertiser International, April 1975 edition.

Lee discusses a great many things, seriously, in ways he had not discussed them openly before. For example, he talks about why Green Lantern’s comic failed; Marvel and DC’s competition in rising prices from 20 cents to 25; why Kirby and Ditko left; the cancellation of the Silver Surfer; the problems of distributing comics and that Spider-Man outselling Superman.

The pictures here are of Stan Lee, Joe Sinnott, Gene Colan and Flo Steinberg at the New York Comic Conventions of the mid 2000s

Flo Steinberg, Stan, Joe Sinnott and Gene Colan
Charles Murry talks to Stan Lee:

One of the things that impresses me about Marvel comics is that they were, I think, the first comics group to look at youth culture seriously.
Stan Lee: I agree with you one hundred per cent. I like to think that maybe the people at Marvel ware a little more in the real world than our competition.

Could you tell me what prompted you to think of the Marvel effect'? That is taking a super hero and putting him into a real environment, with realistic problems and situations?
Stan Lee: I think it was boredom more than anything else: I'd spent about fifteen or twenty years writing ordinary comics and I was sick of it. So one day I decided, just for fun, that it would be nice to write the sort of stories that I myself might want to read if I read comics. And I thought, "Jesus! I wouldn't want to read stories where the hero always won, and never did anything wrong, and the villain always lost and was totally bad." So I thought I'd have some fun, and do stories with some heroes who have faults and get roughed up a little bit, and lovable villains...
Stan and Gene Colan

....Cute characters like Doctor Doom, who anyone would like to invite in for tea..?
Stan Lee: Oh, I think he's one of the most charming people.(Laughter) But, have you ever stopped to think about Doctor Doom? You can't even arrest him for anything, 'cos he never commits any crimes — he never bugs anybody, parks illegally... all he wants to do is take over the world and there's no law against that:

Yeah, but he commits several minor infractions like illegal detention of the Silver Surfer and trying to trash the Baxter Building.
Stan Lee: Don't forget, detention of a guy from another planet is hardly illegal. And as for the Baxter Building, well, you're right there, but being the head of a foreign government gives you certain rights. I don't think he could be arrested — he's got diplomatic immunity. Characters like that are sort of fun, instead of a bad guy who just wants to rob the bank. I think maybe the big thing about the Marvel stories that has possibly been of some appeal to the kids is the fact that we treated our characters with some humor, a little tongue—in—cheek.

There does seem an awful lot of self—parody involved...
Stan Lee: Oh, yes. For instance, Spider-Man is more like me than anyone else. Even when he does things right, they turn out wrong, he's a total loser.

Most people I know think you're more like J.J. Jameson
Stan Lee: (Laughter) We do kid around in the office. Every time they do characterization of me they make me look like J. Jonah Jameson.

And, of course, you're playing right into their hands by growing a mustache.
Stan Lee: Yes, that's true. But as I say, the whole thing is done with humor. But that isn't to say we don't take the stories seriously, although I have difficulty taking anything too seriously -- and I'm sure that reflects itself in the books.

I think your most fascinating character is Captain America. A lot of different strips — Marvel and DC — have featured political material , but Captain America is the only one that is inherently political.
Stan Lee: I don't think there has ever been a character in fiction who has changed so much as Captain America. As you may know, Cap is not a hero I created — Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had dreamed him up about a year before I came to work for Timely. But I started writing him, and he was very popular for the first two or three years, but after the war he lost popularity fast SO they dropped him. Then they dragged him back again a while later for a couple of years. But he never really made it, so they dropped him again. Then, when I took over, and we became the Marvel Comics Group, rather than Timely, or Atlas, I said to the man who was then my publisher, "Hey, I wonder if we can bring Captain America back?" And he said, "Forget it. We've tried it three times but nobody cares." I told him I wanted to do it differently this time but he said "How many times do you want to flop with something?" Still, I convinced him we'd try it once more, so this time I brought him back more like a modern—day Hamlet. Soliloquizing and questioning everything he does, wondering why and how and what's the meaning of it all. As you probably know, we justified his reappearance by saying he had been frozen in a slab of ice for twenty years or so, and was still young. And I thought it would be fun to have him question his super-patriotism — was it relevant today when there are more important things than just being blindly obedient to the establishment.

But, even in the sixties, he still spent quite a few years delivering- patriotic speeches as he beat people up.
Stan Lee: That's right. What I wanted to do first, and it worked, was to get people to hate him, and I knew everything he was saying and doing was enough to rile the readers.

That's really strange, because I used to write a comics column for New Musical Express, and I mentioned in one week, when I was writing about Captain America, that cap was so outrageous that I was convinced you were doing it on purpose - even though you were playing your politics very straight at that time, communist villains in every other comic, especially Iron Man.
Stan Lee: Really? Well, what I wanted to do first was, well, it's like if you make a speech in Hyde Park. It doesn't matter how well you speak, it won't do you any good unless you get the crowd's attention first. With Captain America, what I wanted to do first was get the reader's attention, and it seemed to me that the best way was to get a couple of characters, Iron Man and Captain America, to represent everything that was against the trend. To make people get a little angry, because they were so unlike the other Marvel heroes. Then I'd slowly let these two start changing. And it really seemed to work. I started the bit with Captain America questioning, then when Steve Englehart took over, he went much further and did it much better than I think I'd have ever done. Until finally, I agree with you, Captain America has become a very interesting and a very complex character, which was what I hoped he would become. Iron Man - I had fun with him. He was loved by the girl readers we had. They all wanted to mother him, they loved the idea of his tragedy in having a weak heart, and the fact that he was rich and handsome. We used to get more mail from girls for Iron Man than any other strip we had. Talking about mail, we get quite a bit from Britain - how are you able to get the comics over here?

With great difficulty, for some we have to pay rip-off prices.
Stan Lee: That's a shame. We're trying to send more and more over. I think in the next few months you'll find a lot more of them around.

There was a period, about a year ago, when no American Marvels were being distributed over here, in some circles the word was that it was done on purpose, as people would stop buying the British Marvels. But the British Marvels were only reprints of stuff I’d bought years ago.
Stan Lee:  Actually, you're not far wrong about the reason, but it wasn't our decision. We were having a lot of trouble with distributors. The distributor doing the weekly books was saying the monthlies were hurting his sales, and the distributor for the monthly books was having problems. There was a disagreement about how many he would accept and how many we wanted to send, and how much he would pay. We just couldn't work it out so we stopped everything. It wasn't to increase the demand, but just until we could figure out what sort of arrangement to reach.

We have the same bad distribution problem only worse with the black and white Maus. There must be thousands in the customs warehouses. They get through very sporadically, often used as ballast on ships.
Stan Lee: I'll write that down and have somebody look into it.

Out of all the Marvel characters, the ones I feel the least sympathy for are Thor and Prince Namor. They're so completely pomp­ous, I dislike them on sight.
Stan Lee: I feel there's a place for everything even pomposity. I always enjoy that style of writing, I like old Thor with his "So be it", "Wither thou goest?", "Harken unto me, ye rebels". I like exaggeration.  Also with Sub-Mariner, I haven't followed it too closely recently, but when I start­ed it he was a "prince of the blood" and he said IMPERIOUS REX whenever there was an exciting situation. Roy Thomas hated that, "Stan -- when I write Sub-Mariner, he won't ever say Imperious Rest" So I'd say, "Okay, that's fine. But when I write him, he's gonna may it." (Laughter) But I liked all the different styles of writing, the Surfer style, the Spider-Man style, all of them.

Why did the Silver Surfer's comic end so suddenly? In #18, it refers to the next issue - but there never was one:
Stan Lee: I hardly remember. I seem to think that I got terribly busy. I had more writing than ever to do, and I was afraid I'd have to give it to someone else to write. But I just felt that I loved this character so much, I just didn't want anyone else to write it. So I thought I'd drop it for a while, until I'd have more time. But, instead of getting more time, I got less and less. And now it's reached a point where people are always saying why don't we bring him back - he's about the favorite of a lot of readers. Unfortunately, I don't have the time now to write it, and I just can't get myself to let somebody else take it over. So, either I'll bring him back myself, or it'll have to wait till I'm dead: I hope one day I will get the time, though.

Do you miss not scriptwriting?
Stan Lee: Oh, yes. Very much. Whenever I look at somebody else's script, I think, "That isn't the way. Ah, if only I could show them how is should be done." But, again, I just don't have the time. Too busy coming to London and having interviews and things like that. (laughter) But there's so much to do now, we're getting involved in films and television. We're trying to go in a million directions at once at Marvel, and I've got to stay on top of them all.

What made you start your black and white line of American comic magazines?
Stan Lee: Well, what we're trying to do is find a way to reach still older readers. There are still some people in America, and possibly in England, who are a little reluctant to buy something that looks like a comicbook. So, by putting it in this other form, it becomes more palatable to inhibited readers. Also the price of the printing and color is becoming so expensive that we're trying to find some other way to present the stories. Although with super heroes, you virtually have to have the color. The British weeklies are very unsatisfactory in black and white from an artistic point of view. Our weekly sales are doing very well though, and they're fine for new readers who aren't familiar with Marvel - they're a good way to introduce the characters, but I wish we were able to do them in full color.

How come DC were able to put out a 32 page color comic for 20 cents and Marvel charged 25?
Stan Lee:  DC thought they could outsmart us, by not upping the price when we did. They thought when we went to 25 cents, they'd go to 20 cents and nobody would buy our books, so they could take over the whole business. They were losing money at 20 cents, but they thought they'd suffer along for a while and take all our readers. But even with our books 5 cents more expensive, we were out‑selling DC.

Do you know if Spider-man was outselling Superman?
Lee: I can’t remember any of the exact figures but the ABC in New York shows that we print about 11 million a month and DC prints about 9 million a month. We're far out-printing and outselling DC's comics.

But according to your annual statements of circulation, there are a large number of waste copies of each issue,
Stan Lee: Yes. Here you have a much better system with your comics. Yours is called firm sale, the wholesaler buys so many copies and that's it, he either sells them or is stuck with them. But in America, they are on sale or return. Marvel sells just over 50% of their run, National just over 40%.

But there is a bit of a racket going on with the return copies. As they are not physically returned, instead of being destroyed, as the publisher expects, they are sold at half price.
Stan Lee: There is no way we can stop that entirely. We try to 'police' it. The company that distributes for us is always on the lookout for that sort of thing. They try to clamp down when they find it, but there' s so little that can be done about it.

I see that you've had a staff re-shuffle recently, with Roy Thomas giving up his editorship of all your magazines. It must have been an incredible task he had.
Stan Lee: Well, Roy's still is working for us, under contract. He's writing a lot more now, and editing the books he writes. It was too much work for one man, editing the whole Marvel range. I found just the same, when I was running them all earlier. You can't really edit that many books, after a while you become just a production supervisor.

What do you think of the different system used by National - with several editors, each having their own books?
Stan Lee: On the surface it sounds good. But I don't like that system for one reason, I find that it makes for competitiveness amongst the editors. Whereas, at Marvel, we try to keep it one happy family where everybody is working together. I find that a company like National has editors who won't let artists go to other editors, fearing their own books would be outsold if they let their best art men draw for someone else at National. It becomes very competitive. I've always believed there should be one person in charge of everything - even though it is much harder to do. But that person can have a number of assistants„ as long as it doesn't sectionalize the company too much. The whole line would lose its flavor then. I'm not sure I'm right, but I would be reluctant to try it the National way unless it was absolutely necessary.

Since Neal Adams went on strike against National, does this mean he will be doing more work for Marvel?
Stan Lee: Oh, Neal's a hard man to work with. He has no conception of deadlines, and our business is a deadline business. But Neal just brings in a job when he feels like it. He does a lot of advertising work, and though he loves comics, if he has an advertising assignment, he'll do that first.

Is that what killed Green Lantern more than low sales?
Stan Lee: It was both. Green Lantern was something the fans loved but it just didn’t sell that well. There have been books like that before that people talked about and loved. We started Dr. Strange and it got the same sort of reaction. The fans loved it, especially the older ones, but it just didn’t sell.

So comics if they are to succeed must sell to younger and older fans.
Stan Lee: Exactly, you need young readers and you need the older readers too. If you stop to think about it, that makes producing comics one of the hardest things in the world. How the hell can you produce something that will appeal to a seven year old and twenty-five year old? Well, it is our job to do that. We've been lucky, and rather successful so far, but it's not easy. You can do it to some degree, but we produce about fifty books a month, and with that quantity - - it's tough.

Why do you constantly move artists and writers around, from title to title?
Stan Lee: It is something we absolutely cannot prevent. It's because of the fact that we do not physically have enough artists and writers. Emergencies come up every day, so if an artist is sick we can't just leave the strip. "Jim Starlin can't do the strip he's sick." "Well, let's get Gil Kane to do it." "But Gil is working on this strip right now." "Well put John Buscema in Gil’s place, and Gil in Jim's." "But what about John Buscema's strip?" And so on... Nobody has any spare time, nobody can afford to leave his strip for a few days or that will be late. They're falling dominos. Whenever one thing has to be changed, it affects a dozen things behind it. Also you get many personal things; an artist gets tired of drawing his strip; a writer doesn't like the way an artist interprets his script. There are so many things that happen. We are constantly trying to keep the artists and writers happy, to keep the best people teamed up. That's the best in our judge­ment, which may not always be the best in the artist or writer's opinion, or even in the reader's opinion. Keeping the sched­ules moving is one of the most nerve-wracking, ulcer-provoking businesses. I think I can take it though, I'm very tough. (Laughter)

What do you think of your new style strips Such as the Fantastic Four, now that you have other artists replacing Kirby?
Stan Lee: I hated losing Kirby. To me, the FF has never been the same since Kirby left. Buckler is great; I hope we can hold on to him. But he's another guy who is very temperamental. I wouldn't let anybody else handle Deathlok if I could help it because Deathlok is Buckler; it's his creation, his feeling. Ralph Reese is another artist who is a little difficult, he works a bit for one company and a bit for another, This is something that bothers me. I don't like that. I like a fellah who has loyalty to one company, but a lot of the new artists don't feel that way, they prefer to skip around - which I think is bad. I think it is bed for them because the comic business is flourishing right now and there aren't enough good artists and writers available. But if ever we hit a slump, and there isn't as much work available as there is now, the ones who haven't any particular loyalty to one company will be the first without work.

A few years ago, National and Marvel had their own distinct styles. Now with the crossover of artists, this is lost...
Stan Lee: I couldn't agree with you more. And what happens after a while is you don't know which is which. I hate that, but again we've all been trapped, by becoming too big and too successful and being so big, we're forced to use artists who aren't exclusively ours, outside of the Marvel style just to keep producing the material. It's bad, I wish that instead of turning out fifty magazines a month we were only doing fifteen. Then we could make every one look exactly as we wanted it to. But, as a business, we wouldn't be as success­ful, so we have to weigh one against the other.

I'm surprised by how much artists are tending to look alike in their work. Dick Giordano's art looks incredibly like Adams work. Do you encourage this?
Stan Lee: Actually, Giordano works with Adams. They have the same studio. So if you see something credited to Giordano that looks more like Adams, chances are Adams actually did it.

Would you mind discussing why Kirby left Marvel?
Stan Lee: None at all. Go ahead.

Could you tell me why he did his 'Fourth World' books for National? Wouldn't he have been able to do them for Marvel?
Stan Lee: He could have. I don't really know why he left. I think it was a personal thing. Jack never told me. I think it could be as simple as the fact that he got sick of everything he did saying "by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby".(Laughter) Maybe he just wanted to do his own thing and have the books saying "by Jack Kirby". But, as far as I was concerned, if he'd have told me he wanted to do his own book, I’d have said fine, and let him write it and draw it, but he never said it to me. I've heard that he was tired of doing things that he never owned, to copyright his characters, shares of the profits, and so on. I wish I'd had the same thing, I don't blame him. But what surprises me is that he doesn't have any copyright now at National, as far as I know. So, I really don’t know why he left. And I will say, in all honestly that I'd like Jack to come back, I want him to come back eventually. I sort of half—expect that he'll come back when his contract ends — I think he'd be making a mistake not to come back. I'd say he did his best work at Marvel, his style is pure Marvel. Also I must admit that he has had so many books at National that have failed, whereas if they'd been for Marvel, I think they would still be being published -- especially New Gods. The thing about Jack is that though he's a good story man, and good artist, I feel he needs some control, some editing. He tends to get too wrapped up in what he wants to do that he forgets what the readers might want. I think his material was a little better with us because we exercised some control. I remember on the very first issue of the Fantastic Four, I'd suggested in the synopsis a monster, and Jack drew a hundred red monsters. I said, "Jack, it's more dramatic to have one monster that the reader worries about, than a hundred monsters." The trouble with Jack is that he's so imaginative he tries to put every idea he can think of on every page. He tries to make every page a whole new original thought and action. That isn't good story. You have to build up a mood. You've got to take one idea and stretch it over a few pages and milk the utmost drama out of it. It's a matter of pacing, sack goes too fast, you don't have a chance to catch your breath reading his stories.

During the mid—sixties, a lot of your comics, especially issues of Daredevil had almost issue—lengthly fight sequences. Would a comic sell if it had little actual fighting?
Stan Lee: For the first seven years or so, we were feeling our way. Some stories had more fight, some less. Some had simple stories, some complicated. It was a period of learning, what suited who. We were learning as we went along. I never knew. I liked all kinds, with or without fights, sub—plots, whatever. It didn't matter to me and I gave the artist a free hand. But now, yes, I think a book could sell even if it had little fighting. It just depends what else it has. If it can be interesting in other areas, sure it'll sell. For the little kids you need a lot of fighting, or at least a lot of running around, a lot of action. If you just have dialogue and panels, you're going to lose them.

Could you tell me what happened to Steve Ditko, and why he's wasting his time with poor mystery titles for a small company?
Stan Lee:  It's the same thing as with Kirby —only with Ditko I have less of an understanding. Steve was a very mysterious character. When he first started he was the easiest character we ever had to work with. I used to think that if everybody was as easy to work with as Steve, it would be great. I would call him in the middle of the night with an emergency ten page script and Steve would bring it in the very next day without a complaint. He was just beautiful.  But, little, by little, he became tougher and tougher to work with. After a while  he’d say to me, “Gee, Stan, I don’t like those plots you are writing for Spider-Man.” So I’d say okay, because I couldn’t have cared less, Steve was so good at drawing stuff, I said, “Use your own plot, I'll put the dialogue in." So he'd do his own, and I'd switch them around, and I'd put the dialogue in and make them conform to what I wanted. Then he'd say "I don't like the sound—effects you're putting in:" So I told him to use his own, I didn't mind. I'd bend over backwards to accommodate him, because he was so good and the strip was so successful. But it was like Chamberlain giving in to Hitler, the more I appeased him, the harder he got to work with. Finally, it reached the point where he didn't even come up to the office with his artwork —he'd just mail it in. Then one day he said he was leaving. You now know as much about it as I do. What bothered him, I don't know. Why he's wasting his time at this other company doing work no on pays any attention to, I don't know. He's another guy I'd take back in a minute, but I have a feeling he'd be impossible to work with.

He didn't last very long at National...
Stan Lee: Maybe they received the same treatment. As I told you, we tried to do our scripts with a little modicum of humor, but Steve had begun to take himself very seriously. He got all mixed up in the politics and philosophy of what he was doing. He became almost a fanatic, but I'm not sure what he was fanatical about.

It's a pity, because he's still one of my favorite comic book artists.
Stan Lee: Oh, the man is great. Nobody can tell a story like Steve can, he's sensational. I have a great respect for talent, but while I think Jack will come back to us, I don't think Steve ever will.


  1. A few typos you need to take care of, Barry, but that was an excellent read. There you have Stan freely admitting that he didn't create Captain America, whereas Alan Moore once made a ridiculous assertion that Stan HAD claimed to have created Cap. Stan talks as interestingly as he writes. Make Mine Stan!

  2. Thanks kid. OCR drives me nuts. I went back and fixed a lot. It is interesting that he talked about D.C. Characters too.

  3. Excellent interview. I like Stan's predictions about Kirby and Ditko.

  4. Wow, what a great find, thanks for sharing it!

  5. An incredible read considering the passing of events from 42 years ago to the recent events playing out now in secret empire.
    Who would be concerned about a 5 cent price difference these days.
    Always felt Stan was more genuine in those days

    1. Stan wasn't under constant assault in those days though, unlike today when some people seek to deny any creative input from him into just about everything Marvel published in the '60s. Is it any wonder if he's been a bit more guarded and defensive in recent years? Having said that, I think he's still genuine today.

  6. Just wonderful, thanks!! Does anyone know what comic that was above with Cap and Bucky meeting Hans Gruber?

  7. DC had comics at 20¢ and Marvel had theirs at 25¢? I remember it as the other way around, though DC had more pages, filled with great reprints. Marvel's inventory didn't have that much which would (a) fit in the extra pages AND (b) which could have passed the Code at that time.

  8. Chet I think your confusing things a little bit.

    In 1968, when the silver surfer came out, Comics were generally $.12 for both Marvel and DC. The king-size annuals for both companies were 25 cents.

    The silver surfer was a unique comic for marvel at that time because it was annual size, giant size, and contain twice the pages of their other comics. And it cost $.25

    You were thinking of the events that occurred several years later, in Sept. 1971. Both DC and Marvel went to $.25 large Comics, however Marvel soon went back to the regular comic book size for $.20. For the next year DC could only publish large Comics, for 25 cents and created the situation that you described wth reprints.

  9. I think it was the later incident; DC was still at 15¢ in Florida, Arizona, and Oklahoma at least during the Surfer's initial run. There were no 20¢ comics in my neck of the woods until around 1971-1972.

    By then Stan was thrown into President/Publisher status, possibly the most hectic part of his life, and could now easily misremember or misspeak who was what price when. He does like to remind us that his memory is among the worst, though my studies in memory leads me to believe that Stan has always thought like a born writer. A key was his statement in an interview "That doesn't sound like something I would do." A born writer tends to see everything as a story and everyone as a character - which don't act out of character.

    Memory imprints from short-term to long-term (for anyone without eidetic memory) depend on significant emotional events or purposeful memory exercises. Stan's memory seems to retain people's personalities more than events - exactly how he writes. No wonder he was frustrated with plot-driven comics by 1961!