My comic book tastes ran to Classics Illustrated. Seriously, what’s scarier than the graphic images of “Crime and Punishment” and Raskolnikov -- the existential “superman,” not the caped one -- whacking the pawnbroker with an ax? Can I, then, hold my own with Spider-Man’s spiritual father, Stan Lee, a genius of comics for 70 years? The progenitor of scores of graphic heroes and villains, “starred” on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this year, he’s huge at the summer box office, with “Thor,” then “X-Men: First Class” and, due out in July, “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Twentysomethings may be kings of entertainment, but Lee is the emperor. He’s chairman emeritus of Marvel, the venerable comics company that’s grown multimedia and merchandising wings; he works with Disney through his POW (Purveyors of Wonder) Entertainment company. He’s crafting a Chinese feature-film superhero, and he searches for real people with superhero powers on the History Channel. Biff! Bam! Boom! “I don’t want anyone to think I’m retired,” Lee says.
The ads in old comics used to offer advice on how to go from being a 98-pound weakling to a powerhouse. How did you do the same for Marvel?
We were lucky. We came up with the right type of stories; I worked with artists who made my stories probably look better than they deserved to look. It was a combination of characters the readers liked and wanted to see more of and artwork [that] was so exciting. When the movies started, we had directors like Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi, all the way to “Thor” [and] Kenneth Branagh.
Like Alfred Hitchcock, you appear in cameos in your films, but not “X-Men: First Class.”
They shot it too far away! It could be considered a scheme on the part of the producers, [that] people will come out of the theater and say, “Wait a minute: I missed Stan’s cameo. I better buy another ticket and go back in because I don’t want to miss it.” They’re going to sell twice as many tickets! It was very clever of them.
Did you miss your calling as an actor?
No, as a cameo star. Anybody can be an actor, but it takes a certain talent to do cameos. Say, if you write this down as if I’m saying these things seriously, I’ll shoot you!
Did you read good stories when you were little?
I read a lot, like most kids. I read “Tarzan” and “Sherlock Holmes” and all the Greek and Roman gods and the stories in the Bible; anything that was bigger than life. I went to movies like “King Kong” and “Frankenstein,” so my mind was always all full of fantasy.
Comics have gone from being despised and derided to an art form. How did that happen?
I’d like to think Marvel had a lot to do with that. When I started, I worked for a publisher [who] used to say: “Don’t use words of more than two syllables. Don’t worry about characterization or dialogue. Just give me pages with a lot of action.”
And I did that for years, and then I got really sick of it.
So I started using a college-level vocabulary. I felt the reader would look it up in a dictionary, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, or get it by osmosis. The publisher really hated that, but it didn’t hurt the sales of the books. I also started playing up the characterization so you differentiated between one and the other.
We used to get fan mail written in crayon. Then the next thing I knew, they were written in pencil. Then they were written in ink!
And movies and television series and video games are based on the comics; it has given the comics a great respectability that it never had.
I used to go to parties and somebody would say to me, “What do you do?” I’d say I’m a writer and I’d walk away. But he’d follow me and say, “What do you write?” I’d have to say “Spider-Man,” and he’d walk away. Now I’ll be at a party and somebody across the room will say, “Excuse me, President Obama, I see Stan Lee over there.” I’m exaggerating, of course! But it changed totally.
Now people brag, “I do comic books.”
It’s a great art form. People used to say, “If you read a novel, you can use your imagination; when you read the comic, you’re not using your imagination.” But the answer I give to that is: “Why would anybody go to see a Shakespeare play? Just read it.” It’s a ridiculous argument. I was with Steven Spielberg years ago -- I don’t want to sound as though we’re drinking buddies, I just happened to be with him that one time. He said: “You do pretty much what I do, except my pictures move.”
One of your hallmarks is the flawed hero, not the unassailably virtuous hero.
It’s not always just the villain fighting the hero. In the old “Iron Man” stories, he had all these personal problems. With Spider-Man, Peter Parker had all these personal problems: He had to go save the world at one end of town but his aunt needed her medication at the other end of town.
Take Captain America. I didn’t create him, but when I brought him back into the comics [after] he had been frozen in ice for decades, he felt he was an anachronism: He was living in a world he wasn’t familiar with, and how could he cope with the way things are now? I always try [for] more characters than just a good guy versus a bad guy.
“Message” movies are supposed to be the kiss of death, but you’ve dealt with discrimination and other social matters in the comics.
I don’t agree about the kiss of death. We now have more intelligent people reading these things, older people as well as the youngsters; the X-Men are not just a bunch of mutants fighting each other; they deal with bigotry and is it right to hate and distrust people who are different. There are all sorts of messages in a book like “The X-Men.”
Whatever was going on in the world somehow crept into our stories.
And as we know from Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility. What is your responsibility, Mr. Powerful?
My responsibility is to stay out of the way and let [the other creators] make these great movies.
But aren’t you the center of the spokes, the hub making all that possible?
Of course! To be honest, I’ve always thought of myself as the center of the universe! I think we all think that way.
Do people ever get confused and come up and say, “I just love Batman.”
Oh often. I say, “Yeah, I like it too.” Bob Kane was a good friend of mine. The Batman movie was the first that made a lot of money, and he used to say, “Ha, ha, look what we did and Spider-Man is still out there in comic books.” We used to go to restaurants and he’d say to a waiter: “Do you know who I am? I created Batman. Here, I’ll draw you a picture.” And he’d draw on a napkin. It was the funniest thing.
Do you have a big collection of Marvel artwork?
No, I never had the brains to save it. None of us did. We never knew they’d end up so popular and be in galleries and auctioned off for thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars. We didn’t have room. The printer would always send us back the artwork on big boards, and he would also send us copies of the magazine. We had them piled up in our office, a small office. When someone would come up, say, to deliver our lunch from the drugstore, we’d say, “Hey kid, before you go, grab some of this artwork, take it with you.” We couldn’t get rid of it.
Did you ever create a character you wound up not liking?
Oh, no, if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have written it.
Wait a minute, there was one. Jack Kirby and I were doing the Fantastic Four. We needed a new villain -- we always worked under tremendous deadlines; we were doing dozens of books a month. I said: “Jack, I think a great name is Diablo; why don’t you draw a guy called Diablo, and we’ll give him some kind of power.” And he drew a real scary-looking guy, but I had no idea who Diablo was or where he came from. I must have batted out something and Jack drew it, and to this day I can’t remember what the Diablo story was. The only thing I ever wrote that I don’t know what it was! So I think I didn’t like that particular issue.
What has become of the Governator comic project you had lined up with former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger?
That’s on hold now. I don’t know what’ll happen. It may never go forth.
And what’s happened to the comic you were working up about Playboy bunnies battling bad guys?
We’re still working on that with Hugh Hefner. Nobody realizes [that] all those girls he hangs with, all those playmates -- they’re [not] just beautiful girls there to attract the men. They’re really nuclear physicists and brain surgeons and so forth. And Hefner, who pretends to be just the publisher of these magazines -- he’s our secret weapon in the war against terror.
In his pajamas?
Those pajamas are Kevlar-lined. It’s gonna be a fun cartoon series when we get it done.
I don’t know. I hope not!
There are action figures of you. What do they do?
You can move the arms and legs a little bit if you want. I’m lucky I can do that in real life!
What superpower would you give your action figure?
The one superpower I would really like is luck. If you’re lucky, everything goes your way, right? In real life that would be the power I’d want. If I were lucky, this interview would go very well and when you wrote it, I’d say this is the greatest thing I ever saw.
Anything I didn’t ask you?
I didn’t mention giving my wife, Joan, credit, did I? In the early ‘60s, I was about to quit my job. My wife said: “Stan, why don’t you do one [comic] book the way you want, just to get it out of your system? If [the boss] fires you for it, it won’t matter, because you want to quit anyway.” So I did the Fantastic Four, which started this off. So really my wife is responsible for everything that’s happening in entertainment.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.