LOS ANGELES – If comic books are, as Stan Lee believes, nothing more than modern-day fairy tales, then the creator of Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Incredible Hulk is the Aesop of his time.
Working with a team of artists at Marvel Comics, Lee has envisioned some of the most memorable superheroes and villains of the past 45 years.
Now those characters have leaped off the pages of their comic books and are on display at the California Science Center, a gleaming, futuristic glass-and-steel edifice just south of downtown Los Angeles.
Lee visited the museum days before the Marvel Super Heroes Science Exhibition opened late last month. Fittingly for the creator of heroes who are often physically or emotionally challenged, he arrived as technicians were frantically overhauling the Iron Man exhibit, trying to work out hydraulic-system kinks that kept visitors from lifting a 4,500-pound automobile.
As they struggled with the car, Lee, a friendly gray-haired man of 83, accepted a glass of tea and sat down to talk.
AP: What was the first of the characters you came up with?
Lee: Oh, I wrote so many I don’t even know. I wrote either hundreds or thousands of them. I started in about 1939 or 1940, but it wasn’t until 1961 or â€˜2 that I did the Fantastic Four, and that was the first of the Marvel characters. And after that I did X-Men, I think. No, I did the Hulk and then Spider-Man and then the X-Men and Daredevil and Iron Man and the rest of them. … It was like there was something in the air. I couldn’t do anything wrong. Every one of them worked out beautifully and, as you can, see, they’re still around.
Do you have a favorite?
I love â€˜em all. It used to be that whichever one I was writing was my favorite at that moment. And I’d really get into it. My wife would come in and say, “Who are you talking to?” And I’d realize that while I was writing the dialogue I was saying it out loud. “Take that you! You won’t get away with it!” (laughing).
A lot of your characters seem to have gotten their powers through radioactive mishaps of one type or another. Is there a reason for that?
Well, if you’re going to write about somebody who has a super power, how do you justify him having the super power? Now, when Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman (for rival DC Comics), they had him come from another planet. … When I did the Fantastic Four, that was the first of the Marvel heroes, I wanted to give them super power but I didn’t want them coming from another planet. So I figured, well, I’ll have them go up in a rocket ship and they’re hit by cosmic rays. I had read about cosmic rays somewhere. I had read the name. I don’t know what a cosmic ray is. I wouldn’t know it if it hit me. But it sounded good, so we did that. … Then I needed something to make the Hulk the Hulk, so I said well I’ll have him hit by gamma rays. So he was the victim of a gamma-ray explosion. I know less about gamma rays than cosmic rays. But again, it sounds good. With Spider-Man, I had run out of rays. I couldn’t think of any other ray. So I figured I’ll get him bitten by a radioactive spider. And that seemed to work.
Did you study science very much in school?
Not at all. I wish I had. I mean I find it fascinating. I started working when I was 16 and a half, and even when I was in high school I was working in my spare time. So I never had time to go to college and just spent my time writing. …
What do you think is the attraction of superheroes?
I think everybody loves things that are bigger than life. High-concept stories. I think of them as fairy tales for grown-ups. You know, I don’t think there’s anyone when he – or she – was young didn’t love fairy tales. We all grew up with giants and ogres and witches. Well, you get a little bit older and you’re too old to read fairy tales. But I don’t think you ever outgrow your love for those kind of things, things that are bigger than life and magical and very imaginative. And that’s what these superheroes’ stories are, really.
As I say, to me they’re fairy tales for grown-ups. And … I don’t think you’re ever going to see monsters or villains like Doc Ock or Green Goblin in real life, just like you’d never meet the Wicked Witch of the West in real life. But in a comic book, they’re fun and you can have the same kind of thrill and enjoyment you had when you were a kid reading those kind of stories.