my defining moment
I was a frustrated hack—until I
tried something fantastic…
Ctarted writing comics when I was
7 years old, and I thought I was the
uckiest guy in the world. My first
ob was at a company called Timely
omics, and I worked under the
publisher, Martin Goodman. At first I
ran errands, dashing down the stairs at
lunchtime to bring sandwiches to the
staff. I also filled all the inkwells for the
feather pens (at the time, the late 1930s,
ballpoint pens were instruments of the
future). But to me, the best part of my job
was writing captions and blurbs for the
stories, which I did because the staff was too
small to handle all the writing. After a while,
I became head writer. As head writer, I was
also the only writer, but at least I no longer
had to keep those damn inkwells filled.
By the time I was 18, I was editor-in-chief,
which was a bit of a misnomer, because
my responsibilities were the same. Martin
gave me free rein to do what I wanted,
but he insisted on a few things: I had to
keep the dialogue simple. There had to be
action, action, action on every page. And I
was never to waste time concentrating on
characterization; good guys fought bad guys,
and that was it. It was an easy job for a guy
who grew up in the Great Depression. But I
hated most of the stories I wrote. Ever since
I was a child, I had wanted to be the next
Mark Twain or H. G. Wells. Instead, I had
turned into a hack. And I didn’t realize it
until more than 20 years later.
It was 1961, and I was working from my
home in Hewlett Harbor, Long Island, when
I knew it was time for a change. It wasn’t
depression or writer’s block or a midlife
crisis—I was just bored with the stories I was
writing and the magazines I was producing.
I felt I wasn’t being true to myself, because
they weren’t the types of magazines I’d want
to read if I were the customer.
So in a moment
I told my wife I
wanted to quit…
and she proved
to me that she
was as smart as
she was beautiful.
She said, “Why
don’t you just write
your next comic
the way you want?
The worst thing
that will happen
is you’ll be fired,
but you want to quit any way, so it’s a win-win
situation.” I knew I was capable of better, so I
happily followed her advice.
The first comic I created was the Fantastic
Four, which violated everything Martin had
always insisted on: It had real characters,
grown-up dialogue, and real action, but not
in every panel.
When it went on sale, luck was with me: It
was the best-selling title that month. Martin
asked me to do more, so I created
Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, X-Men, and others.
They all did so well that I talked Martin into
changing the company’s name to Marvel,
which evoked a new, more exciting image.
Marvel was a word I could play with and have
fun with in advertising. The rest is history.
I think a lot of people have that midcareer
moment when they realize they have been
playing by other people’s rules. At that
moment, you can go one of two ways: You
can keep playing by their rules or you can
start making up your own. I just happened
to be very lucky: I married a woman who was
smart enough to understand this, and she
pushed me in the right direction when the
time came. While I’m presently chairman
emeritus of Marvel, I’m still creating stories
(SPIDER) MAN AMONGST BOYS
Stan Lee created five of the most
successful superhero franchises in
history; Lee, with art director John
Romita in 1975 (below, on left).
You can keep playing
by their rules or you can start
making up your own.
and franchises, as well as working with my
company, POW! Entertainment. And I’m
the busiest I’ve ever been. I’m concentrating
on movies, television, and DVDs instead of
comics alone, but I think comics will always
be around. They’re springboards to all those
other worlds. And none of it would have
happened without that conversation I had
with my wife back in 1961.
As told to Alison Kotch. Stan Lee is the founder and
chairman of POW! Entertainment (Purveyors of Wonder)
and has created more superhero franchises (including
Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four,
and the Incredible Hulk ) than any other comic-book writer.