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The Neurotic Superhero 

Stan Lee & his human Marvels

Wednesday, Jan 2 2002
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Stan Lee is the originator of the idea that possessing superpowers can really suck. The typical comic book of the 1950s was a brightly colored affair in which a cheerful hero, endowed with extramortal powers, merrily dueled an improbable ray-gun-wielding, saucer-flying foe from beyond the reaches of the galaxy. Said foe was unfailingly dispatched within 12 modular, six-panel pages.

In 1962, Lee -- then head writer for Marvel Comics -- set out with artist Steve Ditko to create a new character for the teenage market, an adolescent superhero who, Lee felt, should ”lose out as often as he‘d win -- in fact more often.“ The result was, of course, Spider-Man, the alter ego of maladjusted 16-year-old Peter Parker.

Where Bruce Wayne’s inherited fortune left him with nothing better to do than run around as Batman, and Superman was an invulnerable alien who never questioned the virtuous values of his Midwestern adoptive parents, Parker had absolutely no inclination to fight crime or save humanity. As he saw it, his newfound superpower (the accidental result of a radioactive spider bite) was useful only as a moneymaking asset. But after a tragedy caused by his own selfishness, Parker learned the lesson that would drive all of Lee‘s numerous neurotic superheroes: ”With great power comes great responsibility.“

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Lee’s body of work amounts to a four-decade meditation on the potential of the most damaged individuals to transcend the self-destructive society in which they operate. Extramortal power is the bane of his heroes‘ lives. Before Spider-Man, Lee -- with artist Jack Kirby -- had already created the Fantastic Four, a bickering, dysfunctional pseudo-family of physical freaks who took it upon themselves to act as guardians of an American populace that wasn’t entirely sure it wanted their kind of guarding. Lee and Kirby had also given birth to the Incredible Hulk, who wasn‘t a hero at all, but rather a rampaging, green-skinned lunatic with the strength to crush anything and everything in his path, which he did with no inhibitions whatsoever.

The superheroes in Lee’s ”Marvel Universe“ not only revolutionized and re-invigorated the dying comic book business -- Marvel was already struggling by 1961 -- they played a major part in redefining the American sense of heroism, predating the alienated and confused pop icons who emerged from the Vietnam era. The malcontent loner cops epitomized by Clint Eastwood‘s Dirty Harry, even the psychotic-outsider-turned-hero of Taxi Driver, all reverberate from Lee’s angst-ridden creations, who somehow wound up on the side of good despite their darker psychological conflicts.

The most existentially tortured Lee brainchild was 1966‘s Silver Surfer, an extraterrestrial who, in order to save his home planet from destruction by the marauding God-figure Galactus, was forced to abandon his native world as well as the love of his life. Worse, he was condemned by Galactus to spend the rest of eternity on Earth, where he was greeted with fear, suspicion and hostility. He could have destroyed his human tormentors with a flick of his cosmic wrist, of course, but in what can only be seen as a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, chose instead to serve as their protector. Anguished, the Surfer wondered how long it would take before humanity’s ”senseless wanton oppression“ poisoned his a nature: ”How long before I, too, am afflicted by the virus of human savagery, before I, too, worship force instead of reason?“ These bouts of agonizing introspection always end the same way: ”Though they spurn my aid, I must persevere.“

Lee, who moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘80s to work on Marvel Hollywood projects, hasn’t written comics regularly for more than 20 years. He‘s endured the near-bankruptcy of Marvel Comics, for which he worked from 1940 until 1999 -- he remains chairman emeritus -- and, more recently, the folding of his Internet venture, Stan Lee Media. Yet, like the Silver Surfer, Lee perseveres. He recently struck a deal with MGM for film and television projects, is working on an animated series starring the voice and motion-captured body of Pamela Anderson, and he continues to write the occasional comic book. His first work for Marvel’s competitor DC, the ”Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating . . .“ series featuring Lee‘s reworkings of DC staples Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, is on the stands now. And he has just completed the script for next year’s megabudget Spider-Man movie, in which he has a walk-on role. Lee turned 79 on December 28. He spoke to the Weekly from his home.

L.A. WEEKLY: Did September 11 change entertainment forever?

STAN LEE: No. I don‘t think anything ever changes entertainment -- except for a very brief time, then it gets back to normal. The reason is that entertainment can’t be separated from the real world. The people who provide it are normal people who grew up in every type of environment, every stratum of society. You take me. The world may think I‘m the most wonderful person alive. And justifiably so! But I’m really just a guy. Please, if you quote that stupid remark, say I said it with a laugh.

A lot of the superheroes you‘re famous for creating are ordinary people who had greatness thrust upon them.

That’s what heroes are. The average war hero is just a guy from a small town who did something incredibly courageous. You never know who‘s going to be a hero, because it’s a spur-of-the-moment thing. Suddenly an emergency comes up, and one or two or 10 people may run away, and one or two or 10 people may throw themselves in the face of danger to do whatever has to be done.

I don‘t care if a guy is the most super character in the world, I want to know, what does he worry about? What troubles him? What is he trying to accomplish that he can’t accomplish, and why not? And he still has to make a living. That‘s the funniest thing to me. In most comic books the superhero never worries about money! People used to say, ”Yeah, they never go to the bathroom, either!“ I never felt there was any compelling need to show that. I suppose you could have made it a story point. A guy has to go do something -- but he’s got diarrhea! Maybe I‘ll do that in some future story. When I’m drunk!

Have you thought about your own writing differently since September 11?

No. It‘s affected me personally. But as far as the writing, all I do is write about good guys fighting bad guys.

I always thought that your writing in the ’60s was influenced by Vietnam.

If you‘re a writer, I don’t see how you can keep the world around you out of your writing. When I sit down, I may not even be aware of it consciously, but the fact that I read an article in Newsweek or I saw something on television, it‘s there, somewhere, homogenized in my brain.

You’re not trying to make political statements, but it‘s inevitable.

You can’t help it. I‘ve never tried to be political, in the sense that I’ve never tried to say, ”This is the way it should be.“ I don‘t think that’s the duty of a fellow who writes for entertainment. The one thing that I always thought it was my place to say was so general that I felt nobody could argue with it. I always tried to stress, in my stories, the Golden Rule. ”Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.“ If people would just hew to that line, this world would be a heaven -- it would be utopia.

In the last decade or so, the portrayal of heroes in comics has become very cynical. Certain writers, some of the British writers, portray their heroes as pretty unlikable people. Do you think that trend will fade now?

Trends fade if people stop buying the books. I think a lot of writers don‘t want to be thought of as not hip, not up with the times. So they try to get that hard edge in their writing. I have no objection to that. A lot of hard-edged writing is damn good, but I can’t empathize with someone who‘s unpleasant. Maybe it’s because I‘m such a pleasant guy myself! Again, ”He said with a laugh.“

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