In his later days, even when he was growing frailer, Stan Lee, the man who would save Hollywood with his creations Iron Man, Spider-Man and the Hulk, would venture out from his Beverly Hills office in the mornings just to 'take the air.”
In truth it was not the air but the fans casually lurking on the sidewalk outside his offices that would rejuvenate Stan the Man like a bite from a radioactive arachnid.
When I walked with him, following a more formal interview about his autobiography (in graphic novel form, natch), he revealed a few rules about dealing with fans.
He would answer geeky questions, no problem, about whether Wolverine could take down Daredevil, and he would share youthful tales of cycling around Brooklyn looking for a damsel in distress to save.
But he would not, could not, he explained, listen to exuberant suggestions about future plotlines for Marvel comics or even detailed myths sketching out potential superheroes.
“Lawyers frown on pitches, just in case someone sues me, and I have a head of superheroes already enough for one lifetime,” he told me as we crossed the street near his POW (Purveyors of Wonder Entertainment) office. “Then I go deaf, shake their hands and unleash [the catchphrase] 'Excelsior!'”
One germinating superhero, whose identify I promised to keep secret until after his passing, was (working title) Rubber Guy — yes, he could bend like Mr. Fantastic but also shrink like Ant-Man. “All he needs is a personal crisis, and I will bring him home,” Lee promised.
He also had a lunatic idea about turning ex-Beatle Ringo Starr into a “super.” Maybe armed with drumsticks? An acoustic battler against bad beats?
Stan Lee, who died on Monday, Nov. 12, at the age of 95 at Cedars-Sinai in L.A., had a hatful of secret identities.
Before he even put professional pencil to paper, the New Yorker had already been “pants guy” — the office boy at a trouser manufacture — and “bread boy” delivering sandwiches to Rockefeller Center.
And, to get closer to childhood heroes such as Errol Flynn (“Every one of my superheroes was either Errol or Douglas Fairbanks”), a theater usher.
A highlight, he told me, was showing Eleanor Roosevelt to a seat and then tripping over a patron's feet in his excitement. The First Lady had to comfort his discomfort.
“Not my greatest moment,” he admitted.
Those started flowing during World War II, when he scribbled military propaganda in the same office as filmmaker Frank Capra; Charles Addams, who went on to create The Addams Family; and Theodor Geisel, whose secret identity would prove to be Dr. Seuss.
And Lee's contribution to the war effort?
A poster showing a soldier stepping off at a PX store to pick up prophylactics before his liaison with a sultry brunette, turning triumphantly and proclaiming: “VD? Not me!”
“They must have printed a zillion of them and posted them all over Europe,” he told me. “But did I get a medal? Nope! Someone must have goofed.”
After the war Lee joined Timely Comics as it evolved into Marvel. He was living the American Dream, driving a big car, but he wanted more. He wanted angst.
And so, despite his publisher's conviction that teenagers would never read comics about teenagers, especially about a high schooler who clings to walls, he created Peter Parker, the amazing Spider-Man and host of a rainbow array of personal problems.
“I was getting fan letters not in crayon but with nice handwriting, typed even,” Lee recalls in his Bronx twang. The letters were “from college kids who found someone they recognized — shy, nerdish and struggling to do the right thing.” He found himself “speaking at every college in America. I don't know what changed, nor do I really care, so long as the story is good and they help get kids started with reading. I still see a good comic as educational.”
After that came the Hulk, a transmuted scientist with anger-management issues, a trait shared with many supercharged warriors among the genetically mutated X-Men; a pretty version of the Norse god Thor; and, most unexpectedly, Iron Man, aka Tony Stark, a playboy billionaire arms manufacturer with a sardonic sense of humor who became the counterculture's favorite hero.
In 2008 it was the first Iron Man movie that saved the Marvel film division, and gave Lee yet another lease on life. Not that he needed it — he reportedly paid for his last home in the Bird streets above Sunset in cash.
Now that comic book adaptations account for more than 10 percent of Hollywood revenues, it's tough to imagine a day when it was a big risk not only to cast Robert Downey Jr. but to spend the money to make such an expansive production.
Yet, like Lee, Marvel had decided to take graphic novels seriously. Not that it changed Lee's life much.
He had already been through his “wild years” before he married Joan, a red-haired model from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne — “you know, where that British beer comes from.”
Joan was the only person he would allow to cut his hair.
She also calmed him down when the estates of other artists with whom he had co-created superheroes — Jack Kirby, for instance — went to war with the studios. “We did not make a great deal of money, we were employees, but we had a great time. If you want to get rich, the first rule is to outlive everyone else.”
Also, Joan kept it real. “She does not want to hear about superheroes, so I have to stop talking at home and listen to Joanie talk about her day,” Lee said. “Which is good for me.”
After Joan died last year, Stan told friends she left a “black hole,” a vacuum that could not be filled.
And today, for millions of movie and comic book fans, so does Lee.