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Stan Lee Looks Back on His Storied Career

Much like Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk and the other 350-plus characters he helped create, Stan Lee is a force of nature.

Stan Lee
Stan Lee
Stan Lee

Much like Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk and the other 350-plus characters he helped create, Stan Lee is a force of nature.

On Friday morning, the 91-year-old was spry as can be in a crisp, white button-down shirt, khakis, a zip-front black jacket and seen-better-days white sneakers, touring the just-opened “Marvel’s Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N.” at Discovery Times Square in Manhattan. The legendary comic book creator never needed to adjust his green-and-red-striped Gucci eyeglasses to get a sharper look of Iron Man’s armor costume or the screens flashing real-time NASA-generated solar images in the exhibition’s Cosmic Observatory. While “Station Agents” ushered in visitors for their computerized individual check-ins with sergeantlike shouts of “Let’s move people! Pick a station — any station!” Lee’s assessment in other galleries was more of wonder, than a wander. “It is all so well-done and it’s so realistic. Jesus,” he said. “This place will become as famous as the Metropolitan Museum of Art — maybe more so. I think more work went into this.”

Vaudevillian as that might sound, Lee seemed genuinely floored when the two camera crews filming him momentarily stepped ahead and out of range. “God, this is great,” Lee said to no one in particular as he exited the Thor Observatory.

Lee spent decades at Marvel and remains chairman emeritus despite having soldiered an epic legal battle with Marvel Enterprises in 2005 about film rights. He sounded equally floored by their involvement. “You mean you got Marvel [Entertainment] to OK you doing this and they’re investors in this? Wow!” he told Victory Hill Exhibitions’ chief creative officer Nicholas Cooper, who crafted the concept. (VHE and Marvel Entertainment partnered with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and The Science and Entertainment Exchange, a program of the National Academy of Science for the attraction, which runs through Jan. 5.) After checking out Iron Man’s Heads-Up display, which is activated by a visitor’s eye movements and tracks that person’s brain waves, Lee said, “This will probably be the top tourist attraction for young people and even older people. When word gets around, this will be why people come to New York. I mean, there is nothing like it anywhere — it’s unbelievable. Like it? I love it — I’m impressed. I can’t believe it.”

Believe it? He created it, in that the exhibition gleans heavily from his decades of work. But when told that he too will be given an ID card so that he could become an official station member, Lee said, sounding truly excited, “Oh, I’d love that.”

While Friday’s tour may have been a saunter through his past, the longtime New Yorker, who now lives in Los Angeles, is engulfed in new projects through his company POW Entertainment, where he is chairman and chief creative officer. Global expansion — China and India in particular — is at the top of that list. “The Zodiac” for Disney Publishing is due out next year, as is the film “Ant Man” with Paul Rudd and “Avengers 2.”

Flooded as his mind must be with ideas and experiences, Lee seems to have his life’s memories on automatic recall, whether that be his days in the U.S. Army illustrating pamphlets with Frank Capra, William Saroyan and “Dr. Seuss” (Theodor Seuss Geisel), or how the filmmaker Federico Fellini — dramatically dressed all in black and with a perfectly coordinated entourage trailing behind based on their respective heights — once paid a visit to Lee in his Marvel office.

Counter to today’s first-comes-licensing-and-intellectual-property-rights strategy, Lee accepts that Disney now owns Marvel and all the creations he made there. “In those days, he was a guy who just wanted a job. It was a different time and a different era,” said his POW Entertainment cofounder Gill Champion, noting that Lee leads a life without regrets. (He also has insisted over the years that Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko got their due.) As for what Lee can be found doing when he is not working, Champion, president and chief executive officer of POW, said with a laugh, “Don’t know. Stan works eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Here, Lee talks about his career and more.

WWD: Are you excited to be back in New York? “Excelsior!” was your signature sign-off and it is New York’s state motto.

Stan Lee: It’s great being back in New York. I’m from New York originally. But New York never had any place like this when I was living here.

WWD: Your father worked off and on in the garment industry. Does it make you nostalgic being so close to the Garment District?

S.L.: My father was actually a dress cutter, whatever that is, I never understood. I am always nostalgic being in New York. Every neighborhood represents something to me. I lived here until I was 60 years old or so. So it was my life.

WWD: What do you hope other generations will take from your work or how might you influence them?

S.L.: Originally when I wrote all these stories, my only intention was that other people who had read them would enjoy them. I was seeking to provide entertainment and enjoyment. Now with this fantastic entity that has been built here, I think we are also going to be providing quite a lot of scientific knowledge and more than that an interest in science on the part of young people. I can’t imagine any young people coming through here and not leaving and saying, “Wow! I never knew science was so exciting.” Normally they think, ‘Oh science, I’d rather play basketball.” It makes it look as though that everything that young people are interested in like the Hulk and Iron Man and Captain America, they all relate to science. I would think that would make youngsters feel they would want to be scientists or they would want to know more about science. And I think that’s a wonderful thing.

WWD: Do you envision comic books becoming more experiential and digital?

S.L.: Comic books are just a way to show a story. Then there are the movies, and television and exhibits like this that take the stories and make them seem so realistic. In the comic book, you’re just reading a story — hopefully a good, exciting story that whets your appetite for all of this stuff to come.

WWD: What inspires you today? Where do you get ideas from?

S.L.: I have a company called POW Entertainment that I’m with. We’re doing the same thing at POW that I did years ago with Marvel. We’re creating new characters now. [POW stands for Purveyors of Wonder.] We have one, a Chinese-American hero and he’s called The Annihilator. We have an Indian character, a teenager, who is now being seen in animation in India called Chakra. It has to do with the Chakra school of understanding and philosophy. We’re working on a Latino superhero. We’re working on three or four separate television series involving superheroes. So I guess I’m doing now what I’ve always done, mostly for POW Entertainment.

WWD: How many countries would you say you’ve visited?

S.L.: Italy, England, France, Poland, Japan, China and Australia [“22” a colleague offers as Lee proceeds to rattle each off counting on his fingers]. I haven’t been to Africa. I have never gotten around to Africa. And I haven’t been to Russia. But I think I’ve been just about everywhere else.

WWD: Does today’s political landscape play into your work in any way?

S.L.: I never really am concerned about the political landscape of the day when I’m writing because no matter what it is, it will change. By the time my stories come out, it will have changed. So I never think much about that.

WWD: Why was it important to you that your characters be flawed?

S.L.: Oh, that is the most important thing. If you have a character that seems to be all perfect, it’s hard to relate to him because when you read a story you really want to empathize with the character that you are reading about. And it’s hard to empathize with someone who is flawless and who has no problems. But you get a person who has a power, who’s interesting and exciting, a person you care about, and then show that that person, like you, is fallible and has things that concern him or her — I think that makes it more interesting.

WWD: Everything you have done has a message of morality. Do you feel as though the entertainment industry has lost its moral compass in that so much is about sex and violence, whereas with your stories there were lessons to be learned?

S.L.: It’s hard to make a blanket statement like that because in the entertainment industry all that anybody wants to do whether it’s music or stories or dancing or comedy or whatever, they want to entertain the public. And they do it any way they can. Sometimes they concentrate simply on entertaining people and they don’t care what message they are giving. Some people are able to not only entertain the public in any way that they can but also in some way to throw in some sort of inspirational message with the entertainment. I have always tried to do that with whatever I wrote. And I’m sure that a lot of other writers do, too. If you’re going to write something, that’s going to be read by people, a lot of people, you hope it will not only entertain them but maybe do them some good in some way.

WWD: How would you describe what you do?

S.L.: I’m just somebody who tries to write things that entertain people. And if I can do it in a way that makes them prefer to emulate the good guy than the bad guy, I’m happy.

WWD: Do you have a favorite moment in your career or is it yet to come?

S.L.: I am very lucky because everything that I do is exciting to me. It’s always new. I work with a great guy Gill Champion, my partner. Every day is fun — it’s got new projects, new problems we have to solve. It’s like other guys enjoy going on the golf course with their friends — I enjoy being in the office with the people I work with and saying, “Well, this thing that we’re working on, will it really entertain people? Is it really different enough? Does it really have an angle that will grab someone? Is it something that people will talk about and care about?” And it’s fun trying to come up with things like that. Then with 75 photographers, reporters, handlers, fans and Discovery staffers waiting patiently for Lee in the next room, he took a minute to greet a Little League-size fan. “Well, here’s another young scientist,” he said, leaning down to shake his hand.