Stan Lee, chairman emeritus of Marvel Comics, is trying to remember a woman he killed.
By his own admission, Lee -- the legendary comic-book writer and editor responsible for Spider-Man, The Hulk, the X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Thor, and dozens of other heroes and villains -- has always been cursed with a terrible memory. So he has to be reminded of the details of Lady Pamela Hawley's death. A beautiful, highborn Brit, Hawley was the girlfriend of the rugged, hard-bitten American fighting man Sgt. Nick Fury. The lovestruck Fury was all set to propose to her when she was killed during an air raid in issue No. 18 of the Lee-penned comic ''Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos'' back in 1965.
Lee, 80, listens attentively as he's told about the enduring impression the last page of that issue made on a 9-year-old reader named Tom Sinclair. Those final panels, which showed a stunned, grief-stricken Fury dropping an engagement ring at the doorstep of Hawley's home and walking silently, brokenheartedly away, brought me to tears. It was the first story in ANY medium to have such an effect.
Lee pauses, looking both wistful and pleased. ''Yeah, I do remember that now,'' he says softly. ''That was pretty good, wasn't it?''
''Pretty good'' is a remarkably restrained assessment coming from the usually hyperbolic Lee, a writer who has kept the exclamation point industry in business for decades. Lee -- a.k.a. Smilin' Stan, Stan The Man -- is generally regarded as the father of the modern-day comic book for his groundbreaking work as Marvel's editor-in-chief and head writer in the '60s, and for the characters and mythology he created way back when, which thrive in the pages of current comics. As Marvel's editor-in-chief, Joe Quesada, puts it, ''Stan set up a world, and we still play in it.''
And as the success of movies like ''Blade,'' the ''X-Men'' films, ''Spider-Man,'' and ''Daredevil'' has shown, Hollywood has finally realized that the Marvel universe is a terrific -- and highly profitable -- arena to play in. The fact that his characters are hot properties (''The Hulk'' hits theaters this week, production has begun on ''Spider-Man 2,'' and there are Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Dr. Strange, and Iron Man movies in development) gratifies Lee to no end. ''I loved writing comics,'' he says, ''but unfortunately comics were often looked down upon by most of the population as kid stuff, pabulum. Movies and television are more respected. If you say to somebody, 'I wrote a best-selling comic book' -- well, that's nice. But if you say, 'I worked on a top-grossing movie,' that's a hell of a lot more impressive.''
Ask Quesada about Stan Lee, and he'll tell you about Lee's unique ''mutant ability -- the power to meet a person for the first time and make you feel like he's known you his entire life, that you're part of his family.'' As Lee takes me on a tour of his Hollywood Hills home, where he and his wife, Joan, have lived since 1981 (their daughter, Joanie, lives in a house a stone's throw away), he exhibits the same upbeat, chummy persona -- equal parts playfully shameless self-boosterism, wry self-deprecation, and infectious enthusiasm for life -- that distinguished his replies to readers on Marvel's letters pages and the ''Stan's Soapbox'' column he used to write. As we sit down in his comfortably cluttered living room, I mentally translate my feelings into the sort of title Lee used to hang on his stories: ''Lo, Men Shall Call Him...The Charmer.''
Chateau Lee is remarkably free of Marvel memorabilia. There isn't a life-size statue of Spider-Man or The Hulk in sight. There is a great deal of art -- African, Indian, Japanese paintings and sculptures -- courtesy of Joan (like the fictional Lady Hawley, a classy Englishwoman). ''This is really my wife's home,'' says Lee, gesturing at the surrounding curios. ''She decorates it. It's her toy.''
Although he officially became an octogenarian this past December, Lee could easily pass for a man of 60. The secret, he says, is staying busy, focused, and positive. He admits he suffered a setback when his 1999 venture, Stan Lee Media, which sought to marry comics to the Internet, went bust under hair-raising circumstances. The problem was Stan's business partner, a wheeler-dealer named Peter Paul, who moved to Brazil in 2001 after he came under investigation by the FBI, the SEC, and the Justice Department for alleged financial irregularities in his running of the company. Lee, who worked strictly on the creative side of the business, was never himself accused of any improprieties, but Stan Lee Media was unceremoniously dissolved. ''I'm the dumbest guy in the world when it comes to finance and business,'' says Lee. ''The DUMBEST.''
Still, Lee didn't spend much time brooding. In late 2001, he started a new company, POW! Entertainment (Purveyors of Wonder!), which is currently developing movies and television programs, such as the upcoming Spike TV (a.k.a. TNN, pending legal clearance of the network's name change) cartoon ''Stripperella,'' the title character of which will be voiced by Pamela Anderson. And, as he has since 1977, he still scripts a syndicated ''Spider-Man'' newspaper strip.
There's also his ongoing promotional work for Marvel. Lee stepped down as the company's editor in chief back in the early '70s, but he has spent much of the past 30 years as a de facto ambassador for Marvel: lecturing, writing introductions for comics collections, and appearing at conventions, spreading the superhero gospel far and wide. For such services, Marvel currently pays him a base salary of $1 million a year, and, in 1998, awarded him the title of chairman emeritus in perpetuity. And, despite the fact that he's currently embroiled in a lawsuit against Marvel, he still professes an undying love for the company.
''I'm hoping my lawsuit will go down as the friendliest lawsuit in history,'' he says. ''I love the guys at Marvel, I love the company, I love the spirit and the potential.... I've always felt that Marvel should be another Disney. There's no limit to what it can do with all those characters, who are really franchise characters. Like Tarzan, James Bond, or Sherlock Holmes, they can go on forever.''
It's difficult to convey to anyone who didn't grow up reading comics between 1961 and 1972 just how dramatically Lee shook up the field. Before the advent of The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and all the rest, comic-book heroes had largely been cardboard cutouts. Lee introduced the concept of the superpowered protagonist with problems. Sure, Spider-Man cracked wise when he was fighting villains like Doctor Octopus or the Green Goblin, but Lee also gave the hormonal teenager a complex emotional life, using thought balloons to craft rich interior monologues full of torment and self-doubt. And superteams like the X-Men and the Avengers fought and bickered among themselves, just like real-life family units. Lee also tackled big issues -- bigotry, drug abuse, social inequity -- making humanism an ongoing subtext of his stories. By contrast, the titles produced by rival DC Comics seemed glaringly one-dimensional. While DC set its stories in fictional cities like Metropolis and Gotham, Lee opted to ground his heroes in the real world, using his own hometown, the already colorful New York City, as the backdrop.
Writer Roy Thomas, who was hired by Lee in 1965 and would eventually succeed him as editor in chief of Marvel, remembers his early years at the company as a heady time. ''I was very aware that Stan was doing something new and vibrant,'' says Thomas. ''I soon realized that compared to what Stan was doing, DC was stuck in a rut, doing the same books the same way every month.'' (Ironically, when Lee went to DC in 2000 for a much-ballyhooed stint writing his reimaginations of Superman, Batman, and other DC heroes, he was the one in a rut: The results were, frankly, disappointingly rote.)
Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett began reading comics as a 6-year-old, and gravitated to Lee's work immediately. ''Stan Lee was probably the most read author of my youth,'' says Hammett, 40. ''He put concepts into comic books that no one had done before. He had an approach that really resonated in the mind of this young kid. I could relate to the fact that Peter Parker [Spider-Man's alter ego] was a high school dork, or that [The Fantastic Four's]The Thing was a big, ugly monster that no one wanted to look at, but who had a heart of gold. Stan's stories were very human, and I think that's why they had such an impact.''
Because of Lee's innovations, by the mid-'60s comics -- at least Marvel's -- weren't seen as being just for kids anymore. Hippies, college students, and intellectuals all jumped on the Marvel bandwagon, and pretty soon Stan & Co. were basking in pop-cultural cachet. The New York Times and other publications began running stories about the Marvel phenomenon; Country Joe & the Fish made lyrical reference to The Fantastic Four and Dr. Strange in their 1967 song ''Superbird''; a delegation of worshipful fans from Princeton University made a pilgrimage to Marvel's old offices at 625 Madison Avenue to meet Lee; Italian director Federico Fellini stopped by unexpectedly in November 1965, and, through a translator, bombarded Lee with comics-related questions; and when Lee and the Marvel gang hosted an evening at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1972, writer Tom Wolfe showed up to make a laudatory speech. ''Stan created a whole new set of superheroes. In fact, I'd say he put 'superhero' into the language,'' says Wolfe. ''Superman did it first, but Stan brought the breed to maturity.''
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. To fully understand how Lee, a poor Jewish kid from New York's Washington Heights, came to be the Munificent Monarch of the Mighty Marvel Universe, we must journey back through the mists of time, all the way to the first quarter of the last century, to reveal...the Origin of Stan Lee!