It’s midday in Beverly Hills and we’re sitting in a sixth-floor office overlooking perfect, palm-tree-lined streets. Perched behind the oversized desk in the sun-drenched room is a 93-year-old man who beams with pride within his surroundings: a multitude of toys, trinkets, pictures, keepsakes and comic books... all manner of items that commemorate his trailblazing work in the entertainment industry over the past eight decades. It’s been an astounding career that has had a monumental impact on popular culture.
There’s a life-size Spider-Man figure in one corner of the room and a superhero pinball machine from the 1980s in another. A vibrant painting of the Silver Surfer springs out from the wall behind him and numerous photos of A-list celebrity friends are framed around the room. This is the office of Stan Lee, a man whose inspiring imagination has helped create scores of superheroes including the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor and (his personal favourite) Spider-Man. With all his creations around him, it’s clear to see how this media and entertainment impresario made an impact on everyone on the planet.
“Every time I go to a comic-book convention, at least one fan will ask me, ‘What is the greatest superpower of all?’ I always say that luck is the greatest superpower, because if you have good luck then everything goes your way. For example, if a villain shoots you and you’ve got luck, he will miss. It’s perfect. After I explain this to people, I’m often asked, ‘So why don’t you have a superhero who’s got the power of luck?’ Well, it’s an idea that’s been percolating for a few years now and we’ve finally worked it out for this new TV show.
“Luck is something that affects everybody, and everybody can relate to it,” he adds. “I feel very lucky to be sitting here chatting to you about it because this show is very different to anything I’ve done before. Each episode looks beautiful and it’s a thrilling story with a surprise in almost every scene. I think it’s going to be a major hit. At least, I hope so.”
Stan Lee’s Lucky Man follows the story of Harry Clayton, played by James Nesbitt, a London detective who is given a mysterious bracelet that is said to imbue the wearer with immense luck – but this is not a superhero saga along the lines of the Avengers or Fantastic Four.
There are no caped crusaders or masked vigilantes swooping in to save the day. “If you class James Bond as a superhero then Harry Clayton will definitely be a superhero because he’s larger than life and he fights beautifully,” admits Lee. “There’s a lot of action in the show and he’s an inspiring character to watch as he goes through his paces – but he’s not a superhero like Iron Man or Spider-Man. Instead, he’s an action television-show hero with a lot of luck on his hands.”
Over the years, Lee’s co-creations have spawned multibillion-dollar movie franchises and made him a household name across the globe – but his big break came in 1939 when he landed an assistant position at Timely Publications. At first, his job involved filling inkwells and fetching lunch for the team – but Lee slowly raised through the ranks and was ultimately named president of Marvel Comics, the company that Timely had evolved into.
Unfortunately for Lee, he left many years before Marvel Entertainment – the parent corporation – was sold to Disney in 2009 for close to £2.5 billion, but it’s interesting to note that despite cameo appearances and an executive producer credit on many of Marvel’s big-budget block-busters, the comic-book icon does not share in the profits of the films. Instead, Lee created a new company in 2001, POW! Entertainment, which is where he spends most of his working days conjuring up new creations and ideas.
When Lee is asked about his influence, he is modest. “To be honest, I never thought I had that much impact,” he says. “We just sold a lot of books, but a lot of it had to do with the artwork and the subject matter. All of a sudden, people were starting to talk about me as if I was a prominent writer, which was nice – but I just get on with what I’m doing. I enjoy what I do and it’s pretty exciting to still be working. I just wish I were a little younger.”
While many writers like to dismiss the notion that movies and comic books can be too violent for the younger generation, Lee has a surprising response. “Well, they used to be [violent]. When I first got into the business, my publisher would say to me, ‘Stan, don’t waste time worrying about characterisation and philosophy; just give me lots of action. Don’t waste time with the dialogue, either. Every time I turn a page, I want to see action scenes. That’s what the kids like.’
“And that’s what comics were like a million years ago when parents were objecting to them – but now it’s different. Now, we have very fine writers writing these comics and the dialogue is carefully crafted in the dialogue balloons. I’m happy to say it’s a whole different story today.”
Despite his celebrity status, Lee hasn’t always been eager to embrace the fame that derives from a career in comics. “When I was young, I was embarrassed to tell people that I wrote comic books,” he admits. “I even changed my name because people hated them so much. My name used to be Stanley Martin Lieber, which was a very normal name. I cut it in half and made it Stan Lee because I didn’t want to use my real name on my work. I was saving it for the great American novel, which I never wrote.”
Lee in 1991
The charismatic smile momentarily fades when asked if he still indulges in his first love: comic books. “You’ve hit on a very unfortunate subject,” he reveals with a sigh. “My eyesight has gotten terrible and I can’t read comic books any more. When I write messages to myself, I have to write them in huge letters and I use an electronic enlarger to read them – but I can’t read a comic book. The print is too small. Not only a comic book, but I can’t read the newspaper or a novel or anything. I miss reading 100 per cent. It’s my biggest miss in the world.
“I can’t even read a script. I come up with ideas for stories and somebody writes an outline for me – but I can’t read it. I have to hope it’s good. If something is very important, they print it in very big type for me to read – but that’s all I can do. I have the same trouble with hearing. Apologies for asking you to repeat your questions at times, but my ears aren’t what they used to be. It’s awful to feel a thousand years old.”
Finally, when asked what he considers his proudest achievement, Lee’s reply is typically modest. “I don’t know. There’s not one singular moment, although it’s always great when people come up to talk to me and they mention how much they like the characters I’ve created, or how much they’ve enjoyed the books and the movies. It’s a great feeling to hear that.”
Stan Lee's Lucky Man begins on Sky 1 tonight (Friday 22nd January) at 9pm