Q&A: Comics Great Stan Lee on Marvel Horrors & More
When most people hear the word “comic books,” Stan Lee is likely the first person to enter their minds. A staple of the comic industry for an astounding 75 years, he’s credited for establishing the legitimacy of comics as popular entertainment while creating some of the most iconic characters and teams to ever grace pop culture. Though he is better known for his superhero work, Stan Lee has also had a considerable influence on horror comics as well, thanks to his myriad Steve Ditko-illustrated, often surreal contributions to the likes of STRANGE TALES, TALES OF SUSPENSE and TALES TO ASTONISH and early work in MYSTIC and MENACE. What’s more, he was one of the first creators to add human morality to the creatures that go bump in the night. His desire to create interesting stories and relatable characters helped power what we know as horror today.
FANGORIA: When Atlas became Marvel, one of the continuing titles was JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY. How did starting off with a horror title help influence the creation Of Marvel?
STAN LEE: We never paid much attention to the titles; whatever the title was, it was. The thing that really sold the magazines was, “Who were the characters that were featured?” If we had characters that the public liked, then the book would sell. If they didn’t like it, it wouldn’t matter what the title was.
FANG: By the Mid-Sixties, Marvel created original supernatural creatures who were clearly defined as good (Doc Strange) or bad (Lucifer, Mr. Fear). Was introducing supernatural (with defined personalities) but not exactly horror characters a way to work around the comic code?
LEE: We weren’t even worried about the comic code. They were against violence and torture and things of that sort and I never considered what we did as violent. I referred to it as action, and for me there was a difference between action and violence. The code never really bothered us.
FANG: In the early seventies, characters appeared that were more a bit more horror (GHOST RIDER, TOMB OF DRACULA, WEREWOLF BY NIGHT, MAN-THING). They didn’t have such easily defined allegiances. Do you feel that by not giving them clear, moral outlines, fans enjoyed them more?
LEE: Obviously, if we felt the fans enjoyed something, we tried to give them as much of it as we could. What we were really doing is throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall and hoping that something will stick. We just tried to come up with as many different versions of characters as we could, hoping that sooner or later, we would find something that the fans will like. We could tell what they liked by the sales figure.
FANG: Marvel was also the first company to give horror characters a superhero twist, allowing them to feel, think, and decide on their own actions vs being faceless monsters. What made Marvel go against the general idea of all horror creatures as evil beings and give them a moral compass?
LEE: I was trying to do the type of stories I myself would like to read. If I write a story, I think “Is this something I want to read?” Is this a character who would interest me and I would want to know more about him? Is the title provocative? Does the character have an interesting superpower? Does the character have problems that I can relate to and he can get around them?” Everything really had to do with what I liked at the time. If I liked something, I did it. If I didn’t like something, I didn’t do it.
FANG: It seems like it really worked and helped establish Marvel as a unique presence in the comic industry at the time, especially in the horror genre.
LEE: Well, I guess so, there are types of horror I like. The most horrible story that I ever did was a little five-page story that I still remember. It was about a surgeon and he was terribly treated by the villain. The villain steals his wife and steals his money; he does everything terrible you can do to a person. Then, one day the villain is shot in the head and the only person who can save his life is our hero, the doctor. Though the villain had been robbing and doing all these terrible things to him, the surgeon still has to operate on the villain because it’s the duty of every doctor out there. So he saves the villain’s life, but he gets his revenge. In the last panel, we see how he saved him. He turned his head completely around! It made a wonderful drawing. It was one of my favorites. It was horror, but a different type of horror.
FANG: In the seventies, there was a second horror boom. On top of original creations, there was a flood of re-prints that hit the shelves, with some claiming that by re-printing these old titles, it helped establish Marvel as an industry leader because Marvel understood that novelty is just as important as original concepts. Do you feel that’s true?
LEE: I think that’s true, but there was another reason. When you reprint stuff, it’s cheaper than using original stuff because you don’t have to pay for it. It’s already been paid for and it helped save money. Some of those decisions I did not make, those were reserved for the publisher. My job was just to produce it and exhibit it, in a way that I thought was the best.
FANG: Despite Marvel’s current popularity, there are no true horror titles on the market right now. Would you personally like to see Marvel expand back into the horror world?
LEE: No, we’re mainly just dealing with superheroes and that seems to be the main thing that’s popular today. I wrote superheroes, so I’m having fun. I enjoy seeing them. If they could make more horror, I’d be interested in seeing it but like I said, I’d be interested in horror, I’d be interested in sports stories, westerns, romances, detective. I want anything that makes a good story.
Horror, of course, is great, because it’s more imaginative than most and I like things that are imaginative. I write things with unique characters that you’ve never seen before and you wonder what’s going to happen. With that point, horror adds things that scare you and makes it very fun.
FANG: Are you personally a fan of horror?
LEE: To tell you the truth, I’m a fan of anything that is well written ad well drawn if it’s a comic. Or if it’s a movie; I loved King Kong and Dracula, I loved Frankenstein. But I also loved All the Presidents Men and Gone with the Wind. I like anything that’s good, doesn’t matter what type of thing it is.
Stan Lee will be appearing at the Hollywood Show in Los Angeles, CA at the Weston LAX on Saturday, July 19th. Also attending are Linda Blair, Barbara Steele, RJ Mitte of BREAKING BAD and the original WILLY WONKA kids.