January 29, 1979 12:00 PM

Lee’s superheroes ‘have ego deficiencies and girl problems’

At two minutes past midnight, the plot thickens. In his dark bedroom, Stan Lee—publisher and creative director of Marvel Comics—clicks on the miniature tape recorder beneath his pillow. Dictating in mumbled phrases, he spins a web of adventures. He has hit on the idea of having “the Incredible Hulk meet Spider-Man in the greatest power trip in the history of comic books!” Lee switches off the tape. “Why is it that I always come up with the most brilliant plots just when I’m about to fall asleep?”

The next morning at 6:30 he bounds out of bed in a single leap, plugs in for a shave and then brushes his teeth. “Half the time I brush without Crest,” he claims. “I will not be the prisoner of American advertising!” Ten minutes later he is dressed. “I do not believe in bathrobes,” Lee says firmly. “It’s the kind of in-between garment that gets you nowhere. You can’t go outside in it. You can’t go to sleep in it. I’m the kind of guy who likes to always feel ready to go!” On his wrist hangs a heavy link silver bracelet. His feet are contained in thoroughbred Guccis. Piercing green-gray eyes are hidden behind prescription shades, but their hip image is offset by a conservative Paul Stuart herringbone jacket and tan slacks.

He struts through the lobby of his New York condominium with an armload of dirty laundry and proceeds along boutique-lined Third Avenue. His virile features are tawny and relatively unlined at age 56. His stomach is flat, “like iron,” he brags. His legs are muscular “from walking to and from the office. You know, after 31 years my wife still thinks I have a perfect body.”

He drops off his laundry and picks up the New York Times and the Daily News. “I do not believe in deliveries,” he declares. “They inhibit perfectly natural activities.”

Back in his 14th-floor apartment, decorated in exotic pieces grouped like a furniture showroom, wife Joan is still asleep. “Why should I get up to make him breakfast?” she asks, not unpleasantly. “He doesn’t bother to make it for me.”

As a husband liberated by the independence of his wife, Stan Lee has reduced breakfast to a domestic science. “For hundreds of years” he has thrust one Pepperidge Farm apple turnover into a 400° oven and set the timer to go off before “the neighbors holler ‘fire.’ “

While waiting, he carries his tape recorder into the study, ready to decode, when the phone rings. Lee throws down his Bic, cringing. “There is nothing I hate more than the telephone!” On the line is John Romita, who draws Spider-Man. A crisis is at hand. “Stan,” he cries, “either you come up with a plot for the Sunday page by tomorrow or the syndicate will kill Spider-Man!”

“Don’t worry, John,” Lee reassures him and promises to call back in five minutes. An alarm sounds in the distance. “I’ve got to save an apple turnover from burning!” In the swashbuckling tradition of one of his own comic book heroes, Lee first rescues breakfast and then, with a flick of his Bic, Spider-Man.

An era in comic book history dates from 1961. That was the year Stan Lee began to create the family of cartoon characters that eventually included Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk and Dr. Strange. They had a profound impact on many youngsters that was hardly as negative as parents feared and educators preached. Gene Simmons of Kiss, who grew up with Marvel comics, says, “His stories taught me that even superheroes like Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk have ego deficiencies and girl problems and do not live in their macho fantasies 24 hours a day. Through the honesty of guys like Spider-Man, I learned about the shades of gray in human nature.”

Lee’s arch rival, Jenette Kahn, publisher of Superman comics, adds, “Stan Lee created characters who related to the experience of the alienated youth of the 1960s.” As publisher, creative director, active writer and even spokesman for the comic book business on the college lecture circuit, Lee is, according to the gracious Kahn, “the living superhero for the American comic industry.”

Cary Grant has phoned Lee to express his appreciation of Marvel comics, introduced to him by his daughter, Jennifer. Federico Fellini, the Italian film director, showed up in Lee’s office with an admiring entourage. French director Alain Resnais wanted Lee to write a script for a film. “But most of the phone calls,” says Martha Conway, Lee’s 24-year-old secretary, “are from 12-year-old boys inviting him to their bar mitzvahs or 13-year-old girls who want to know how to attract a superhero.”

Marvel sells about six million comic books a month in 15 languages. With upwards of $25 million a year in sales, it is the largest and most successful business of its kind in the world—”if not the universe.” For the past few years Lee has written the narrative for only two of the strips—Spider-Man, which appears in about 500 newspapers, and the Hulk, in 200 papers. He devotes the rest of his time to supervising the transition of his characters into other media. The Hulk was a prime-time sensation last season and continues among the top 20 shows. Spider-Man made five specials last season, and CBS has scheduled more this year. Dr. Strange and another hero, Captain America, also have starred in specials from Universal.

With so many pop groups fascinated by comic heroes these days, Stan has become the Werner Erhard of the rock world. Paul McCartney asked him to come up with vivid characters to give personality to his second band. One of Meat Loaf’s songwriters wants Lee to do a script for a Broadway musical for the singer, and Lee has already submitted an outline.

In turn, Stan has made some rock superstars into comic book heroes themselves. The Kiss edition was a huge seller. The Beatles flopped because the company misjudged their popularity. But Mick Jagger and the Stones, soon to be published, should do well, and Alice Cooper was recently signed up.

In recognition of Lee’s unique role in American mythmaking, Harper and Row has paid out a “sizable” advance for his autobiography. “But I asked them to give me five years to write it,” he says, “because I haven’t done an eighth of the things I want to do. You know,” he adds wistfully, “I still feel as if I’m waiting to be discovered.”

Stanley Martin Lieber was born December 28, 1922 in Manhattan. In his family’s cramped three-room apartment, “I slept in the living room until I was old enough to need my privacy.” Then he switched rooms with his parents. Nine years after he was born, his brother, Larry, who now draws the Hulk, arrived. Lee says, “I have no idea where he slept. I always considered him only a guest.” By the time he was 10, Stan’s mother, Celia, already thought of her little boy as some kind of superior human being. “Whenever I walked in the door, she’d ask me why some talent scout hadn’t whisked me off the street and taken me straight to Hollywood.” Stan saw every Errol Flynn movie “a hundred times” and loved adventure books.

During the Depression, his father, Jack, found it hard to get work as a dress cutter. The frustration turned his older son into a workaholic. “School was just something to get past.”

After graduation from DeWitt Clinton High, Lee was offered an $11-a-week job as a gofer at the firm that would become Marvel Comics—”I was probably the only one who applied.” A few months later both editor and art director walked out over a disagreement with the publisher, leaving Lee in charge. He was 17. “I knew the position was only temporary. I figured I would last maybe two or three weeks.” That was in 1939.

While the company grew, Stan achieved a reputation as a formidable ladies’ man. Then in November 1947 he strolled up Fifth Avenue from his offices in the Empire State Building to have a look at a “gorgeous redhead” recommended as a date by his cousin Morty. When Lee opened the door to her office, he took one long look at “that face and hair” and surrendered. “I love you!” he cried. Joan Clayton Boocock, a hat model, was flattered. She was also married.

He insists that her first marriage “wasn’t so great.” Joan corrects him without hesitation. “I had only known my first husband 24 hours when we decided to get married,” she explains. “It really was a great marriage in many respects. But after living with him a year, I was finding him sort of boring…” Lee was nothing if not interesting. Joan recalls, “He wore a marvelous floppy hat and a scarf and spouted Omar Khayyam when he took me for a hamburger at Prexy’s. He reminded me of that beautiful man, Leslie Howard.” They dated for a passionate two weeks, and then he proposed. “But first I had to send her to Reno for a divorce.”

So Joan took off for Nevada and met another—and richer—man, a cowboy who also wanted to marry her. “I thought for a moment, maybe this is better…” But when Stan got a letter mistakenly addressed to “Jack,” . the Reno rival, he grabbed his scarf and flew to Joan’s side. The judge who granted her divorce married them.

For the next 19 years they lived on Long Island, where Joan Lee raised their daughter, Joanie (a younger daughter, Jan, died in infancy). Wife and daughter became accustomed to hearing the cries and whispers of creativity as Lee acted out his heroes’ tales of adventure. “Don’t worry,” Joanie would assure her friends at the strange noises coming from the study. “That’s just my father at work.” In 1969 the couple moved to New York City, where Joanie was in acting school.

One reason for Lee’s 40-year loyalty to Marvel may be that, unlike other creators of comics such as Garry Trudeau or Charles Schulz, Lee does not own the rights to any of his heroes. The company does. To leave would mean walking out on his creations. “I’m not a man to turn his back on his children,” he says. His job is not without its rewards, however. His salary is upwards of $100,000 a year, plus fees and royalties from TV scripts and books.

At 9:30 Lee enters the tacky offices of Marvel Comics on Madison Avenue. He is singing the Alka-Seltzer jingle. The phones are ringing. Before anything else, he has a heavy problem to resolve. Spider-Man’s Aunt May has been pressuring him to get married. Unfortunately, Lee killed off the hero’s girlfriend, Gwendolyn, in an earlier episode. Ignoring the phones, Lee reaches for a pen and begins to scribble. He bites his thumb. He pulls out a tissue and blows his nose. “I always have a cold,” he cries. “Even when I don’t have a cold, I sound like I do.”

Pacing the floor, he wanders into the hallway and puts a quarter in the machine for a cup of chicken soup. “I will not drink coffee after 7 a.m.” A parade of employees, eager and young, marches in and out his door. They represent the “20,000 different projects” going on at the moment. Lee concentrates on each visitor but remains offhand and cool. Things get tense only when John Romita pops in. “Is Spider-Man getting married next week or isn’t he?”

Lee tenses and asks his secretary to hold the calls. He shuts the door and puts a hand on Romita’s shoulder. “John,” he says thoughtfully, “I’d like to have a wedding, but do you really think Spider-Man is mature enough yet?”

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