In his own right, Stan Lee was a superhero, having spent a lifetime saving the universe.
As Marvel’s Midas-like mastermind in the 1960s, he co-created Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and the X-Men, characters that still stoke imaginations today. With word of Lee’s death Monday at age 95, we went back into the Yahoo archives to unearth this candid interview with the comic kingpin. Conducted on the eve of Comic-Con in 2015, in what turned out to be his last sit-down with us, the surprisingly spry Lee held forth on several topics, from his secrets to creating the perfect superhero and the character he most identified with to the origin of his classic catchphrase.
Yahoo Entertainment: You’ve created so many universes of superheroes in your career — do you have a philosophy of superheroism?
Stan Lee: I hate to make it sound un-intellectual, but to me, I think of these superheroes the way young people read fairy tales. When you’re 3, 4, 5 years old, you read about giants and witches and monsters and things like that. And they’re colorful and bigger than life, and you’re a little kid and you’re impressed with them. [But when] you get a little older, you can’t read fairy tales anymore. Suddenly, along come these superhero stories and to me they’re like fairy tales for grown-ups because they’re all bigger than life, they’re about characters that really have abilities that no human beings possess. … You’re recapturing the enjoyment you had when you were a kid reading fairy tales. So I don’t think there’s anything thing very much deeper to it than that.
But you still need to ground your characters, right? You’re known for making your superheroes seem like real people.
The normal person — the hero’s normal identity — has to be somebody that the reader can relate to and has to be credible. I don’t think a reader would like a superhero if his normal identity were somebody dull… if he had no particular personality, no problems, nothing. I always felt that way about Superman: Clark Kent was just a guy, a reporter. But I didn’t know where Clark Kent lived, what his problems were.
The personal life of a superhero or superheroine is very important. And in some way it should be associated with the superpower.
So what’s the secret formula for creating a superhero?
I can’t think of any formula. It’s like writing a novel of any sort. Or a mystery story or a western story. You just have to think up an interesting character and an interesting problem, which it seems as though that character will never be able to solve, or a hurdle that he or she will never be able to overcome, and then you find a clever way for the hero to overcome it at the end.
You’ve just gotten, by the way, the whole secret. I expect you to go out and write a bestseller.
Which of your heroes do you most identify with?
Probably Iron Man. Yeah, [Tony] Stark, ‘cause he’s good looking, smart… [Laughs.] I’m only kidding. I identify with all of them in a sense. I think when you’re a writer, any character you write you have to have a feeling for or you won’t be able to write it well.
‘Excelsior!’ is your trademark sign-off. Tell me its secret origin.
I used to write a column [for Marvel Comics] called “Stan’s Soapbox,” and I used to end up by saying, “’Nuff said.” Then, all of sudden, I see that expression popping up in the DC Comics here and there. And I said, “Dammit, if they’re going to copy my expressions then I’m going to find one they won’t be able to copy, because they won’t know how to spell it, and they won’t know what it means.” And I came with “Excelsior!” — which is a word on the New York State seal [that] means “upward and onward to greater triumph.“
It’s the perfect word. So I’ve been using it ever since — and they haven’t stolen it yet.
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