In April of 2014, I called Stan Lee to talk about the creation of the X-Men. Quotes from the interview appeared here, but the full Q&A has never been published. The conversation shows how sharp and witty Lee was at age 91, and gives some insight on how he saw his work. (The late artist Jack Kirby, credited as the X-Men’s co-creator, asserted that he, and not Lee, actually came up the characters on his own. In retrospect, I should have pressed Lee harder on that issue.) Here, for the first time, is the transcript of our conversation:
Rolling Stone: How are you this morning, Stan?
Stan Lee: Well, that depends how you treat me.
Brutally, I promise. With no mercy.
So, I’ve read many interviews where you talk about the beginning of X-Men. But I think the first thing to point out is that X-Men No. 1 and Avengers No. 1 came out the same month, which is just amazing to me.
You know, I wasn’t even aware of that. That’s a helluva coincidence. [Laughs]
It was a good month for you.
I would say. A good month for Marvel.
Ideas were coming out kind of astonishing speed at that point. What do you remember about the first glimmer of sitting down to write X-Men?
Well, I think it was the fact that the Fantastic Four had sold so well. And we figured, my publisher and I, figured why not do another group? My problem was, what powers would I give them? Because with the Fantastic Four, we already had a guy who could fly, who could burst into flame, we had a woman who was invisible with a force field, we had a guy who could stretch, and we had a big strongest man in the world. So it wasn’t easy.
Then, once I figured out what powers they’d have, I had to figure, how did they get their powers? And they were all separate people that weren’t connected to each other, so I knew that would be a helluva job. And I took the cowardly way out, and I figured, hey, the easiest thing in the world: they were born that way. They were mutants. So I thought that would be one way to get around having to find new origins.
So I brought the idea to my publisher…
To Martin Goodman?
He liked the idea, but I wanted to call the book The Mutants, and he said, nobody knows what a mutant is, you gotta come up with another name. So I figured, well, they’re men and women with extra powers, and their leader is Professor Xavier, why don’t I call them the X-Men? I brought that name to my publisher, he said, that’s great! And as I walked out of the office, I thought, ‘If nobody would know what a mutant is, how is anybody gonna know what an X-Men is?’ But I had my name, and I wasn’t gonna fight it. That was how it started.
Just an hour ago, I re-read X-Men No. 1. It’s amazing how much of the entire concept was already nailed down. You had the school, you had Professor X. How did the school element and the Professor Xavier element come about?
Well, the reason for the school… we wanted them to be teenagers, older teenagers, but still teenagers. We figured, they gotta go to school. Then I thought, who would be their leader? And it occurred to me, I oughta get an adult. And I don’t know how it happened, but I figured, what if I get a guy whose power is, he’s got mental power? He can throw his thoughts, and he can somehow put his own will inside another person and make them do things. A man with the greatest mental power in the world.
And I don’t know what made me call him Xavier. I honestly don’t know. But I ended up with the name, whatever his first name was, and it was Xavier. So I figured, why wouldn’t he be the head of the school? I’d make him a little older, and I’d call it a school for gifted youngsters, and that would be a place for these mutants to come, and they’d meet each other. And then they could become a team in a while. And Professor Xavier, who I decided to call Professor X, he could be their leader.
Then I figured, but he’d be too powerful, a guy who could do anything, who could crawl into your mind and make you do things, is too powerful. So I figured, I’ll give him a weakness, and I made him a guy who couldn’t move his legs. He was in a wheelchair. And that seemed to me to be a good balance. And that was really how it started.
I think there was a time when you were writing at home, maybe even standing by the swimming pool, maybe that was later on.
Yes, I did. In summertime.
So where would you have been? Would you have been sitting at a typewriter? Would you be talking to Jack on the phone? How would it work?
No, I would be either sitting at a typewriter, or standing at the typewriter out on the terrace, if it was a nice day. Cause I knew a few writers who had potbellies, and I didn’t wanna end up like that, so I felt, as much as I can, I’m gonna stand up when I write.
You invented the standing desk.
Yeah. I did my writing at home, and then I went into the office a few days a week to do my editing, and that’s the way it worked.
With a new series, you would actually write up a proposal, right? You’d type that out. In addition to a first issue plot. I know with the Fantastic Four, [comic book writer/historian] Roy Thomas found your actual proposal.
Yeah, whenever I had an idea for a new book, I’d write down a little proposal, mainly so that I’d remember it, cause I have a lousy memory. So if I didn’t write it down, by the next day when I went to tell my publisher, I would’ve forgotten half of it.
How long do you think you spent coming up with the concept for X-Men?
Oh, I don’t know, I couldn’t answer that. Not very long. Usually a day is all any of them took. I mean I think like, I gotta get a new strip, and the first thing you have to think of is what superpower do they have. Where did they get it? And what are you gonna call them? Now once I had their name, once I knew their superpower, and once I knew how they got their power, what the origin was, writing the story was easy. The tough part was just figuring out who they were.
The other key thing was this idea of the good mutants and the evil mutants…
Well, I forget who my villain was in the first issue.
Magneto is in there in the first issue.
Oh, I was just gonna say, but my favorite villain was Magneto. And I loved the idea of the X-Men being good mutants, and then we’d get a bunch of bad mutants, and we’d make it seem as if the bad mutants had a point there. The human race hated them and feared them and shunned them and was trying to get rid of them, so why should they take it laying down? Why didn’t they fight back?
Whereas Professor Xavier said, we’ve gotta all learn to live together, no matter how different we are. And I felt that represented some schools of thought that exist among the human race now. And it was fun to toy with that concept. And basically, the main idea was to show that bigotry is really a terrible thing, and we should all get along with each other no matter how different we are. That was the main objective. If you needed an objective for a superhero story.
Were you aware that Professor X is more like MLK, and Magneto is more like Malcom X? Was that a conscious projection there?
I think it was certainly an unconscious feeling, yeah. And I never felt Magneto was a hundred percent bad. I mean, there were reasons why he felt that way, but it was just up to Professor X to find some way to make him understand that he was on the wrong track.
And the whole civil rights metaphor that ended up being the defining metaphor of the X-Men, did that come along in the first few issues?
It came along the minute I thought of the X-Men and Professor X. I realized that I had that metaphor, which was great. It was given to me as a gift. Cause it made the stories more than just a good guy fighting a bad guy.
You probably didn’t go into Martin Goodman and say, ‘Hey, I have a great metaphor for civil rights here.’ You said, ‘The kids are gonna love this.’
He wouldn’t have liked it, and he probably wouldn’t have understood it.
The funny thing about X-Men is that it was a little bit of an also-ran in the Sixties. It was not one of your most popular titles.
You know, again, I can’t remember. We had so many. We had X-Men, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, The Hulk, there were others I forget. Iron Man and Thor. And between you and me, going back to the Sixties, I can’t remember which were… I think Spider-Man was probably our best-selling one. But it’s hard to remember.
You probably had no idea that X-Men in itself would be come a phenomenon, because it wasn’t the phenomenon in the Sixties that it was later on.
Oh, no. I had no idea that any of them would become what they are today. And so much of that is due to the brilliant movie-makers who’ve done the movies. Apparently, there was something about these characters that lent themselves to the type of movies that people like to see today.
Did Jack Kirby just jump in and draw the first issue, or did you say, Jack can you work up some designs? How did that work?
No, he just jumped in and drew it. He designed all the costumes and all the looks and I always liked what he did. Maybe I would ask him to change one or two little things, but generally, I very much liked what he did. I told him what I wanted the story to be. Now, I don’t remember in those days if I wrote a complete script or if I just gave him a synopsis, and said play with it. I really can’t remember. I wrote a book called… oh, dammit, what’s the name… The Marvel superheroes or something [Origins of Marvel Comics]. There was a sequel called Bring on the Bad Guys. Anyway, in that book I pretty much explain how it happened, because I wrote that book years ago when I still remembered.
I have that book. I have an autographed copy, but it wasn’t autographed to me. I bought it somewhere else.
It’s autographed to Bob or something.
Anyway, so you know the book. And this information is probably in there. I haven’t read the book in all these years.
So you’d get the art back from Jack Kirby and say, ‘Oh, so that’s what Magneto looks like, that’s what the helmet looks like…”
He did a great job on Magneto. I love the way he put that helmet on him.
Jack used that helmet a number of times.
Well, a helmet’s a helmet.
A helmet’s a helmet. In the 1980s, the X-Men became the biggest thing at Marvel.
Is that so?
Yeah. For a while.
That’s good. I didn’t know.
And then obviously it ended up beating everyone to the movies. It was before Spider-Man.
It was the first movie, you’re right. X-Men. Bryan Singer did that one, I remember. And he gave me a little cameo. I think I was a hotdog seller.
So in 1999, after all that time, you finally sat in a theater and saw a big movie with the Marvel characters.
Well, they didn’t have the special effects way before then. I remember they tried to do a Spider-Man TV series, and without special-effects they just couldn’t have him climbing that wall in any way that looked good.
So how did it feel to finally see the movie?
Oh, I loved it! I loved that movie. I loved seeing them. I loved the way they did it. Absolutely. That movie was great.
I would imagine that once you saw the movie, you knew on some level that the other ones were going to get made.
It had to be. Absolutely.
You say that you don’t remember what was selling, but were Fantastic Four and Spider-Man more your babies in the Sixties?
They were all my babies. It took me a day to write each one. So, during a month, if we had, I don’t know, six or seven books, it would be six or seven working days. You know, there was also Doctor Strange, and some others. Then the rest of the time I would spend in the office going over the artwork and doing whatever editing there was to be done. I mean, none of them were really more important than any other to me, cause they were all something that I had to do. And they were all our books, and I was trying to make them all sell as well as possible.
And the toughest thing was to come up with a new story for each one that wasn’t treading on the toes of another character, you know? That wasn’t too similar to something else. That was really the most difficult part. Coming up with the stories wasn’t bad, too hard. But I’d come up with something then I’d say, wait a minute, I think I used that angle in Daredevil, or, ooh, I mighta used something like that in the Fantastic Four. So there was always that problem of making sure what I did was totally different from the other books.
The idea of the X-Men being hated and feared, was actually in a way expanding an idea that you and Steve Ditko started with Spider-Man.
Yeah, in a sense, because he was the same way. Although that wasn’t the main theme, so to speak, of the Spider-Man script, whereas it was more so in the X-Men.
And did you want them to be teenagers because people had liked that Spider-Man was a teenager?
I’m trying to think why I wanted them to be teenagers… I don’t remember. No, it wasn’t because Spider-Man was popular. ‘Cause the Fantastic Four was, too, at that point. So was the Hulk. No, I think I just liked the idea of them going to a school and Professor X being the headmaster.
Someone asked Bob Dylan, how did you write all those 1960s songs in a short period? And he looked back, and even he doesn’t quite know how he did it. Do you feel the same way?
No, I know how I did it. I was very lucky, it came really easily to me. Once I knew who the villain was, and if I had already established the main characters, which you only had to do once, then writing the story didn’t take that long. It took a little less than a day. You know, I’d wake up in the morning, I’d talk to my wife for a while, and read the paper, and then I’d start writing, and by dinner time it was over, and I had done the book.
So when you had a proposal like that, were there rough drafts for the X-Men you would have been tossing out?
No, we didn’t bother with rough drafts, drafts. Whatever I wrote, that was the story. So then, if it needed editing, I could edit it later, after it was drawn. Because once it was drawn, I was given the boards with the artwork and the lettering put in to give it a final read. And if there was a dialogue balloon I didn’t like, or something that wasn’t drawn the right way or so, I could have it fixed at that point.
So, with me, it was two phases: the first phase was writing the story, or later just writing the plot, and letting the artist work out the story, and then the second phase was reading it after it was done, and doing whatever editing. I was also the editor.
Yet another Spider-Man movie is in the theaters. It’s going to be in the theaters at the same time as the new X-Men movie.
I know, it’s an incredible situation. I don’t think there’s ever been a situation like this before, where there’s one wellspring from which all these characters spring, and they’re all on the screen at almost the same time. And each one of them is highly successful.
I’m lucky we had great directors and great actors and great producers and I, who have really little to do with the movie, have been getting a lot of credit for it, so, I don’t mind. I’ve gotta go. It was great talking to you. I hope the article turns out terrifically.