What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was about 12 or 13, we had this yearbook, and everybody had to get a quote from a teacher. Next to my name, the teacher wrote, “The greatest are the humblest.” I don’t know why she picked me to write that for, but it always stuck with me.
What did you learn growing up during the Depression?
That it’s better to have money than not to have money. It was pretty tough. My father was unemployed most of the time, so as soon as I became a teenager, I had to get little jobs here and there: I was an usher at a theater and a delivery boy for a drugstore. I wrote advertising copy for a hospital. I never understood if my purpose was to make people sick, so they’d go to the hospital.
You’ve been working for eight decades and still run POW! Entertainment. What have you learned about work?
That I’m happiest when I’m working. If I’m not working, I feel like I’m wasting my time. Most people say, “I can’t wait to retire so I can play golf,” or go yachting or whatever they do. Playing golf, you get together with your friends for an afternoon, talking and having fun. But I do that in the office, and we’re accomplishing more than hitting a ball into a hole.
What’s the secret to collaboration?
You have to be selective about the people you deal with. I was lucky to work with a guy like Jack Kirby, because he had a way of making anything he illustrated look exciting. He couldn’t draw a dull panel. I’d come up with a concept for a script and give it to him, and he’d make it even better than I imagined. That’s the most important thing – to try to select somebody who you trust can improve on your ideas and make your work seem better.
What changed for comic books in the Sixties?
Oh, I hate to sound immodest, but with The Fantastic Four, I really started a new type of comic. I tried to give the characters their own personality and their own problems and way of talking and acting. That hadn’t been done in comics before, and the book did very well, so I tried to do the same thing with X-Men, Spider-Man, and so forth. I try to write them as though they were real human beings who just happen to have a superpower. Also, little by little, I got caught up in the social issues of the day.
What’s it like to see something that for years was pencil and ink now dominate pop culture?
Obviously it’s a great feeling. I wrote these stories a million years ago, and they have become so popular and successful. So I get a big kick out of it, but I’m a little annoyed that I’m not starring in any of these movies. But hey, that’s another story.
You’ve been married for 66 years. What’s the secret to a happy marriage?
I’m terrified of my wife! [Laughs.] No, I was very lucky: I married a woman I loved very much, and I still love her just as much. Just pick the right girl – which is hard to do.
How should a man handle growing older?
It’s just something you have to accept, because there isn’t a damn thing you can do to stop it. I guess I’ll keep working till I drop. You know how the cowboys die with their boots on? I guess I’m going to die at the keyboard of a computer.
What do you think your legacy will be?
Who knows? If people enjoyed the stories, and if my name is still on them, they’ll say, “Boy, that guy, Lee, wherever he is, he was a pretty good writer.”