If contemporary pop culture has a superhero, it may well be Stan Lee. Granted, he doesn’t look much like a superhero: Lee is 93, he doesn’t hear too well these days and his eyes disappear almost completely when he smiles. But Lee is possessed of a superpower that has made him a very rich man: he has a seemingly unwavering knack for telling the stories the public wants to hear, for dreaming up the characters that they want to embrace. As the driving force behind Marvel comics for more than 50 years, Lee has come to hold sway over modern popular culture. Characters created for Marvel in the 1960s by Lee, in collaboration with artists including Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, now make up a broad swathe of the world’s biggest movie franchises. Rarely does a summer go by without a new instalment of Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man or the Avengers. In recent years the Marvel Universe, as it’s come to be called, has taken over television, too, with Daredevil, Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter and Jessica Jones merely the first batch of many more to come.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Sky’s new drama Lucky Man is being touted on the posters as ‘Stan Lee’s Lucky Man’: Lee is as much as a sell as the show itself. This is the first Lee creation that isn’t based on a Marvel character, but it has all the hallmark of his mode of thought:
“I used to go to comic book conventions and talk to fans. One question that I’d always be asked was what do you think would be the greatest superpower to have. And I always surprised the audience by saying I think good luck. Because if you have luck that’s the best thing you could have. You could be fighting somebody a hundred times stronger than you but in some lucky way you’d beat them. Somebody would shoot you; the shot would miss. Whatever happened, you’d be lucky and you’d turn out okay.”
It’s taken him more than 350 fictional characters to get round to imbuing one of them with preternatural serendipity, but now, in the form of Sky’s Lucky Man, James Nesbitt is to be gifted the acme of all superpowers. Nesbitt plays Harry Clayton, a London cop with a gambling addiction who has bet the house, literally, on a wager and alienated his family in the process. Then, one night at the casino, approaching rock bottom, Harry meets the shimmering Eve [Sienna Guillory]. She entrusts him with a bracelet said to bring the wearer immense luck. Clayton sets about regaining his family’s trust while using his new lucky charm to take on a burgeoning crime wave.
Lee, who lives in Los Angeles, is frank enough to admit that when it came to Lucky Man his contribution was limited.
“I had a meeting with the guys [from Sky] and they came over here. We had a long talk and I was delighted to find they had the same vision of the show that I did. They went back to England to do the work. I stayed here to take the credit!”
He hasn’t even seen all of the episodes, he says, but he did come up with the original concept. It’s a typical Lee hypothesis, a stonking great ‘what if?’ but one grounded squarely in the real world. Nesbitt may have a superpower but other than that he is essentially just another downbeat cop.
This was Lee’s great innovation in the sixties, part of the legendary tussle between DC Comics, whose pre-eminence was founded on Superman and Batman, and Marvel, the upstart. Marvel, most would agree, has ended up the winner.
“I think that Marvel certainly seems to be the pre-eminent company now,” says Lee with admirable magnanimity. “It may have had something to do with it that our characters were a bit more human, a bit more believable. For example, in Batman he lives in Gotham city. Now there’s no city named Gotham City. But our superheroes lived in New York City. I tried to keep everything as realistic as I could and I tried to give our characters personal problems. Even though they might have superpowers they also had to contend with the same problems that everybody does.”
Lee was born in 1922 in New York to a mother who he says insisted he do a lot of reading. He considers this one of his own lucky breaks.
“She was always buying me books and magazines and loved to see me read. And that is where my passion for reading stemmed from.”
It led to early ambitions as a novelist, and they shaped how he would approach his first major comic book creation, the Fantastic Four.
“I always thought any story you write should be written from the point of view of good characterisation and dialogue that rings true. I always tried to give characters their own way of speaking, their own sentence structures, their own personalities. For example, one of my favourite books when I was a kid was Sherlock Holmes. I just loved Sherlock Holmes’s personality. I loved how different he was from Doctor Watson. In a lot of the comic books in those days nobody paid attention to the way people spoke. There was just a good guy and he fought the bad guy. That was it.”
Lee created credible, fallible characters who just happened to have superpowers, rather than overt superheroes. It struck a chord with a public tired of the absolutist morality of the Cold War and the culture wars. It has only been in the last 15 years that American studios looking for serviceable franchises have twigged that there’s a ready supply of characters and stories both fantastical and yet plausible. As a result it is now a Marvel universe whichever way you look.
Such cultural hegemony is not necessarily for the good. The money spent on the Iron Mans and Ant Mans could have been spent making the type of low-to mid budget films that have largely disappeared from the big studio rosters. Is there a saturation point for Lee and his creations?
“Well, that’s something that the public will determine for us. If we find there’s a lack of interest or the movies don’t do as well, we’re good at taking a hint. But I don’t think there’s too much now. It’s all about how they’re presented on the screen. Look at James Bond. I’ll admit that he doesn’t come out as often as the Marvel movies but he’s always popular because he’s well done. I’d like to think that goes for Marvel and I hope that our show Lucky Man will have the same… let’s call it good fortune.”