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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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May 23rd, 2014
06:29 PM ET

Stan Lee: Meet the icon with the multi-billion dollar imagination

(CNN) – He's the man behind the mask, the muscles, and the metal of Marvel Comic's most popular superheros.

And at 91, character co-creator Stan Lee is still working to expand his repertoire.

"Every day I seem to learn something that can be done on film that I wasn't aware could be done before, and that makes it very exciting to be in this business," Lee tells CNN.

Lee is a legend in an industry that has evolved from $0.12 comics, to animation, and now to high budget films and digital delivery.

"Back at the early days of Marvel, I already had the place to put the stories. Whatever I came up with, we could put in the comic book. So I wasn't concerned with, am I doing something that I can sell that a television producer would want, or a network? Am I doing something that a movie studio would want to film?" said Lee. "In a sense, it was easier."

But film is the backbone of a mighty franchise that every hot actor wants a piece of: Andrew Garfield, Robert Downey Jr., ensembles in "X-Men" and "The Avengers." Next year, actress Kate Mara will join the "Fantastic Four" reboot and Paul Rudd stars in "Ant-Man."

"X-Men: Days of Future Past," out this weekend, is one of four new movies to depict Lee's creations just this year.

The latest installments of "Captain America" and "Spiderman" alone have brought in more than $1 billion worldwide.

It's a long way from then-Stanley Lieber's humble beginnings in New York City, graduating from filling the inkwells and erasing the pencil marks at Timely Comics, to create "Jerry 'Headline' Hunter," a comic book character saving the world as a foreign correspondent.

"I just hoped that the comic books would sell so I could keep my job and help pay the rent. I never thought I'd come out to Los Angeles and be in the center of the entertainment industry. Oh, man, I love it," said Lee.

In some ways, it's just that Hollywood special effects have caught up with his imagination.

"When I was writing Spiderman, I never thought there'd be a way to make it look as if somebody was swinging on a web through the city," said Lee.

To expand his own web of influence, Lee partnered with Gill Champion and Arthur Lieberman to launch Pow! Entertainment in 2001.

"I'm sure you've already figured out that "pow" stands for purveyors of wonder," he says.

While some in comics pursue more boutique, personal stories, even if the audience is small, Lee is unrepentant in his goal.

"There should be a superhero for every type of person," he says. "We've already done a Chinese superhero which will be out soon. We've done an Indian superhero – from India that is – and we're working on a Latino super hero now, which I'm very excited about."

"So many of these countries have such a rich cultural history, and that by creating superheroes built around these histories and cultures, that we're providing a whole new cast of relate-able characters that these audiences will enjoy and relate to," said Champion.

Franchises like Spiderman attribute 60% of box office sales to international audiences, making it a demographic well worth its own characters.

"Spiderman is popular all over the world ... it doesn't matter what you look like, you could imagine that's you in the Spiderman suit," Lee said. "I wasn't clever enough to decide to make the suit that way but ... it turned out to be a good choice."

What a legacy Stan Lee has created, though it's not a subject he likes to talk about.

"I never really think about that. I figure once you're no longer here, it doesn't matter if you're remembered or not. But I don't know, I guess I'd like to be remembered as the guy who co-created a lot of these characters.

"I think the characters will be popular for many years to come," he says.

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