Speaking in his spotlight panel at Wizard World Nashville this past weekend, Lee shared with audiences a little history about the origin of the X-Men, explaining how he wanted to create characters with a form of diversity and that to do that, he gave them superpowers.
"I wanted to show that people can be different and still be good and still be worthwhile," Lee said. "You don't only have to go with people who are just like you, but other kinds of people can be just as good and we have to be more forgiving, not forgiving, we have to be more accepting of everybody regardless of skin color, religion, anything. We're all just here on earth together and let's do it nicely, whatever we're doing and with the X-Men it was such fun giving each of them a superpower. I couldn't think of any way to give them those powers so I took the cowardly way out. They were born that way! That worked for me."
But once he had come up with the idea for a team of superpowered people who were simply born different than others, he had to get it past Marvel publisher Martin Goodman who had his own ideas about both Lee's idea and comic book readers in general.
"Oh, I've got to tell you about my boss," Lee said. "My publisher said, when I brought him the idea, he said 'yeah I like the idea but you can't call them the X-Men' and I said, 'why not?' He said...no, I'm sorry, hold it. I wanted originally to call them The Mutants and he said, 'you can't call them The Mutants' and I said, 'why not?' He said, 'our readers, they aren't that smart.' He had no respect for comic book readers. He said, 'they won't know what a mutant is.' Well, I disagreed with him, but he was the boss so I had to think of another name. So, I went home and I thought and thought and I came up with the X-Men and I mentioned it to him the next day and he said, 'that's okay' and as I walked out of his office I thought, that was very peculiar. If nobody would know what a mutant is how will anybody know what an X-Man is? But he had okayed the name and I used it."
Even if readers didn't know what a mutant was that didn't stop them from reading. Though X-Men got off to a slow start compared to other Marvel titles in the 1960s, the concept persevered and was eventually given new life with the late Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum introducing a new team that would revive the series in the 1970s. X-Men went on to be a huge success for Marvel, letting Lee get the last laugh on Goodman not thinking readers were smart enough.
"I don't think my publisher was very smart," Lee said. "I can say that now because I'm not working for him anymore."