AFTER SEEING STAN LEE suddenly leap atop chairs and bound down stairs, after hearing him rapidly reel off his latest slate of creative deals, and after receiving e-mail replies from him at most every hour of the day, I’ve begun to half-convince myself of this delusion:
Stan Lee may not be entirely mortal.
And his personal super-serum — the joy that juices the beast — seems to be constant action. Tomorrow teems with a possible new collaboration or cameo, videogame project or digital comic deal, convention spotlight or red-carpet arrival. Stan Lee is part showman and part perpetual-motion machine — he spreads the gospel of comics, patiently answering redundant questions about legendary superheroes while passionately creating new characters for multiple platforms.
And the ultimate platform might be the public megaphone that comes with being comics’ greatest living ambassador.
Already this year, Lee has attended the Sundance Film Festival and premieres and other appearances for Morgan Spurlock’s feature-film documentary “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope” (which Lee exec-produced) and his own TV documentary “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story” (available via OnDemand on EPIX) and, of course, ”The Avengers,” the summer season’s first “event” film (opening Friday in the U.S.), featuring the characters co-created by the Marvel mastermind himself. And come midsummer, the re-rebooted “The Amazing Spider-Man” will hit theaters as Lee and Steve Ditko’s webslinger celebrates his 50th birthday.
Did I mention that Lee, later this year, himself turns 90?
Comic Riffs caught up with Lee (no mean feat, that) to talk about not only the newest superhero films, but also about his late fellow legend Jack Kirby; the popular durability and casting of his classic characters — and what new projects keep him moving ever forward.
MICHAEL CAVNA: First off, Stan, congratulations on Spider-Man’s turning 50 this year. When did you first realize that in pop culture, Spidey would spring — and sling — eternal?
Starting in the late ’60s, I spoke at my first college — Bard College in New York. I had never lectured [at a college] and I didn’t know what it was like, so I got all dressed up in my best suit and shoes and walk in, and all the students were hippies; they were dressed like they’d left the battlefield. Two weeks later, I spoke at Princeton and thought, I’m not going to make the same mistake, so I [dressed down]. Turns out I was invited to dinner at the dean’s residence. Again, I felt like an idiot. ... I never quite know [at colleges] what the procedure will be. But I did love it!
MC: Speaking of Spidey, a comic-strip creator just told me he was invoking your ”With great power...” line for a new story about rights and tolerance. Can you speak to how tolerance was very much a theme of your Marvel work — what inspired that?
SL: It was hard not to touch on that subject while doing stories at Marvel. All of our characters were freaks in their own way. The greatest example was with X-Men — they were hated because they were different. The idea I had, the underlying theme, was that just because somebody is different doesn’t make them better. ... That seems to be the worst thing in human nature: We tend to dislike people who are different than we are. If everybody had the same religion and the same nationality, then the blondes would hate the redheads and the short would hate the tall. That seems to be a built-in factor in people. So I did whatever I could do in the comics [regarding tolerance]. I wasn’t trying to preach — I’m no preacher. But any way to get the idea across. ... I’m happy that some readers detected that theme.
SL: I’ve met him and I think he is terrific. Whoever cast him should get a medal. The funny thing is, he and Tobey [Maguire] are totally different and yet both were perfect for Peter Parker. They have that Everyguy quality.
MC: When you met Andrew, was he speaking in a Peter Parker “American” accent, or his British accent?
SL: Sort of American, but I’m partial to British accents. [Lee’s wife is English].
SL: Jack was a wonderful guy and he contributed greatly. What really bothers me is that these people act like there were no other artists — no Steve Ditko and Don Heck and John Romita and Gene Colan. ...
Jack was great, and I have taken pains to say over and over again what a great collaborator he was and how much he contributed. But even when he was alive, I was the guy doing the publicity. I was ... the guy boosting Marvel on the front lines. Jack was the voice of Jack Kirby, and at times he left to work at D.C., and when it served his interests better he came back to Marvel.
I made whatever I made because I was the editor ... and I was the publisher and one-time president and chairman of the company. I was the scriptwriter. I made no more money than Jack, and at times he made more than I did. ... If it hadn’t been for those other guys — like John Romita [Sr.] — who took over so many of the [comics], I don’t think these comics [would be as popular].
MC: You also credit your wife, Joan, to a great extent in the documentary. You especially note her urging you to launch the Fantastic Four — the way you wanted to do it — rather than quit Marvel in the ‘60s.
SL: It was the wisest advice I’ve ever gotten. I really was ready to quit. And she said: “Get it out of your system — the worst thing is that they’ll fire you.” Joan has always been a great partner — has always been there for me.
MC: Was there anything about “With Great Power” you were unsatisfied with, or regretted?
SL: Only that we couldn’t fit in more of the interviews with people who are important to me.
[Note: Gill Champion, Lee’s business partner at POW! Entertainment, tells Comic Riffs that there is “so much extra footage and so many additional personalities and celebrities, we literally have a couple-hundred hours we’ll have to license to our YouTube channel, Stan Lee’s World of Heroes.”]
MC: Then there’s your San Diego Comic-Con documentary. You’ve gone to the Con for decades — how did this idea come about now?And what do you think of the job [filmmaker] Morgan Spurlock did?
SL: At one of the Comic-Cons — in 2009 — I said to Morgan: Why don’t you do a documentary about the cons? And he did it. I should have kept my mouth shut and I should have done it myself. [Laughs] ...
But I thought ... now it’s not just kids and comic-book collectors. It’s like a pop-art convention that moved into television and digital and video games. It’s the entertainment industry [and still growing] ... In fact, last year, they opened Comicaze [Expo] and got 40,000 people — and they expect about 100,000 this year. They asked me if I could be a part of it. It’s now the Stan Lee Comicaze POW! [Expo, at the L.A. Convention Center]. I actually got my name on it!
But I thought Morgan did a great job. The [way] he took [several] totally different people — each with a different objective [for going to Comic-Con] -- and followed them to see what happends. It could have been a jumble, but he gave it a theme.
MC: On the subject of conventions, I’ve seen you mobbed by fans at both the San Diego and Baltimore cons. What is that like — to still be a rock star at 89?
SL: What impresses me the most is the [range of] people who come over to me — some of them old people, others are guys your age, some college students, some teenagers, and even little kids 5 and 6 years old who already know me. It’s thrilling to see that.
MC: And this week, of course, “The Avengers” opens. What do you think of the job Joss Whedon did?
SL: I don’t use the word lightly — I think he’s a “genius.” He is just so good. He took something that could have been a mess — it’s certainly one of the most difficult movies I can imagine doing — and turned it into a jewel.
MC: As the co-creator of these characters, did you have a favorite aspect of the film?
SL: You know what, it was the Hulk’s height. He was too tall [in previous films]. I think the height they made him [for “Avengers”] was perfect.
MC: And what do you think of the actors cast to play your characters?
SL: I’ll tell you one thing, in general: Actors are the nicest people in the world. When you read bad things in the scandal magazines, it burns me up. From Robert Downey Jr. on down the line, they are so terrific and friendly and unconceited. They don’t swagger around like a star. They’re regular people.
MC: And like much of your work, the phrase “Avengers, Assemble!” lives on in the new film.
SL: I love expressions. I used to use expressions like, “Welcome to the Marvel Age of Comics!” When I worked on the Avengers, I wanted a catchphrase ... and thought it would be fun that whenever they had to get together, they said, “Avengers, Assemble!”
I’m so glad they’re using it now. It’s important to have it now.