Stan Lee may not move as fast as he once did, but his mind is still as nimble as a person a tenth his age. Lee emerged onto the stage for his spotlight panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego to an explosion of cheers from an appreciative audience who have loved his stories, both those he has had published in comics and those from his own life that he still tells.
Todd McFarlane, creator of “Spawn” and a modern legend in his own right, came on stage first to give an introduction to a man who, he admitted, did not need one. He noted that Lee had influenced everyone in the room and every comics creator at the convention, then was drowned in the sound of the audience’s appreciation when Stan Lee – the man, the legend, perhaps the most popular creator ever in comics – ambled out from backstage. Gil Champion, Lee’s partner and COO of POW! Entertainment, also appeared.
Stan – whose fame and familiarity within the comic world encourages the use of his first name – came on wearing a bulky, black leather jacket with “EXCELSIOR” emblazoned down one sleeve and, as he turned to show the audience, his signature scrawled gigantically on the back, “in case I ever forget my name,” he said.
McFarlane began the panel just as Stan drew up to force him to share the dais with him. McFarlane then conceded the stand while asking Stan how he got into comics. Stan knew it was an old story, as did everyone in the room who has followed his life and career over his 88 years of life and nearly seven decades of writing, and he rode it like it was a well-oiled machine, knowing it could still captivate, and it did. Before Stan was even of legal age he got a job at the publishing company owned by his cousin’s husband. He did it just as a job to get by and began as an office boy, relegated to the comics department, which consisted of now-legends Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. At the time, comic books had a cheaper shipping rate if they were considered magazines but that necessitated at least two pages of text. This text did not have to relate to the main story and it was something that the publisher knew readers would skip over so they gave the task to Stan, whose main task running to get sandwiches at the time, he said. Stan wrote the two-page text pieces, now certainly lost to the mists of time, but he was, at long last, a writer. From there he had the opportunity to write increasingly higher-profile work and the rest is history. His advice to anyone aspiring to break into writing, if you want to follow what he did, is to have a cousin who is married to a publisher.
McFarlane kept the show going by asking Stan about the creation of his most popular characters but Stan instead wanted to tell the story of his name, and told everyone that it was an old story and if anyone didn’t want to hear it they could read a book. “Stanley Martin Leiber,” Stan expressed firmly, was his original name but he used a pen name because he did not want to be associated with writing “dumb comics” back then, as he said. But as he became better known, eventually becoming a bona fide celebrity, people with whom he did business would not accept anything but his more popular name. Once when he was asked by a store cashier accepting his credit card who Stanley Leiber was, he knew it was time for him and his wife to get it changed legally.
Stan only chided McFarlane’s attempts to keep him on track and brushed him away, going to the next most interesting story in his mind. Stan related reading, as a kid, a book called “Dark Legend,” a psychiatric study on a child who killed his father, and impressed how moved he was by the story, only to be heartbroken later in his life to find that the author of the book was Dr. Frederic Wertham, the “raving maniac” who hounded comics, which he deemed too violent, and whose urgings eventually led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which approved for sale only comics that were family-friendly. Stan’s most ridiculous story of dealing with the Code concerned one page from a Western tale wherein they deemed the size of a puff of smoke from the barrel of a gun to be too violent, and Stan had a staff artist draw the puff smaller and the page was then approved. Stan just shook his head at the memory.
McFarlane still attempted to shepherd the talk in some direction but Stan refused to be railroaded. Stan suddenly decided he wanted to talk about his work on the old romance books. He said that back then he realized that it would have been odd to have had love stories told from the viewpoint of a young girl written by a man so he had his best idea, to have the first-person narratives to appear in the credits “As Told to Stan Lee.”
Stan jumped to promoting his Twitter feed, which he uses to talk directly to fans. McFarlane said that no one has ever used to the word “brigadier” as much as Stan does on Twitter. Stan explained that he does not want to think of his fans as “followers” but rather as brigadiers and he is their generalissimo.
Alas, McFarlane never got Stan to come back to talking about the origins of Marvel comics, or anything else he had decided upon beforehand, so it was around this point that he gave up trying. Instead, he admitted at this point that Stan is known perhaps more as a living legend rather than as a writer or editor. He encouraged Stan to talk about his new venture with POW! Entertainment and finally Champion, up to this point looking on silently, surely knowing he could never trump Stan when the man gets on a roll, could be included in the conversation. Stan briefly mentioned his work on two creations, “Heroman,” a character he created with Japanese studio Bones, and “Ultimo,” a popular manga that is being translated into English. There is also a documentary called “With Great Power” on Stan’s life that was scheduled to appear the next night at the convention.
Stan also excitedly mentioned Stripperella, a character he created “as our answer to Spawn,” he said to rile McFarlane. He said that this is still a project that he is working on and that artist Anthony Winn is attached to it. Shortly after this, a stunning, stacked woman who towered over everyone assembled on stage and dressed in strips of black leather – presumably Stripperella herself – slinked onto the stage and put her arms around Stan.
At this point the audience had time to ask Stan questions. A fan asked Stan his favorite novels and movies. Stan could not mention just one favorite, as he is a fan of all sorts of movies, including monster movies and anything with Marlon Brando or Laurence Olivier, and wished that there was only more time to watch more great movies and read great novels.
McFarlane, perhaps the only person in the building who is more verbose than Stan, asked how he applied his influences to his comics. Stan downplayed his answer, like the creation of his legendary characters such as Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the X-Men, among many others, was just something that he easily did. In the case of the Fantastic Four, he had the idea of having four characters as a team and gave them powers to start. Not feeling terribly original, he made one of them like the Human Torch from the older comics but as a teenager instead of an android, and with Mr. Fantastic he just borrowed the idea of Plastic Man. He wanted to have a heroic monster for pathos and humor and that became the Thing. Their personalities were the most important element, and sometimes that came from their powers, like the Torch being a hot-head. Mr. Fantastic he modeled after himself in that he talks too much. He wanted to put realism into the fantasy so he set it not in some make-believe place like Metropolis or Gotham City but in New York City. Stan told the story as off-the-cuff as he might try to convince you creating the characters was.
To bring the panel to a close, a clip from “The Jace Hall Show” was run on the hall’s big screen, showing when Hall met Stan for the first time. In the video, Hall thinks that Stan has summoned him to collaborate on a big, new project but instead Stan wants him to explain Twitter. Adding to the hilarity, Hall produces his prized copy of “The Incredible Hulk” #1, certainly worth tens of thousands of dollars, and Stan accidentally spills his coffee on it then casually tries to convince him that the comic is now worth even more, all while his own, pristine copy of the same book looks on from a glowing display.
Then McFarlane declared the panel over and the entire room rose in ecstatic applause for a man who has perhaps eclipsed his own superheroic creations and become a hero in his own right.