The father of the Marvel Comics revolution can’t keep a pen out of his hand.
While regaling the crowd at Seattle’s Emerald City ComiCon on Saturday, Stan Lee toyed absent-mindedly with one of the complimentary pens left on the speakers’ dais – green like the convention’s theme, green like the grandfatherly sweater Lee wore to address some 1,500 adoring con-goers.
“Don’t you have anything better to do?” the energetic 87-year-old asked the crowd in the windowless ballroom. “It’s a beautiful day out there!”
One can practically see the exclamation points and the bolded lettering when Lee speaks. Quizzed on the dais by fans and by BOOM! Studios head Ross Richie and editor-in-chief Mark Waid (the company plans to publish three new superhero lines from Lee’s Pow! Entertainment), Stan the Man came across with his now-famous mix of genial self-promotion, faux self-deprecation, and rib-poking humor that frequently set his interviewers cackling.
The birth of Marvel from the former Timely Comics was uppermost on Richie’s mind. Did the company give Lee a chance to develop ideas he’d always had, Richie asked, or was Lee simply struck with inspiration over and over from 1961 to 1964 as he developed the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the X-Men, ad infinitum?
“I don’t know,” Lee said. “I guess I’ve always been something of a genius.”
And so it went. True to his reputation, Lee was far more reliable at playing off straight lines than giving straight answers. Over and over, he characterized his accomplishments in the early Marvel years as those of a struggling New York letterhack just looking to get paid.
“What do you enjoy about the comic book medium that’s different from writing novels?” Richie asked.
“Money,” said Lee — and in the laughter that followed, he held the moment like a Catskills comic.
When creating characters, Richie asked, “what comes first to you? Do you think of the powers that a character has, or do you think of the personality first and then find the powers from that? What’s your process like?”
“I think of how many bills I have to pay, and how I better come up with something pretty fast,” Lee said, before confessing that he has to arrive at a character name before the rest can follow.
“I love getting a good name, like when I thought of the Hulk. I had no idea what it was gonna be. If I had any brains, it woulda been something better than what it turned out to be!” When crowdmembers vocally defended the Green Goliath, Lee told them they’d all passed his test: “So you can stay here a little longer. I won’t send you outside into that nice day just yet.”
Ultimately, Lee said, the everlasting stories he created with artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko came about through a series of lucky breaks. And luck, he told Richie in his most advice-filled answer, is the central element to a successful writing career.
“There are lots of good writers — I’m sure there are a lot of writers who are far better than I am — who just don’t get the break, or they don’t get a chance to show what they’ve written to the right people and so forth. Getting into the field as a writer is really tough today. See, it’s different if you’re an artist. You can draw a few sample pages and show them to an editor, and if those pages are really fantastic, the editor can tell in a minute. … But you look at a few typewritten pages, you don’t know.
“I think if you’re really interested in becoming a comic book writer, the first thing to do is somehow read the stories of a certain editor at the comic book company and try to figure out what type of stories he looks for — and then some way or another, try to get to know that editor. Send him some e-mails, try to meet him at a convention, get him to know you, talk to him. But you almost have no chance if you just send an unsolicited script or story idea in to a publisher, because you don’t know who’s gonna read it, if anybody.”
“I’m taking all this down,” joked Waid, no slouch at story creation himself.
Lee’s earliest literary influences came from literature by the likes of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, and the serial adventure novelist Leo Edwards, whose boys’ adventures featured a page of letters from readers at the back. He said that probably inspired the letters pages at Marvel, where Lee kept up a lively give-and-take with correspondents that made the books inviting, reader-friendly and interactive.
Under queries from the fans, who queued up at three different microphones (“Three lines! Goodness!” Lee lamented, “I’ll never get home!”), Lee campaigned to get more followers on Twitter. Surprisingly, only a few dozen people raised their hands when asked if they follow @smilinstanlee, and the comics godfather hopes to outgun Kevin Smith’s 1.6 million-follower army.
Asked for details on upcoming movie projects like the announced fourth “Spider-Man” entry, Lee declared himself out of the loop. “I really have nothing to do with the movies,” he said. “I get no advance information, and I try to butt out. So the only thing I know about the new movies is what I read about in Variety or the Hollywood Reporter, or occasionally I meet some of the guys.” For instance, he’s met with Kenneth Branagh, slated to helm the “Mighty Thor” film adaptation. “But other than things like that, I don’t know who they’re casting. I don’t even see the scripts ahead of time. So I’m right there with you, and I’m wondering these things myself.”
The former Stanley Lieber said he changed his name first professionally, then legally, in part because he was embarrassed to make a living writing “lowly” comic books. As the culture absorbed his medium into the mainstream — as movies, as educational media, as conversational totems — that shame disappeared.
“As I got older, I realized entertainment is one of the most important things to people,” he said. “Which is I guess why people in the entertainment field get overpaid the way they do — because people want to be entertained, and they need to be entertained, and without entertainment, life would be pretty difficult to handle. So I no longer feel embarrassed by it. Except when I get up onstage and say dumb things.”
“Oh yeah,” he said, on his way out the back exit, “Excelsior!”