Behind glass at the Studiopolis, Inc. sound recording studio, former Marvel Comics Publisher, President, writer and comic book creator Stan Lee held up a script, poured over the dialogue and took a deep breath.
“Avengers — assemble!” he shouted into the booth’s microphone, gesturing for emphasis. “Achievement unlocked!” he added as the sound crew on the other side fiddled with their computers.
It was an hour in to the voice recording session for Marvel Entertainment and Disney Publishing’s newest “Marvel Origins” application, an immersive digital storybook narrated entirely by Lee. Eschewing break suggestions the eighty-nine year old creator was still going strong, joking between takes and even doing some rewriting on the spot.
“This is grammatically incorrect…it should be ‘its’ not ‘theirs,'” Lee said of his next line as the whole studio laughed. “I want that on record!” Lee joked as the group chuckled again.
The fourth app in the “Marvel Origins” series for kids, due out in September, previous apps “Avengers Origins: Hulk,” “The Amazing Spider-Man: An Origin Story” and “Avengers Origins: Assemble!” are also narrated by Lee and tell stories about members of the Avengers and other Marvel characters. Intended for young readers, the apps are essentially comic storybooks, the main narrative peppered with interactive games related to the characters.
“I think everything is going digital and the young kids in the world now have smart phones and all of that, so anything you can do digitally grabs kids — and we know they love this type of story, so if they can get this on their computer, on their iPad, they’re happy,” Lee said, sitting down after the recording session for an exclusive one on one interview with CBR.
Firm in his belief that the future of comics lies, at least among younger audiences, in the digital realm, Lee continued, “It’s definitely where everything is going … digital comics are really, I think, the wave of the future because they’re getting to be so much more like movies. There’s so much you can do. You can have movement, you can have sound, you can have color, so there’s no stopping the advent of the digital comics.”
No stranger to voice recording, Lee confessed that the app voiceovers were much harder than his voiceover work as Stan the Janitor for Disney XD’s “Ultimate Spider-Man” animated TV show or his live action movie cameos.
“It’s more difficult because you’re saying things out of context. I don’t know what came before or what came after, so I’m just saying the phrase in a vacuum trying to make it as interesting and dramatic as you can,” Lee explained. The comic book writer was also responsible for many of the sound effects and individual phrases that pop up during the interactive game portions. Despite this, Lee loved the chance to get behind the microphone again.
“I’m really a ham, that’s why I love the cameos, I love any form of acting!” he said.
Lee, who has had a cameo role in nearly every single live action Marvel movie in the past decade, joked to CBR, “I’m annoyed I missed a couple! They were shot in places I couldn’t get to, they were too far away and I was too busy and they should have had more consideration and shot them in my office.”
“I’m leaving for North Carolina to do my cameo for ‘Iron Man 3,'” Lee added, shaking his head. “Why they have to do it in North Carolina instead of Beverly Hills, I will never know!”
Declaring his recent “The Amazing Spider-Man” cameo his favorite and naming director Marc Webb “brilliant,” it was his cameo on “Thor” that left the biggest impression on Lee.
“I think the funniest thing is, they did tell me the one I did for ‘Thor’ where I drove the truck. I said, ‘What should I wear?’ ‘Oh, you’re just a working man, so just any old thing a working man might wear.’ So I came there in a pair of jeans and sneakers and a dirty shirt, whatever. And they said, ‘OK, go to wardrobe,'” Lee recalled. “So I went to wardrobe and they gave me exactly the same clothes that I had been wearing, but they came from wardrobe!”
“You can never wear your own clothes! I could go to set in a custom-made tuxedo and they’d say fine, now wear our tuxedo!” Lee added with a laugh.
While leaving the cameo writing to the various directors, Lee did have some ideas on what characters he would like to see next on the silver screen.
“I would love a movie about Doctor Strange, I would love to see the Black Panther, I would like to see the Inhumans eventually,” Lee said. “Any one that [Marvel] wants to do will be good because they’re all done out of love, out of respect for the characters and they’re done with great intelligence, because the people at Marvel know what audiences like.”
Lee also praised the Disney/Marvel partnership on the apps and movies, saying that the acquisition by Disney “is the best thing that could have happened.”
“The beautiful thing is the people at Disney are smart enough to let Marvel do their thing their way. They don’t interfere editorially. A lot of fans had said, ‘Oh sure, now that Disney took over, Spider-Man will have Mickey Mouse ears!’ No way — the only thing that has happened is they gave Marvel even more freedom because Marvel now has all the power of Disney at their side to help them,” Lee said.
With “The Avengers” becoming the eleventh highest grossing film of all time worldwide, “The Amazing Spider-Man” out in theatres and even non-Marvel comic book properties like “The Dark Knight Rises” hotly anticipated by fans, Lee believes the enormous popularity of superheroes lies in the fact that, at the core, they are “fairy tales for grownups.”
“As children we all loved to read about giants and princesses and witches and trolls and demons and things like that,” Lee said. “After a while you get too old to read fairy tales, but I don’t think you ever outgrow your love for that type of story. Along come superhero stories when you get older, and if they’re written well they become like fairy tales for grownups because they’re about the same type of thing, they’re about people who do amazing things.”
Lee also attributed the rise in mainstream attention and box office success to changes in movie-making technology.
“They couldn’t have done this fifteen, twenty years ago, they couldn’t have Spider-Man swinging through the city the way he does,” Lee said. “Now there’s nothing you can’t imagine that you can’t put on the screen, and people love seeing things that are incredible. When they go to a superhero movie they know they’re going to see more than just a story, they’re going to be overwhelmed by the fantastic things they’re going to see!”
Though movies based off comic books are breaking box office records and millions have headed to the multiplex, actual comic book publishing has yet to see those same sort of numbers turning up in monthly comic book sales. When asked why he thought there was a gap in monthly comics being sold versus the obvious popularity of the characters they are about, Lee did not hesitate.
“I think you get them in too many forms now,” he said. “You get them in the movies, there are graphic novels being published, there are digital comics you can see. It used to be that if you wanted a superhero story you had to buy a Marvel or a DC or whatever. Now you don’t. Now you can turn on your computer and read on your computer screen or go to a movie and see one or rent one on Netflix or so on. So all of these things are biting into the sales of comic books themselves. It’s natural.”
“I think there will always be comics,” Lee continued. “They may never be as big as they once were, but it’s that way with everything. Look at newspapers. People now more and more are getting news on their iPads … the digital revolution is affecting all of civilization, it’s affecting every part of culture and the economy, so I’m not surprised. I didn’t know they were selling less because I don’t keep up with that, but if they are, I’m not surprised.”
Lee also admitted that between his cameos, voice recording and work with his company POW! Entertainment he no longer has time to read monthly comics himself.
“I wish I could say yes!” Lee laughed. “Now if I pick up a comic book … when I look at the names on the cover they’re all people whose names I don’t know. It’s the strangest feeling because years ago I not only knew them all, I hired them! I worked with them daily, they were all friends. Now I’ll thumb through a book and see the artwork is gorgeous and the covers are beautiful, some of the covers on the Marvel books are works of art, but I don’t know the people anymore. It’s a funny feeling.”
Traveling back in time to the early days of Marvel, Lee recalled that his ideas on how to write superheroes began forming during his start in comics.
“I had a publisher, this was at the very beginning when I started work there in the early ’40s and ’50s, [who] felt comics were only read by young children or semi-literate adults, he had no respect for the readers. He didn’t want me to use too much dialogue, ‘Nobody wants to read the dialogue, don’t use words of more than two syllables, don’t worry too much about complicated plots, just get a lot of fighting and action and killing,’ and things like that,” Lee said.
“I did that for a number of years because he was my boss and I wanted to get paid,” Lee continued, but when he began writing on his co-creations, “I determined to never talk down to the reader. I insisted on using college-level vocabulary. If a kid didn’t know what a word meant, he’d get it by the use in the sentence by osmosis. If he had to go to a dictionary, that’s not the worst thing in the world!”
During the 1960s and the “Marvel Revolution,” Lee said he and the others at Marvel realized they were on the cusp of something big with Spider-Man and other flawed, problem-plagued heroes when their fan demographic began changing.
“We used to get fan mail written in crayon in the beginning. Then after a while it was written in pencil; later on after the ‘Fantastic Four’ we got letters written in ink, typed! Then we got return addresses from high schools and from colleges and we knew we were on to something,” Lee said.
Similarly, the first time Lee had any inkling of his own celebrity and the influence Marvel was exerting during that era was when he began being invited to lecture at colleges.
“I said, ‘Well if people in college want me to come and talk about comics then they must be interested in the comics, and if I get offers from this college and this college there must be others.’ It was the colleges that started it,” Lee said. “And it wasn’t just me, people in the field started getting interviewed by newspapers. I remember one of the first ones was the ‘Village Voice’ in New York about Spider-Man being the next big hero, big headline! They had never written about a comic book before. So I didn’t need a house to fall on me to realize something is going on.”
Reflecting on the characters he co-created with legendary artists such as Jack Kirby, Bill Everett and Steve Ditko, Lee was adamant that one of the biggest reasons for Marvel’s early success were the artists.
“I was working with the greatest artists in the world and they made every story better than it was because they drew it so well and they helped with the plots. Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, I would just tell them a few words; I would tell Jack, ‘Let’s do the next Fantastic Four where Dr. Doom kidnaps Sue, brings her to Latveria, and they have to go get her’ … and that was it, and I’d let him draw it any way he wanted and he put in a million elements that I hadn’t thought of,” Lee said. “It was Kirby and Lee at their best, I hope, the two of us collaborating that way … our books wouldn’t have been as good without [the artists], because even without knowing the story they made it look so interesting you wanted to read the story.”
Leaning forward with a smile, Lee revealed that to his mind there was another reason Marvel’s ’60s comics sold so well: thought balloons.
“I’m going to give you a first nobody has really thought of: I think Marvel was the first to use thought balloons as much as we did in stories, because I thought a thought balloon is the greatest way to get the reader to know what the character is thinking and therefore get to know the character and care about the character,” Lee said. “If you look in most comic books of that era there are almost no thought balloons, but if you look at the Marvel books that I wrote — riddled with thought balloons!”
After seventy-odd years in the comic book industry, nearly all of them spent with Marvel, Lee said that he never wanted to retire, nor was he concerned about what sort of legacy he was leaving behind.
“Can I be very honest with you? I never give it a thought,” Lee said. “I just enjoy doing what I’m doing and I hope I can keep doing it for as long as possible. I’m not much of a legacy person. I feel we all have one shot here on Earth: you do what you can, you do your best and then it’s over.”
“If people remember you, great — if they don’t, I’m not going to know it!” Lee laughed. He then concluded the interview with a direct message to his and Marvel’s fans: thanks.
“I’m certainly grateful for the warm reception I get whenever I go to a comic book convention,” Lee said. “People stop me in the street and tell me they loved reading my stories, it really is so nice to hear that from people. If you can do something that other people enjoy, I think that’s the most you can expect out of life … so if the work I’ve done and all the people I’ve worked with have brought some enjoyment to other people, I feel very good about it.”
As Lee began to head out for his next appointment, Disney Publishing Interactive Producer, app developer and recording session director Mike Zagari stopped him to show Lee the fruits of his labor on the new “The Amazing Spider-Man Augmented Reality” app tied into the movie. Swiping through the book on Zagari’s iPad, Lee laughed as he reached the part of the narration where he pretended to roar.
“Recognize that?” Zagari asked.
“Oh, I sound good!” Lee joked, exiting with a smile as Zagari and the rest of the crew laughed once more.