A first-ever public meeting of comic book luminaries Stan Lee and Grant Morrison was the focus of "Reinventing the Page: Stan Lee and Grant Morrison Talk Virgin Comics" on Thursday morning at Comic-Con International: San Diego. By the time the panel ended, the writers vowed to collaborate on a new superhero for this century.
Thirty minutes before the scheduled start time, Ballroom 20 was already half filled, and while more comic book fans trickled in to fill the room to near capacity, the bulk of the fans were already there, waiting patiently.
After a short delay, the panel kicked off with a quick video -- an electronic press kit prepared by Virgin -- giving a glimpse of Grant Morrison's "MBX." "MBX," a series of animated shorts, will launch online later this year, and the video showed some behind-the-scenes footage of the motion capture technology and even a glimpse of the characters in action. The characters, based on Hundu mythology but re-imagined by Morrison for the 21st century, fought robots on what looked like a post-apocalyptic landscape. With their energy bows and laser whips, the fierce combatants held off the mechanized swarm.
But that was all just precursor for the real battle on this panel. The battle of wit and wisdom between the legendary Stan Lee and modern master Grant Morrison.
Though the announced purpose of the panel was to discuss their upcoming work for Virgin, neither writer spoke much about their projects, offering only a few notes of excitement about what drew them to Virgin.
Stan Lee, when asked what drew him back to writing comics, said it was "the idea of coming to Virgin and working with new artists on new projects. It's like the early days at Marvel to dream up something brand new. It's exciting and I can't wait to get started."
Then Lee added, "of course -- to compete with someone like this," referring to Morrison, "I wouldn't have been so eager if I had known."
This set the tone for the entire panel, as Lee and Morrison traded compliments amidst good-natured ribbing for the next forty-five minutes.
The jocularity continued immediately after Morrison's brief explanation of what drew him to create "MBX": "It's one of the very oldest stories on the planet. It's about a family going to war," said Morrison, referring to the Hindu mythology he's adapting. "Now the world we live in is obsessed with war, so we wanted to go back to what was one of the first battles. The idea of doing it as four minute shorts for cellphones seemed to be a really modern way to adapt the ancient story."
"To tie it into the world today," Morrison added in his typically thick Scottish brogue.
After which, Lee, clearly unable to understand a word spoken by Morrison, pulled out one of his earphones and joked, "you've seen the United Nations, where they put things in their ear to get the translation..." The crowd roared with laughter at Lee's remark and applauded for nearly a full minute.
The joking between Lee and Morrison continued after a question about the similarities between comic books and movies. Lee explained that now, "comic books are storyboards for movies" and reveled in the fact that "now they're getting the best directors, and the best screenwriters, and the best actors" for the comic book-to-movie adaptations."
Morrison seemed eager to pursue the differences between comics and movies, though, but when he said, "Do you think the way we write comics is very different from movies?" Lee responded with an incredulous "we?" "The way we write comics?" Lee asked, before saying, "are you trying to jump on my bandwagon?"
Once again, the audience roared. And to give the audience a sound bite that would sum up his attitude about comics adapted for other media, Lee had this to say: "Comics are the springboard to greatness."
The discussion then moved to the "Marvel method" -- the writing technique pioneered by Lee in the early days of Marvel, in which a writer would give just the plot to an artist, let the artist tell the story visually, and then the dialogue would be added later.
"You go first," said Lee, "so I can sound clever by topping you."
With a smile on his face, Morrison said, "[the] Marvel method's quite fun, because you don't quite have to do as much work." He laughed as he looked over Lee, who was pretending to be insulted. "It's a lot more collaborative," added Morrison, "the other way's to write a full script which can get a bit boring at times. It's quite nice to work off someone else's artwork. But that doesn't happen so much."
When it was his turn to discuss the method he created, Lee said, "We started the Marvel method -- and I don't know why we don't call it the Stan Lee method," he joked. "I started it because I didn't have time to write the scripts. The artists were freelancers, and if they had nothing to draw, they weren't getting paid."
He explained that he couldn't have Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby sitting around and waiting without work, so he'd throw a quick plot their way. As Lee explained it, the Marvel method was: "Draw it the way you want, and I'll fix it with my dialogue." He emphasized the word "fix," as if to say that he knew he was dealing with artists who didn't need much fixing. "The artists in this business who are really good---they are storytellers. If you leave it to the artist, the chances are that he or she will think of a better way to do it. The publisher got the best, and the readers got the best, and the whole world got the best," said Lee, "and it was all because of my style. And why didn't I get a medal?" Again, the audience erupted with applause and laughter at Lee's overly bombastic public persona as Lee smiled gleefully.
Then he turned to Morrison. "Go ahead," said Lee, "top that." Then he turned to the audience and said, "I'll teach him to wear a suit," in reference to Morrison's stylish grey suit compared to Lee's bright yellow -- and much more casual -- yellow polo shirt.
A few moments later, after Morrison mentioned how, even with full script, he often goes back and rewrites the dialogue to make it suit the artwork more closely, to which Lee said, "You redid dialogue? Your own dialogue?"
"Yeah," said Morrison.
"My scripts were magnificent. I was my own biggest fan," Lee explained, referring to his lack of self-editing. He turned to Morrison and added, "you need more confidence."
Grant laughed, nodded, and took a sip from his can of Red Bull.
Lee went on to say, "I didn't mind doing full scripts. I would read my stuff and think 'that's brilliant.' I would keep myself interested by reading my own scripts."
When the discussion moved on to the humanity of the early Marvel characters, Morrison said, "I tried to take away the dimension that Stan added in. He added the second dimension and I'm trying to bring them back to the first.," he joked.
Lee misunderstood Morrison's words, and mockingly took it as an insult, but when Morrison explained that Lee was the one who added dimension to the superhero characters, Lee said, "I think I'm starting to like you."
After Morrison called him "handsome," Lee said, "I would rather be considered a writer than an idol with good looks and charm and all of those things."
"I didn't come up with [all of the Marvel characters], though" said Lee. "One of my greatest regrets is that I didn't come up with Wolverine."
Referring to Morrison, Lee said, "guys like this have taken the story plots or the characters and they've made them so much richer. I'm the luckiest guy in the world--people read Grant's stories and I get all the credit." Lee paused, before adding, "and I don't mind."
Lee discussed that he created the Marvel characters because he wanted his heroes to be more like him--he wasn't very good at coming up with clues like in a Batman story--but he was good at having characters talk to one another.
"I wanted to know what the guy was like when he wasn't being a super-character," said Lee. "And I loved having them meet in different books. I think it was the Fantastic Four--they were at a ballgame or something--and I had Jack Kirby draw Peter Parker in the background. And we got tons of letters and people loved it."
Morrison jumped on that idea and said, "I think the things that make comics unique are the two things you added: the character stuff and the shared universe. No one has really gone past that."
"You have," said Lee. Turning to the crowd, he said, "I've seen some of this guy's stuff and it's brilliant. And you're not sticking just to superheroes. And what you're doing for Virgin, I'm a little annoyed, because now I have to do something that's better."
"It's fun when you compete," said Lee, "although I wish I wasn't competing with someone as good as him."
When Morrison asked Lee what he was doing for Virgin, Lee said he couldn't say, but he added, "I'm doing something very new, very different. It's so different probably nobody will understand it, including me. An announcement will be made in a few months. Keep watching the Virgin website. Keep Virgin, evermore, in your mind."
The discussion moved to Morrison's work from earlier this decade on the Lee-created "X-Men" series, and when asked how he approached the team, Morrison turned to Lee and said, "I went right back to the originals and read the ones you did. I saw the X-Men as being about the war between adults and youth." He paused. "I'm looking at you for validation, Stan," he said in a child-like voice. "That's all I want."
Lee said, "that's part of this man's genius. He sees things that aren't even there. I saw 'X-Men' as about prejudice and bigotry. But it's a hell of a good idea, and I wish I'd thought of that idea of the young and the old not being on the same wavelength. That's why he's so good. It didn't occur to me."
When Morrison said it was all in the original Lee story, Lee added, "that's how good I was -- I didn't even know I was putting it in there."
After discussing their favorite early Marvel stories, and agreeing that "Fantastic Four" #51's "This Man, This Monster" was a classic, the discussion moved toward their influences. When asked what they read to inspire their comic book work, Morrison said, "I just read tons and tons of Stan Lee comics--that's where all the good ideas come from."
Lee reflected on his early Marvel writing career, and said, "I wasn't reading [Morrison's] stuff then, because he wasn't even born when I was writing these things." And when Lee was asked what he read that inspired the philosophy of his Marvel work, Lee said, "I love philosophy. People don't like to be preached to. And I like to preach, so it had to be done very subtly. The Silver Surfer first and foremost. Thor a little."
"Maybe that's why Silver Surfer didn't sell very well," said Lee.
The panel ended with a few questions from the audience. One aspiring comic book creator asked how to break into the industry, to which Morrison replied, "Be on welfare for 9 years," referring to his own experience. Then he added, "keep pestering people. It's quite difficult. Keep writing up stuff. Taking it to editors. If you're any good and you're persistent, you've got a good chance, but you just have to buckle down and get the work done."
Morrison was also asked which Stan Lee creation he'd most like to write. His answer? "Iron Man or the Hulk." "I don't think I can write Spider-Man at all," said Morrison. "He's too specific."
One fan asked how to create a character, and Lee replied, "Sometimes you can start with a super power and build a story around it. There are very few superpowers left, actually. I used to think of a title, and I'd write a story around it. I'm working on a movie and the whole story came out of the title I thought of."
That brief discussion tied into a later question, about what was Lee's biggest regret.
"There's one thing I regretted," said Lee. "Jack Kirby and I were supposed to do a 'Fantastic Four' [issue] -- and the book was due shortly and I didn't have any ideas. You can't do a story without an idea. But I thought of a name: Diablo. By the time I finished saying the word 'Diablo,' Jack had already drawn him. We came up with some story, and I don't remember what it was, but I thought it was terrible. But it was printed and it went out there and it was kind of a cheat, because we didn't really have a story just the name for the character. That's my one regret."
The panel ended with Stan Lee and Grant Morrison being put on the spot by a fan who asked them to create a character together, on stage. After a bit of laughter and tentative discussion, Morrison said, "I think we should get paid for it, don't you, Stan?" And both of them declared that they'd work together to create a new character for Virgin. A new superhero, created by Lee and Morrison, who would reflect the 21st century.
Lee said, "I'll do what I usually do: he'll do all the work and I'll take all the credit."
Lee's beaming smile and combination of humility and self-confidence ended the panel, just as it had begun: with excitement and laughter.
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