New York Comic Con hosted a panel to celebrate the legacy of legendary creator Stan Lee. Moderated by Kevin Smith, the presentation included two comic book legends in their own right, Walt Simonson ("Thor," "Manhunter") and Chris Claremont ("Uncanny X-Men," "Wolverine"), to discuss working with Lee and the massive impact he had on their careers.
Before the main portion of the panel kicked off, the First Deputy Commissioner from the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment came out to declare October 7 Stan Lee Day in New York City in honor of his immense contribution to the entertainment industry.
Smith kicked off the discussion on Lee, asking Claremont and Simonson how they feel about their characters being adapted on the big screen.
"That's a really short answer," Simonson said. "It never occurred to me in my wildest dreams. It's so strange to see them, it's very cool, but it was never anything I ever gave any thought to."
Claremont answered, "It's really cool…I've been a fan of Ian McKellen since I was a wee nubbin sitting in the back of the chief seats…because I wanted to be an actor…and to have him turn around and play Magneto and just redefine him according to how I recreated him, it was totally cool."
The longtime X-Men scribe then shared an anecdote about an early attempt to bring the Mighty Mutants to theaters. "…Back in the day, Stan and I went for a meeting with a certain director -- we were going to pitch the X-Men -- and he just set up this new studio and we're sitting there in this big, big meeting room and Jim Cameron sits there and says, 'We're going to do the X-Men, we're really excited about it, we're really happy, we've got this great new director, I'm gonna executive produce, she's going to handle it, you'll love Kathryn Bigelow, she will do the X-Men the way it needs to be done.'"
Claremont continued, "This is 1988. Now I'm thinking, 'Man, James Cameron producing, Kathryn Bigelow directing [X-Men],' and Stan smiles and says, 'I hear you like Spider-Man,' and Cameron goes, 'Oh, Spider-Man is the most cool character ever.' And suddenly he and Stan are batting ideas back and forth and Cameron says, 'I'll direct it, I'll write it'…and I'm watching the X-Men disappear. And it was the coolest 35 minute plot session I've ever seen…and he sank an ocean liner instead, but it was a cool 35 minutes."
Turning the discussion to the environment at Marvel decades ago, Lee shared a story about coming up with the title for X-Men. "I first came to our publisher Martin Goodman, who was not one of my favorite people," he remarked. "I said, 'I have an idea for a new series for you,' I told him all about it and I said, 'And I got a great name, we'll call it 'the Mutants,'' and he looked at me with the blank type of publisher look that they can get and he said, 'Stan you can't called the book the mutants, nobody knows what a mutant is.' He had great respect for our readers and our vocabulary. So I had to think of another name…'Well they have extra powers, we'll call them the X-Men'...and when I walked out of the office I thought, 'This demonstrates how some people in big positions are idiots.'"
Both Claremont and Simonson referenced Stan's writing specifically -- Simonson citing early "Thor" as his first Lee comic, while Claremont pointed to "Fantastic Four" #48, "The Coming of the Silver Surfer" -- sharing specific lines of dialogue and narration from Lee they remember verbatim, to this day.
On working with Lee, Claremont said, "If he hired you, you were obviously capable of doing it, if you couldn't -- bye bye. That was Marvel, and that was Stan. It was the coolest wackadoo place in the universe to work, and yet everyday you learned something…you learned how to be a professional, how to be a craftsperson, how to tell one heck of a story, and how to find the best artists in the world, have them tell a crackerjack story -- and unlike me right now -- shut the hell up and get out of the way."
Praising the two creators that ended up succeeding him on his titles, Lee said, "I always considered myself the luckiest guy in the world, because we had such talented people; writers and artists. And I learned something at an early age -- when you have somebody who knows what he or she is doing and they're talented, you let them do their thing, you don't put any impediments in the way. You have guys like this, you're lucky to have them…whatever [they work on], it'll be good…you hire the best people and you give them the freedom to do what they do best. And this is the first time I have ever answered a question and tried not to make it funny…and I am ashamed of myself."
Simonson said after a year of doing "Thor" he got a letter from Lee that read, "Dear Walt, you keep getting better at 'Thor,' I don't know how you do it…don't stop."
"I scanned it," Simonson said. "I printed the letter out on other paper -- that paper is framed just inside my studio…it meant the world to me, and it was what Stan did. He was encouraging…at the time that happened, I didn't think Stan knew who I was…I look at it more or less everyday. It encourages me, whether I'm working at Marvel or anywhere else, to do the best work that I could possibly do."
Sharing similar sentiment, Claremont reflected on 1991 when he departed the X-Men titles after a dispute with Marvel. He said Lee approached him at San Diego Comic-Con and said, "'Chris…I really, really feel bad about what's happened.'" Claremont continued, "And he sat there and talked with me for about 45 minutes -- in my memory it's like three hours…at my absolute lowest, and was telling me how much he enjoyed the work, and how sorry he was that he was not in a position to help. To be honest, I didn't care [I left Marvel], but what mattered to me the most was that Stan took a few moments to come over and share some interest…care, with a fellow creator that was down in the dumps that he knew."
"It's a moment…that I will carry with me through the rest of my life," Claremont said. "It's a moment, like Walter's letter, that I will carry with me for the rest of my life, because it's a gratitude I can never repay, and it meant more to me than I can ever say…except I'm trying to say it right now. Thank you so much."
Lee responded, "You just repaid it with your kind words."