While Marvel Comics founding father Stan Lee has been winding down his convention appearances in recent years, Frank Miller has seemingly been ramping up his status as comics elder statesman on the con circuit.
That's part of the reason why a meet up between the two living legends still felt like a little something special Saturday morning at the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo (AKA C2E2). The crowds arrived early for space, and still the biggest presentation room at the con was full to capacity with overflow fans watching from two rooms away when "The Men, The Myths, The Legends: Stan Lee and Frank Miller One-on-One" presentation began.
Both men took the stage in their traditional garb – Lee in his aviator glasses, yellow dress shirt and pullover sweater and Miller in his black coat and fedora. And the difference in their style played out in their personalities as well when the celebration of Marvel history turned into a comedic run of put-downs – mostly led by Lee.
Miller started the conversation by explaining how he first came to Marvel Comics when Stan still worked in the New York offices. "I'd been fumbling over typing paper and trying to do my comic books since I was about five-years-old," he said. His father – a traveling salesman – eventually took young Frank up to NYC around the age of nine. "My father being a straightforward, bold guy, took me up to the offices [of Marvel] to meet everyone...I actually got a note from Stan then...your note actually said that my stuff 'wasn't quite up to Marvel standards yet' but that I should keep at it."
Miller finally met Lee years later as he was "working on my second three-page story" for the publisher. "It was a real moment of initiation that anyone went through when they went to work at Marvel. There I got the Stan Lee lecture on how to do superheroes...I think the thing that stuck in my mind was that every single superhero should tell you who he is the moment he shows up," Miller said, explaining that Lee used the example of always introducing Ant-Man shrinking down next to something small. Lee told him never to start a Spider-Man story with spider-sense, but always have him get scared and jump up and stick to the wall.
Lee soon took the chance to bust Miller's chops saying, "Just like you had to come back when you got better...I don't think you're quite ready for a prime-time panel yet," Lee joked before praising Miller for his ability to write, draw and direct films.
There were some hiccups in the panel as Lee had trouble hearing whatever Miller said through the microphone, but in his classic style, Lee hammed up at every opportunity – and there were many as he missed some questions but used every opportunity to zing Miller. Eventually, the writer got to the point of telling his own origin at Marvel.
"I used to be a reasonably normal person," said Lee as Miller replied "Don't start with a lie!" But the elder statesman went on saying that after high school, he replied to an newspaper ad to work at Timely Comics. Then he spent time working under Joe Simon and Jack Kirby until the pair had a falling out with management. "Joe and Jack just didn't show up the next day. Whether they quit or were fired, I never knew. But the publisher cared so little about comic books that he just said, 'Stan, can you do this until I find somebody?'" said Lee to which Miller replied, "Did they ever find a grown-up?"
The pair went over some of the classic moments of early Marvel history including when the Hulk changed color. Miller joked that he never understood what was happening when the character went from gray to green. "Why did I make him green? Because I knew that some way somewhere, this was going to knock Frank Miller for a loop!" Lee laughed. He also told his most famous repeated story – his account of coming up with the concept of Spider-Man. In this take, Lee's publisher rejected the idea because no one wanted a hero based on a spider (which people hated) or one that was a teenager (which could only be a sidekick) or one with personal problems (since heroes were impervious to problems). Lee dumped the story in a low-selling comic on the brink of cancelation, but when "Amazing Fantasy" #15 sold out, his boss returned to demand the character go into his own series. "It proves the boss always knows best!" Lee laughed.
Miller shared his own origin with connecting to Daredevil – a hero he first drew in a Spider-Man story. "I loved the idea of a superhero whose main feature was an impairment not a power," he said. "I was very fortunate that about that time, the legendary artist Gene Colan ran screaming from his 100-issue run with Daredevil." He said he took the book away from the "Villain of the Month" club and made longer story arcs the norm – primarily by stealing the Kingpin from Spider-Man to turn the series into a crime comic.
The cartoonist also revealed that he doesn't watch the current Netflix "Daredevil" TV show or any adaptation of his work. "I don't mean to be snotty about it. I just know myself well enough that if I see what other people are doing, I might disagree with it and not be very fun to be around," he said. Miller also revealed that the thing that would get him back into directing would be "a phone call" but he declined to share any projects he'd like to work on. "I'd rather show you."
Characteristically, Lee took a very different track from Miller, praising all the film adaptations of his work. "The only [Marvel movie] I had a little bit of a problem with was 'Fantastic Four' number 1 because they didn't do Doctor Doom the way they should have," he said. Lee went on to explain that in his mind, Doom is not a villain just because he wants to rule the world. Miller jumped in to say, "Well, he's not a villain because he has diplomatic immunity."
Lee's reply summed up the feel of the panel as he laughed, "I was building up to that point, but you've stolen it away form me. I'm never doing a panel with you again!"
Lee wrapped his part with a promotional push, saying his latest character is called The Annihilator, which he's working to launch as a movie because, "If we did it as a comic first, everyone would steal the idea."
Miller then offered Lee a cameo in a theoretical future "Sin City" movie joking, "The real question is: is Stan Lee ready to take a bullet?" Lee finally buried the hatchet saying, "For a cameo? Sure."