Getting through Stan Lee’s handler-gatekeeper to interview the legendary comic-book writer/myth creator isn’t easy. But after more than a dozen calls and several aborted interview attempts, perseverance and patience was rewarded: a cell phone was handed to Lee as he waited at an airport for about 20 minutes before he would jet off to yet another cross-country convention appearance to speak to fanboys and fangirls, pose for photos, and, perhaps, sign comics and merchandise.
The man turns 90 in December and is arguably more popular now than at any point in his decades-long career, thanks to the surging box-office influence and might of comic-book heroes such as Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Thor, and Iron Man.
As the cocreator of these mythical figures — mostly with his former partner at Marvel, the late Jack Kirby — Lee has become a major driving force of popular culture, though he long-ago moved beyond these heroes and their home at Marvel Comics. These days the former Marvel Comics editor and publisher stays insanely busy as founder-chairman-chief creative officer of POW! (Purveyors of Wonder) Entertainment, event appearances, and filming cameos for the superhero films that are often cheered by fans as loudly as the appearance of the heroes themselves. Lee was scheduled to speak at a soldout Authors! Authors! program in late September at the Stranahan Theater and make an appearance at the Ohio Comic Con in Columbus, but canceled both “due to last-minute scheduling conflicts and personal matters.”
Max Anderson, Lee’s event coordinator, told The Blade that rumors Lee is “sick or dying are totally a lie. He’s as healthy as a horse.” But recently, Lee released a statement acknowledging that “I have had an electronic pacemaker placed near my heart.” To promote his Authors! Authors! appearance, Lee spoke with The Blade in late August.
Q: What is your official role with Marvel? Ambassador?
A: I’m not sure. I’m still under salary with Marvel. I have my own company also, but I’m obligated to spend 15 percent of my time working for Marvel. Of course, I spend more than that because I love Marvel and I do whatever I can, and I do voice recording for a lot of their book projects, especially for little kids, and I do whatever promotion I can. I mean, I’ll always be with Marvel.
Q: Do you like the direction of Marvel, especially with the increasing emphasis on its films?
A: How can you not like it? It’s the movies really that have given Marvel the biggest boost, I believe. They’ve made those characters so famous worldwide. It’s just incredible how great those movies have been and how much they have done for the company.
Q: Do you feel like at this point the success with Marvel’s films is overshadowing its comics?
A: It doesn’t matter. Whether it’s the movie or the comic or the things that they are doing online or on television or in books, it’s all Marvel. If part of it does better than the other part, so what? The point is that the characters are more popular than they’ve ever been and Marvel is sitting on top of one of the most popular companies in the world.
Q: Do you have much input into the films now? Do the filmmakers or studios come to you for advice?
A: Not really. Sometimes I’ll have a lunch with whoever is going to direct a new movie if he hasn’t directed one of ours before. I remember once I had lunch with Robert Downey, Jr. He just wanted to get my take on what Iron Man was like. That’s a very funny story, by the way. I went to this restaurant with Robert Downey, and when the waiter saw who it was, you can imagine how I get treated when I go to that restaurant from now on, like a big celebrity. “My God, he had lunch with Robert Downey, Jr. He must be somebody important.” (Laughs) It’s really funny.
Q: Given how notoriously picky fanboys can be when it comes to comic-book film adaptations, do we give them too much influence?
A: No, I don’t think so. We’re living in a pop culture world, really. Pop culture has become so important and the fans are so enthusiastic and they care so much for these characters and the way they’re portrayed in comics and the movies and every way, that we who produce these things have a great responsibility. We’ve got to make sure that the product we do is good enough to be worthy of the fans’ enthusiasm.
Q: The first two Incredible Hulk movies were largely disappointing, and the Big Guy seemed to get a short shrift. But as a secondary character in The Avengers, the Hulk is used to brilliant effect as comic relief and to punctuate the action sequences. What did Avengers director Josh Whedon do differently to succeed with the Hulk?
A: Well, I’ll take a guess. I felt in the first two movies, first of all he was too big. And secondly, in the third movie, The Avengers, he humanized him a little bit more. I think the role was played by Mark Ruffalo, he just came across as more sympathetic and more interesting somehow. They played up his personality in a way that the audience related to and when he became the Hulk, it happened at a moment when you welcomed it and you were excited to see it. A lot of it has to do with timing. In the first two movies I think it was pretty obvious what was going to happen. Again, I feel that they made the Hulk too big, too monstrous. They made him a little smaller in The Avengers and I think that was far better.
Q: So many of Marvel’s titles have made it to the big screen, but is there one superhero you think would make a great film?
A: To be honest with you, I think any of them if they’re done right. I think that Dr. Strange would be great, and I think the Black Panther would be a major hit. They’re even trying to develop an Ant-Man movie now. I think something dealing with the Inhumans would be great. We have so many terrific characters. I think they’re going to give Daredevil another go at it, and perhaps do it a little bit better than the first movie. My guess is over at Marvel the biggest decision is, how can we do all the things that we want to do in the limited amount of time there is?
Q: Christopher Nolan took a gritty and grim approach to the Batman movies with his Dark Knight trilogy. Did you see them and what did you think?
A: Well I think the Batman movies, those I’ve seen, have been great, they’re terrific. And that’s the style apparently they want for Batman, dark and gritty, and it seems to work for him. I think [DC Comics] must be a little unhappy because they’ve had the Justice League way before The Avengers, and yet we came out first with The Avengers and it was so successful. They have a good line of characters at DC. As you know, everything depends on how you do it. You could take any character and make it a hit if it’s written right and if it’s cast right, and if it’s directed the right way. And you can take the most popular character in the world and if it’s miscast or badly written or badly directed and you’ve got a flop.
Q: Talk about your relationship with Jack Kirby. There are some who say he didn’t get enough credit for what he did at Marvel.
A: I don’t know what to say. I had a wonderful relationship with him, I was his biggest fan. There was never a time that I wrote my name when his name wasn’t as big. Everything said “By Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.” I’m the guy that gave him the name “King Kirby.” If people feel he didn’t get enough credit, I don’t know what additional credit he could get. He was great, he was the best artist I ever worked with, he had a great story sense. He made everything that we did look better than anybody else could have made it look. I have only the highest praise for him.
Q: Some have suggested your partnership was like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and that neither of you were as potent once you quit working together.
A: Well I hate to say this, but he really never had a hit when he left Marvel and went to DC. He never had another Fantastic Four or Thor or anything, I mean, he did a lot of books but they weren’t great successes. In my case, I’ve still done ... I don’t want to act as if I’m competing with Kirby, I don’t like this subject. I think we were a great team, and I think I’m very proud of what Jack and I did together.
Q: Why did you help create POW and what are your plans for the company?
A: Well, we’re doing everything we can. We have a number of movies in development, we have some television shows in development, we have a live-action big spectacular that is going to open up in about year in Macau in Asia. We have a lot of work on the Internet. In fact, if you go to Stan Lee’s World of Heroes on YouTube there’s a million things there. We’re really in every phase of entertainment. And we’re just getting started. The movies and the television and the other things are all being written and developed and we’ll start casting soon. And in the next, I’d say year or two years, you’ll see a lot of our products.
Q: What do you think of today’s grittier comic books?
A: I am the worst guy to answer that because, believe it or not, I do not read the comics, I don’t have the time. Really. I don’t know what’s being published. I look at a cover sometimes and there are names of artists and writers, and I’ve been away from it so long, I don’t know who they are. Seriously, I just don’t have time.
Contact Kirk Baird at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.