It’s difficult to imagine anyone working a room of two thousand comic book fans quite as effortlessly as Stan Lee. But then, he’s had decades of experience. The 89-year-old legend was a guest of honor at Fan Expo in Toronto this past week, where he regaled the crowd with witty remarks, hinting at some new film projects in the works and even listing the three characters whose big-screen adaptations disappointed him most.
Host Teddy Wilson, from Canada's SPACE channel, got the ball rolling by asking whether Lee was shocked at just how successful this summer’s Avengers picture turned out to be. “I can’t take the credit for all the movies – there were other guys responsible … actors, writers, directors – but I was the inspiration, let’s face it,” he replied was a grin.
“Speaking of the movies,” he continued, “wait ‘till you see my cameo in the next Iron Man movie!” The crowd reacted well to the tease, but was given no clues as where to look for him in the sequel, scheduled for release next year. Instead, Lee proceeded to kid that The Avengers made so much money at the box office because his cameo was included after the credits, forcing those who’d left early and missed it to buy tickets to see the picture a second time.
During the Q&A that followed, a young fan asked how much fun he has playing small roles in each of the films. “Oh I love ‘em! I love doing them! You know, I’ll tell you the funniest thing – somebody wrote about me in some magazine and I guess for the people who didn’t know who I was, they wrote who I am and what I do at the top. It said, ‘Stan Lee, Actor, Writer…’ but they said actor first, so all of a sudden I’m an actor first!” He then encouraged the audience to reach out to the motion picture academy to pressure them to add a “Best Cameo” category.
One woman wondered how Lee felt about the scientific elements in his stories inspiring readers to take an interest in science. He came clean, admitting that he’s “not the kind of guy who does research and not a wizard at science. So, when I wanted the Fantastic Four to get their powers, I figured I’d have them blasted with cosmic rays!” Then came the gamma ray for The Hulk. “With Spider-Man, I had run out of rays…so I figured I’d turn to the insect kingdom.” For the X-Men, he simply wrote it so they were “born that way. So, that’s really the extent of my scientific knowledge.”
Another young fan asked what gave Lee the inspiration to create Spider-Man. His answer? “Greed!” In truth, Lee said it all came down to finding a new kind of power to use as a springboard for a character. “I’ve told this story to people so often that for all I know it might even be true. I was looking around and saw a fly on a wall and thought it would be a good idea to get a guy who could walk on walls.” After running down a list of names including Insect Man and Mosquito Man, he settled on Spider-Man. “And so the legend was born!”
Asked if he’d change anything about his creations, Lee replied in the resoundingly negative. “They came out the way I wanted them to be so I have no reason to change ‘em. As far as I’m concerned, I think they were truly works of genius. You’ll have to forgive my modest and humble attitude – that’s just the way I am!”Wilson then asked if he had a favorite character, and again, Lee said no. From there, he returned to storytelling mode when a young gent named Wyatt inquired how old he was when he first began sketching superheroes. Lee reflected on how he stumbled into the industry at the tender age of 17, working as an assistant at Timely Comics and fetching lunches for the likes of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. When they left, he was offered a chance to fill the void, and as he put it, “they must have forgotten about me because I’ve been there ever since.”
Back in those early days, he wrote a variety of work including horror stories and romance stories. “We did books called My Confessions, Her Confessions, Girl’s Confessions, Lady’s Confessions – everything had confessions in them!” In order to be able to credit himself for the work, however, he felt it best to write “Mary Smith’s confession as told to Stan Lee”, not that it did him much good. Soon, readers were writing in and asking why Mary Smith would ever share her deepest secrets with Lee for publication.
A fan similarly went fishing for answers by asking why he decided to make the Ultimo manga series. Lee’s jokey persona gave way to an almost apologetic one as he explained how “it was a challenge. Some of the people in Japan were sort-of fans, and they asked if I could come up with these story ideas that they could write and draw and make a series out of.” He reiterated that he wasn’t responsible for the stories themselves, merely the premise and left it at that.
A would-be comic creator wondered what advice he might give to up-and-comers, and Lee’s reply was sobering. “It’s incredible difficult unless you’re already a professional writer,” he said, citing how screenwriters and novelists have begun crossing over into comics. Artists, meanwhile, must be “at least as good as the good artists at Marvel…so you have to show them art samples that will knock their eyes out. If it’s just ‘nice’, it’s not enough.” A person’s best bet, he suggested, is to make a name for themselves before approaching the big companies.
The question of a possible Deadpool movie was raised by a fan named Pam. “Let me tell you,” Lee began, “Deadpool is such a popular character that I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t appear in a movie sooner or later, either as a character in another movie or by himself. I think with some characters, they feel at Marvel the best thing to do is introduce them in another movie like Captain America or Thor and then see how popular they got. But those things have not yet been decided.”
Then, Lee shared some exciting news. “They have so many things they’re working on: they’re thinking about a Dr. Strange movie, a Black Panther movie, and an Ant-Man movie. There are so many things in the works, they just don’t have enough time to do all the movies they want to do…and of course, then we need all the sequels!”
Young Conner decided to give Stan “The Man” one of the toughest questions of the evening: “what made you make the decision to give up being president of Marvel?” In short, “The Man” had to admit he’s not a businessman. That was followed moments later by a question few expected him to answer honestly: which characters most disappointed him on the big-screen? Lee spoke frankly, saying “I would have liked the Hulk in the first two movies to be a little smaller. I thought they made him a little too big.”
Then, voices from the crowd called out the name “Daredevil” and Lee had to agree. “They just wrote the whole thing wrong,” he said firmly, to great applause. “I love the character, but they made him too tragic, and that stuff where he slept in that thing like a coffin and all the church scenes where he was so miserable…that wasn’t the Daredevil that I had in mind when I wrote him. But, I think they’re working on a new Daredevil and I think it will be a lot better.” Lastly, he added that he wasn’t happy with how Dr. Doom was portrayed either in the Fantastic Four movies. It was clear those in attendance agreed.
Lee shared that he has plans with his POW! Entertainment company (which stands for Purveyors of Wonder) to move ahead with a film centered on a Chinese Superhero, entitled The Annihilator. He also spoke briefly of his live rock-opera style project set to open in Macau, China and earned a few chuckles for likening it to “Cirque du Sol-aiiiie”.
After explaining why Thor’s ability to use his hammer to fly makes more sense than Superman non-propulsion-related powers of levitation, he concluded with the story of his penname. Born Stanley Martin Lieber, the legend grew up in a time when comics were not considered art, much less worthwhile entertainment. “Frankly I was embarrassed to tell people what I did.” So, hoping to someday write “the Great American Novel” and fearing his past would come back to haunt him, Lieber cut his first name in half, becoming Stan Lee and eventually changing his name legally.
“Incidentally, today it’s different. If I’m at a party, somebody will see me and say ‘Excuse me President Obama, but I have to go and talk with Stan Lee!’”
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