Stan Lee is one proud father these days. You'd be proud, too, if your progeny included Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor and the Fantastic Four — characters whose films routinely bring in a few hundred million dollars at the movie box office.
Not that Lee has much to do with the movies themselves: His connection is restricted to a largely honorary executive-producer credit and a cameo in each film — as a swinging Hugh Hefner-type in "Iron Man," mailman Willie Limpkin in "Fantastic Four," an Army general in this summer's "Captain America."
"A lot of people think that I'm the power behind the movie," says Lee. "I kind of like that feeling. I hate to discourage them or disillusion them … I don't really have anything to do with the movies."
Maybe not directly. But as a writer and editor at Marvel Comics in the 1960s, it was Lee who came up with the idea of a teenager who develops superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive arachnid (Spider-Man), of a mild-mannered scientist who becomes a raging monster at times of stress (The Hulk), of a Norse god who fights to save Earth (Thor). As Lee himself would have put it, "'Nuff said."
This weekend, Lee will be the guest of honor at the 22nd Baltimore Comic Con, signing autographs and posing for pictures Saturday, talking about comics and taking questions from fans on Sunday. "There is no bigger star in all of comics," says con founder Marc Nathan.
Even at 88, Stan the Man is still hard at work, searching for the next great superhero.
How do you feel when you see your creations up there on the screen? Does it still give you a thrill?
I'll be very honest with you. When I see them, I don't think of them as my creations. I'm watching the movie the way any fan would. I enjoy what I see. Occasionally, I'll say, 'Gee, how come I never thought of that?' if I see some great little bit of action or something that surprises me. But I'm not sitting there saying, 'Yeah, that's my creation.' I don't feel that way at all.
Do you have a favorite?
I guess "Spider-Man" and "Iron Man" are my two favorites, and I kinda like "X-Men." too.
What make "Spider-Man" and "Iron Man" maybe a tic better than some of the others?
I think the characterization. Especially "Iron Man," with Robert Downey Jr. — he plays that role and it's so easy to relate to him. And with "Spider-Man," it's so easy to relate to Peter Parker who, even though he's got this superpower, he's also got a million problems, things that are always going wrong.
Is there a Stan Lee touch? Is there a common tie to your creations, something that you try to put in there?
The only thing I try to put in, frankly, is, I try to figure, 'What would I enjoy reading?' I try to write something that I feel I would enjoy reading. And I enjoy reading about people and their problems. That's the reason I try to give the heroes' personal lives as much attention as their superhero life.
In the early '60s, superheroes were pretty-much in decline — only Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were still around, maybe the Flash. Was there a sense in which you were surprised that your ideas started taking hold and really flying? Did you surprise yourself, maybe?
I don't even think I was surprised. I liked what we were doing and I loved the way the artists drew. Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four, The Hulk) did such a wonderful job on these books, and Steve Ditko (Spider-Man) — and then, later on, John Romita and John Buscema and Gil Kane and Don Heck and Gene Colan. These guys were able to make almost anything I wrote look good. I wasn't surprised that the readers liked them.
But it was fun observing the change in readership, once we started with the Fantastic Four. Originally, we got no fan mail at all. Then we'd start getting fan mail written in crayon, then after while written in pencil. Then later we got fan letters written in ink. Then a little while after that, they were typed. Then we started getting return addresses from schools, and then from colleges.
After awhile, I'd have been an idiot not to realize we were on to something. Within a few years, we had fans who were college students — it wasn't just six, seven, eight, nine-year-old kids.
But we managed to get those older fans without losing the kids. That was a real thrill for me.
What's on the horizon?
We have this company, POW Entertainment, and we're working on some movies, some television shows, some DVDs. We're doing a live-action show, like the Cirque du Soleil. We're working on another sort of cabaret act that will open up in Vegas. We're working on some new comic books, some graphic novels.
It's great. See, I don't actually have to write all these things myself anymore. I can work with other writers and other people, And that way, I can do so many projects at one time. We just keep busy with a lot of projects. Yesterday, we just pitched a television series to Fox, and we're waiting for the result.
It's great, because to me, being busy is the best thing in the world.
So we're not going to see Stan Lee slowing down anytime soon?
Not if I can help it.
If you go
Baltimore Comic-Con is 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center, 1 W. Pratt St. Tickets are $20 for Saturday, $15 for Sunday and $30 for both days. Go to baltimorecomiccon.com.