STILL A MARVEL

The Baltimore Sun

Beverly Hills -Stan Lee sits in his Santa Monica Boulevard office, surrounded by images of his creations: A life-size statue of the Amazing Spider-Man, a poster of the Incredible Hulk, a desktop figure of Ben Grimm, aka The Thing.

And then there's his Dell desktop computer. He has yet to master it (give the man a break, he's 86 years old). But he embraces it as a creative tool - and sees it as the next frontier for the comic books he helped turn from a kids' amusement to one of the world's most fertile and influential entertainment media.

Which is why he's about to launch his next superhero creation on it.

"It's going to be a big thing," Lee predicts of Time Jumper, a superhero he's created and, in collaboration with Walt Disney Home Entertainment, will soon be sending to a small screen near you. "It will be on the Web; it'll be on the telephone. I hope it will turn into a TV show, a movie, who knows what?"

Lee gets pretty animated when he talks about Time Jumper.

"He's a teenager who can travel in time through a device that he has called the Articulus. But it's more than just time travel; it's like James Bond. There are villains out to get him, and he's on a mission. It's the whole thing. Also, there's an organization called CULT (Council of Unlawful, Loathsome Terrorists) after him." Yes, the man responsible for Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and Iron Man, one of the premier mythmakers of the 20th century, is still in the game. And plans for Time Jumper sound ambitious, as well as cutting-edge. Set to launch toward the end of the summer, the title will be available for download onto multiple platforms, including the Internet and cell phone. Plans call for a traditional comic book as well as a "digital comic book" that, viewed online, will include enhanced visuals, music, voices and storyboards that move at their own pre-set pace. No comic character has been launched on so many platforms simultaneously, Disney officials and Lee say.

"There's a niche here that really doesn't exist anywhere else," says Lee's partner, Gill Champion, a one-time movie producer (Fort Apache, The Bronx) who has spent more than a quarter-century in entertainment marketing and promotion. "I don't think anybody's doing as many cross-platforms as we are. And I don't think there's anybody that's recognized in the [comic book] brand like Stan is."

"Consumers' entertainment habits and media consumption have changed dramatically," says Bob Chapek, president of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, "and it's important for us to be able to create dynamic content that meets the needs and demands of today's multimedia and technologically advanced consumers."

Moving beyond the comic-book pages is not new for an industry that has fed other media - radio, cinema, television - since not long after its inception. It took to the Internet from the start, as a natural extension of its young fan base, says John Jackson Miller, a comic-book writer and industry analyst. For one thing, he notes, comic fans were quick to realize the Internet was the easiest way to show off their work to one another.

"Comic-book fans were among the earliest adopters of the Internet," he says. "The idea of comic books moving online or comics appearing online - that happened right with the beginning of the Internet."

That presence on the Internet, he adds, has been a good thing for the industry, adding to public awareness of comic books (as though $200 million-plus movie blockbusters like Spider-Man, Iron Man and The Dark Knight don't do enough of that already) and helping propel sales.

"Every year of the last eight, comic sales have increased in dollar terms," says Miller, including a 1.5 percent increase for 2008 - calculated before the recent decisions by industry titans Marvel and DC to raise the prices on some titles by $1. "That is pretty good for being in a recession."

Innovations like those behind Time Jumper can only help, says Steve Geppi, president of Timonium-based Diamond Comic Distributors.

"I see this as something that will increase the audience," says Geppi, who doesn't believe the Internet, Kindle, the iPhone or any other technical innovation will ever supplant the traditional mass-market comic book. "There's a certain thing about picking up that book, about touching it and smelling it and reading it. ... There's just something about that experience you can't replace."

Agrees Lee, "I expect that there will be a ton of Web-based and interactive material, but I think, despite all that, there will always be comic books."

Lee began penning stories for Captain America C omics in the 1940s. Beginning in 1961, as the resident wordsmith for Marvel Comics, he began a run unrivaled among his peers. Besides Spidey, the Fantastic Four and Tony Stark's armor-plated alter ego, Lee also created (in tandem with such artists as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) Daredevil, the Mighty Thor, Dr. Strange, the Silver Surfer and a group of teenage mutants known collectively as the X-Men.

He was penning a dozen or more comic books a month through the 1960s and into the early 1970s.

Since 2001, he and entertainment marketing executive Champion have been running POW! Entertainment. POW!, of course, has been a comic-book sound effect for decades, but the current incarnation is an acronym for Purveyors of Wonder.

"I added the exclamation point," Lee says, "because I didn't want people thinking 'Prisoners of War.' "

These days, Lee, who retains the energy level of a man half his age, comes up with the ideas and puts his name and considerable reputation behind their promotion.

"Mainly, the people at Disney are doing the design for Time Jumper," he says. "I just furnish the story. They're writing the script, and they're designing it. They go over the characters with me. ... Some of them are great-looking. They've got a great artist working on it."

As Lee puts it, "everything's good" about his role as an idea-generating elder statesman. Still, with several decades of productive creativity on his resume, one suspects Stan Lee isn't fully satisfied with remaining behind the scenes.

"I love collaboration," he says with both a wink and a sigh, "but sometimes, just wish I could write one of them myself."

LEAPING TO NEW MEDIA IN A SINGLE BOUND

Comic books

April 1938: The Golden Age of comic books kicks off with the arrival of the first great comic-book character, Superman, in Action Comics #1.

Movies

January 1941: Comic books hit the big screen with the arrival in serial form of Adventures of Captain Marvel, starring Tom Tyler. Other early big-screen comic-book adaptations include an animated Superman (1941), Spy Smasher (1942), Batman (1943) and Captain America (1944).

Television

September 1952: The Adventures of Superman, with George Reeves as planet Krypton's most famous expatriate, introduces comic-book heroes to TV audiences. The parade of comic-book characters on TV continues with Adam West as Batman (1966), Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman (1975) and Tom Welling as Clark Kent and Kristin Kreuk as Lana Lang in Smallville (2001).

Graphic novels

October 1978: Will Eisner's A Contract With God is among the first graphic novels, a decidedly adult variation on the comic book.

Internet

June 1995: Charley Parker's Argon Zark !, the adventures of a computer hacker (how appropriate) is among the first Web comics, created expressly for distribution online at zark.com.

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