“With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story,” a documentary about the life of Stan Lee, debuted July 24 at Comic-Con International in San Diego, followed by a star-studded panel including The Man himself. For two hours, convention-goers got a look into the mind that in many ways helped to create a need for Comic-Con in the first place.
Before the movie began, Lee provided a brief introduction. “I want to say thank you very much,” he said. “I have not seen this, it's very embarrassing because it makes me seem much bigger and important than I really am. I have a reputation for not being the most modest guy in the world, and now it'll be twice as bad.”
After the movie, the panel, moderated by movie producer Michael Uslan, heaped praise, told stories, and picked apart the mind of its star, while Lee hammed it up, alternately saying he was not worthy of such praise, or demanding it. The panel included former DC Comics publisher Paul Levitz; movie producer Tom DeSanto; Mark Evanier, writer, Jack Kirby's former assistant, and as Uslan said, “moderator of most of the panels at Comic-Con;” and the creators of the documentary, Nikki Frakes, Will Hess, and Terry Dougas.
The panel began with Uslan asking Lee what he thought his greatest legacy was.
“I never figured I'd be asked tough questions like that,” Lee joked. “Maybe my cameos, because they show such a artistic part of me, how I have such great variety. I'm getting tearful. I don't know what my best legacy is for goodness sake!”
“Then we'll let everyone here tell you,” Uslan said, before asking him Lee if he knew he was creating a new American mythology when he was writing.
“No! I don't even know, and I'm embarrassed to say this, I don't even know what the Golden Age and the Silver Age is. Everyone has a different definition. To me, the Golden Age is when you were getting paid well. What was the question again?”
When it was repeated, Lee responded with a resounding “Hell no! We were just doing our job and trying to pay the rent and we weren't thinking about what someone 30 years from now was thinking about that."
The filmmakers were then asked what surprised them the most in the making of the documentary. “I'm constantly amazed by the generational ties,” Hess said. “It doesn't matter if it's a younger crowd like today, or people who've been reading his stuff for four decades, it's a variety of ages in the room and they've all been touched by Stan. To have that impact on people over all these years as an artist is pretty amazing.”
At that point, Stan felt the need to explain a hearing aid device that he was using. His hearing is not so bad that he needs a full time device, but it helps to keep him from missing the key words in sentences. “I only like when people are saying good things about me,” he joked, prompting Evanier and DeSanto to get up from their chairs and make a half-turn towards the exit.
Levitz was then asked what about Stan has affected him the most. “It's not a secret, I've said this in the forwards of my work at DC, I think that Stan's story structure was the core source material I pulled my stuff with as a writer,” he said. “That body of work is what I studied to figure out how to do the superhero groups. Particularly when you look at the work in 'Fantastic Four' from issue 40-60, there's no richer period in comics.” He added that when Jenette Kahn came to DC Comics in the 1970s and wanted to know what were the comics she should be reading to understand the business, he handed her Lee's material.
To the same question, Evanier explained how he first met Lee in 1970, but he knew Lee since “Fantastic Four” #3. “When I met him the first time, I felt like I knew him forever. What I got out of Stan was that I learned it was possible for a writer to communicate to a reader. We all feel possessive about Stan. We feel like he's our buddy. You just love the guy, and you always did if you read his comics and fell in love with his characters. He talks about in his stories how it's possible for a superhero to make a difference, but it's possible for a writer to make a difference. Stan has left a legacy of people who have been inspired.”
“And we don't even like each other!” Lee joked, before recounting the letter from a 13-year-old Evanier he reprinted in a Soapbox column explaining the various levels of a Marvel fan.
“Being a kid of the '70s and '80s, there was never a time when there wasn't Stan Lee,” recalled DeSanto. “I had Stan Lee pajamas when I was three. Your voice—'excelsior' and 'hey there true believer'—was something I grew up on. You were a moral barometer for me. In a weird way, your thumb print in this room and on this planet is very apparent. You made me want to be a better person. For that I thank you.”
Lee was then asked who was the most talented person he worked with, to which he instantly replied, “Jack Kirby! And not just because Evanier is in the room!”
Lee continued to extol Kirby's virtues. “He really was a writer with drawings and no one wrote better with him. And every drawing he did was exciting. I don't even think Jack had to think about it, it just came natural. When Jack drew something, he started at the top of the page and worked his way down, it's like it was all in his mind and he was tracing it onto the page. Jack was absolutely the most imaginative and talented guy I've met and I've met many talented people.”