Having had a hand in the creation of a number of America's most iconic characters, from the Fantastic Four to the X-Men, Stan Lee maintains to this day that there is one hero he holds dearer than all others: the science nerd turned superhero, Peter Parker AKA Spider-Man.
"Whatever comes along, Spider-Man should be part of it because he has become possibly one of, if not the most popular characters in the world," he said to the gathered press. Lee, Co-Executive Producer of Disney XD's "Ultimate Spider-Man" and the legendary publisher of Marvel Comics, was openly enthusiastic about the wall-crawler's upcoming animated TV show, and the new Marvel Universe programming block on Disney XD as a whole.
Lee laughed as he admitted that when he first began working for his uncle at Timely Comics, the company that would evolve into Marvel Comics, he never dreamed he would become an internationally recognized name himself. "I can't believe it! People call me legendary now, and iconic -- I don't even know what those words mean!" Lee joked. "I seem to have become associated with Spider-Man, and with most of the Marvel characters, and I love it. It's a great feeling to feel [that] something that people like that much, something that brings people so much enjoyment, somehow I'm linked to it as well as all the other people who were involved."
One of Spidey's original creators, along with artist Steve Ditko, Lee is equally vocal in his opinion that Spider-Man is a globally recognized household name. This enduring international popularity Lee attributed to Spider-Man's major defining characteristic -- the web-spinner's trademark sense of humor.
"People love humor," Lee said. "Now, that doesn't mean the whole story is funny, but if you can get a character who occasionally is a wise-cracker, who has the same problems you and I have, who tries to forget those problems by kidding around a little bit -- I want to humanize the character. All of us have a sense of humor and all of us respond to a sense of humor. I think that's one of the things that made Spider-Man so successful for so many years."
Lee feels "Ultimate Spider-Man" is successful in retaining that sense of humor, which he praised while highlighting out the animators' modern take on the classic character.
"I think it's so hip; he has his little wise-cracks to the audience and it's today -- everything about it is today," Lee said. "It's well written, it's beautifully drawn, it's cool!"
The ex-Marvel publisher did not think this "cool" factor belonged solely to the new series, however, pointing to the animated Spider-Man shows of the past as being emblematic of their eras.
"All of the Spider-Man cartoons represented the time they were done in, and I think that this 'Ultimate Spider-Man' cartoon could only have been done in this period of time. I think it's just such a beautiful cartoon, it's so well done -- if you can live with the fact that I play the janitor in it," Lee joked, referring to his recurring role as Stan the Janitor.
"I think they could have given me something more glamorous, but hey -- beggars can't be choosers!"
The combination of humor and adaptability is only part of what Lee defines as the "Marvel Spirit," attributing the success of the comic book company to the fact that it treats its readers as more than just consumers.
"I always wanted the people who read Marvel Comics to feel they weren't just readers, but they were sharing a little secret with the people at Marvel. We were all enjoying something that the outside world wasn't privy to and was unaware of," Lee said. "That was the reason I wrote a column called 'Stan's Soapbox' every month, where I would talk to the readers and make them feel like we didn't consider them just our reader; we consider them our friends."
Unable to resist a good-natured jab at Marvel's "Distinguished Competition" in the comic book and superhero business, Lee laid out what he saw as one of the big differences between Marvel and DC Comics.
"Our biggest competitor used to have letters to the editor pages, and we did too. Their letters would always begin, 'Dear Editor,' and end, 'Signed James Jones,' and they would print the letter that way in the book," Lee explained. "When we got a letter, it would always say, 'Dear Stan,' and if they signed it James Jones, when I printed it I'd write Jim, 'Hi Jim, glad to hear from ya!' Our letters page had a friendly feeling, whereas our competitor -- again, it was, 'Dear Editor, James Jones' and that's it."
Gesturing to the "Ultimate Spider-Man" posters behind him, Lee stated that this sense of belonging now extended to what Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada and Head of Marvel TV Jeph Loeb are hoping to accomplish with Marvel Entertainment.
"I like to feel that our cartoons, like the Spider-Man cartoon now, there's a feeling we're relating to the viewer. We're all sharing a little inside joke together that the outside world isn't aware of. I think it's important for Marvel or Disney, whoever it is, to keep that spirit alive."
Digressing slightly, Lee revealed with a grin that he was also perfectly fine with Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" movies' change from Peter Parker's webs coming out of a device he invented to being organically created by his body.
"I was afraid when I first did 'Spider-Man' that if I did the web shooters organic, people would think it was too much, and I wanted to show what a brilliant student he was, so I wanted the idea that he creates these things," Lee said. "When Sam Raimi was doing it, he too decided to make the webbing organic,. I realized, for a movie it was more important he be able to shoot that web a city block away and swing from skyscraper to skyscraper. It wouldn't have been believable enough if he had this little thing. You'd think, 'Well, how'd he get that much fluid in the little container?'"
Wishing Marvel TV and "Ultimate Spider-Man" the best of luck, Lee smiled mischievously when asked if there was any chance viewers might see him pop up on the Disney XD Marvel Universe programming block anytime soon -- perhaps in a televised Stan's Soapbox?
"Well, you never know. If they should ask, I'm certainly available, but it's up to the Disney gods to make that determination!"
"Ultimate Spider-Man" premieres April 1 at 11 AM ET/PT on Disney XD.