Legendary Marvel Comics writer and co-creator Stan Lee greeted a theater packed with fans anxiously awaiting his arrival Thursday night at Fan Expo Canada in Toronto. “I’m here. Now, entertain me,” he said, a big smile spread across his face.
Lee, however, would be the one providing the entertainment, as the 92-year-old, who helped create Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, the X-Men and many other Marvel mainstays, went into his involvement in the creation of a new superhero.
“I decided to do what I could to have better relations between China and the U.S., because obviously you know the power I wield,” Lee said, grinning ear-to-ear. “I met with some big producers and we decided we would do a movie together, so I made up a superhero called The Annihilator. I love that name. You better watch out for him cause he annihilates.”
He noted his collaboration with Chinese producers is due for release sometime next year and will be aimed at the whole world, not just Chinese and American audiences. He said almost all the pieces are in place for production to begin, and the team is searching for the right director to bring Lee’s newest superhero alive
So what makes The Annihilator different from Lee’s other creations? “I sat down and I thought everything had been done, and so, I said ‘What new superpower can I give him?’” Lee said.
Creating a superhero with a new set of powers is a bold statement from the man who created an entire multiverse of mutants. He even said he took the cowardly way out with the X-Men, who are genetic mutations from birth, rather than some sort of accident, like when the Hulk or the Fantastic Four gained their powers.
“I didn’t know any more rays besides cosmic and gamma, and I just couldn’t think of all those accidents,” Lee said. “Luckily, I thought of a new superpower for The Annihilator, which I can’t tell you, I’m sorry. I want to make sure you all go see the movie.”
As for the small screen, Lee hinted at a new television reality series currently in the works. Hesitant to spill too many details, Lee teased audience members with hints about what to expect.
“We are working on a new television series. It’s a reality show in which we are trying to find the very best superhero artist and writer we can find,” Lee said. “It will be like 'American Idol,' where we eliminate people every week, which I hate to do, until we find the greatest people.”
Lee said he never imagined his characters would be so big off the page. “When I was doing those comics, I just hoped that the next magazine would sell so I could keep my job,” Lee said. “I never thought I would be acting, that I would be like Robert Downey [Jr.]. Now, every time I see myself on the big screen, I think, ‘Damn, I never knew I was that good!’”
Lee said he was supposed to be in Montreal this weekend filming his cameo for the much-anticipated "X-Men: Days of Future Past."
“But I said, ‘No, I’m going to visit my friends in Toronto instead.” He said he wasn’t in "The Wolverine" “because they shot that in Australia and it was too far for me to swim.”
Lee was both animated and spry as he shared stories with the audience about his decades-spanning career. “It was my job. I had to come up with superheroes, or I would have been fired,” Lee said. “DC Comics was coming out with kind of a superhero comic, and 'Justice League' ended up selling very well. So, my publisher said, ‘Hey, Stan, why don’t you do a team?' And that’s really how all this started.”
Lee credited his vitality and vibrant old age to enjoying his day job, calling himself lucky. “It’s like every day I wake up and get to go out and play,” he said.
When “Fantastic Four” took off, Lee’s publisher approached him about doing another superhero title. “I thought, 'Why not create a teenage superhero?' because I didn’t know of any of them, and why not a superhero with a lot of problems?” Lee said. “I mean, Superman’s only problem was that if he took off his glasses someone might know who he was.”
Inspired by a fly crawling up his wall, Lee landed on a superpower. After he decided the name Spider-Man was sufficiently "goose bump" inducing, he took the idea to his publisher -- who promptly threw it out.
“He said, ‘First of all, you can’t call a hero Spider-Man because people hate spiders and also you can't make him a teenager; a teenager can only be a side kick. And you say you want him to have problems? Stan, he can’t have problems. They don’t have problems. They’re superheroes,’” Lee said, recalling how he walked out of the office with his tail between his legs. Not surprisingly, Lee’s recollection of his publisher brings to mind Peter Parker’s editor at the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson. Lee even deepened his voice and played the part of an angry editor as he told the story.
To get the idea out of his system, Lee decided to feature Spider-Man in “Amazing Fantasy” #15, the last book in a series about to be canceled. “When you’re going to kill a book, nobody cares what you put in the last issue. So, I tried to get Jack Kirby to draw Spider-Man, but he made him look too heroic. Then I gave it to Steve Ditko, who didn’t draw heroes as heroic as Jack, and I liked the way it looked, so we featured it on the cover and forgot about it,” he said.
Forgotten about until a month later, when the sales figures rolled in. "‘Hey Stan? Remember that Spider-Man character we both liked so much? Let’s make a series out of him,'" he recalled his publisher saying.
Lee also spoke a little bit about his wife. Does she have any say when it comes to his work after all these years? He shared an anecdote about their married life in that regard.
“Years ago, I wrote all these stories -- “X-Men,” “Fantastic Four,” “Spider-Man” and “The Hulk” -- all on this Remington Noiseless Portable typewriter. It was a little typewriter, and it really made noise, although they called it a noiseless portable,” Lee said. “One day Jody and I were having an argument, and she’s Irish so she has a hot temper, and to prove that I was wrong she took this typewriter and smashed it on the floor, and it broke into a million pieces. I said to her the other day, 'Do you know what we could have auctioned off that typewriter for, and all the things I could have bought you with that money?' So, I had my revenge,” he said.
Wrapping up the panel, Lee gave some advice to aspiring creators. “It’s not easy to break in, but any person who is honest about what he does, any producer or editor, should always be looking for new talent because you have to keep finding it,” he said. “Now is a good time, 10 years ago was a good time, and 10 years from now will be a good time, because no matter how many great people are in that field, you’re always waiting for the second generation to come in and do better.”
He suggested aspiring artists draw art samples derived from the pages of the comics of their favorite superhero. “Make up your own situation to give an art director an idea of how you would tell a story through pictures,” he said. “But remember, your art has to be at least as good as it already is in the books, otherwise why would they use you? They would just use the artist they have, but they are always looking for an artist with a new style that might be a little better.”
“If you’re a writer it’s even harder,” Lee said. “Editors are busy 20 plus hours a day. So the best thing to do is have stories published elsewhere. In a good magazine, maybe write a book or a television series, or something. Then go to the editor and ask to write 'Spider-Man' with those pieces.”
How did Lee get so lucky finding success? “I was in a good position,” Lee said with a sly smile. “I was the head writer there, and I was the editor. So whatever I wanted to do I would write, and then I would look at it as the editor, and I would say, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good!’”
Lee said remembering things has always been a challenge for him, joking that that's the reason he gave most of his characters the same initial for the first and last name. "So, if I could remember that his first name was Bruce, I could remember his second name was Banner,” Lee said.
Despite his age, Lee shows no sign of slowing down. Stan Lee’s World of Heroes on YouTube features a segment called Stan’s Rants, an endeavor he said he very much enjoys.
“It gives me the chance to complain about all the things that are bothering me,” Lee said, noting a lot of people love the program. “I thought to myself, 'People must like people who complain. Maybe I’ll start a new superhero called The Complainer!'”