Stan Lee, legendary co-creator of the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and Spider-Man, as well current chief creative office of Pow! Entertainment, took to the stage at the Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo to thunderous applause. Lee spent the better part of an hour discussing his current work, as well as answering questions from his fans and, at times, dropping a few hints at what's next in his illustrious career.
The panel's moderator, Elliott Serrano, immediately launched into a quick run-through of Lee's current projects, asking Lee to tell the audience a little about each. First up was the recent renaming of the Eagle Awards, a prominent British comics prize, to the Stan Lee Eagle Awards. Lee said he hasn't had time to go over to London yet, "because I had my comics to do." However, he plans on attending the London Film and Comic Con in July to present the actual awards.
Lee described "Mighty 7," an animated feature from Pow! Entertainment and the Hub network, as "a movie, an animated movie, the world's only 'reality' movie, because a real person is in it. That's me! I play Stan Lee, and, of course, I steal the whole thing!"
Asked to describe the genesis of his 2010 History Channel series, "Stan Lee's Superhumans," Lee exclaimed, "Oh, it's terrific. As all of you must know, we find people who can do things nobody else can do. One guy takes an electric drill and he holds it against his forehead and it doesn't go in. But here's my problem: What makes a guy wake up in the morning and say, 'Gee, I wonder -- if I put an electric drill to my head and it doesn't hurt me?" The series, which ended its run in 2012, is now available on DVD.
Last but not least, Elliot held up a copy of "With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story," a documentary released in 2012. Lee, in an 'aw, shucks' manner, brushed it off, saying everybody knows his life story. Elliot pointed out that Lee gave a lot of interesting personal insight in the film. "Everything I say is interesting, at least to me!" Lee quipped with a laugh. "But you talk about your private life," Elliot persisted. "Well, I didn't know I was a celebrity when I did it. I still can't believe I'm a so-called celebrity. Funny word, funny feeling. I don't believe it!"
Before moving on to the Q&A portion of the panel, Elliot asked Lee what it felt like to be in films that had grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. With a twinkle in his eye, Lee gave the crowd unforgettable insight into the success of the Marvel movies. "I'll tell you why they made this much. I do a cameo in most of them. I'm not in the new 'X-Men,' because they filmed it somewhere I couldn't be at the time. Here's why they make the money. My cameos are very brief, so someone's in the movie and he may reach down for some popcorn, and when he misses my cameo, or, he might turn to his girlfriend and ask, 'What are we gonna do after the movie?' and he misses the cameo. What happens when the movie ends and you say, 'Gee, I missed Lee's cameo?!' You run back into the box office -- and that's why the movies make so much money, because my cameos are so short!"
The crowd burst into laughter, and Lee asked if he could quit while he was ahead, while the audience was laughing.
"I'm not surprised you're a celebrity," Elliott continued. "Today, the comic book creator is enjoying a notoriety that they haven't had in the past. How do you feel about that?"
"I'll show you why I'm such a good interview subject," Lee replied, pausing for a beat. "I think it's nice." He paused again, letting the audience take in his answer, before continuing, "What happens is that the movies have been so great that they make people go back to the source. Of course, if it was written by me, it is great!"
The first fan question was about how the Marvel name came into being. Lee explained that the publisher, when he started, was named Atlas Comics. After "Fantastic Four" and "Spider-Man," the comics started selling like crazy. They were big and successful, and he thought of the name Marvel, based off the company's other former name, Marvel Mystery Comics. Lee took a moment to point out that around the same time, National Comics officially changed their name to DC Comics, a name change he felt wasn't quite as marketable as Marvel. "We could say welcome to Marvel Comics! Make mine Marvel! What can you say with DC? Welcome to DC?" he said, drawing out the "DC" with a pained groan.
The next fan just wanted to tell Lee that he was one of the greatest Americans. "What about the rest of the world," Lee replied, feigning shock.
One fan wanted to know which of the Marvel movies was Lee's favorite, but Lee declined to single a particular film out. "Everything I say is broadcast all over the world, and the people who do the other movies will see it. If I say my favorite, everyone will stop giving me cameos!" He went on to say that Spider-Man had never had a bad movie, "Iron Man" was great and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" had his favorite cameo -- and was currently making more money than any movie in the rest of the world.
Asked which comic he was most proud of, Lee had a clear answer: "Fantastic Four." Before he began writing the World's Greatest Comic Magazine, Lee's publisher didn't want him to worry about dialogue or characterization, about comics featuring real people. Lee was going to quit his job, in fact, when his wife suggested he write what he wanted to write. If he got fired for it, so what? He was going to quit anyway. From that came the "Fantastic Four," and the rest is history.
The next fan wanted to know how Lee felt about his influence on new readers and younger generations. "It's just an indication of how smart the fans are! I mean, if I was a fan, I'd sure as hell want to be a fan of me! Please excuse my undue modesty."
Next was a question about Lee's feelings on the recent "Superior Spider-Man" plot twists. Lee admitted that he was far behind on the comics, because at his age the word balloons are too small for him to read. The last book he remembers featured Dr. Doom attempting to kidnap Sue Storm. Lee went on to explain that he loved Dr. Doom so much because, as a ruler of another country, the character had diplomatic immunity. In fact, he said, it was important to note that wanting to rule the world is not against the law. You can walk up to a police station and admit you want to rule the world, and they have no legal cause for stopping you! "All those heroes need to leave them alone! They aren't committing a crime!"
Of course, movies aren't Lee's only non-comics cameo presence, and the next fan asked how he felt being featured in video games. Lee recalled the story of his attempt at playing a recent Hulk video game in which he was featured, and how he didn't have any earthly idea how to control the game. At this point, the audience was howling with laughter, prompting Lee to lament the fact that he couldn't be in the audience, given how much fun they seemed to be having.
The potential scoop of the night came next, when a fan asked Lee what happened to his trademark mustache. "Oh, you know what happened? Somebody decided they wanted to do a hologram --" Lee stopped, looking over to the side of the stage where one of his associates was shaking his head, "Oh. I can't talk about that! Well, I had to do something before the camera that called for me not wearing a mustache, so I shaved it off for this. I got home, and my wife said, 'Wow, you look better without the mustache.' And the guys at Pow! said, 'Oh, you look better without the mustache.' Well, I don't need a house to fall on me, so I want to keep it off. But now everyone says, 'Where the hell is the mustache?!' So I don't know what to do."
When it came to his writing process, Lee says he writes what he would be interested in reading. That he always made sure he was interested in what he was writing. That, if you're not interested in what you're doing, you're in the wrong business.
Next up came a fan who wanted to know if Lee would be featured in Marvel Studios' next film, "Guardians of the Galaxy." "I already did! I cant tell you want it is --" Off stage, the associate who earlier stopped Lee from elaborating on the hologram was shaking his head. "Aw, now they'll get mad at me. I can tell you I don't understand what it was or why I did it. It was with a girl, a pretty girl. But you'll get a kick out of it. But if you understand it, write me a note an explain it to me!"
"Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." was the next project mentioned, with a fan wanting to know Lee's thoughts about the spy-themed series. Lee mentioned that he'd only seen the episode he cameoed in, but thought it was great. He remarked that he wished the Marvel Cinematic Universe would give Samuel Jackson's Nick Fury a little more room to yell at scream at people, because, in Lee's eyes, Jackson is particularly skilled at that kind of performance.
A cosplayer in Captain America gear stood up and saluted, leading Lee to provide the audience with some inside trivia on the hero's legendary circular shield. Originally, the shield was shaped differently, but Lee decided it should be a circle, so Captain America could throw it.
As the panel began to wind down, a few fans came up to ask questions about Lee's secret origins with the company. The pen name "Stan Lee" was originally intended to preserve his birth name, Stanley Lieber, for when he would write 'the great American novel.' That way, he wouldn't sully his name with silly comic books. When the comics became so big, so popular, he legally changed his name to Stan Lee. He got his start at Timely Comics working for publisher Martin Goodman, where Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were his bosses. After some time as their assistant, the two were let go, leaving 19 year old Lee as interim and eventually permanent editor-in-chief of the comics division.
In response to a fan question about the creation of "Spider-Man," Lee recalled having the idea on a whim one day, pitching it to his superior -- and getting turned down. So he attached the character to "Amazing Fantasy," a book that was being canceled. When the fan response was strong, his superior brought him into the office, asking him about what they could do with 'that Spider-Man character they both loved so much.'"
A young fan asked if Lee could record a soundbite for a school project he was working on. Climbing onto the stage, the fan held up a recorder. It took a few tries, but eventually Lee nailed it: "I'm Stan Lee, and this is Cameron's powerpoint!" Cameron shook Lee's hand, and left the stage with a very large grin.
"I have never been so jealous of a kid in my life," Elliot remarked, as the panel drew to its close.