Friday night at Fan Expo Canada was a busy one, and as the Marvel Presents: The Legendary Stan Lee panel grew nearer the line up grew denser. Set to begin at 6:30 PM the audience grew restless as the time ticked away . . . 6:43, 6:57. Stan Lee, co-creator of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Thor and the Hulk, was stuck on the Gardiner Expressway sending his media team to beg the crowd, “He’s asked me to ask you to please stay!”
The audience rumbled. “If he’s on the Gardiner and not Lakeshore he’s going to be a while!” as the former is one of the more notorious highway traps in Toronto. Many asked about a 7:30 photoshoot he had to make up for because his flight was delayed. Stan did show up, of course, not even looking frazzled. However, the panel was only a short 33 minutes instead of an hour, as afterwards Stan had to go attend to a very long photo op line up.
The Marvel icon talked about big news including a cameo in Kevin Smith’s new movie, telling fans he actually likes Batman and also teasing about upcoming Marvel films.
As he arrived, he was asked, “Does the hype and fame created by Lee faze him?” It sure didn’t appear that way. “I’m going to show you why I’m such a good guest. I give clever answers: No.” Lee stated bluntly. When asked what motivated him to create these characters his response was just as blunt: “Greed. I wanted to make money.”
This panel launched directly into long lines-ups of fan questions. And while there’s no doubt Lee’s been asked nearly every question in the book, the audience still manages to surprise him here and there.
The first question was about how Lee created the Hulk. “I thought of him like the monster from Frankenstein. I don’t know if you remember the Boris Karloff ‘Frankenstein,’ but in that the monster was the good guy. He didn’t want to hurt anybody, but those idiots with torches were always chasing him up and down the hills,” Lee explained. “So, I thought it would be fun to get someone who is kind of like a monster but who is really good yet misunderstood. So that was The Hulk.” Lee admitted also he thought Mark Ruffulo was the best Hulk yet when it came to live action versions.
Another fan asked about a tidbit he heard online. “It’s been said ‘Game of Thrones’ creator George R.R. Martin wrote you letters. Do you remember the content of those letters?”
“I don’t remember it, but it was all over the internet. So, I would like to meet him and thank him. He doesn’t go to comic conventions does he? I haven’t run into him yet,” Lee joked, half serious. “If any of you run into him tell him thanks a lot for the great publicity over the years.”
What did letters from Lee’s own fans mean to him then once he was in a position like George R.R. Martin today?
“Oh they meant everything to me,” Lee said. “That fan mail was the greatest because it was like they were doing my job for me. They told me what stories they liked, they told me the kind of stories they don’t like, and they made my job easy because all I had to do was write the kind of stories they like.” Lee said it was the easiest thing in the world.
With a plethora of heroes to choose from fans are able to choose whatever tickles their fancy Wednesday after Wednesday on comic book shelves. One audience member wanted to know if there was a character Lee wished he had created. “I don’t have any favorites I didn’t create,” Lee said earnestly. “Actually, I like Sherlock Holmes, and I don’t know if any of you ever heard of Scarlett Pinpernell? But that was the first superhero I really loved.”
“I know you really want me to mention a comic strip character, don’t ya?” Lee continued. “And I’ll be honest with ya, I kinda like Batman. I think he’s a good guy, and Superman as well. The only thing that bothered me about Superman was that whenever Clark Kent took off his glasses people would say ‘Superman! Where did Clark Kent go?’”
Naturally fans were curious and followed up asking if he has a favorite character he created? “I love all of them,” he said honestly. “But probably if I had to mention a favorite it would be Spider-Man.” And with that the entire conference room erupted in a roar of excitement.
Lee’s story of how Peter Parker and his notorious alter ego came to be is rather famous. Lee tells it at most conventions, and the fans never get sick of hearing it. Something about Spider-Man’s down-to-earth nature keeps him a fan favorite year after year.
“I’m going to tell you the story about Spider-Man, and you may all take notes if you wish,” Lee began like the storyteller around a very large campfire. “We had done a couple of other books, I forget which exactly. Maybe ‘Fantastic Four,’ ‘The Hulk.’ And at one point my editor said to me ‘These are doing pretty well. Give me another superhero. I want a new one.’ Well, when he said that I had to do it, or else I was in trouble because he was paying my salary.
“So, I went home and I tried to think what other character I could come up with,” he continued. “But it seemed to me there were no super powers left. With the Fantastic Four we had The Thing who was the strongest guy around. We had the Torch who could fly and burst into flame. We had an Invisible Girl with a force field, and we had a guy whose body could stretch. I figured, ‘What’s left!’
“While I’m sitting around scratching my head -- I sometimes scratch my head -- I see a fly on the wall, and that was it!” Lee said about his moment of epiphany. “I thought, ‘Wow! What if we had a superhero who could stick to walls like a fly?’”
The only thing left to do was to give him a name. However, Lee didn’t like his options. The Fly wasn’t quite good enough. “Then I thought of Spider-Man. It just sounded dramatic and a little scary.” Of course like most good ideas, Lee’s editor threw the character out leaving Lee the end pages of a comic book about to be killed off to get Spider-Man out of his system. The rest is history. Spider-Man ended up on the cover of “Amazing Fantasy” #15, and a month later when sales figures came in, Lee’s boss decided he loved the character and Spider-Man the comic was born.
The Generalissimo, as Lee is sometimes called, often can be heard exclaiming “Excelsior!” at the end of letters, television shows and on Twitter. So, where did the term excelsior come from? “Excelsior!” Lee said. Hearing him say the words illicit a profound reaction, the audience erupting. Then a little deeper before launching into explanation, “Excelsior!”
“What happened was when I was writing my fan mail pages I would always end with some corny expression I use like ‘Face front!’ or ‘Nuff said!’ or any little thing. I found in competition magazines they were using my expressions, and I didn’t like that,” he explained. “So, I thought I’m going to come up with something. They wont know what it means. They won’t know how to spell it. I lived in the state of New York, and I noticed the great seal of the state of New York had the word ‘excelsior’ on it. And it’s a beautiful thing. It means upward and onward to greater glory. So, I started using excelsior, and I guess I was right. They didn’t know what it meant or how to spell it. Nobody bothered me with it, so it’s mine!”
Ultimately what makes Lee happy is coming to conventions like Fan Expo. “I can’t believe there are so many wonderful people who care that much about these stories, and movies and television and entertainment,” he said very grateful for his fans. “I love it I wish I could go to a convention every day. This makes me very happy.”
With the mention of the movies the fan’s attention is then draw to the possibility of new upcoming titles. One in particular possibility-gaining traction is a Black Widow movie coming off the success of her character in “The Avengers.” Does Lee know anything about these rumors? Could we see Scarlett Johansson in her own full feature film?
“We haven’t made a Black Widow movie but she’s been in some of our movies, and she will be featured more prominently as we move forward,” Lee said. “And the chances are she will have her own movie because eventually all the superheroes are going to have their own movies. They are already working on Ant-Man, Dr. Strange and the Black Panther and there are others I am not allowed to talk about.”
Moving back to the comic books one fan was curious how Lee would imagine the most famous DC characters differently. In fact, Lee reminded audiences he’s already done such a thing in a series called “Just Imagine.”
“It’s funny you say that. I don’t know why but years ago DC comics asked me if I would write my version of their characters, and I wrote my own version of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and the Green Lantern,” he explained. “The terrible thing about it is that the stories were too good and they were illustrated beautifully, but there is no way DC can make movies of them cause DC would be putting down their own characters. I feel sorry for DC. They would really make great movies.”
In the same vein, many writers have taken the helm of some of Lee’s most notorious characters. For example, Dan Slott had a lot of fun with “Superior Spider-Man” in 2013, to the outrage of many fans even. But the books kept flying off the shelves, and Spider-Man didn’t seem to loose much by the way of popularity.
“I’ll be very honest with you I keep so busy now with so many other things I don’t really have time to read the comic books anymore,” Lee admitted. “I look at the covers. Very often when I’m at a convention I’m doing autographs and people give me a cover to sign and it will be a cover I have never seen before and I never have the time to look at the book.
“We have the top writers in the business and even though I don’t have time to read the stuff anymore they must be great cause the books are selling like no tomorrow,” he said with a grin.
Lee has worked with numerous artists in the business, some of the best and most famous. He wrote during the Golden Age of comic books when creativity was running at a premium and most of Marvel was running by the seat of their pants. Lee insists these memories are some of the best. “I have favorite memories of all of them,” he said of his colleagues.
“Jack Kirby was so incredible. He was imaginative,” Lee continued reminiscing. “When I told him I wanted a character called Galactus before I was finished telling him about if he had drawn the character, and he was great. Jack had a way of drawing, it was as though the drawing was already on the page and he was tracing it because he would just start, do the drawing, go on to the next drawing. He never went over it. He never erased it and changed it. Whatever he put down was sort of perfect and he just kept going.
“One of the things that made my stories look better than they were was that they were drawn so beautifully. I was lucky to work with probably the best artists in the business, ever. I loved them all,” he said finishing the memory.
Lee is perhaps the king of cameos. He has popped up in more movies and TV shows than you can count on both hands, and usually they are humorous and notable.
“I just did a cameo, well actually it’s more like a real role,” Lee teased. “I just did a role in Kevin Smith’s new movie, if you know Kevin Smith.”
Lee gushed he can’t tell us what it is, but you can tell he wants too. However, Lee’s “friend” Max appeared very nervous on the side stage. “I’m not allowed to mention what it is and he’s afraid I’m going to mention what it is,” he said, a devious smile across his face. “It’s okay, Max, I won’t tell what it was. I was magnificent in it. Don’t miss Kevin Smith’s new movie, whatever the hell the name is, I forgot the name.” The audience laughed. His forgetfulness is mild, and dare it be described as cute.
So, with all these special appearances does Lee have a favorite cameo? “I loved every cameo I’ve done. I see them when they come out in the movie and I say ‘Boy, I’m good!’” Lee said candidly. “I’m not good at favorites ‘cause I like everything, but I kind of like the one where I’m with three girls and Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. the actor who plays Iron Man comes by and he goes ‘Looking good, Hef’’ or something like that. I know Hugh Hefner, and I think he was angry he didn’t play the role.”
“The latest one I did a few days ago, what was it, I did a very funny one,” Lee said alluding to the Kevin Smith film again. “What was it? I did a very funny one. Was it the Avenger’s? Max what was it?” Lee tries to coax the answer out of his handler, and the audience laughed. “You’re not even going to tell me what movie it is?”
“Anyways, it’s some movie,” Lee joked. “You’re going to see it and go ‘Boy, Stan Lee is right that was terrific!’ I wish I had a memory, I can’t remember anything.”
Lee then proved just how down to earth he really is when a fan asks if she can come up stage and take a selfie with him. Then all of Lee’s handler’s became tense and unsure how to react. But Lee played it off like nothing, invited the girl on stage and took a perfect selfie -- probably making the fan’s whole weekend. More notably, he lined himself perfectly for the shot. This was not Stan Lee’s first selfie, apparently.
Keeping the panel lively a young child took the microphone. In the most adorable moment of the night, she asked, “Did you ever consider making Spider-Man’s webs shoot out his butt?” The audience quite literally cracked up.
“You would probably make a better comic book writer than me,” Lee responded. “I didn’t think of it. Shame on me. I’ve been asked every question you can imagine but never that one.”
Lee has created some of the most incredible super powers to be thought of. The entire roaster of characters features creative ways to fight crime by way of accident, mutation or space storm. But is there a super power Lee would like to have?
“I’ve answered that before, and I think it’s such a clever answer I’m so proud of thinking of this,” Lee said warming the fans up. “The one most perfect super power in the world would be luck because if your lucky you can accomplish anything and nothing would ever hurt you.
“The only reason I can’t write a superhero with the power of luck [is that] all these guys have to be visual. They have to look interesting in sort of outfits, and I can’t think of some guy who’s lucky [who] would wear a costume!” Lee said. “Oh, I shouldn’t have said this. Now some other writer may hear what I said, and he’ll think of a way to give him a costume, and he’ll think of a way to write about my lucky hero, and I’ll have lost that whole idea. All of you forget I said that,” he said hinting at another power he might like.
“I thought you were going to say spider webs coming out of your butt?” An audience member yelled.
“I think I will never hear the end of that,” Lee laughed before moderators dispersed the panel. “That’s it, ya know people can only take so much of me!” And with that Lee is whisked away. With that fans began the long trip home possibly to page through some of those favorite Stan Lee classics.