It's Stan Lee's world.
We just live in it.
Long ago, in a decade far, far away, it was George Lucas' world; arguably, it still is, and come December 2015, when the next episode of the filmmaker's generation-defining "Star Wars" series is released, it may be again. But at the moment, as it has been for the past decade, pop myth for pop myth, the characters that Lee had a gigantic hand in creating in the early 1960s — Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Avengers, Thor, etc. — have provided a significant chunk of the American pop-culture backbone, circa 2014. (On the other hand, now that Disney owns the creations of both Lee and Lucas, is it really Walt's world?)
Either way, what does one ask a Stan Lee?
How do you approach the original stream from which so much of the ocean derives upon? Say you run into him this weekend: Lee in Chicago Friday, Saturday and Sunday, signing autographs and mingling with fans as guest of honor at the fourth annual Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo at McCormick Place. Say you get close enough to see behind his iconic sunglasses: What does one ask The Creator? He is 91 and his grinning Boogie-Nights facade has leathered, and he's no longer chairman of Marvel Entertainment. And yet, though it's long been solid advice that one should never meet one's heroes (they tend to let you down), it's not everyday that the co-creator of so many contemporary fairy tales is right there, willing to humor you.
For instance, start with: Stan, as fans often grumble, did you take more credit for Marvel than you deserve?
Or, less controversially: Stan, which of your Marvel movie cameos is your favorite? Security Guard No. 1?
Or Security Guard No. 2?
I spoke with Lee from his office in Los Angeles recently. The following is a edited version of a longer conversation. But you can just consider it a helpful conversation starter, before your date with destiny...
Q: Like the rest of humanity, does Stan Lee ever get superhero fatigue?
Q: Never? Not even when you're at a comic–book convention, answering the same questions?
A: Fans are almost always nice. I really find that they rarely come on too strong.
Q: And you appear at a lot of conventions, too. You're in Chicago this August for Wizard World.
A: I do conventions sometimes every other weekend. Whenever I have time, and it's not too far away. I get a lot of invitations (to appear at conventions) in other countries and I have to turn them down. Even New York, Boston, it's too much. It's a long way from Los Angeles, and Chicago is about as far as I like to go these days. I don't have to do them but I like being with the fans. I learn more from them than they learn from me.
Q: I bet a lot of people feel as though they are visiting the pop culture mountain top.
A: I don't think of it that way. The thing is, I used to think what I did was not very important. People are building bridges and engaging in medical research and here I was doing stories about fictional people who do extraordinary, crazy things and wear costumes. But I suppose I have come to realize that entertainment is not easily dismissed. Beyond the meaning (of a work of art), it is important to people. Without it, lives can be dull. Singing a song, playing sports — anything that entertains, that takes people away from their own problems, is good. Sounds obvious, but it's good to be reminded. I'm much happier now that I feel that way.
Q: How long did you feel self-conscious about what you did?
A: Until maybe only the past several years, actually. It wasn't self loathing. I don't know exactly where it came from. I suppose it was a hold over from the early days, when I started doing comics and most parents didn't want children to read comics. I'm thinking the '40s, the '50s. I was embarrassed to talk to people about what I did then. I would meet someone at a party and they would ask what I did and I would say, "I'm a writer," then start to walk away. They would grab me: "What do you write?" I would say, "Uh, magazines." They would keep following me. So finally I would say "Comic books" and they would walk away from me. That's changed and lot of it has to do with the success of superhero movies in recent years. They have made those stories more relatable. Until those movies, a lot of people probably didn't feel much that way.
Q: Did self-consciousness play a role in your big innovation — grounding superheroes in real life?
A: No, that came mostly out of trying to write stories that I wanted to read. I didn't enjoy stories that took place in a Gotham or Metropolis. I didn't know where those places where! Why couldn't it be a New York, Chicago, Los Angeles? For me, to enjoy what I was writing, I needed a superhero story as realistic as I could make it. I never tried to write for other people. I liked people who had problems I might have, because we all have insecurities, regrets. I like heroes who were not 100-percent perfect, who things to take care of.
Q: How did you come up with names?
A: There was no trick. I would sit and think. It was never easy, though. Spider-Man, I wanted someone with the power of an insect, who could crawl on walls and stick to the ceiling and you wouldn't know he was there. But Insect Man? Mosquito Man? None sounded right. Then I hit on "spider," which sounded dramatic.
Q: How close were you with Marvel's rivals, DC Comics?
A: We all knew each other, actually. Bob Kane, who did Batman, was one of my best friends. He was a nice guy who loved being the guy who did Batman. He would embarrass me with it at times. We would have dinner in a restaurant and he would say to the waiter: "Don't you know who I am? I'm Bob Kane, I created Batman. Look I'll show you." And he would draw the waiter a little picture of Batman. It was embarrassing.
Q: And like Kane, whose role in creating Batman is often questioned, you've long been controversial with comic-book fans. Does it bother you that questions of authorship linger on?
A: Well, I don't know how to answer that. Some people always say 'Stan Lee didn't do that much with these characters...' All I did was come up with the ideas for these characters, then I hired artists to draw them, and I wrote the actual stories. So I don't know what else to say. That's the way it worked. I don't think of these (characters) as originals exactly. I worked with the best artists in the business and they made my stories even better than they actually were. I was very lucky to work with artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and John Romita, and anything I wrote was by "Stan Lee and Jack Kirby" or "Stan Lee and Steve Ditko" and their name was always as large as mine on the page. Plus, I called myself "co-creator." So I don't know what else I could do. But there are still people who insist Shakespeare didn't write his plays.
Q: You must have thoughts on how you want to be seen. You started as an obituary writer ...
A: Right, but when you're dead, you're finished. I have no thoughts on what (my obituary) should say. My wife is about my age. We'll go about the same time. My daughter knows who I am. That's all I care about.
Q: But you probably have ideas about how you see your legacy playing out. You could become known to younger generations as that guy who made those goofy cameos in a bunch of superhero movies. But did you ever want comic books to be thought about widely as more than just a medium for telling superhero stories? Do you still follow the storylines of your own creations?
A: Not at all, actually. My eyesight isn't good enough. I have no input into storylines. And I don't interfere. I do promotion for (Marvel). Sometimes they ask me to do a little feature for a new book. But as a rule, I'm not involved. They do those movies beautifully, and that reflects on me. But I did do westerns, romance, mysteries. I wrote poems, songs. I've had my own company (since 2004), Pow! Entertainment, and we also work on movies and TV series. So I'm not complaining. I have come to see myself simply as an entertainer.
Q: In the spirit of comic-book conventions, one last question, a deeply geeky non-question question: How excited is Stan Lee for the next Avengers movie, "The Avengers: Age of Ultron"?
A: I look forward to everything now. But I didn't create Ultron. I looking forward to seeing who the hell he is.
5 things to do at C2E2
Five things to do (other than meet Stan Lee) at C2E2 this weekend:
WATCH the C2E2 Crown Championships of Cosplay. C2E2 organizer ReedPOP claims it will be "the biggest and most prestigious costume contest in the United States," and since this is the inaugural contest, who are we to argue?
LAUGH at a steal of a stand-up show: Chicago native Kyle Kinane and nerd-centric comic Brian Posehn —along with former Chicago stand-up staple/current Los Angeles resident Dan Telfer — lead a solid evening of comedy. Plus, it's included in the price of the C2E2 ticket.
ATTEND one of several chances to see the fantastic "Thrilling Adventure Hour" podcast players — including Scott Adsit of "30 Rock" (and Northbrook) fame — in an improv show (Friday night), a panel discussion (Sunday afternoon, with Peter Sagal of "Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me") and Nerdist podcast taping (Saturday night at DePaul University's Merle Reskin Theatre; admission requires a separate ticket, $32-$65).
MEET one of a bunch of Oh-Yeah-That-Guy TV stars, including Walter White's son from "Breaking Bad" (R.J. Mitte), Xander from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (Nicholas Brendon) and Theon from "Game of Thrones" (Alfie Evan Allen).
GRUMBLE through star-studded comic-book panels on the state of Spider-Man (Saturday, 1:45 PM) and Batman (Saturday, 2:45 PM). Your chance to whine to superstar writers Mark Waid (Spider-Man) and Scott Snyder (Batman) about that plot twist that makes no sense and has ruined everything you love in the world!
The Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo
When: Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: McCormick Place, 2301 S. Lake Shore Dr.
Tickets: $35 (Friday), $45 (Sat.), $40 (Sun.), $70 for 3-day pass; at the C2E2 box office at McCormick, c2e2.com
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