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?