Checking In With Stan Lee

Stan Lee. To millions of older comics readers he'll always be Stan "the Man," writer, editor, publisher and originator of the Marvel Universe. To younger fans, he's the guy whose last name seems to be "Presents" - the exuberant, silver-haired host of the Fantastic Four and Iron Man animated series.
In a phone interview with Westfield Creative Director Bennett Neuhauser, Stan spoke about his plans for '96 and beyond. Blessed with a seemingly boundless optimism that springs from his genuine love for the comic book form, Stan gives us our first insight into his forthcoming Excelsior Comics line and reflects on his debut role in the hot new movie, Mallrats, as well as his role in the future of comics.

Westfield: What can you tell us about your new Excelsior Comics line?

Stan Lee: Let me preface this by saying, I can't really tell you too much, because the books probably won't come out until the middle or the end of next year ... of '96. What happened is, we planned this thing a long time ago and the books would have been out now, except we're setting up a deal with a very large company that does electronic games, video games and so forth. They're signing a license to do games based on these characters, these books of ours. So, because it's a very big project, we're holding up the publication of the books until the contract is signed. They will want to tie the publication of the books and the games together. They want to make sure the games to be available in stores, because they want to take advantage of all the publicity the books will get.

As you know, it takes months and months to create these games ... it's driving me crazy (laughter) because I want these books OUT! We've been working on them for about a year now, but I've got to wait, because according to the big picture it's really better to coordinate this and make sure they come out at the right time.

So, as I say, there isn't too much I can tell you, except there are going to be four titles and the characters are going to exist in their own universe. They will not be part of the Marvel Universe. In other words, it's unlikely that Spider-Man or the Hulk or Ghost Rider will be guest-starring in any of our books or vice versa. Of course, that may change, but that's the plan right now. Now, the four title characters of the books will interact and appear in each other's books.

Westfield: Are these individual characters or will there be a team? Are they superheroes?

Stan Lee: You'd have to call them superhero books, but I think, by the time these stories come out the readers will find that they're different than the average superheroes. They don't too much resemble, let's say, the X-Men or the Image books or the Malibu books. I'm hoping and intending to give them their own look, their own style. We don't want them to just be four additional titles, just to add to the mix that's out there now. These I trust, and I'm working very hard to ensure, will be very unique and very different.

Westfield: Good!

Stan Lee: Even though each one of them features one character, there are many, many supporting characters and incidental characters within the books. The title of each book is one character's name, it's not a team like the X-Men or the Avengers. We have a whole world of villains we've dreamed up ... the stories all take place in the present. Most of them are all centered around Los Angeles. Years ago, when I did the Marvel books, I set them all in New York because I lived in New York and it was very easy for me to be as accurate as I could be. Now, for the last 15 years I've been living in Los Angeles, so it's much easier for me to set the stories in Los Angeles and keep them accurate.

Westfield: Will you be writing for any or all of the titles?

Stan Lee: I will be writing one of the books myself, at least the first issue of it. The other three are all written by different writers and [the books are] drawn by four different artists.

Westfield: Are you able to tell us any of the artists?

Stan Lee: I'd rather wait until we're further. I mean, it's all definite, they're working on the books, but I'd rather wait to make one big announcement when the books are ready and give all that information at once. I will say that I created the concepts for all four books. I more or less created all the characters and incidental characters, that is, the original ideas of what I wanted and how I wanted them done. But, having done that, I turned three of them over to different writers and from now on I will just act as sort of an editor-in-chief and the fate of these characters will be in the hands of these writers.

On the fourth book, which I'm writing, I am so busy that, it may be, starting with the second issue, I'll have somebody else write the plots and, if I have time, I'll just write the dialogue and captions.

Westfield: Now, we know you've been writing your Stan Lee's Riftworld books and you still write the daily Spider-Man newspaper strip, but how does it feel to get back to actually writing a comic book?

Stan Lee: To tell you the truth, I love it! I wish, I wish fervently, that I had more time and I could write this book the way I wrote the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man, you know, issue after issue after issue, because I really enjoy it. I find comic book writing very pleasurable and very satisfying, but, it's just that I don't have the time to do the stories justice. The first issue I took a few days off and I devoted myself entirely to it, but I don't have time to do that on the others, I'm afraid.

Westfield: At the banquet in your honor held this past summer at the Chicago ComicCon, one of the members of the dais - it may have been Jim Shooter - related how, when you were editor at Marvel, you would give every new writer or artist a "pep talk" on how to do things the Marvel Way. For instance, to paraphrase, "Marvel characters don't just pound a table for emphasis, they smash the table!" and so forth. Can we look forward, I hope, to that kind of enthusiasm with the Excelsior Comics line?

Stan Lee: Oh, absolutely. That's my philosophy. Whatever you do, you do it as dramatically as possible.

Westfield: Well, I'm sure everyone is looking forward to them, it's going to be a long wait.

Stan Lee: For me, too, believe me (laughter).

Westfield: Moving on to more immediate developments, you're appearing in a new movie, Mallrats, from the director of Clerks. The movie opens nationwide on October 20. How did you like it?

Stan Lee: Oh, I loved it. You know, I'm a really a ham [laughter] and I loved being in that movie. I hope it's a big hit and I hope they want to do a sequel and they give me a bigger role in the sequel.

Westfield: The setting for the movie is a mall and the action centers around a comic book shop. I wondered, how did it feel to be interacting with yet another generation of comic book fans?

Stan Lee: It was wonderful, but, in a sense, I've been doing that for so many years. Every time I go to a comic book convention, it happens so often, some man will come over to me and say, "Stan, I just wanted to say hello. I've been reading your books ever since I was young and this is my son, he's reading your books, and I'd like you to meet my father, he's the one who introduced me to your books. So, I just take it for granted now, it's just one generation after the other.

Westfield: Getting back to movies, we've heard lots of rumors about a live-action Spider-Man movie in the works, maybe a live-action Fantastic Four movie. Are you able to comment on that?

Stan Lee: Oh sure, well it's more than rumors. These things are all in the works. Unfortunately, the Spider-Man project is being delayed, because it's to be distributed by Carolco and Carolco is having all sorts of legal and financial problems. Because of that, they haven't been able to give the go-ahead to Jim Cameron to start directing and producing the movie. It may take many more months before they get their own affairs straightened out and can go forward. But there is to be a Spider-Man movie, it will be written and directed by Jim Cameron, and I'm hoping that before the end of next year it will be in production, somehow or another.

As far as the other characters, an X-Men screenplay is being written right now and that will be produced at 20th Century Fox by Lauren Shula-Donner and her husband, Dick Donner. That's going to be a big movie. We have the Fantastic Four, which Chris Columbus is going to produce and I'm hoping he'll direct it, also at 20th Century Fox. The Hulk is being written now for Universal and it will be produced by Gale Ann Hurd. Gale is the one who did Aliens and I believe she produced The Terminator. Iron Man is over at Fox now. They have a script and they're looking for a director. Dr. Strange is at Columbia. It's being rewritten and we hope to have - I can't mention his name yet, the contract isn't signed - but there's a very big star who is interested in playing Dr. Strange.

Westfield: That's one of my favorite characters.

Stan Lee: Well, it's in the works. Daredevil is at Fox. That too will be produced by Chris Columbus and he's writing the first draft himself. I don't know whether he'll write the finished script but he's doing the first draft. Blade, Vampire Hunter is at New Line. That script has been written and they're looking for a director. Silver Surfer, also, is going to be produced by Bernd Eichinger who did The Name of the Rose, Last Exit to Brooklyn and the original Never Ending Story. Those are the more or less really definite ones, but there are even others, like Luke Cage is a Pressman Productions. Pressman is the guy who did The Crow and Judge Dredd. He's got Luke Cage and John Singleton may direct that.

Westfield: Excellent. So we're talking a one to two year timetable here?

Stan Lee: It looks that way. I think two years from now you're going to see so much of our material on the screen.

Westfield: To what extent are you directly involved with these film projects. Are you an advisor?

Stan Lee: My title is Co-Executive Producer. I advise and go to the meetings and give my opinions. I make sure that whatever they do is going to reflect nicely on Marvel and on our characters. I try to make sure they won't ruin the characters, as has been done once or twice in the past.

Westfield: Moving from movies to multi-media, you now have the Stan Lee's Riftworld books available on CD-ROM, correct?

Stan Lee: Right.

Westfield: As we see more and more comics moving into the computer realm, I have two rather broad questions for you. First of all, I'd like your impressions of what you've accomplished so far in the comics business; second, where do you see the future of comics going and what role do you see yourself playing in that future?

Stan Lee: Well, what I've accomplished so far is more for other people to answer than for me. (chuckles) Basically, the only thing I tried to do years ago was write some stories that people would enjoy reading. Some of the characters I created or co-created I've been very lucky with, because they've lasted all these years.

As far as what I'm going to do, or where I see the business going, I think there will always be comic books, because there's just something so inviting about a comic book. It's lightweight, it's easy to carry, it's easy to read, it's colorful. They're exciting. You can bend a comic, keep it in your pocket, you can share it with a friend, you can say, "Hey look at this!" You can put it on a shelf and pick it up and reread it and reread it and reread it. You don't need a cassette player or a television set or a computer.

By the same token, the way the world is moving - and these CD-ROMs are becoming so big - I think comics are going to branch out in every other field also, just the way comic book characters have become so big in television and movies; they'll be equally big in CD-ROM. They'll be equally big in every new entertainment device that comes along, because people love superhero stories, they love fantasy stories, they love imaginative stories and that's basically what comic books specialize in. So, I think comic books are going to be with us forever and I think the type of stories that you find in comics we will also find in every other form of the media.

Westfield: Which are heroes being challenged to do right under great stress and making decisions people have to make in their own lives, if only on a microcosm level, every day.

Stan Lee: Absolutely right. It's the good guy versus the bad guy. It's the bigger than life problem that has to be solved and how is the hero going to solve it. And to make it more palatable and enjoyable than ever, there's always the dash of fantasy that's tossed in.

Westfield: How do you feel when you see someone writing a character you created, like Spider-Man, which must be one of your favorites? Do you like, for instance, Untold Tales of Spider-Man, which kind of harks back to the more forthright, optimistic outlook on superheroes?

Stan Lee: I like all of them. I like the new ones. I like the old ones I had done. I like the old "retro" ones that are being done now. You see the thing is, as you can imagine, you can't keep using the same kind of story over and over again, the readers get tired. Just like you can't do the same motion picture over and over again. So, each new writer that comes along to do Spider-Man, or any strip, puts his own imprimatur on it, gives it his own take, his own style, and that I think is what keeps the strips and the characters alive. While they're based on the original premise, they're continually changing and evolving. We try to see to it that there are always surprises.

Basically a story is a story and all that matters is, is it well written? Does it hold your interest? Does the characterization ring true? As long as we have good writers - and we're very lucky at Marvel, we have excellent writers, we have very talented artists - whichever type of stories they do, the so-called older style or the newer style or anything in between, or if they create their own style, as long as they do it well, I'm in favor of it.