Stan Lee might be the most influential figure in pop culture.
Who has exerted a more direct impact on film, television and the page than this Marvel Comics icon?
Iron Man. Hulk. Spider-Man. The X-Men. The Avengers. Fantastic Four.
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All of these are Lee creations (or officially co-creations with their respective artists) that have spent the last half century progressively becoming modern society’s version of heroic mythology. And they’ve dominated the box office since the 2008 release of “Iron Man.”
Yet in certain respects, Lee has grown as famous as his characters. This is why the jubilant, mustachioed New Yorker turns up in a cameo role almost whenever these superheroes get adapted for the big screen. His busy 2016 already includes appearances in “Deadpool” and “Captain America: Civil War” and in the coming “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Doctor Strange.”
Part of Lee’s appeal stems not just from his innovative accomplishments, but from his buoyant personality. He comes across like a mad scientist who was bitten by a radioactive pitchman.
“Without Stan’s exuberance and insistence that the medium had value beyond its disposable reputation, comics might not be here at all today,” says Kansas City comic book writer B. Clay Moore, a veteran of Marvel, DC and Image Comics.
It’s hard to argue that anyone has exerted more influence in turning such a once-derided medium into an artistic, cultural juggernaut.
Right as Lee’s Marvel universe starts to dominate another Hollywood summer, the 93-year-old legend will come to Kansas City to headline Planet Comicon.
In anticipation, Lee spoke to the Star from his office in Beverly Hills, addressing recent blockbuster movies, censorship, failures, triumphs and heroic Kansas Citians.
Q: Kids these days pretend they’re superheroes. Who did you pretend to be while growing up?
A: When I was young, I wanted to be Errol Flynn. He was my idol. You remember him? When I was 12 years old or maybe younger, I used to walk out of the theater with an imaginary sword at my side. I’d be looking for a little girl that some bully might be picking on so that I could save her.
Q: I was reading in your new “Amazing Fantastic Incredible” memoir how people would treat you like a pariah when they discovered you wrote comics. Was there a tipping point when that came to mean something commendable?
A: I don’t know the exact point. But what happened was that we never got any fan mail when I started. We might get one letter saying, “Bought one of your books and the staple fell out. I want my dime back.” I’d hang that on the wall and say, “We got a fan letter!” But little by little, we started getting mail after we started the Fantastic Four and the other books. At first it was written in pencil. Then the letters started being written in ink. Then the letters started being typed.
It was almost like progressively we could see the age and intelligence of the audience were improving. But I can’t tell you the exact date or moment that happened. It was really a gradual thing.
Q: Did you ever feature a Marvel character who was from Kansas City?
A: I didn’t. Actually, the only city I’ve ever featured has been New York. Or else different planets. I featured New York, of course, because I lived there. It was so easy for me. I could write about it, and there it was. I always wanted to make our story seem as realistic as possible.
I didn’t want to have them living in — I forget what they call it — Metropolis. Whatever they call those DC cities. I wanted Iron Man living on Fifth Avenue facing (Central) Park. It was easy for me if I kept everything in New York.
Q: One of Kansas City’s best-known actors is Paul Rudd. Are you pleased with his portrayal of Ant-Man?
A: Oh, yes. Very. I’ve been pleased, really, with every portrayal in every movie that’s been done of Marvel. I don’t know how they’ve managed, but every one of them is right on-target as far as I’m concerned.
Q: Since so much of Marvel is now centered around movies and television, have actual comic books gotten overlooked as a source of entertainment?
A: I don’t think so. In fact, the comic books seem to be selling better than ever. When people go to a movie, see the characters and enjoy them, they want to see more of them. Then they buy the comics. It’s been amazing. Comic book sales, at least at Marvel, are better than ever.
Q: You helped challenge the Comics Code of Authority in the early 1970s. Now, do you feel comics have gone too far?
A: No. Too far where?
Q: Like in terms of graphic violence?
A: The readers know what’s fact and what’s fiction. They enjoy the big fight scenes. You don’t see people dropping a comic book or going to a Marvel movie then running out of the theater looking for a fight or something.
I think people are intelligent enough to know they’re reading fiction, it’s enjoyable, and now we get back to the real world.
Q: Even minor Marvel characters such as Deadpool have inspired great movies. Why has it been so hard to make a great movie out of the Fantastic Four?
A: I really don’t know. To me it seems it should be one of the great ones. But a movie depends so much on the villain. You need to have a villain who is colorful and interesting.
In the first “Fantastic Four” movie, they did Doctor Doom all wrong. I didn’t see Doctor Doom; I just saw this man dressed in a suit, running around. I think they were afraid to do it the way he was in the comic book. They might have been afraid it would be too “comic booky.” But that’s what the movie needed.
Q: Alfred Hitchcock made 39 cameos in his films. You’ve made 29 cameos so far. Are you interested in breaking Hitchcock’s record?
A: You mean he’s ahead of me? I never really thought of it. I didn’t realize he had made that many. He did 39? And I’m up to 29. Hmmm, I have a feeling he’ll be the winner.
Q: If you had an opportunity to hang out with one of your characters for a day, who would it be?
A: Maybe Tony Stark (aka Iron Man). He’s the most glamorous. He’s the richest, and girls hang around with him. He’d probably be interesting to be with.
Q: That sounds like you already, right?
A: I wish.
Q: You’ve been married to Joan Lee since 1947. What’s the key to a nearly 70-year marriage?
A: You wake up in the morning and say, “I’m sorry, honey.” That gets you through the whole day.
Q: There is a fan theory that you play the same character in every Marvel movie because you are Marvel Comics’ cosmic witness the Watcher in human form. Thoughts?
A: That’s funny. But I don’t play the same character. I’m different in every cameo. At least I thought I was. I hope I haven’t typecast myself. We professional actors have to worry about that. Typecasting. I give it a lot of thought.
Q: What’s the weirdest fact on your resumé?
A: Maybe the fact I changed my name from Stanley Martin Lieber to Stan Lee because I was embarrassed to use my real name for these comic books that everybody thought so little of at the time.
Q: A hundred years from now, what Marvel character do you think will retain the most popularity?
A: If it’s a guessing game like that, I would have to think Spider-Man. For some reason, he has become to Marvel what Mickey Mouse was to Disney. Wherever you go, all over the world, you see kids in Spider-Man costumes.
Q: What is your definition of success?
A: It really depends on what a person wants. A guy might want to live a nice, peaceful life on a farm. And if he gets himself a farm, and it’s peaceful, then he’s a success.
I always wanted to be a writer. The fact that some of the things I’ve written seem to resonate well with the readers, that makes me feel real good.
HOW STAN LEE INFLUENCED KC COMIC CREATORS
We asked some prominent Kansas City area comic book writers and artists to discuss Stan Lee’s legacy.
B. Clay Moore
Writer: “Hawaiian Dick,” “Adventures of Superman,” “Legends of the Dark Knight”
▪ How Stan Lee changed comics: “Weirdly, Stan’s impact is probably underrated within the industry. ... It was Lee’s ability to fine tune and hone (his artists’) creativity into marketable concepts, unifying everything with a bold voice that obviously changed the course of comics and pop culture.”
▪ Favorite Stan Lee creation or co-creation: “Probably Dr. Strange and Spider-Man, at least in terms of the work he did. These were two collaborations with artist Steve Ditko, and Ditko’s quirky sensibilities combined with Lee’s editorial direction created comics that have never really been matched. Although his work on the Fantastic Four with Jack Kirby is hard to top.”
Artist, “Godzilla in Hell,” “Task Force Rad Squad”
▪ How Stan Lee changed comics: “Stan’s enormous impact on the comic industry cannot be denied. He co-created some of the biggest and most well-known, iconic characters in comics. Millions of fans can easily identify numerous characters that Stan helped to create, and more importantly, millions of people can identify with those characters.”
▪ Favorite Stan Lee creation or co-creation: “I always loved and appreciated the X-Men. I liked how as mutants they were not accepted by society but would always be ready to protect the people who rejected them. There is a valuable lesson at the heart of that concept.”
Artist/writer, “Cannonball,” “Community College Dropout,” “Lemon”
▪ How Stan Lee changed comics: “I never read superhero comics as a kid. However, you can’t discount what he did for comics writing in general and how that affected the method in which comics are created today.
“He is credited with writing comics superheroes with flaws and more human characteristics. Making them relatable instead of didactic archetypes. I think that’s pretty cool, even though I’m not that into superhero comics.
“Comics would be incredibly boring if we were still stuck in that ‘book of virtues,’ cookie-cutter character mentality that was present in the ’50s. My preference for weird comics aside, he did a lot for the medium that I reap the windfall of now.”
▪ Favorite Stan Lee creation or co-creation: “I really liked his appearance in ‘Mallrats.’ I like the impact his work has had on my friends, especially X-Men. It had that sort of parallel to real life that I think really appealed to them, and to me by association. Comics as social commentary, also a Stan Lee thing.”
Writer, “El Diablo,” “Amazing Spider-Man,” “Dream Thief”
▪ How Stan Lee changed comics: “Stan revolutionized comic book writing and publishing simultaneously. While DC was stuffy, standoffish and square, Stan — and hence Marvel — was hip and in your living room. As a publisher, Stan made readers feel like they were in the club in the best way.
“As a writer, he changed what was expected of comics via format and language. He treated readers with respect and gave them credit for their intelligence and sophistication. Comics wouldn’t have survived and thrived the way they do today without Stan Lee.”
▪ Favorite Stan Lee creation or co-creation: “The X-Men. Legend was that Stan couldn’t think of a way for them to acquire their powers, so he punted and said, ‘They’re born with ’em.’ That led to one of the biggest franchises in comics history and the best superheroic social allegory for race.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Planet Comicon runs from noon-7 p.m. May 20, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. May 21 and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. May 22 at Bartle Hall, 301 W. 13th St. Tickets range from $30 to $75. Ages 10 and younger are free (limit two per adult admission.) Discounts for active military, teachers and librarians. Discounts available for advance admission membership. For more information, go to PlanetComicon.com.