Buena Park Show Headliner : Marveling at the Success of the Stan Lee Style

Times Staff Writer

In a way, Marvel Comics publisher Stan Lee sees the runaway box-office success of the motion picture "Batman" and the "Superman" film series before that as triumphs of the Marvel style.

The irony is that the two super-heroes-turned-movie-stars are from the stable of Marvel's archrival, DC Comics.

Lee is often credited with bringing a human dimension to the world of super-hero comics when as a writer in the '60s he created such characters as Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four. The publisher of Marvel Comics since 1972 and a revered figure among comic-book buffs, Lee will speak and sign autographs at a collectibles show in Buena Park on Sunday.

It is the human dimension that helped make hits out of the "Superman" series and now "Batman," Lee believes.

"There was never any human side to Superman (in the comic books), and precious little humor," Lee, 66, said in an interview from his Los Angeles home. "They did the motion picture in the Marvel style."

Similarly, Batman's darker, human side as emphasized in the movie did not really become part of the character's makeup until Frank Miller's 1986 graphic novel, "The Dark Knight Returns," which Lee believes was inspired more by the Marvel tradition than by DC's Batman predecessors.

Four weeks after its opening, "Batman" has taken $167.6 million at the box office. Lee is not envious about the success of "Batman"--in fact, he says he is delighted. He hopes that the hit film will help pave the way to success for several film treatments of Marvel characters that are in various stages of production. "Batman," he said, has taught Hollywood a lesson: "The public loves comic-book type characters and stories, if they're well done."

Marvel has licensed its super-hero characters to TV and film productions in the past, with varying degrees of success. "The Incredible Hulk" had a successful television run, for instance, while a live-action TV version of Spider-Man's adventures bombed. Often, Lee said, producers opt to tone down the characters' comic-book qualities, to their own downfall.

The Spider-Man series "was bland, and that's the most dangerous thing a movie or television series can be," Lee said. "And it's one thing our comic books are not."

In a just-finished film based on a Marvel character, "The Punisher," the producers decided--against Lee's advice--to eliminate a skull design from the costume. Lee, who served as a consultant on the film, believes that the distinctive design could have helped in marketing the movie, much as "Batman" helped fuel the hype machine with its ubiquitous bat logo.

"I think the 'Batman' movie will help in that sense," Lee said. "There's no need to get away from that comic-book look."

Lee, moving to protect his conception of the Marvel characters, is taking a more active role in future film projects. He is executive producer of a number of coming live-action films, involving such characters as Captain America, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Ant Man and Nick Fury, Agent of Shield.

"Captain America," after a number of false starts, has finally finished principal photography in Yugoslavia and is now completing filming on the West Coast. While Lee is happy with what he has seen, he admitted that the film does not have a "Batman"-size budget, nor does the cast--Matt Salinger, Ned Beatty, Darren McGavin and Ronnie Cox--have quite the box-office punch of "Batman" stars Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger.

"It's not an expensive cast--we don't have Dustin Hoffman or anything--but it's a very good cast," Lee said. "It won't be 'Batman' because it's not that big a movie. . . . It's kind of tough to compete with a movie that cost anywhere from $40 million to $60 million."

Lee, who came up through the Marvel ranks as a writer, now keeps his hand in all aspects of the Marvel empire. He continues to write the daily syndicated comic-strip version of Spider-Man ("If I gave that up, I couldn't really call myself a writer anymore," he said) and has written several books. He also heads Marvel Productions, which produces Saturday morning animated shows for young viewers.

A cult figure among comics buffs, he is also a regular at comics conventions. And although he plans to cut back on his appearances, he doesn't plan to give it up entirely.

"The people in the audience may feel they learn something from me, at least I hope they do, but I learn so much more from them," he said. "It gives you a chance to be out there and actually talk to the people you're trying to reach."

Meanwhile, Lee said, the popularity of comic books continues to climb, especially among adult readers. The advent of graphic novels, with more sophisticated story lines, has helped. "We've always had the younger readers, and we always will. Each day, we seem to get more older readers," Lee said.

"I've been saying this for years: People love fantasy."

Stan Lee, publisher of Marvel Comics, will speak and sign autographs at a Collectibles Super Show from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Buena Park Hotel, 7675 Crescent Ave., Buena Park. Admission: $4. Information: (714) 985-3845.

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