Stan Lee, the grand old man of comics, enters a conference room at the Encino-based offices of Stan Lee Media. At one end of the table sits Robert Diggs, a.k.a. the RZA, leader of Wu-Tang Clan, an influential rap group whose music weaves together ghetto rhythms, kung fu movies and comic-book mythology. At the other end sits a cadre of executives from Lee's new company, an Internet start-up that hopes to spin a new line of Web-based, Lee-created superheroes into profitable offline products such as toys, movies and television shows.
* The two sides have arranged a deal to transform Bobby Digital, the RZA's superhero persona, into a Web-based cartoon character. Lee, grinning, has come to give his stamp of approval, and he approaches the RZA with hand extended.
* "Wait a minute," the 77-year-old Lee says in his throaty Manhattan accent. He contorts his body and throws the gangsta rapper a hip-hop-style handshake. "Good to see you!"
* Stan Lee is nothing if not adaptable. In the 1960s and '70s, "Stan Lee Presents" was the comic-book brand of quality; Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Thing and the X-Men, all co-created by Lee, were the superheroes whom kids clamored for at the "Hey, Kids! Comics!" rack. Now, having outlasted most of his contemporaries from that era, Lee since late 1998 has been trying to transfer his peculiar magic to the Internet as co-founder and chairman of Stan Lee Media. This time, Lee isn't propelling his heroes through the panels of a comic book, but into Flash-generated short animated shows, or "Webisodes," available online at http://www.stanlee.net.
* In addition to his foray into cyberspace, "X-Men," the first big-budget movie based on characters he co-created, hit theaters on Friday. If it does well, a slew of Marvel superhero-based movies currently in development at various studios are likely to find their way to the big screen. Already, Columbia Pictures has "Spider-Man" slated for a Thanksgiving 2001 release. And Lee recently signed a deal to write comic-book stories for Marvel's arch-nemesis, DC Comics, whose stable of heroes includes Superman, Batman and Green Lantern.
* It's a remarkably full schedule for a man Lee's age, though at most times he acts like a kid--hyperactively tapping his foot as he talks, running to answer the doorbell, leaping onto furniture. At one point after the meeting, the RZA rises to his feet and spontaneously raps some of his Marvel-inspired lyrics for Lee: "Microphone gets cast to the floor. Shape-shifting. Heavy as the hammer of Thor." Lee, who generally prefers Broadway show tunes, claps his hands. "Oh, that's great! I like that! Hey, you're going to help me with the stories."
But there are other times when Lee, with his white mustache and thinning brown-gray hair, seems every bit the septuagenarian. When he removes his trademark tinted glasses, the years are etched clearly in the wrinkles around his eyes. The super-powered cast of his online series includes the first characters he has created in 25 years, and some wonder if Lee's distinctive style of wisecracking, bombastic storytelling can still strike a chord with today's media-savvy, irony-saturated youth. Some also question whether Lee is a genuine Web pioneer or if, as one observer notes, he's merely an "illusion," playing out a front-and-center role as a new-media carnival barker.
LEE'S SUPERHEROES WERE NEVER AS INVINCIBLE AS SUPERMAN OR AS crafty as Batman, but they were always more absorbing. Defined as much by their weaknesses as their strengths, Lee's co-creations (primarily with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) faced real-life dilemmas: they bounced checks, got depressed and bickered among themselves like family. In short, they were human.
Lee's storytelling approach was, and still is, influenced by three of the qualities he admires most and tries to incorporate into his own life: humor, honesty and informality. He insists that his employees call him Stan rather than Mr. Lee. He's good-natured and forthright, even if he avoids public self-reflection.
All of which belies Lee's transcendent stature as a cultural icon. Just a week before his meeting with the RZA, he lunched with Hillary Clinton and dined with Al Gore, whose favorite Marvel superhero reportedly is the Silver Surfer, a silver-skinned, philosophy-spouting vagabond of the spaceways. Many of today's artists, writers and filmmakers consider the pantheon of superheroes that Lee unleashed on the world more than three decades ago among their formative influences. Lee still receives a substantial salary from Marvel in exchange for making promotional appearances and writing the Spider-Man newspaper strip.
The power of Lee's name has kept his new company's stock trading above its initial offering price (though, like most Internet companies, it's still losing money). Lee's reputation also has earned him legitimacy as a Net entrepreneur. He has appeared in dot-com magazines and the business pages of newspapers around the country, and he is a regular guest speaker at Internet conferences. His 28% stake in the company (through a family trust) is worth more than $35 million, making him perhaps the oldest dot-com multimillionaire on active workaday duty.
Lee arrives at the Stan Lee Media offices about 9:30 every morning in his black convertible Mercedes E320, and he can leave as late as 8 p.m. He lives with Joan, his wife of 52 years, in a large, vine-covered two-story home high in the hills above the Sunset Strip, a block away from his only child, J.C. Even at home, Lee spends most of his time writing and editing scripts or producing material for Marvel, where he retains the title of chairman emeritus.
"Stan loves to work," says his wife.
His office is filled with mementos, including action figures, a Spider-Man tapestry knitted by his sister-in-law and a poster advertising the 1972 "Evening with Stan Lee" at Carnegie Hall. Although he didn't grow up using computers, Lee has become familiar with America Online and adept at answering e-mail on his PC. He has trouble maneuvering his way around Netscape and doesn't fully understand the process by which his Webisodes are animated. But then he is--as he's always been--an idea man: He creates the superheroes and then oversees a team of writers, animators and techies as they bring his creations to life.
At a recent creative meeting to discuss an upcoming Webisode of "The Accuser," Lee sat down with four members of his staff ranging in age from 27 to 44. The Web animation series features a wheelchair-bound lawyer who knocks around baddies in an armored battle suit. Reviewing a storyboard, Lee edited dialogue and reordered frames to make the show more vivid, more madcap, more, well, Stan.
"On this picture here," Lee said, pointing to a page, "we've gotta change his expression. He looks like he's smiling there. He's gotta look like this." Lee pulled his arms to his chest and roared. As the plot thickened, Lee got more into the scene. "We have them yelling, 'The Accuser, get 'im!' " Lee leaped to his feet, voice booming. "And he goes, 'Sorry guys, I'm the getter; you're the gettee!' "
One of Lee's childhood ambitions was to be an actor. It's easy to imagine him during the freewheeling early days at Marvel, both before and after its financial success, bounding across the famed artists' bullpen with similar gusto, shouting some of the most memorable lines from that period--"Avengers assemble!" or the Thing's "It's clobberin' time!" But there are aspects of Lee's new venture that suggest things are a bit more rehearsed than they once were.
AS IS TYPICAL AT INTERNET START-UPS, THERE IS AN AIR OF UNCERTAINTY, even mild paranoia, at Stan Lee Media. Visitors are required to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Lee's "face time" with the media is tightly controlled, and there is a general tendency to hype the operation with a confusing patter of new-media jargon.
"We think out of the box here," says Peter Paul, the company's co-founder. "Our role is to enable the utilization of a convergent team of multidisciplinary media talents to be focused on any appropriate activity that integrates the best aspects of the Internet with offline activities to create a holistic approach to certain strategic objectives." (To which Lee might add, "Excelsior!")
Lee, however, is no stranger to uncertainty. He toughed it out during the early days of comics, when hundreds of publishers were operating in an environment as unstable as the online world is today. "I never worried when comic-book companies were going out of business," he says. "As long as what we're doing is entertaining, people will like it."
Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber on Dec. 28, 1922, in Manhattan. Struggling to survive on the meager wages his father brought in as a dress cutter, the Liebers lived in a small one-bedroom apartment that looked at the side of another building. "My dream was to one day be rich enough to have an apartment that faced the street," Lee recalls.
In high school, Lee took on a number of part-time jobs: delivery boy, copywriter and theater usher. He demonstrated an early flair for writing by winning a local newspaper's essay contest three weeks in a row. Shortly after graduating from high school, Lee started work at Timely Comics, a predecessor of Marvel owned by his cousin's husband. Lee began as an assistant to the two editors, but was promoted in 1942 when they left. At 20, he found himself in creative control of the company's entire comics line.
He eventually adopted the pseudonym "Stan Lee" because, he says, "I always thought I'd write the Great American Novel, and I didn't want to use my real name for those lowly comics."
Lee was a prolific writer in those early years, but most of what he wrote was forgettable, derivative pap, which nevertheless kept the company afloat. Lee only hit his artistic stride when he teamed with artist Jack Kirby in 1961 to produce the Marvel line of superheroes, beginning with the Fantastic Four.
Lee's twist on the genre was to imbue his spandex-clad super-champions with human characteristics and problems that endeared them to an adolescent audience. Spider-Man fretted about money, Daredevil was blind, the Mighty Thor grappled with what it meant to be human. On a stylistic level, Lee's witty, playful dialogue served as the ideal counterpoint to Kirby's dynamic artwork.
"If Jack Kirby wrote the music for the Marvel revolution, then Stan Lee wrote the lyrics," says R.C. Harvey, a comics historian and author of "The Art of the Comic Book." "Lee wrote with his tongue in his cheek and he established a rapport with his readers."
Beyond the confines of the comic-book page, Lee organized the legions of Marvel devotees into a coherent fandom. He printed readers' letters, penned a column--"Stan's Soapbox"--in which he spouted off in his zany, inimitable fashion on all the great goings-on at Marvel, and he established the Merry Marvel Marching Society. (Club motto: "We don't know where we're marching, but we're on the way.")
The company's fortunes began to rise, revitalizing what was then a moribund comic-book marketplace. Lee became something of a celebrity as Marvel's front man and began lecturing on college campuses. Soon the name "Stan Lee" became so well known that he legally assumed it to avoid confusion. In the 1970s he relinquished his duties at Marvel's editorial offices and immersed himself further in the role of impresario. He moved to Los Angeles in 1980 to develop TV and movie deals for Marvel properties.
Saturday morning cartoons were an easy sell, but Marvel had trouble getting live-action movies made. "Blade," a 1998 release starring Wesley Snipes, and "X-Men" aside, most of Marvel's properties ended up as low-budget flops or went nowhere once Hollywood got hold of them. None of this, however, diminished Lee's stature; he continued, unabashed as ever, to promote Marvel Comics and the Stan Lee brand.
Lee's decades of successful self-promotion are the main reason Stan Lee Media seemed a viable business venture. "He's pulled off a marvelous sleight-of-hand in reinventing himself online," says Scott McCloud, a Thousand Oaks-based cartoonist and author of "Understanding Comics." "There's a tremendous amount of goodwill that's built up over the years from actors, producers, directors and animators who grew up reading comics."
STAN LEE MEDIA CO-FOUNDER PETER PAUL, WHO SAYS HE NEVER READ comics as a kid, came up with the idea for the company while he was negotiating a new lifetime contract with Marvel that allows Lee to compete with his former publisher.
"Stan had been successful at creating the biggest array of globally branded character franchises of anybody in history," says Paul, who owns 17% of Stan Lee Media through a family trust. "But the company that owned those has . . . underexploited the value of those creations."
Indeed, Lee is in a better position to guide Stan Lee Media's development than he was at Marvel, where he held no equity. Even so, he prefers to focus on the creative aspects, leaving the financial dealings to his associates. "The difference is, I'm now in a position where if anyone makes a business decision that I don't approve of, I can do something about it," Lee says. "I wasn't able to do that at Marvel."
Lee's creative team--writers, animators and Web-jockeys--are inspired by his enthusiasm. "My whole reason for taking this job was because of Stan," says Tramm Wigzell, a 27-year-old production coordinator for "The Accuser." "You grow up in this country and you're a guy, it's kind of hard not to love Stan Lee."
But not everyone is as enthusiastic about Lee's latest incarnation, particularly those who feel that beyond his brief creative burst at Marvel in the 1960s, the rest of Stan Lee's existence has been more sizzle than steak.
"In the '60s he was actually writing the comics, but in the '70s he was just pretending to be the guy in charge. It was all illusion," says Gary Groth, editor of the trade magazine The Comics Journal. "He and the Internet economy are both creations of a superheated, over-inflated, hyperbolic environment. It's a match made in heaven."
Maybe so. But others appreciate Lee's brand of hucksterism, which, in truth, he has always pulled off with a genuine sense of humor. "It has really been quite glorious to watch," says McCloud. "For those of us in comics who thought for sure that Stan's days of doing that were over, it's been kind of fun to watch him come back with a vengeance."
The Golden Age of Comics generally is considered the 1940s and 1950s, and many of Lee's contemporaries from that period have either died or retired. Lee, however, has successfully mutated, like one of his superheroes, into an old Web-head. The next step for Lee is to connect with a new generation of 11-year-olds. To help do that, Stan Lee Media has signed co-branding deals with popular music artists such as The Backstreet Boys and Mary J. Blige.
But the world has changed since those halcyon days, and some doubt if Lee--who doesn't smoke or drink, sometimes buys mail-order pants from Wichita-based Sheplers Western Wear and once named a character "Mary Jane" without realizing the drug-culture double-entendre--can still connect with an audience accustomed to comics, music, movies and TV shows that have become much more violent and sexually explicit.
"I don't like too much violence," he says. "To me there's a great difference between an action-packed story and a violent story, and I don't like to do things that I don't feel I could say to any parent, honestly, 'Your child could read that.' "
And yet Lee is preparing to co-create an animated Web series with the RZA, who raps about shooting his rivals and kicking his "bitch to the curb." Does that concern Lee? Not at all, he says. "If they're popular with young people, I don't mind being associated with them. Maybe in our own way, we can turn them away from gangsta rapping."
LEE IS SITTING ON HIS PORCH, OVERLOOKING THE CITY, SURROUNDED by Joan's collection of ceramic dogs and saints. He has much more than the street-side apartment view of which he once dreamed.
He recalls working part time for the Associated Press when he was a teenager. He often prepared obituaries of famous people while they were still alive so that the material would be instantly available for publication upon their death. "It got so depressing writing about living people in the past tense," he says. "I gave that up."
Lee always wrote about his superhero characters in the present tense, with an immediacy that guaranteed they would live on in the popular imagination. Today he is conscious of his own mortality but tries not to dwell on it. "I'm aware that there's got to be a time when I'm not going to be able to do this," he says. "But I hope that time is far off, because I'm really enjoying what I'm doing."
Stan Lee smiles and leans back in his chair. He suspects that somewhere reporters already are composing newspaper accounts of his life. The thought amuses him, Lee says, because the story's far from over.