For Stan Lee, golfing in Florida is out of the question. At 82, the force behind Marvel Comics’ golden era and the creator of Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Incredible Hulk has plenty more superheroes to unleash on the world. Profiled by the Los Angeles Times Magazine in 2000 as he launched Stan Lee Media, an ambitious Internet entertainment venture, Lee has since weathered the company’s bankruptcy and a financial scandal that saw its officers facing federal criminal charges. (No charges or allegations of wrongdoing were brought against Lee.) With nary a pause, he hatched a new entertainment venture last year, and in January a federal court awarded him a percentage of all TV and movie profits earned by Marvel on Stan Lee characters. Marvel vowed to appeal and wrangling continues over merchandising profits, but Lee’s creative cylinders are firing up for projects such as turning Ringo Starr into a cartoon superhero.
Early this year a federal court ruled that you should receive a percentage of Marvel’s TV and movie profits on your superheroes.
It was in the contract. I felt the company ought to honor it. It was a contractual issue. It had nothing to do with getting credit for creating something. I’ve always gotten that. I can’t speak for others, but for me, it’s important that the contract is fulfilled. It’s pure business.
How did Stan Lee Media, a venture that promised to bring boffo entertainment to the Web, end up facing bankruptcy and fraud charges?
I don’t like talking about it, because I don’t like knocking other people. We were quite successful and had been written up in all the magazines and trade journals. Unfortunately, an executive at the company did some illegal things and that brought the company down. I don’t want to get into the details, but he’s been in jail, and he’s just pleaded guilty after all this time. It was a terrible thing. I haven’t followed Internet companies since then, because I’ve soured on the whole thing.
Are you a good businessperson?
No, I’m not. Maybe I could be if I worked at it, but I spend all my time writing and dealing with the other creatives. It’s impossible for me to be both; I just don’t have the time. I try to be aware of what’s going on, but it’s the age-old conundrum.
Do you see limitations in the Internet as an entertainment medium?
It’s a good medium of communication--probably the best medium of communication. But as an entertainment medium, I feel there is better. Just from a technical point of view, there are so many things we can do better on film, TV and DVDs, that the Internet just isn’t there yet. But the technology’s moving so fast that there are lots of things we couldn’t do five years ago that we can do now.
Did you see the Stan Lee Media experience as a failure?
When you think you know what you’re doing, and you think you know where you want to go, and you come to a bump in the road, why let that stop you? You’ve got to pick yourself up and still keep going. I never thought of it as, “Why start over again?” It’s the only thing to do. It certainly was a terrible thing. But it wasn’t because we didn’t have the ability. It was an extraneous circumstance that we had no control over. The thing to do was just to start again and to make sure this time that that particular circumstance would never occur again. I’ve been very lucky. Everyone knows that I really wasn’t involved. I’ve spoken to the FBI, I’ve spoken to the Justice Department, I have spoken to everybody. I’ve come out of it OK, except that I’ve lost a lot of money. But that’s OK, because I’m starting over and it’s great.
Is your new company, POW! [Purveyors of Wonder] Entertainment, different from Stan Lee Media?
Stan Lee Media was Internet-based. This is a full, broad-based entertainment company. We have a very low overhead. We don’t invest our own money. We create projects and characters and co-produce them with other producers or with television networks and movie studios.
You’re developing characters again with your new company. What are they like?
One called Earth Walker we’re developing for TV. Lightspeed, we’re developing that with the Sci Fi Channel. Night Bird, a female hero, with Bruce Willis and Arnold Rifkin’s company. We’re doing “Hef’s Super Bunnies,” in which I’ll let the world know what [Playboy magnate Hugh] Hefner’s real life is about and how Hef has been saving the world all these years in secret. We’re also developing animation shorts for the cellphone, which are very big in Asia now and will be in the U.S. soon. We have a new animated series with Ringo Starr. We’ve gotten friendly, and we’re going to do an animated show in which I make him a reluctant superhero. He’s going to do the voice and the music. I told him I’d make him famous. And say that I said it with a laugh!
If you look at your ventures from Marvel Comics to the present, is there a common thread through them?
The continuing thread is telling stories, making up stories that people might want to read, might want to see, might want to listen to. And I like to do stories that are high concept. Not do just another crime story or romance story or Western story. While I like all those things, I’d try to find a unique angle.
Has popular taste in superheroes changed?
Tastes change, but certain things remain basic. People like stories with characters that they can identify with. Even if they’re fantasy characters from another planet or dimension. People like stories that have surprises, so they don’t feel they’ve seen this 100 times before. But the surprises have to make sense. They can’t just be thrown in to fool the reader.
What have you got to prove?
I think I want to prove that what happened in the past wasn’t a fluke. Look, I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my career. When I was at Marvel, there was a time when business was really bad. We had to let the whole staff go, and it looked as if we were going bankrupt. I lived through that and we managed to build the company up. And then just a few years ago, Marvel went into bankruptcy and was bought by a new company, and I lived through that. So good things happen and bad things happen. If you enjoy what you do, you figure there’s a pot of gold at the end if you do your work right. Especially if you work with people you like. I’m so lucky. Everybody I work with, I love them all.
With two blockbuster films and counting, Spider-Man is a global icon. Why?
Spider-Man appeals to every race and every color, and I think a reason is because he’s the only superhero whose costume covers him completely. You can’t see his skin color. A black person can empathize and imagine that’s me under that costume, as could an Asian, Indian or anybody. That wasn’t done for that reason, but it’s a very fortuitous choice.
If you could have a superpower yourself, what would it be?
Immortality; I’d hate to think this will end.