I made it a point to see the Stan Lee Q & A panel when I visited Houston's Comicpalooza, and I'm happy to report that the session was a veritable Algonquin Round Table, filled with all manner of trenchant commentary and perspicacious observations.
No, of course I'm lying. Even for someone like myself, who has defended Lee on many occasions, the event amounted to nothing but an insubstantial schmooze-fest, with the famed Marvel editor fielding various softball questions from a predominantly young group of fans-- many of whom, I suspect, have had only nodding acquaintance with Lee's actual writing. And of those who may have read some of his signature Silver Age comics, I further suspect that they never read anything but his best-regarded Marvel work. I'd bet none of them were hardcore fans, who took an obscure joy in finding how Lee's 1940s "Jack Frost" demonstrated his early liking for Everett's anti-social Sub-Mariner character, or who groaned at some of Lee's lamer attempts at late 1960's "relevance." None of them, at least, asked about any of his specific comics stories. Most of the questions pertained to the recent Marvel movies, or, on occasion, about the Marvel cartoons of the 1980s. Lee, with customary forgetfulness, had no recollection that he'd done voice-overs for the 1980s SPIDER-MAN cartoon, and a question about an online comics-studies course, to which he'd lent his name, drew a blank.
It's almost axiomatic to note that Lee looked and sounded great for a man in his early nineties, and showed considerable mental agility in knocking back the softballs, at least when he knew what the questioners were talking about. I'm sure that he managed to recycle many of his verbal routines from earlier sessions like this one, particularly all of his comments about his new career as the King of the Cameos. The joke about trying to get the Oscars Committee to institute a "best cameo" award drew one of the hour's biggest laughs.
Given that Lee didn't have an interlocutor on the level of, say, Mark Evanier to hold his feet to the fire, he was able to spout a lot of the same "foxy grandpa stories" he has always spouted for a general audience. In the essay cited, I defended the principle of such stories, and I still maintain that when some uninformed mook asks Lee how he created Spider-Man, the mook is probably happier to get a story about Lee seeing a spider on the wall than a long recitation of the very involved path by which the Spider-Man concept came into Lee's hands. On a side-note, this particular story may be one of Lee's oldest "foxy grandpa stories," since I can remember hearing him toss it out for rerun episodes of the 1970s SPIDER-MAN teleseries on the Sci-Fi Channel.
Also represented was the familiar tale that his publisher-- the name "Martin Goodman" never passed Lee's lips-- forced him to stick the initial Spider-Man story in a soon-to-be-axed anthology title. This is probably not the whole truth-- various fans have shown evidence that Goodman may have initially authorized a SPIDER-MAN title, and then backed out of the notion-- but whatever Goodman's reason, it probably wasn't simply that he "didn't like spiders." But again, given that Goodman is not exactly known as a paragon of publishers, it's not overly troubling to see him used as a standard "dopey boss who takes the credit." And one of Lee's routines even had him admitting that when he became publisher, Lee ended up doing the same things Goodman had ordered him to do.
I was surprised that Lee did not include one of his most circulated grandpa-stories: that he was on the verge of leaving comics in the early 1960s, and that his wife talked him into doing comics his way-- thus making possible the "Marvel Age of Comics." If he truly hasn't reeled that one out for a long time, it could be because it reflects a bit too much negativity about the wonderfulness of working in the comics.
His most interesting (to me) statement came when a fan asked a predictable enough question, as to which of the Marvel movies he liked best. Lee may well have been asked this question many times before, so it's quite possible that he was recycling his answer as well. It's also likely that the answer was informed by the desire to avoid praising any film-franchises not owned by Marvel Studios, such as those of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. But whatever his covert reasons, Lee claimed that his favorite Marvel movie was the first CAPTAIN AMERICA film, largely because he admired the "movie magic" that made it possible to put hunky Chris Evans' face on the body of the shrimpy actor playing pre-transformation Steve Rogers. Opponents of Lee would seize upon this as an admission that Lee knew he wasn't as stunningly original as the guys who really created the Captain America concept. I would take the statement another way: that a small part of Lee is still a fan, and that part, when set apart from business considerations, still loves a great story idea.
If I'd had a chance to ask Lee a question, mine would probably have been, "What's it like to be regarded as the Walt Disney of the 21st century?" For that was clearly how the couple-hundred fans regarded him. They didn't know particulars of his career or personal accomplishments: they only knew him as the keeper to the gates of wonder. Granted, Disney ascended to his gatekeeper-position a lot earlier in life than Lee did, and Lee might never have got there, at least not to so many people, had it not been for the help of the movie-industry. And some might feel that the chief gifts of both men was their skill as entrepreneurs, rather than as creators. Nevertheless, they were both at the very least "point-events" around which the myths of a century coalesced. So, yes, corny grandpa-stories and credit-controversies aside, Stan Lee still deserves the love.
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