Stan Lee, godfather of Marvel Comics and creator of Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Avengers, Incredible Hulk and X-Men, spilled secrets about comics and cameos Sunday afternoon at Dallas Comic Con. Lee, casually dressed in a green shirt and khakis, was greeted with a standing ovation and a shout of "You're the man, Stan!" as he climbed the stage with Marvel artist John Romita Jr. "I really feel sorry for you people," Lee said. "You came here, you're probably expecting something entertaining or amusing. I have no idea what we're gonna do."
What 89-year-old Lee did was charm the pants off the crowd with off-the-cuff humor during a question and answer session moderated by Romita Jr. He and Lee, who share an easygoing father-son dynamic, traded quips and the occasional barb. Here are the high points:
How Marvel Comics got its name, according to Lee: "In the beginning, after we started the Fantastic Four and the X-Men and the Hulk and they really sold well, we realized we were on to something. The name of our company was Atlas, Atlas Publications. I said to my publisher, 'You know, we oughta change our name because we're not doing the same kind of stuff anymore. We have a new audience.' So he said 'OK, come up with a new name.' And I came up with Marvel. I liked the word marvel because I always liked advertising and slogans. And with marvel, you can say things like 'Make mine Marvel!' 'Marvel marches on!' 'Welcome to the Marvel age of comics!' It's a great name. DC, which was then called National Comics, they were always copying us. And they said Marvel changed their name, let's change our name. I couldn't believe this. They paid some company which specializes in dreaming up names. They paid a lot of money and said 'Give us a name that's as good or better than Marvel!' And after a lot of thought and a lot of money, they came up with DC....I think that's funniest thing I ever heard in my life!"
How can someone duplicate Lee's success: "Listen, I've got enough competition," he told the questioner, eliciting laughs. "First of all, if you want to be someone like me, you've got to be smart enough and lucky enough to pick guys like this [motions to Romita, Jr.] to work with. I was reasonably good at what I did, but I promise you, if I didn't have John Romita, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Gene Colan....I'd be one of the guys outside buying a ticket to come in and listen to other people talk. All I did was a lot of words. These artists make those words come alive, and make those words look magical."
On Romita Jr. (the son of Marvel artist John Romita Sr.): "It's incredible that he's as good an artist as his father. I am so jealous. I still draw stick figures."
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The origins of Spider-Man: "I always hated teenage sidekicks. I was having an argument with our publisher. He said teenagers could only be sidekicks. Every character ought to have a teenage sidekick because teenagers read the books and they like to read about a character like themselves. And one day I said 'Why can't the teenager be the hero?' He said, 'Dummy, I just told you they're sidekicks.' So I decided I would make a teenager the hero. Just for fun, I thought why not give him the same problems most teenagers have: never enough money, not that successful with girls, on and on. I went back to my publisher and said 'I want to do this story about a teenager who's got a lot of problems and I want to call him Spider-Man.' Well, my publisher looked at me like I was from another planet. 'He said 'Dummy, haven't I told you a teenager can only be a sidekick? A hero cannot have all those problems. Don't you know what a superhero is? You can't call him Spider-Man because people hate spiders! So you've got three strikes against you.' We had a book called Amazing Fantasy that we were gonna kill. It wasn't selling well. When you put out the last issue of a book you're about to kill, nobody cares what you put in it. It's the last issue. So I featured Spider-Man on the cover. I got Ditko to do it. I put it out just to get it out of my system. The book sold so well that my publisher came into me later when he got the sales numbers and he said 'Stan, you remember that character Spider-Man that you and I liked so much? Why don't we do it as a series?'"
Why some characters first and last names start with the same letter, like Peter Parker: "I have the world's worst memory. I hate to admit that I have a flaw, but I do. I couldn't remember the names of my characters....I'd get fan mail from people asking 'Don't you know the names of your own characters?' So I figured I'm going to give every character, if I can, the same letter for his first name as his last name, so if I remember one name, it gives me a clue as to what the other name is."
Lee's famous movie cameos (spoiler alert): When asked about his cameos, Lee admitted he loves doing them. "All I do is I cry and I yell and I scream if I don't get a cameo!" he said to more laughs. "I guarantee the Spider-Man one is the funniest one you will ever see," Lee said, referring to the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man. "There's a big battle going on between Spider-Man and the Lizard in the library. I'm the librarian. I'm stamping books. So I'm just stamping books and I have earphones on and I'm listening to music. So while I'm stamping the books I'm going [moves like he's dancing] and this life and death battle is going on behind me! I don't know it, I don't hear them! That's what it is and it looks so funny and I look so dumb!"