Marvel Comics’ master creates new heroes for the Web.
At the age of 77, you’d expect that Stan Lee might be ready to rest, cut back, maybe even retire. Lee, after all, has earned some down time: For six decades, since he joined the fledgling Marvel Comics company in the early 1940s, he has created, guided and written for some of the most recognizable faces (and leotards) in the business. He was the man behind Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and many others; in the 1960s, he was widely credited with revitalizing and revolutionizing the comics industry by stripping his superheroes of their air of invulnerability and making them doubt-ridden, argumentative, occasionally depressed–in short, recognizably human.
But now, 60 years and more than 2 billion books after getting his start, Lee seems to have lost none of his energy and enthusiasm. He’s still got a part-time job with Marvel, where as chairman emeritus he’s contractually obligated to give the company 10 percent of his time. (He spends more than that, he says, “but I’m not going to quibble.”) His focus, though, is squarely on Stan Lee Media, an Internet-based, publicly-
traded company for which he is creating his first new superheroes and villains in 25 years–characters who are debuting not on the printed page, but in downloadable “Webisodes” on www.stanlee.net. The downloads, geared for slower modems, are free; the profits come from global licensing deals, from merchandising, from spinoffs into everything from books, television shows and movies to video games and theme-park rides. When the initial episode of Lee’s first new series, The 7th Portal,went online in late February, it drew enough hits to overwhelm and temporarily disable the server at Shockwave.com, where Stan Lee Media’s Webisodes are hosted. (In addition, Lee himself has made more money since his company began trading publicly last August than he made in his entire career at Marvel.)
Lee probably wouldn’t be able to do this if it wasn’t for the fact that the comic industry is in trouble these days. Sales of traditional comic books have declined some 40 percent since 1993, forcing Marvel into bankruptcy proceedings and causing the company to void a lifetime contract that prohibited Lee from working for anyone else. Now free to take his work elsewhere, the comic pioneer is wholeheartedly embracing a new medium–though he hasn’t completely abandoned his old, low-tech ways, he recently signed a remarkable deal to reinvent Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and all the other signature characters for Marvel’s longtime rival company, DC Comics. “I must be crazy, but I love to work,” he says, surrounded by memorabilia in his Encino, Calif., office. “And if you’re a guy who loves to tell stories, what kind of work could be better than this?”
IQ: In a sense, here you are again in a medium that’s in its formative stages. Do you see any similarities between getting involved with the Internet now, and starting in the comic business when you did?
Stan Lee: Yeah. There are a lot of similarities, to me. As a kid, I was a voracious reader–and among everything else I read, I read comics. But when I got into comics, I learned there’s a lot of differences between reading them and producing them. And it’s the same with the Internet. I love the Internet, I love computers. Since they started home computers, I’ve always had my own personal computer. And when the Internet came along, I hooked on. I got onto AOL, I loved hearing “You’ve got mail.” But now that we have our own Internet site, there are a lot of new things for me to learn, too.
Have you ever found yourself restricted creatively by the new format?
Well, I’ve been that way all my life. When I did comics, I wished that I could have had more room. I love to write dialogue, but in comics you only have room for so much dialog. The panel is so big, you have an illustration, and you squeeze the dialog in where there’s room. So I’ve always had that problem. Also, in comics our stories were about 20 pages each. I would have loved to have made them 50 pages. Now I’ve got the same problem, but more so. Our Webisodes are only three-and-a-half or four minutes. I wish they were longer, and they will be once the bandwidths are more accessible to people. It’s a slightly different form of writing. But the nice thing is, if you’re a storyteller, you have to learn to adapt to the rules of the new media, but the rules of the story are always the same. You need characters people will believe in. You need things happening so you don’t bore the reader. You need surprises and excitement and action, especially in the kind of stories I do. And I find that you can do that in Webisodes on the Internet as well as anywhere else, maybe better.
Are the people downloading your Webisodes the same people who buy comic books?
I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m guessing that they are. I think the average comic book reader who reads superhero comics, he’s usually somebody who likes science fiction, who likes interactive games and things like that. And those are the kind of people that are turned on by their computers. I would imagine that the average superhero comic book reader is very much involved in the Internet and computers.
When you sit down to create a character or write a story, do you do it with a specific audience in mind?
Everybody wants to feel that you’re writing to a certain demographic because that’s good business, but I’ve never done that. When I was at Marvel, in all honesty, I tried to write stories that would interest me. I’d say, what would I like to read? Then I’d try to write them clearly enough so that a youngster could enjoy and appreciate and understand the story, and I tried to write them intelligently enough so that an older person would enjoy it too. But I never thought, I’m writing for eight-year-olds or 13-year-olds or college students. I don’t think you can do your best work if you’re writing for somebody else, because you never know what that somebody else really thinks or wants. But I know what I like, and I can’t believe I’m so unique. If I could write a story that really pleases me, there must be millions of people who have the same taste I do. So if I like it, there’ll be a lot of other people who like it. And I’ve always used that rule.
Was it intimidating to sit down for the first time and say, “All right. I can’t use Spider-Man or any of the old superheroes, I’ve got to create brand-new characters from scratch.” Basically, you’re starting at ground zero and trying to create new characters that will catch on the way the old ones did.
It’s not really intimidating because I’ve always tried to create new things. When I was doing the old Marvel characters, essentially each one of them was something new when I did it. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle. You lose yourself in it. So I never find it really intimidating. Sometimes it’s difficult. You say, “Gee, this is a great idea,” and then you say to yourself, “Oh, wait a minute, I did something like this years ago with this strip.” That’s the only problem.
After doing it for 60 years, it seems like sooner or later you’re going to have to say, “Well yes, I have done that before, but that’s OK.”
No. I try not to do anything that’s too close to what I’ve done before. And the nice thing is we have a big universe here. It’s filled with new ideas. All you have to do is grab them.
Were you involved when Marvel started going online?
In the beginning I did quite a lot of chats. They would advertise that I was going to be chatting at such a time. And they still do that with a lot of the staff at Marvel, but I haven’t been doing it for the past year. I’ve been too busy, really, with Stan Lee Media.
Before Marvel went bankrupt, were you doing as much work then as you would have liked?
No, I really wasn’t. What I was doing mainly was I’d go to a few meetings about the movies and the animation, and I did a lot of promoting of Marvel. I’d make speeches and go to conventions. But I wasn’t doing that much writing. I was writing the newspaper strip. That was one day a week. And I wrote the columns. I wrote the soapbox column that I write every issue. But I could have been doing more. There wasn’t that much for me to do. I was out here [in Los Angeles], and the Marvel editorial offices are in New York. Most of the actual stories and the strips, they were handled in New York, so I did what I could here with the movie and TV and animation projects mainly.
Why did you make the move to a form an Internet-based company?
I’ve always had a lifetime contract at Marvel Comics and about a year and a half ago, in their bankruptcy, they rejected everybody’s contract. So for the first time, I had a chance to do whatever I wanted. My friend Peter Paul said, “Stan, here’s your chance to form your own company. Let’s do it on the Internet.” I said, “I love the Internet, but I don’t know that much about it.” And he said, “Don’t worry. I do.” So we became partners, and we formed this company. We decided we would try to do with this what I had been somewhat successful in doing with Marvel: We’d create new characters and hope that they become popular.
And if they become popular, do you foresee those character being licensed, merchandised, going to video, heading in a variety of different directions?
Oh, yeah. If the characters and stories prove popular, we’ve no reason to think that they won’t spin off into interactive games, into movies, television, Saturday morning animated shows, T-shirts, everything. That’s what happens to anything that’s popular these days. If the Webisodes are popular, then every comic book publisher is going to want to do the comic book. Every interactive game company is going to want to do games. Every T-shirt manufacturer. We’ve already been talking to people about doing Saturday morning cartoons. We’re doing comics with the Backstreet Boys, and we’re already talking about possibility of a feature-length movie for the characters I created for the Backstreet Boys, as well as a made-for-video movie. So if what we put on the Internet works, if it becomes popular, then the sky is the limit.
How did the Backstreet Boys project come about?
They came to us. Nick Carter, one of the boys, wanted to–I think he’s interested in comics. He had this idea for a strip. So I read it, and it was a good idea. So we collaborated on it. I whipped it into shape, and we made it into a book called The Backstreet Project. And what he wanted to do was have me turn all of the characters fictionally into superheroes. Based on what he told me about each one of them, I gave them each an identity, and we did this book in which they become superheroes and save the world, naturally. The book sold very well, and now we’re probably going to do a lot of other things with them.
But that happens all the time. People are always coming to us. And there are some people I can’t mention now because we don’t have a deal set down, but who are fairly well known as actors and actresses that want to do things on our Web site, and I’m going to find ways to use them. Writers come to us. They’d like us to do Webisodes of things they bring and so forth.
How and when will you know if a project is successful?
Well, we know by the amount of hits we get. When The 7th Portal opened up, I understand that Shockwave just closed down. They couldn’t handle all the hits. So that’s one way. And when that happens, the rest of the world becomes of aware of you. All the people in licensing start calling you. Everybody’s looking for the next big thing, for the next Pokƒmon or Power Rangers or whatever it will be.
Do you hear directly from the fans?
Oh, yeah. And to me, that is so exciting, so startling. When I wrote the comics, I knew that from 100,000 to 1 million people, depending on the sales of the books, would be reading them. When you do something on the Internet, there could be billions of people. I mean you put it on your Web site, and that’s instantaneously going all around the world. It’s so amazing, and also there’s the idea that you get instant feedback.
In magazines it took a couple of months before the book got printed after I wrote the story. It had to be drawn. It had to be printed. It had to go to the distributor, who sent it to the wholesaler, who brought it to the newsstand. Months went by. Then it took another month or two before the mail started trickling in, assuming you’d get some mail. So we’re talking five, six months before you get any reaction. You put something up on the Web site, five minutes later you’re going to get people commenting about it. It’s incredibly exciting.
How does the process work here? Do you create the characters, come up with stories and then talk to your artists?
I created all the characters for all the things we’re doing. We have The 7th Portal, and we have one called The Accuser and one called The Drifter, and we’re doing a lot of other projects. I try to create the characters initially, and then I work with our writers and I tell them the way that I think it would be best to write them. And then we all work together from that point on. It’s a collaborative effort. I’ve got these great young writers and artists. They’re incredibly enthusiastic, and I love enthusiasm. And they’re damn good at what they do. I had a meeting this morning with about six or eight of them, and it’s just so “invigorating” is the word. You kick around ideas, and by the time the meeting is over, you’ve got a dozen you hadn’t thought of before that you think would be great for the stories. And then you can’t wait to see the result, turn on your computer and see what the episode looks like on the screen.
Your process with Stan Lee Media has been described as as “using the Internet as the world’s biggest focus group.” You put work out there, see what the audience thinks, and then move it into other areas if the reaction warrants it.
It wasn’t me that said that. I’m not sure I understand that. I’ve never had much to do with focus groups or surveys or research. I have a lot of friends in TV and I’d say to them, “You know, if focus groups meant anything, there’d never be a show on TV that bombed.” Because before they put anything on, they test those things interminably, one focus group after another. I think it’s up to the person who creates the show to do the best that he can and to be incredibly enthusiastic. I tell our staff, “Anything of ours that you read or see, if you don’t say to yourself, ‘Oh, man, look at that, that’s terrific,’ if you don’t feel that way, I want it done over until you do.” Because unless we are genuinely enthusiastic about what we’re doing, how can we expect the public to be? And I don’t want focus groups. I don’t want people who know they’re being tested. If we don’t know what we’re doing, we shouldn’t be in this business.
When you created the characters in The 7th Portal,were you consciously thinking that this was not just an American story, that it should be worldwide and the characters should be international?
It’s a funny thing–my partner, Peter Paul, gave me the idea. I was going to create a bunch of American heroes, which I’ve always done. And he said, “You know, Stan, it’s a global thing. If you want to have six heroes, why don’t you have each of them come from another part of the world?” I thought that was a great idea. So I did it. I mean, our comic books were always global. Spider-Man, for example, is sold in virtually every civilized country in the world and translated into virtually every language. But I never wrote it for the whole world. I just wrote the stories, and luckily people enjoyed them. So I would have done my Internet stories just keeping them domestic and hoping people around the world would like them.
In recent years, sales of comic books themselves have fallen sharply. Do you think the future of comics is on the Internet, or are the books going to be strong again?
I’m no prophet, but I’m guessing that comic books will always be strong. I don’t think anything can really beat the pure fun and pleasure of holding a magazine in your hand, reading the story on paper, being able to roll it up and put it in your pocket, reread again later, show it to a friend, carry it with you, toss it on a shelf, collect them, have a lot of magazines lined up and read them again as a series. I think young people have always loved that. I think they always will.
But I think the Internet is just another form of entertainment and of communication and of commerce. To me, it’s like when television came in. Everybody said, “That’s the end of reading. The book industry is going to be destroyed. Who’d read a book when you can watch things on a screen?” Well, books are as healthy as they ever were. I think the Internet is going to be the most powerful form of the media, the greatest form of entertainment and education and commerce and trade that the world has ever known.
I think eventually every family will have a screen in their house, whether it’s a computer monitor or a TV screen or what. They’ll do their shopping on it, they’ll do their banking on it, they’ll look at their movies on it, they’ll have the Internet on it. They’ll have everything. And after a while, they won’t even need a keyboard, but they’ll have voice commands. And probably in another 10 years, you’ll be able to think of what you want and it’ll be on the screen.
But despite all that, you think the kid who comes in and talks to his screen is going to have a comic book stuck in his back pocket?
I think that’s very likely.
You’ve been quoted as saying you’d love to buy Marvel Comics. Were you serious?
Somebody made that remark: “Hey, what if you guys bought Marvel? Would you want to do that?” And I said, “Well, jeez, I never thought of it.” I certainly wouldn’t mind if I could have Marvel, but it’s not something I think about. I mean I’d like to own Microsoft, but I don’t go around planning how to do it.
On the other hand, it would be nice if you had the rights to use your old work, so that if you wanted you could, say, bring Spider-Man into something on the Web site.
Oh, hey–when you say that, it’s like dangling the Holy Grail in front of me. Of course, it would be wonderful if I had those characters to myself to do with what I wanted. But it’s not something I think about.
How did the unprecedented deal with DC Comics come about?
It was the idea of a fellow named Michael Usland, who’s the executive producer of the Batman movies. I’ve known him for years, and he’s involved with DC. He came to me and said, “Hey, Stan, how would you like to do your version, as if you had created them, of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Justice League, The Flash…?” On and on. I said, “Who could say no to an assignment like that? But DC would never go for it.”
He said, “Suppose I asked them?” He came back and he said they loved the idea. So now I’m doing it. I don’t know why, I don’t have the time, but how can you refuse something like that? The first one we’re doing is Wonder Woman, because that particular artist is free at the moment. Then I’m going to do Superman, and then whatever they tell me. I think it’ll be one 48-page book every two months, 12 or 13 of them.
At the end of which time, you will have written for just about every classic comic superhero who ever existed.
Yeah. There’s nothing left.
Do you think comic superheroes are something that will always appeal to people, from low-tech genres like comic books to high-tech ones like the Internet?
Always. Always. From the time of King Kong and Moby Dick and Jekyll and Hyde and Dracula–they’re bigger than life. People love to read about people with powers of any sort and people love fantasy. When you’re a kid, you grow up on fairy tales,
witches and giants and ogres. When we become adults, science fiction and fantasy stories and superhero comics are the only things that can give you that same amount of excitement and pleasure. It helps you recapture, I think, some very treasured moments.
Do you still have lots of characters and
stories in you?
Oh, I’m sure. I’m not a guy who gets inspirations. I don’t walk around the street and think, boy, this would be a good character, that would be a good character. But when I have to write something, I can sit down and think it up. And there have been a lot of things I’ve had to write that never got published for some reason or other and movie ideas I’ve had and television ideas that somehow or other didn’t make it to the screen. So I’ve got a whole file cabinet filled with things that I can draw on. But I usually don’t even have the time to look in the cabinet. If I have to write something, I just sit down and try to dream it up.
So you have lots of things in the works here that you’re working on that will show up on the Web site over the next months?
Oh, yeah. It’s just we’ve got to hire some more people. Everybody is working at capacity because we have so many things now that are going on. But as we move along, we’re going to keep increasing the staff.
What I would like to do is have a separate episode of a separate story every day of the week, so that every day the users can come to our Web site and find a new chapter of something. That would be great, but it will take a little while. n
Steve Pond is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He is a contributing writer for Premiere.
Peter Paul helped free Lee from Marvel and get him on the Web
He’s the man who masterminded the
early ’90s blitz that turned a hunky romance-novel cover model named Fabio into a star of sorts. But don’t hold that against Peter Paul. The co-founder of Stan Lee Media has also run a digital production company, designed virtual characters, produced televised awards shows and international broadcasts, spearheaded California’s participation in the Bicentennial of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and worked as a media strategist and marketing guru on a spectrum of international events. A longtime friend of Stan Lee, he also helped negotiate the deal that allowed Lee to continue as chairman emeritus of Marvel Comics, while freeing him to develop characters and stories outside of Marvel for the first time ever. While Lee’s creativity is the company’s “primary asset,” according to its own executive summary, Paul is on hand to market, showcase and aggressively exploit that asset.
IQ: When you helped Stan renegotiate his contract with Marvel after their bankruptcy, were you thinking about taking him to the Internet?
Peter Paul: I was thinking about putting Stan on the Internet in 1998, or maybe ’97, when I was looking into ways to liberate Stan from Marvel. When Marvel presented the opportunity by rejecting his contract in bankruptcy, it was godsend, because it saved me the aggravation of figuring out how to liberate him.
What was the impetus behind Stan Lee Media?
It was the ability to take a creator with unsurpassed success creating branded character franchises for global audiences and to take him to the Internet. The Internet is in desperate need of branded content and compelling entertainment for the technology that exists at the time and not some broadband future. I saw an immediate opportunity, because although the Internet is a high-tech infrastructure, at this point it really is low tech in its ability to deliver any kind of compelling entertainment. The best low-tech entertainment that exists is panel-graphic comic books. If we could develop compelling animation around the genre of fantasy and superheroes, we would be in the forefront of delivering global branded entertainment franchises. That is where I thought Stan could excel and dominate that space.
Why did you take the company public by merging it with Boulder Capital Opportunities, a shell company set up specifically to merge with another company?
Venture capitalists and investment bankers tried to discourage me from developing a public company around the brand and activities of a 76-year-old man, so I was forced to encourage Stan to go public through the least blue-chip approach to going public, which is a reverse merger. I knew that Stan could overcome the obstacles most people face in that type of backdoor entry into the public arena. And I think, in retrospect, we’ve been proven correct. Forbes recently did an article about what they called “Celebrity IPOs,” and they compared Martha Stewart, Ralph Lauren, Vince McMahon, Dick Clark and Dr. Koop with Stan. All of the others were down in value 40 to 70 percent from when they came out, and Stan was up 220 percent. Stan has been around for three generations in a hundred countries and 27 languages. That brand penetration makes a difference.
What do you see as the purpose of Stan Lee Media?
We are establishing a studio dedicated to the development of compelling original content–created by globally recognized content creators, or in association with global entertainment franchises–to pioneer the way that the Internet is developed as an independent entertainment and marketing medium distinct from any other medium. And we’re experimenting with the ways in which global brand and content and marketing and promotion can be synergized with offline media. We’re an umbrella to harness other global-branded entertainment groups to develop strategies that integrate the best use of the Internet with rich content to enhance off-line promotions, marketing and activities.
How do you distinguish yourself from everything else available on the Internet?
It’s based on global branded content. With 2 million channels of different technologies that deliver content, an emerging global audience will be overwhelmed by the variety of media that present themselves on a minute-by-minute basis in their lives, and they will retreat, in my opinion, to the comfort of the tried-and- true: recognized brands.
And you view this as a global company, not just an American one?
We’re really in the forefront of new media entertainment companies that recognize the immediacy of a global audience and the need to design content that’s interesting and compelling to a global audience of multicultural users. That is a different paradigm than the American entertainment industry has traditionally used, which is to introduce content that Americans like and, when it catches on, roll it out in other regions. I think that whole mindset has to change. The ability to develop a Stan Lee superhero that lives in Tokyo, Berlin, S-o Paolo, Johannesburg gives us assets that we can use to catalyze partnerships in each region.
At this point, doesn’t your profit generally come when the products leave the Internet and move to other markets? In other words, you’ll make more money with licensing deals for T-shirts and videos and action figures than you’ll make with anything you’re selling online.
Right. I don’t think the revenues on the Internet from advertising and e-commerce are that significant, especially as new brands are established there. But after microtransactions are popularized, then it will flip-flop and the majority of revenues will come on the Internet. Because when you nickel-and-dime a global audience for enhanced experiences that start off freely given and are augmented through increments, you’re looking at serious money being generated. But in the meantime, we’ll be looking towards licensing, merchandising, sponsorship, product placement, and other applications to bring us revenues offline.
In the past, you’ve used the phrase “unobtrusive sponsorships.” What do you mean by that?
Well, we want to keep at a minimum the blinking banners and the ads and look for ways to integrate into the entertainment environment the commercial messages that will generate revenues for us. We have a 3-D navigable environment developed through a partnership with Cyberworld, and we look forward to making that environment, like any environment, populated with messages that are interesting but aren’t intrusive.
Are any of those sponsorships set up yet?
Actually, we’ve been reluctant at the outset to do a lot of advertising. We are beginning to test the waters to determine the best way to integrate this product placement and sponsorship.
Why did you enter into your venture with the Backstreet Boys?
By choosing the best boys’ group in the world with the largest audience of female fans, Stan reaches out to embrace the female community with this superhero genre. Using the Internet to develop an episodic strip that highlights the exploits of the alter egos of the band, and being able to use the music as a component of the entertainment, means that we can probably harness one of the biggest audiences of girls ever assembled globally.
The initial comic books have already appeared. When does this project hit the Internet?
We will effectively launch this August 25th, with the biggest Web party ever attempted on the Internet. And the reason we’ve chosen that date is that Burger King is doing their back-to-school promotion around the Backstreet Project. They’re producing 40 million action figures that they’ll distribute with a $15 million advertising campaign, and the focus will be on the characters that Stan co-created with Nick Carter. And that’s how we are showing that a superhero brand extension is possible, starting in the music side and going into every other key area of the global popular culture. So you might look forward to seeing a similar franchise in NASCAR, where we are working with the Championship Group. And we’ll be doing the same thing in wrestling and other sports that are appropriate, or other niche markets where we can identify a best-of-breed partner to build these brand extensions.
Where do you see this company a year down the line, five years down the line?
I think this will be the successor to Disney as a global lifestyle-brand content creator, producer, marketing and distribution company. We’re not just a nice little content company that’s making pretty superhero animations.–S
Marvel Comics’ master creates new heroes for the Web.