SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
It’s a marvel: Spider-Man creator Stan Lee weaves a new Web
Pam Dixon’s column about technology and the arts appears the first Sunday of each month. 03-Oct-1999 Sunday
LOS ANGELES — It’s not everyday that an established cultural icon transitions into the Internet age. But Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man and other colorful comic-book characters, is doing just that. He has put his pencils and ink to work once again to bring a new set of superheroes to the newest publishing medium, the Web.
“I’m creating new material, new scripts, new characters and teams of characters. And unlike what many people are doing — that is, taking things from another medium and just putting them online — I am creating characters just to be original online,” says Lee. “The Web is a whole new medium, and I think I should custom-make everything I do for it.”
Lee, 76, is filled with vigor and joy at the prospect of creating something fresh. He has a plan, he’s ready for action, and it shows. Sitting with him in Harry’s Bar on the outskirts of Hollywood, it looks as if Lee’s tall, lean frame could belong to someone at least 25 years younger. As he relaxes at a table, he exudes a humorous, playful spirit as he gestures merrily and peers through his trademark dark sunglasses.
Lee has an easy laugh and a quick wit, but they belie the trouble he’s gone through to get to where he is. Like a number of other artists who signed lifetime exclusive contracts in the 1940s and ’50s that weren’t exactly fair, Lee has had to wait decades before freeing himself to create work he could truly call his own.
“I can’t tell you how many times people come over to congratulate me for the success of Spider-Man and tell me how wonderful it must be to get all those millions of dollars in royalties,” says Lee. “But I don’t own Spider-Man. It kills me!”
In the earliest days of his career with Marvel Comics, Lee thought of himself as lucky just to have a gig. But as time went on, his paying gig began to cost him dearly despite the perks of being a star at Marvel. “I had a deal about 25 years ago to join a very big publishing company and to be president of this company. They wooed me. I was offered my own limousine and chauffeur and the use of the company plane. It was the greatest deal you can imagine,” Lee says. “I said to the fellow who was then my publisher: `You’ve got to let me go. I’ll take you up on the plane sometime.’ But they held me to my exclusive.”
Thanks to Marvel’s bankruptcy problems, a changing of the guard and some high-powered legal help, Lee gained his freedom last December. “We were able to liberate Stan from his lifetime exclusive by making an offer that gave him the ability to stay on at Marvel, but spend 90 percent of his time on independent creative efforts,” says Peter Paul, co-founder of Stan Lee Media and a key figure in the contract negotiations. Once Lee was contractually free, he established his new company.
“Stan Lee Media is a new online content and community company that will introduce new characters and stories and then apply them in ancillary media,” says Paul. “So for the first time, the Web becomes a primary medium of distribution, with other mediums being secondary.” Based in Encino, the Stan Lee Media studios are making good headway, having partnered with IBM to build the first digital studio for original content to be distributed on the Internet.
The studios have also hired notable digital talent, including the Oscar-winning digital-effects artist who created the on-screen magic for the film “Titanic.” The 7th Portal Lee’s first online project is true to his pulp roots while still reflecting new trends. It is a epic adventure called “The 7th Portal,” with bold techno-villains and beta-tester heroes.
Set to launch on the Stan Lee Media site and a yet-to-be-named major global entertainment Web site in mid-November, “The 7th Portal” is a comic series that is Internet-aware. “The idea being that there are a number of other dimensions, the seventh portal is the seventh one in the seventh dimension,” explains Lee. “There is a conqueror who has overtaken the different dimensions. The last remaining dimension is ours, the dimension of Earth. He wants to take over Earth, but hasn’t been able to reach it yet, as it is reachable only through the seventh portal, which he has not been able to find.
So our story opens with a beta tester and he’s in a big building. Suddenly a strange man comes in and says that he has to see the beta tester . . . ” Lee continues, winding his way through the story like a master storyteller, sketching vivid characters in the air with his hands. Without giving away too much, the story involves a team of highly technologically literate heroes from six countries, including Brazil, Japan and the United States. The heroes, made up of males and females, battle nasty supervillains from different dimensions. The enemies include such characters as Bearhug, Vultura, Slyme, Vendetta and Krog, to name a few.
Lee will run the first story as an epic adventure involving the entire team of heroes. Then he’ll give each character an individual adventure, plus create some new heroes as he goes along. “We’ve planned it so that whenever someone visits our site, there will always be something new up,” he says.
The creative process involved in producing an interactive comic strip exclusively for the Web is different from comic books, says Lee. He notes that he’s been able to match the bright colors he likes in the paper medium, but that the dialogue has to be shorter, and the amount of line drawing needs to be monitored closely.
Otherwise, the animations of the comic “mini-movies” — as Lee calls them — take far too long to download. “The main thing that changes is that you have to write it in a slightly different way . . . if there is too much dialogue, animation and music all in one scene it would take forever for that to load. Also, in the artwork, if there is too much line work in the inking it slows things down. So we have to compromise a lot. But each week we find new ways to do it better and find more ways of accommodating what we want.”
As Lee and his creative team prepare to launch “The 7th Portal,” Lee has established an official presence on AcmeCity, a Warner Bros. Web site that is the entertainment industry’s answer to Yahoo’s GeoCities. “AcmeCity is a community for entertainment fans,” says Harry Medved, director of public relations for Warner Brothers Online. “So far today, this is the only community built for entertainment fans for many years.”
Lee’s involvement with the site involves answering hundreds of fan e-mails daily and interacting with AcmeCity fan club members through live chat. “The fan club is a way to establish esprit de corps and a genuine rapport with the people who become part of our site. I want my fans to feel like they’re a part of something that is an inside joke that we share; something that the outside world doesn’t get and that we’re all having fun with this together. I personally answer every one of the e-mails. It’s so gratifying when I get e-mailed back, `Stan, I can’t believe you actually answered my letter!’ It’s such a great feeling.”
He also keeps a watchful eye on Stan 2.0, a virtual version of himself that lives on the AcmeCity site. “I’m already getting jealous of the virtual Stan,” chuckles Lee. “I think he’s cuter and more appealing than I am.” When “The 7th Portal” launches, its fan club will also be supported at AcmeCity. Medved couldn’t be happier: “With DC Comics and Stan Lee Media, we have the largest comic-book fan base online.”
With all his cyber-savvy, Lee is definitely a man who has kept up with the times. But some things about him remain the same as when he was a fledgling artist. “I want to write stories that people won’t be able to wait for the next episode to read. Science fiction, superheroes — I love high-concept stories. Not just the usual heroes and aliens, but something fresh.”
Some things just don’t change with technology. The allure of Lee’s well-told tales is one of them.
Pam Dixon’s column about technology and the arts appears the first Sunday of each month. Stan Lee sites Here are some Stan Lee-related Web sites: Stan Lee Media (www.stanleemedia.com) — Watch this site for the launch of “The 7th Portal.” AcmeCity (www.acmecity.com) — 20mg free home pages and home of Stan Lee’s fan club. Stan Lee Information (www.stanlee.net) — For general information on Stan Lee and his work. Pam Dixon