LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Superheroes may come and go, but Stan Lee is forever.
At age 86, the grand master of the comic-book world — and the Marvel universe, in particular — is still going strong, creating a fresh crop of mythic characters with outsize powers and troubled pasts. As he reflects on a landscape that has undergone a seismic shift in the past 30 years, Lee is far from out of ideas or ambition.
“People usually retire because they can finally stop working and they’ll have the time to do what they really want to do,” Lee says. “But I’m doing what I want to do! If anybody forced me to spend a day on the golf course, I’d feel I was being tortured!”
Famous for co-creating some of the most enduring comics heroes in history (Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four), Lee is still innovating. He will unleash his latest creation — a digital comic titled “Time Jumper” — Thursday at Comic-Con, a conference he has attended since just after its launch in 1970.
Backed by Disney, the project is made up of serialized five-minute episodes with built-in cliffhangers that will be released every two weeks through December.
“Once it’s premiered on cell phones and the Internet, it could go anywhere,” Lee says. “It could become a TV series, it could become a movie. We want to start this one slowly and build up the fan following and get the excitement and the mystery behind it and have people talking about it.”
Disney’s initial order is for 10 episodes, with a viral marketing campaign to promote the project and, launching Thursday, a free “Time Jumper” iPhone application that enables fans to convert photos to comic-book imagery, plus 99-cent episode downloads available on iTunes.
Disney’s splashy launch makes sense. In the past decade, comics have moved up the entertainment food chain and are treated like blockbuster films, with comics creators launching new material as “events.” But far from decrying the co-option of Comic-Con by Hollywood, Lee sees the movie industry’s interest as a boon for the business.
“Now the comic books themselves have gotten better and better,” he says. “Because more and more top writers and top artists, who in the past might not have considered working for comics, are eager to work for comic books and graphic novels. Mainly because they’re hoping that whatever they do will result in it turning into a motion picture.”
Lee actually has been moving in the opposite direction these past few years. He now spends much of his time developing treatments and outlines for potential live-action and animation films, TV and videogame franchises.
When Lee moved from New York to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, it was to animate Marvel’s characters in cartoons, but his interest in film and TV was soon sparked. That’s now the main focus of POW! Entertainment, the company he launched in 2005 after failing with another company, Stan Lee Media, which he is still battling in litigation. POW! has a first-look deal with Disney, which recently extended the relationship.
“It’s been very gratifying,” Lee says. “But every time we discuss anything with anybody, they say, ‘Are you going to do a comic-book version?’ So we can’t get away from comics — and I must admit I’m not really eager to get away from comics.”
Among Lee’s POW! projects for Disney are three new characters — Blaze, Tigress and Nick Ratchett — designed specifically for potential feature franchises. All three screenplays are still in the works, with Gary Goldman (“Next”) writing “Blaze,” Zoe Green (“Book of Shadows”) writing “Tigress” and Doug Cook and David Weisberg (“The Rock”) writing “Ratchett.” Richard LaGravenese (“P.S. I Love You”) was once attached to direct “Ratchett,” a mystery thriller about a timid police officer and his tough online alter-ego, but none of these projects has signed a director.
Lee has set no hard deadlines for himself. “The script is everything,” he says. “I’m an impatient guy. I wish the script could be written overnight and we could get going. But there isn’t really a time frame.”
Meanwhile, Lee remains tangentially involved, as an executive producer, on Marvel Studios’ feature output, including recent hits “The Incredible Hulk” (2008); “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” (2007); “Spider-Man 3” (2007); and “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006).
“The First Avenger: Captain America” — a character that Lee did not create but helped revive in the 1960s — is moving toward production for a July 22, 2011, release date. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (“The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”) are writing the screenplay for Joe Johnston (“The Wolf Man”) to direct.
Then there are the ideas cooking on Lee’s secret stove, like “Legion of 5,” which POW! is producing with CGI-animation company Rainmaker Entertainment. Uncharacteristically, Lee, who is still working on the treatment, is reluctant to divulge the idea.
What he will talk about is “Revolt of the Titanic Ten,” which Lee claims will “open up a whole new business by itself, because we have 10 superheroes unlike any that have ever been seen before.” Lee hopes to develop the idea for film, TV and comics.
Lee also is going global, working on superheroes native to such countries as India and China. An anime TV show called “Hero-man” is in development for the Japanese audience to go with the manga “Ultimo.” Lee is also fashioning an American “ecological superhero” concept as a potential movie character.
He is modest about his legacy, even as he now has his name on more than 1 billion comics in 75 countries. Gill Champion, the president and COO of POW!, notes that Lee’s legacy will be fully explored in “True Believer,” a feature-length documentary they are hoping to finish by year’s end.
“Time is the big thing,” Lee says. “I wish we could have 60 hours a day so we could develop everything at once!”
Time, indeed. At 86, Lee is old enough to remember the very creation of comic books. But his enthusiasm continues to run at the pace of a 16-year-old fanboy. And don’t say “retirement” in front of him.
“Are you allowed to use that kind of language in a public forum?” Lee jokes.
Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters