PW Comics Week walked into the press room at the San Diego Comic-con International a little early and a little bit nervous because we were scheduled to interview the legendary Stan Lee, arguably one of the most influential and well known figures in the history of American Comics. Along with the work of his equally legendary Marvel co-creator Jack Kirby, Lee’s work, style and public persona has had a formidable impact on many American comics readers including on this reporter. As I entered the room, the former president and chairman of Marvel Comics was seated at a table and paying close attention to a young boy who was talking to him. Turns out the young boy was there thanks to the support from a foundation that makes kids wishes come true and, in this case, the boy really wanted to meet Stan Lee.
Lee was on hand at Comic-con this year to promote Ultimo, a new manga series he is working on for Viz Media in collaboration with the noted manga-ka Hiroyuki Takei, creator of the bestselling manga series Shaman King. Originally conceived for the Japanese market, Ultimo is now being translated and released in English for the U.S. market. It’s the story of two mysterious and powerful mechanized figures—one apparently totally good; while the other is relentlessly evil—created by a Dr. Dunstan, an equally mysterious scientist/shaman figure that looks suspiciously like Stan Lee himself. In Ultimo, a kind of samurai-sensibility meets the Marvel Universe and once Ultimo and Vice meet and clash, epic city-destroying battles ensue in the best tradition of apocalyptic comic book fights.
Lee is 87 years old and was gracious and relaxed during the interview even though he was clearly losing his voice after a succession of morning interviews. Despite his failing gravelly voice, he was game and very lively while speaking briefly with PW Comics Week about working with Takei-sensei and the differences he sees between creating comics for Americans and Japanese fans and his reactions in general to the Japanese manga market.
PW Comics Week: Do Ultimo and Vice remind you of any the work you may have done at Marvel?
Stan Lee: Sure. Any hero and any villain I’ve ever written are like Ultimo and Vice. One guy is the ultimate good guy and the other we think is the ultimate villain but we may find out a lot of different things about him. But I can’t give the story away.
PWCW: Okay, we’ll be sure and keep reading. Can you describe your working relationship with Takei-Sensei?
SL: He’s a very talented artist/writer. The way we work is difficult. I tell him something, it’s translated; he answers me, it’s translated. Also, we’re 5,000 miles apart. We occasionally have video conferences also with the usual translations. Basically, I gave him the basic concept of the story and the characters and I let him handle it from then on. So it’s not as though I’m writing it and he’s drawing it; he may even have someone else doing it with him. But he’s providing the writing and the artwork and they send it to me. I look it over—I wouldn’t dare suggest any changes; they know manga much better than I do. So it’s lovely. He does all the work and I get half the credit. I love that arrangement.
PWCW: Not a bad deal at all. What’s the biggest difference you can see between making comics for U.S. fans and making comics for Japanese fans?
SL: U.S. comics have a lot of rules. The Japanese comics don’t seem to have those rules. [In manga] the story can go on as long as they want or as short as they want; they can spend 5 pages with a fight scene or two panels; they can play up one or two characters endlessly for pages and then go into something else. It seems to be [that the comics can be any] way the writer or the artist just envisions it. In an American comic it’s more structured like a motion picture with Act I, II and III. You meet the characters here and you learn of the problem; you have your big fight here and it’s resolved here. The Japanese comics are much more free-form. They seem to be less structured, but I could be wrong because in the Japanese way of doing it they may be very structured but since I don’t read Japanese it’s hard for me to know.
PWCW: Do you think an American style comic could work in Japan?
SL: I wouldn’t know how to do it but [Ultimo] is as close as you can come. Ultimo, is also being done in English and sold here. So in a way this is what you’re suggesting.
PWCW: Any plans to do more manga?
SL: Absolutely. Judging by Takei-san, these Japanese artists and writers are so talented. It’s a joy working with them. It’s a joy to write the initial story and then see how they interpret it in ways that I may never have imagined it. Also Ultimo may end up being an animated show. I think there will be TV or a movie based on it and I think it’s got a big future in Japan and throughout the western world. I’ve got my fingers crossed. It’s just a pleasure working with Takei-sensei. He does it on his own in the perfect Japanese style.
PWCW: What was your first reaction to seeing the Japanese comics market?
SL: I said, ‘boy this doesn’t look like the American Comics.’ But that’s fine because a lot of the Spanish comics don’t look American and Indian comics don’t look American. I think it’s good that there are many different styles [of comics], you know. Each time you see and get into a new style of comic you learn more and its more interesting than seeing the same thing all the time. I know how popular manga is with American readers as well as Japanese readers. So that’s why I consider myself very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Takei-san and to be doing a strip like this.