No one could hold court like Stan Lee.
Whether at a comic convention or one of his countless appearances at college campuses around the world, Lee reveled in his role as comics’ ringmaster. Armed with endless yarns to spin, clever wit, and boundless charisma, Stan "The Man" turned Con appearances into performance art. It’s one of the most underrated aspects of his legacy. The man could work a room.
Lee, who passed away yesterday at the age of 95, taught new generations of creators not only how to create comic book stories, but how to engage their fans. One of those people who Lee helped mentor was Todd McFarlane. The creator of Spawn, McFarlane Toys founder, and former Marvel Comics superstar took some time on a very difficult day to talk with SYFY WIRE about Lee and his impact on the popular arts, and on himself.
“I wish I wasn’t talking to you today,” McFarlane said, glumly. To McFarlane, Lee wasn’t just an industry legend who paved the way for him and the other young guns who upended comics in the early '90s with Image Comics. They became close over the years, often doing panels together on the convention circuit. McFarlane recalled his feelings during his recent final visit with Lee, and he also shared some fond memories of a man who was once his idol and became a friend.
You visited Stan at his house not too long ago. Did you think that would be the last time you would see him?
Todd McFarlane: You know what, in the back of my mind, Mike, like with your grandparents, it’s there. You just never know. There was a doubt there. But then again, there were times [in the past], like a few years back when he had some health problems. I’d see him and he just didn’t look healthy. You can tell when someone you care for isn’t feeling well. I’d be thinking, "I hope I get to see Stan again." And then he’d get a stent in his heart and he’d be back full of energy, like a robot.
We forgot Stan was a 95-year-old man, because he always marveled us. And I don’t mean to use that as a pun. But that’s what he did with his energy and stamina. He was high-octane. And it shocked us, because we never gave him the grace of growing old. He was on a pedestal for us.
You were able to see a side of Stan Lee most of us probably didn’t. What can you tell us about Stan when he was offstage?
The magic of Stan, the superpower he had, was in the way he conducted himself with the fans and his peers. For some of us, going out there to meet the fans means mustering up the energy. You got a lot of people at a convention waiting to see you. But the reason Stan was so good in those 30 seconds where fans are waiting to meet him and get a signature, where he made you feel special, is because that’s who he was. It wasn't an act.
I’ve got memories and video recordings of us getting in a car after a show, and it’s just us and the driver. And he goes right into a conversation, an open book. The same shtick we did onstage earlier, he would do it right there. "Why are you here, Todd? I don’t need ugly on the stage with me." And I’d be just, "Wow." Either he was ON all the time, which is impossible, or that was him. It was him. Totally genuine. And that’s why he was so good with the fans.
He understood the importance of those 30 seconds, that it was about making this person here in front of me feel important for 30 seconds. He understood that better than just about every celebrity I’ve seen in my entire life. He should have written a book on how celebrities should interact with their fans.”
The level of fame he achieved in the last decade was remarkable. He was 90+ years old and the biggest star at San Diego Comic-Con!
Has there even been a celebrity who has come in and peaked at the age of 88 and then gone out on top at 95? What are you talking about? He defied logic and the norms on so many levels. He could just keep going and going. He did that creatively too. Look at all the characters he helped create. We could only hope to create a fraction of that.
When I would be at a show with him and I wasn’t doing a panel with him, I liked to stand off to the side and just watch him entertain. He was a natural-born entertainer. And he had so many stories. He could regale a whole room full of people for hours with his tales — when he had his full energy, and that really only changed recently. In the past year or so. But when he had his health, essentially all they had to do on a panel was ask him, "Stan, how you doing?" And he’d be off to the races.
Stan’s legacy is complicated. What does it mean for you?
I think Stan’s legacy will only continue to grow. I think as decades pass, the impact of what he helped put into motion will keep expanding. Just like Disney kept growing after Walt died, you’re going to see Marvel evolve and grow.
As time goes by, other creators will build more around those characters Stan helped create. And the Universe is going to get bigger. His legacy to me is giant — we may need to come up with a new word to describe it. I think 20 years from now, you and I will have a conversation and we’ll talk about how we sold him short. What Stan Lee set in motion will not stop spinning, and will only continue to do so.
Stan also had a lot of traits that it seems we as humans should all try and emulate. Being happy, gregarious, and enjoying the company of other people. Not saying too many negative words. I wish it wasn’t just when those people pass away that we stop and say, "Wow, those things are really precious."
Do you have a favorite memory of Stan?
I’ve got two. The one at the top, by far, is the time I met him for the first time. It was by accident. I was at a hotel that had a comics convention. He was there and he let me sit next to him all day and ask him questions because I was thinking I may try to break in to comics. I’m 16 years old, I just started collecting. He let me sit there all day long. That day had a giant impact on my life. He, of course, had no recollection of that, but he left an impact on me. Remember the 30 seconds we talked about earlier? This was seven hours!
The other story I have on video. In all the panels I did with him, Stan would tell all these great stories, right? And then you get fan questions. And you always get the same ones: "Stan, who is your favorite character?" I was up on stage with him and a couple of the Image guys at this show when somebody asked Stan that question, who's your favorite character. We’ve all heard this before. The answer is always Spider-Man, right? So Stan paused, looked at me and said, "You know, I’m going to make a lifelong fan here."
He then said, "My favorite character is Spawn!" I got down on my knees and kissed his feet right there. I told him it was the best day ever, and that we had it on tape, so he doesn’t get to take it back!