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Stan Lee Talks with Roger

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stan leeComic-book legend Stan Lee, who turns 92 next week, makes the move into children’s books with the publication in January of his novel Zodiac, written with Stuart Moore and illustrated by Andie Tong. Lee brings plenty of comic-book expertise to the story, which swiftly finds Chinese American teen Steven Lee (surely the name is not a coincidence) in trouble up to his neck. He discovers his super-powers just in time, but will even they be enough to thwart the evil conspiracy? Good thing he meets some super-friends, too, each one assuming the power of one of the animals of the Chinese zodiac. To say that action abounds is to put it very mildly indeed.

Roger Sutton: So, Stan, from comic books to children’s books. How do you like it here?

Stan Lee: Well, it was a lot of fun, and of course I was doing it with [coauthor] Stuart Moore. It was just like writing a comic book, only you don’t put dialogue balloons in. Instead you put quotes around the dialogue.

RS: What most surprised you about writing a novel? What did you have to learn?

SL: I wasn’t thinking about the differences. I was just thinking about how to make the story interesting, which is all you ever think about when you write anything, whether it’s a comic book, a novel, or a movie script. No matter what you write, it’s a matter of putting words in a certain order so that the reader will be interested in what you’re writing.

RS: How did it feel to not leave room for the pictures?

SL: Oh, it felt fine. But of course there are a lot of illustrations. The story doesn’t lead into the pictures, but then again, when I was writing comics, I would write an outline or a summary or a synopsis — a very long one, sometimes — of the story, before I even went anywhere near the artist to have him draw it. So this wasn’t that much different.

RS: How does that work in a comic? I’m really ignorant about this. Do author and artist sort of work in tandem, or is the artist given a text?

SL: There are two ways to do it. The standard way, which I didn’t employ, was the writer writes a script, just like you’d write a screenplay, then gives the script to the artist, and the artist then illustrates it. The way I worked was different. To me it was better. I would write an outline of the entire story, then I would give that to the artist, and I would say, “This story has to be, let’s say, 22 pages long. Now you do it any way you want, as long as you include all the details that I gave you.” The artist would do my story, but he would do it in his own style, in his own way, with the illustrations. Then the illustrations would come back to me, and I would put in the dialogue balloons, the captions, the sound effects, everything else. I think it’s the best way to work, because by looking at the illustrations, I could make the dialogue fit exactly with the drawings, whereas when you write a script and then give it to an artist, the artist may not draw the character looking just the way he should be looking with the dialogue that he’s saying, if you know what I mean.

RS: Sure.

SL: It’s easier for the writer to make the dialogue absolutely work with the illustrations under my style, which became known as the Marvel style.

RS: It sounds like you really have a lot of faith in people you collaborate with.

SL: Because I only collaborate with the best people.

RS: How did you work with Stuart on the novel? Who did what?

SL: We talked about it. He did a lot of the writing. I did a lot of the synopsizing, and giving him what the story should be.

RS: So you had the concept for the Zodiac superheroes?

SL: Yes, the concept started with us at POW! Entertainment. Stuart did a great job, I might add. And I think the illustrator, Andie Tong, did a great job. I was lucky. I always try to work with the best possible people, and this time I really hit the jackpot.

RS: That’s great. If my math is right, the Chinese zodiac says you’re a Dog.

SL: I’m a dog?

RS: You’re a dog.

SL: I hope I’m a cute one. What kind of dog am I?

RS: I don’t know. I just looked up your birth date on the Chinese zodiac online machine, and it said you were a dog. I’m a monkey.

SL: Well, I’d like a few more details. That doesn’t satisfy me. I mean, I could be a Chihuahua, or I could be a German shepherd.

RS: Yeah, but I’m not Barbara Walters, and I’m not going to ask you what kind of dog you are.

SL: Now, you can’t get out of it that easily.

lee_zodiac legacyRS: Stan, you sound cute. Okay, I want to quote a sentence from your very own novel, which I thought was telling. The character Ryan says pretty early on, “You and your heroes, Lee. They’re not real, you know.” Do you see any of yourself in your main character, Lee?

SL: Oh, I see myself in everything I write. All the good guys are me.

RS: Just the good guys?

SL: I model all the heroes after myself. Of course, it’s hard to make them quite as wonderful as I am, but I come as close as I can.

RS: That’s good to know. It seems that, both in comics — which as I’ve said before I don’t know very well — and certainly in fiction for young people, this concept of teams of superheroes has become huge. When I was a kid, most of the comics we read focused on a single superhero, with occasional jumbo editions about the Justice League or the Avengers, but you mostly followed one hero at a time. Why do you think we now have more heroes in groups?

SL: I think kids love superheroes, and the more you can crowd into a story, the more excited they get. I know I always used to get fan mail saying, “Who would win in a fight: the Hulk or Thor?” Or this one or that one. Who’s smarter, this one or that one? They always think of the heroes in relation to the other heroes. So if you can put them together in a team, and if the reader can see how they react to each other and get along with each other, I think that becomes very exciting to somebody who loves superheroes.

RS: I wonder also if it allows a whole range of kids to find someone to identify with in the comic or in the story.

SL: Well, you always try to make your hero somebody that a kid can easily identify with. Here we have a Chinese American teenager. I think everybody is going to identify with our hero.

RS: And there are also plenty of other characters in the book for them to follow.

SL: Of course. In fact, the whole book is crowded with exciting characters. The story, I think, is so complex, and yet easy for a youngster to understand. And that’s the best thing, when you can get a plot that moves in many directions with a surprise on almost every page, and yet do it in such a way that the youngest kid can follow it and enjoy it. Then you’ve really got something, and I’m hoping that we’ve accomplished that with our Zodiac book.

RS: Are you planning to do sequels to this book?

SL: Oh, absolutely. I’m one of the biggest sequel guys you know.

RS: What’s the plan?

SL: Can’t tell you.

RS: One? Four? You don’t know?

SL: I don’t know, but I know we’re going to have at least one. As soon as this book becomes the nation’s number-one bestseller, we will plunge into the sequel. And even if it doesn’t, we’ll say, “Okay, the sequel will be the bestseller, then.” But I don’t know how this book can miss, because it really has everything. See, it’s not just superheroes. People like stories that are bigger than life, about characters with unusual powers. And when you get all the characters in the zodiac, it’s so colorful, and it’s so rich in different attitudes that the characters have.

RS: There’s definitely a lot going on.

SL: I just judge by what I like, and I like that kind of story.

RS: Well, you do seem to have your finger on the pulse of the popular imagination, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

SL: Right, and I’m not going to let go.

RS: Uh-oh. Sounds like a threat. Do you see the Zodiac heroes moving into other media? Comics, movies, theme park rides?

SL: No reason why not. One thing at a time. First we have to make this a bestselling book, and then it could go in any direction. It could be a big major motion picture, a TV series, toys, dolls, games. It could be a whole theme park. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

RS: Think big, Stan.

Sponsored by
Disney-Hyperion

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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