Interview: Stan Lee

Clad in a bright orange sweater, the 90-year-old man beats his breast. He lifts his specs to wipe tears off. “No…No,” he shouts in disbelief. Why this melodrama, you wonder? Comic legend Stan Lee, co-creater of iconic superheroes like Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Avengers and many others, cannot believe that the count of his Twitter followers has not yet touched the one million mark. Lee’s present stunt is part of a video campaign on his web site The Real Stan Lee to up the number of followers before his 91st birthday on December 28.

At 90, you would think such a campaign would have stemmed out of Lee’s boredom with his 60-year-old career. But legends don’t get bored. Nor do they need breaks. “I’m having so much fun,” says Lee. “Why is everyone in a hurry to make me retire?” Riding on the success of his recently created Chinese superhero The Annihilator, which is being adapted into a film, and the third edition of his comics convention Comikaze Expo striking gold, Lee has decided to shift gears and set out to India.
The latest superhero out of Lee’s workshop, Chakra The Invincible, as the name suggests, has Indian origins.
Lee has tied up with Bangalore-based animation company Graphic India and Cartoon Network to create Chakra, his first Indian superhero, who will grace our TV screens in a 66-minute made-for-television film on November 30. It tells the story of a Mumbai teenager Raju Rai, who with the help of a suit developed by his mentor and scientist Dr Singh, protects the city from evil super villains. The superhero derives his powers from his special suit which is designed in order to activate the chakras of the body.
Lee, who is currently the chairman emeritus of Marvel Comics and the Chief Creative Officer of his multimedia entertainment company POW! Entertainment, talks to THE WEEK in an email interaction about the inspiration to create an Indian superhero, his views on the Indian animation scene and his love for acting.

What inspired you to create an Indian superhero?
When Sharad Devarajan of Graphic India came to me with the idea, I thought why not. I thought it would be exciting to bring my own style of storytelling to India and collaborate with the amazing artists there. I am so thrilled that I have been able to create an Indian character as I have always been fascinated by the culture. It is philosophical and rich in tradition and morality.

What is the secret mantra that makes your superheroes work?
I think my characters have withstood the changing times because we concentrated just as much on the characters’ private lives as we did on them fighting the bad guys. What makes Chakra such a compelling story is that we care about Raju Rai and his personal challenges. It is basic human challenges like having trouble paying the bills, bullies at school or a crush that make heroes such as Chakra relatable.

Almost all the alter-egos of your superheroes, be it Peter Parker (Spider-Man) or Tony Stark (Iron Man), are deeply flawed. 
I think if they’re not flawed, they become incredibly uninteresting and one-dimensional. Achilles without his heel wouldn’t even be known today. So, I’ve always tried to make the characters I’ve written as realistic as possible and I give them just one attribute that makes them incredibly colourful.


On what levels did you collaborate with Indian artists for this project? How do you rate their work?
I created a very detailed story for Chakra that established all the characters and created the foundation. Sharad, the director of the animated film, and his team at Graphic India then created the exciting masterpiece that was launched on Cartoon Network. An amazing Indian artist, Jeevan Kang, developed the character designs and costumes, and I gave my feedback and notes on the art and scripts. I have been really impressed by what Sharad and his team have been doing to reinvigorate the Indian comic-book industry. There is some great stuff coming out of India and I’m impressed by the largely conducive atmosphere supporting its growth.

Will we see shades of mythological characters in Chakra?
Chakra is based on many mythological as well as real characters. He is a perfect mix of traditional and contemporary values. All my characters are different from each other—they have different powers, motivations and backgrounds. Though I hope Chakra also has the elements that made Spider-Man, Iron Man and all my characters popular, I also want him to be unique.

Superheroes are held responsible for the violent streak in children.  
My stories have always had a lot of action and there’s a difference between action and violence. To me, violence is something very unpleasant, it is torture or people getting injured in ways that make you feel horrible. With the stuff I write, it is usually super-powered people fighting each other with action, adventure and fun. Sure, superheroes fight super villains but the stories are really about good versus bad. I think superhero stories are very similar to the myths and fairy tales we grew up with. Kids are reading stories of witches, ogres, giants, monsters and so forth. They are all people with powers and abilities that no humans have. The villains are always larger than life and are like the giants and the dragons in fairy tales. So, instead of making them violent, these stories will provide kids with clarity about good versus evil.

Among your superheroes, who is your favourite?
When I was writing each one, they were my favourite at that moment because I was so involved in them. I’ve been so busy working that I’ve never had time to think about favourites. They’re all like my children anyway.

Who are your inspirations?
Oh, I guess like everybody else, my influences were the things I read and the movies I saw growing up. I could only go to about one movie a month, just because of the price. Luckily, I could read any time, so I did a lot of that. I read legends like Robin Hood, The Odyssey, and Sherlock Holmes. My favourite movie star, by far, was Errol Flynn. I thought this guy was the greatest because he always played such heroic roles. He was either the sheriff of Dodge City,  Robin Hood, or Captain Blood. When I left the theatre as a 10-year-old, I imagine I had a little crooked smile the way Flynn did, and an imaginary sword at my side while I swashbuckled down the street. We all have people we admire, actors we admire, fictional characters we admire, and if we didn’t, what would we ever have to aim for? What goals would we have?

You are probably the busiest 90-year-old in town.
I think if you enjoy what you do it is like playing and you can’t stop. Most men want to retire at a certain age. They say ‘I can’t wait to retire so I can play golf or travel’, or whatever it is. But I’m already doing what I want to do. It is so much fun. Think about what we are doing now with Chakra. What a great new challenge it is to create this whole new superhero! That’s the kind of fun I love.

Your message to upcoming creators.
Always try to write stories that you would like to read. If your story interests and excites you, chances are it will do the same for your readers.

Finally, if not creating superheroes, what would you have done in life?
I think I would have tried to be an actor. I love action almost as much as writing.


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