Since the 1960s, Marvel Comics has distinguished itself from its rivals by setting its fantastic superhero tales in relatively realistic locales. While its chief competitor, DC Comics, placed the exploits of Superman and Batman in the fictional cities of Metropolis and Gotham, native New Yorker Stan Lee, mastermind behind such iconic characters as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, juxtaposed his crimefighters against the neighborhoods in which he grew up. In 1981, Lee relocated to the West Coast to be closer to his company's burgeoning film and television ventures, and several of his super friends followed suit. Lee, who headlines Stan Lee's Los Angeles Comic Con this weekend, took some time to dish with us about some of Marvel's most prominent L.A.-based heroes.
NYC Iron Man vs. L.A. Iron Man
Like Lee, Tony "Iron Man" Stark (portrayed by Robert Downey Jr. in the Avengers film series and his own franchise) reps both coasts. Initially a Manhattanite, Stark joined his creator on his move to SoCal in the ’80s. But Stan loves his brainchild no matter where he resides.
"I just like to write about a city I’m living in," Lee explains. "When I created all those other superheroes, I was living in New York. So I had most of them live in New York, because I knew where to place them. I could keep things accurate. I could have the Fantastic Four have their headquarters downtown on the west side of 42nd Street, let’s say. I could have Iron Man live in a brownstone facing Central Park on Fifth Avenue. I knew if you mention real places, rather than Gotham City, the reader can relate to it much better.”
In 1975, Marvel decided to venture away from its signature New York setting and published its first L.A.-based superhero team, the Champions. Like a comic book version of the Island of Misfit Toys, this series featured less popular Avengers and X-Men, such as Angel and Hercules, who'd been phased out of their original titles to make room for more exciting characters. Don't worry if you don't remember it, because Stan Lee doesn't either.
"We had a team called the Champions?" asks a baffled Lee. "I don't remember. After we’re through I’ll look them up.”
West Coast Avengers
A second, considerably more successful attempt at an L.A. super team emerged in the mid-’80s with this Avengers spinoff. Contrasting the more serious tone of its New York analog, the West Coast Avengers enjoyed a quirkier sensibility unique to its setting.
“I dunno, maybe L.A. is just a funnier place," Lee muses. "It’s freer. People here are looser. The best example I can give you is when I worked in New York, I wore a tie every day. I’ve lived here for 40 years or so — I haven’t had a tie on once. I have a closet filled with about 50 ties that will never see any wear again. Maybe I should advertise them for sale. I’ll autograph them. You’ve given me an idea. Hurry up with the interview, because I want to do that."
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A founding member of the West Cost Avengers, the ion-powered Simon "Wonder Man" William is the king of the reboot. This Stan Lee creation went from a reluctant villain to a vegetable suffering a decadelong coma to a super heroic Rip van Winkle. After Lee moved to L.A., the character evolved yet again, this time into a Hollywood-wannabe stereotype. Being a superhero wasn't fulfilling enough for Williams; he wanted to be a movie star, too. For Lee, these changes were motivated less by artistry and more by pragmatism.
"I thought he wasn’t doing well the first way, so I changed him," Lee says of Wonder Man. "When you write comics, you are a little like God. You can turn a man into a woman, make a good guy into a bad guy. It's fun doing that. If you feel your character isn’t getting the success you want the character to have, you either drop the character or change it. If I like the name, first I try to change it, see if I can get some use out of the name. But if that doesn’t work, I’m happy to drop it."
Comikaze vs. L.A. Comic Con
This pragmatism is seen when it comes to Lee's own comic book convention. Originally named Comikaze, the event was rechristened Los Angeles Comic Con this year for the sake of simplicity.
Lee says, "I felt the name Comikaze may actually have confused people, and stopped them from coming to the con because they didn’t realize it was a comic con. Calling it Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con is as direct as you can get."