The 76-year-old founder of Marvel Comics is launching his first new characters in 30 years-but you won’t find them on any drugstore magazine rack. Stan Lee, the man responsible for spawning comic book colossals like The Incredible Hulk and X-Men, will debut a series called The Seventh Portal on the Web June 1. The series features about a dozen original characters in all, including six or seven new superheroes from different countries around the world-each of whom derives a special power from the Internet. The on-line strip is targeted at kids and teens ages 10 to 20, a demo that Lee feels will play a crucial role in reviving today’s flagging comic book industry.
‘There are many problems plaguing the traditional comic book publishing business right now, but I’ll just discuss a couple. First, content providers have shifted their focus away from kids, and are writing and designing for a much older college-age crowd. The problem with that is that whole generations of kids are growing up completely oblivious to the world of superheroes. Eventually, there will be no fans left to buy the books,’ explains Lee. ‘Secondly, there’s a diminishing number of distribution outlets for comic books-in the industry’s heyday, there were about 6,000 stores that carried comics regularly. Today that number has shrunk to 2,500.’
This distribution crisis-coupled with Lee’s departure from Marvel’s management team in October, when the comic company emerged from bankruptcy as part of Toy Biz Inc.-triggered the decision to partner with Web design company Organic to build a site from which to launch new properties. A one-stop community hub for comic book fans and budding designers, Lee’s Internet venture (www.stanlee.net) features free Web pages, e-mail, games and a title-trading area.
Peter Paul, co-founder of Stan Lee Media, the company behind it all, is banking on the draw of Stan’s international fame to attract fans and financiers alike. It’s estimated that Lee’s name and images have appeared in 2 billion comic books, distributed in more than 100 countries. ‘Stan Lee has become a living icon for the comic book industry,’ says Paul. ‘He and his creations are globally recognizable, making his branded site a very effective tool for reaching followers of the comic book lifestyle.’
So far, the ploy seems to be working-StanLee.net garnered a one-day total of 250,000 hits when it launched on the Web January 19, and the company is projecting monthly hits of 7 million when all the site’s functions are operational.
Stan Lee Media is positioning e-commerce as its primary income generator. The company is currently negotiating deals with several on-line retailers, spanning product categories like trading cards, comic books, action figures, apparel, music and videos. Other Net-based, revenue-getting activities that are on the slate for development include advertising, sponsorships, co-branding with a major portal site, product placement, endorsements, Web publishing and on-line gaming. Lee is also keen to use the Web site to set up a distance learning certificate program called Stan Lee Superhero University, which will offer training for comic book and animation artists and writers.
Lee’s Internet venture affords him the ownership of his characters for the first time in a sixty-year-long career; Marvel Enterprises holds the rights to most of his older comic book creations. Despite the fact that Stan’s new superhero crew hasn’t even debuted yet, his company’s already hard at work inking a slew of off-line development deals for The Seventh Portal series. According to Paul and Lee, preliminary work is underway on a 3-D movie being created by a major animation house in India, and at press time, deals for a video game and animated television series based around the new characters were being hammered out.
No stranger to character cross-treatment, Lee guided the transformation of Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk into Saturday morning TV series while serving as creative head of Marvel’s cinematic division. While at Marvel, he also designed a number of animation concepts for network broadcast and syndication, including Mudball McBear, Super Goose, The Mysteries of Sally Turner, The Littlest Dinosaur and Tender Hearts.