SAVANNAH, Ga. — Before he scripted the first adventures of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, a young Stan Lee launched his career in comic books as a lowly sidekick. To hear Lee tell it, the artists he worked for as a teenage assistant in 1940 might as well have dubbed him the Anonymous Eraser-Boy.
"They gave me a big eraser and I had to go over the pages to make sure the pencil marks didn't show," after artists finished their drawings in black ink, Lee said Wednesday as he revealed this to an awe-struck classroom of art students on the Georgia coast. "You guys are actually drawing. I never got past erasing."
It doesn't take a comics geek to know Lee leaped beyond erasing to became the head writer and editor of Marvel Comics in the 1960s, when his collaborations with artists unleashed the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men and Iron Man among a seemingly endless parade of superheroes. Half a century later, at age 89, Lee is arguably comics' biggest superstar. He also remains a font of inspiration to Hollywood – which finally has the technology to recreate Lee's wildest ideas – and to a new generation of comic book artists.
It was the movies that brought Lee to Georgia, where Tuesday night he received an award at the Savannah Film Festival. But as "The Amazing Spider-Man" was screened Wednesday, Lee slipped away to hobnob with students at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
"It's not a throne?" Lee quipped as he sat in a plastic chair at the head of a table surrounded by 11 students, each one with broadsheets pages of their works-in-progress, bottles of ink and an iPad.
If Lee himself possessed a superpower, it would be his ability to conquer the generation gap. The young artists he met seem as familiar with Lee as they are with his costumed heroes.
"You see Stan Lee and everyone knows who he is," said art student Dan Glasl. "Every kid has this part of their life where they're this awkward, geeky sort of kid. And Spider-Man is the character every kid can put themselves into."
Quizzed about the early days at Marvel and the source of his ideas, Lee's answers were rarely glamorous. At parties, Lee said, he would often tell people he was a writer – or a magazine writer if they pushed for details. And like Spider-Man, who after battling Doctor Octopus would resume worrying about how to pay Aunt May's bills, Lee said making a living was always a chief concern.
"We just hoped that a book we were drawing would sell so we could keep our jobs and pay the rent," he said. "We never for one minute thought there would be schools where they teach this."
Lee kept things light and lively, generously pouring over pages of students' art and heaping praise on them. "Oh, man, that's all we need is a lot more competition." When the talk turned to digital comics created for tablets and smartphones he groaned, "Boy, do I feel like a caveman."
Lee caught 25-year-old student Jen Hickman off guard when he appeared in the door of a room where she was drawing in her Halloween costume. She came to school dressed as a certain bat-eared, caped crusader who belongs to Marvel's biggest competitor, DC Comics.
"You're a Batman fan, obviously," Lee told Hickman. "I'm not talking to you."
Lee and his handlers left just before classes ended.
Students clutching backpacks rushed to the door. "Is Stan outside? Is he standing outside?" Then they ran outside to wave at the tinted windows of the shuttle bus taking Lee to his next stop.
Anthony Fisher, who heads the Savannah art college's sequential art department, said he suspects his students relate both to the timelessness of Lee's comic book characters and to the creator's bottomless enthusiasm. Though Lee turns 90 this December, he still heads up POW! Entertainment – a company that creates characters ready to spin off into movies, TV shows and comics.
"Stan's passionate really about story and character and that never dies over time," Fisher said. "I think when he meets the younger generation, he sees their passion and their drive and he just feeds off of it."
While Hollywood can now realistically render the most eye-popping superpowers and epic battles, Lee said he doesn't see comic books fading into obscurity.
"Whether it'll be on the printed page or on an iPhone screen or an iPad – there are so many places they can go," Lee said. "But I think with comics there's something about drawings mixed with dialogue that people enjoy. The comic book format, people enjoy that. And I think it'll be around a long time."