Stan Lee knows that many people who toiled in the early days of comics didn't receive pensions or insurance. That's why Lee, who created Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, helps raise money for the Hero Initiative, which provides assistance to comic-book creators who are facing hard times. "Almost every group, every union, has something for people who are having a hard time of it, but in comics there was nothing like that,” Lee said in an interview with The Oklahoman. "I felt this is really a good thing for people who have spent years doing comics. And for whatever reason, maybe the editors now feel their style is too old-fashioned, maybe they've been ill, or maybe they're too old ... but suddenly they're out in the cold and might need help. There should be an organization where we help our own,” Lee said. Stan's recent benefit discussion for the Hero Initiative, "Marvel: Then and Now,” held Dec. 2 at UCLA, will be released on DVD to raise money for the Hero Initiative. Fans can preorder the DVD at www.thenandnowdvd.org. Lee discussed Marvel Comics with current Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada, in a discussion moderated by filmmaker Kevin Smith. "I think it was kind of informative, if anybody's interested in comics, because Joe Quesada had a lot of cogent things to say about the new wave of comics — how they're being done and why they're being done. Kevin Smith is always a delight to listen to. He always manages to say things that are totally unexpected, thoroughly ridiculous and entirely provocative.” Lee said the audience was treated to a freewheeling discussion about comics, past and present. "It's probably the most informal group of three people on a stage,” he said. "It was three people having a good time and kidding around. And I think anyone watching will also learn a lot in the middle of the kidding around.” Hero Initiative President Jim McLauchlin was inspired to found the organization by the Major League Baseball group, B.A.T. (Baseball Assistance Team), which aids old-time baseball players. McLauchlin said the situation was similar in comics. "A lot of the elder statesmen worked for a low rate of pay with no pensions, no benefits, no royalties, no anything like that,” he said. McLauchlin said many of the creators that Hero helps prefer to stay anonymous, but he talked about the case of William Messner-Loebs, who wrote "Flash” and "Wonder Woman.” He and his wife ran into medical and financial problems and lost their home. Thanks to the help of the Hero Initiative, Messner-Loebs now has a place to live and is working. McLauchlin said the Hero Initiative helps financially and also finds new networks for writers or artists still able to work. McLauchlin said fans can help by donating at www. heroinitiative.org, which also has more information about the organization. Lee started in comics in the 1940s and co-created the Marvel Comics superhero pantheon of the 1960s. With Jack Kirby, he created The Fantastic Four, the Silver Surfer, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men and Thor. With Steve Ditko, he created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Daredevil and Iron Man were also Lee's co-creations. Lee said the success of the stories over the years, and in Hollywood, was something he didn't foresee. "When I was writing these stories, I never in a million years thought that things would turn out the way they did. I just hoped that people would buy the comic books so that I could keep my job,” he said. "However, as of a few years ago, I realized how good a job Marvel does in producing these movies, and what a good job the studios do in picking the best writers and the best directors and the best actors. And I think the movies are just going to be getting better and better.” Lee said he has high hopes for this summer's Marvel films. "I can tell you that ‘Fantastic Four' No. 2 and ‘Spider-Man' No. 3, not only are magnificent movies, but obviously the reason that everybody goes to them is to see my cameo,” he said with a laugh. "And if you don't mention that every so often, ‘he said with a laugh,' — I mean I can picture people reading this and saying jeez, that Stan Lee is as conceited as everybody says he is.” Lee hinted that the cameos in this summer's movies were a little more involved than previous ones. "In these two movies, I actually have cameos where I speak. In the Spider-Man movie, I say a little something to Peter Parker, and in the Fantastic Four movie, I replicate a scene that had been in one of the comic books. I can't say any more than that. If that doesn't pique your readers' curiosity, I don't know what will.” Lee's charm and self-deprecating humor have served him well on television, as well — the Sci Fi channel recently ordered an additional 10 episodes of "Who Wants to Be a Superhero,” the reality show in which contestants compete to become a Stan Lee character. Lee said he was surprised at how important the comics had been to some of the contestants. "A few of them almost got misty-eyed when they were talking about how important the comic books were to them when they were young and how great it is to be on that show and so forth,” he said. "As I travel around and meet more and more people, I'm amazed at how important comic books were to so many people over the years. ... And so many of them will say to me how much these comics meant when they were young, and some of them say that they still mean a lot to them. They still read them. And it's very gratifying to hear that from so many people.” Lee's company, POW (Purveyors of Wonder), is also releasing animated DVDs of new Stan Lee creations, including Mosaic and The Condor.
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Comic book creator Stan Lee, left, and filmmaker Kevin Smith discuss the comic book industry during a benefit in December. That discussion is available on DVD. PROVIDED