By SARA FISHER
Spiderman's creator has moved to a new web the World Wide Web, that is.
Stan Lee, prolific creator of such comic-book icons as Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk and the X-Men, has at the age of 76 decided to tackle the Internet.
His new-media company, Encino-based Stan Lee Media Inc., was formally launched last week, and the driving goal is to become the world's virtual clubhouse for comic-book lovers.
"This is a whole new medium for me, which means that I have the fun of exploring how to tell a story in a whole new way," said Lee, who will remain chairman emeritus of New York-based Marvel Entertainment and who still sits on the editorial board of Marvel Comics.
"I was this excited years ago when I first got involved with Marvel Comics and watched it take off. Now I get to do it again with the Internet. Hopefully, this can be as successful as Marvel if not bigger."
Don't look for Spiderman's latest escapades on the site, however. The biggest attraction for Lee and potentially the company's biggest gamble is that his familiar Marvel creations won't be featured. Instead, Lee will develop all-new superheroes. He is currently designing six story lines and 12 new characters many of which got their superpowers from the Internet, of course.
Even without Marvel's creations, the new venture has attracted considerable interest because Lee himself has such a following.
"Anything Stan does that's new will generate interest," said Bill Liebowitz, owner of Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles. "He's arguably the best-known figure in this industry, and the Internet seems like the best way in the '90s to launch new characters. I think my customers would be curious."
Analyst Seema Williams agreed. "Stan has a cult-like following, which counts for a lot online," said Williams, of Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. "The Internet aggregates niche markets, which means that the company's prospects are good."
When fully developed in the next several months, the Web site will feature a multimedia combination of animation and drawings; free Web pages, e-mail and games; comic-book sales and trades; interactive games; and online classes led by Lee for budding comic-book artists and writers. The company will rely heavily on strategic partnerships with other new-media companies both for building the site and for driving online traffic its way.
Most of the services will be free to users, but some "premium" areas will require subscriptions. Other projected revenue sources include e-commerce, advertising and sponsorships.
Peter Paul, Stan Lee Media's co-founder, has such confidence in the business plan that he intends to help take the company public within six months. Paul projects that the site will attract up to 6 million visitors in its first year, and that Lee's brand name alone has a value of up to $30 million.
"In the new-media environment, global branding and good content is sorely lacking," Paul said. "Lee helped make Marvel the biggest comic-book company in the world, and he can emulate his success here. This company's growth potential is enormous."
Paul acknowledges that the timeline for an offering is ambitious even by Internet standards, but he emphasized that the company would go public "one way or another."
Such chutzpah might be justified. Because Lee himself is the company's main commodity, it faces no direct competitors. However, Marvel Comics and DC Comics both have well-established sites featuring their own comic characters and e-commerce.
"There isn't any truly direct comic-book competition to Stan's new site, but he will be fighting against entertainment in general," Williams cautioned. "He's going to be competing with other types of Web sites, television and traditional comic books themselves for the children's attention."
Of course, taking the company public when its key asset is a 76-year-old man does present something of a risk. Paul, along with analysts, declined to discuss the issue of Lee's age. Lee himself describes a company that will be a sort of artist's studio, in which he will train young artists to build on and develop the characters he creates.
"I'm not used to taking a break," says Lee, when asked why he's starting a new venture at an age when most people are enjoying retirement. Although there are supposedly no second acts in life, that opportunity is precisely what appeals most to him.
After working with Marvel Comics since the 1930s, this endeavor is entirely his own. "I'll fully own what I create for the first time in my life," he said. "I'm in charge of my own destiny. How can I not throw everything I have into that?"
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