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Raimi well-suited for fantastic feats

Comic-Con's most anticipated presenter honors the source while bringing Spider-Man to screen

Sam Raimi does right by the Spider-Man comics, which makes him a superhero among fans. And as for the gallant costume he wears while directing, Raimi is quick to explain its humble roots.

“I wear a coat and tie because my father told me, ‘A man should dress proportionate to the amount of respect he wants to convey to the people he works with,’ ” Raimi says.

Given the worldwide success of “Spider-Man” and “Spider-Man 2,” which earned $822 million and $783 million respectively, Raimi gets plenty of respect these days. But it wasn’t always that way.

“I’ve been humbled by 22 years of making movies that were not that successful,” the director admits. “I always made movies that never got positive critical response, in fact a lot of negative response generally, and never made any money. But, you’ve got to find satisfaction in the storytelling itself and from the grassroot fans.”

Decades ago, comics began invading Raimi’s DNA during habitual trips with his older brothers, Sander and Ivan, to Market Kayes drugstore and soda shop in Detroit. There, armed with a shiny quarter from their grandmother, Raimi’s brothers would buy two comics and three pieces of Bazooka Joe gum to split between them.

In 1980, after shooting debut feature “The Evil Dead,” Raimi took a break to work as a counselor at Camp Tamakwa in Algonquin Park, Canada. Knowing that he had to leave camp briefly to check the film’s cut, the ardent Spidey fan volunteered to ask Marvel Comics guru Stan Lee, who created the character with Steve Ditko, to sign posters for campers.

The naive Raimi didn’t realize how tough meeting a comicbook legend could be until a Marvel secretary turned him away. “That’s how I first met Stan Lee,” Raimi recalls, “by being rejected by him and not wanting to let those kids down. I became a forger of his autograph. Ya know, ‘All the best, Excelsior! To all the kids at Tamakwa — Stan Lee.’ ”

Raimi finally met Lee years later after directing “Darkman” and convinced the legend to co-pitch Marvel’s Thor comic to Fox. “It was thrilling to be with Stan Lee and hysterical the way that we had to explain who Thor was to executives,” Raimi laughs, “walking out of there going, ‘We didn’t get it! They think it’s gonna be some Hercules movie or something!’ ”

Times have changed, and Raimi first sensed studio execs warming to superheroes in early summer 2000. “With ‘X-Men,’ Bryan Singer really opened a lot of doors for comicbooks in general,” he says.

When it came time to meet with Sony about “Spider-Man,” Raimi considered himself the underdog choice.

“I was meeting with Amy Pascal and Avi Arad, and I knew they had gone through other directors,” he says. “I told themhow much I loved the character and how rich the character was in my mind, but for me the movie wouldn’t really be about Spider-Man, but about Peter Parker, and that he was my hero. The thing that Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and all these great Marvel writers and artists have expanded on so beautifully over the years with Peter Parker is that we identify with him. He was an average kid looking to do the right thing and was insecure like any of us.”

For Raimi, it wasn’t about creating a new character so much as recognizing onscreen what made that character so great on the page.

“I didn’t know if I got that one because it’s always such a long shot to hire me,” Raimi says. “I was a low-budget hackmeister, so to direct one of these big-budget studio films, and certainly one as important as ‘Spider-Man’ — before Amy hired me, it simply wasn’t done, period.”

Raimi was shocked when Sony chose him and remembers hanging up thinking, “Oh my God! What have they done?! Those poor fools don’t know I can’t do it!”

But Raimi has proved just the opposite. Like the heroes he admires, Raimi overcame his fears and now basks in the comics-friendly atmosphere that has allowed him to oversee film adaptations of smaller titles, such as “30 Days of Night” and “Priest.”

As for the highly anticipated “Spider-Man 3,” Raimi continues to freshen the franchise. “We have dealt with two external enemies in ‘Spider-Man’ 1 and 2,” Raimi says, “and it was time now to have Peter Parker, who is often addressing his own problems as part of the conflict, to find a darkness within.”

The trailer, which Sony released opposite “Superman Returns,” features a black-suited Spider-Man, and fans are hoping Raimi will use Comic-Con to confirm their hopes that the popular Venom character will be a villain in the pic, set to open May 4, 2007.

As the trilogy nears completion, fans also wonder whether Raimi and the web slinger will join forces again. “At this point, I’m absolutely open,” he says. “But it would be the studio’s choice, and the film would have to be profitable, and who knows any of those things — or if the studio even wants me.”

Peter Parker-styled modesty aside, Raimi is swinging at the top of his game.

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