Stan Lee, the man I credit with inspiring my 48 years (and counting) love of comic books, passed away on November 12, 2018 at the age of 95. Today, December 28, 2018, would have been his 96th birthday.
I wanted to write a proper article about Stan and what he meant to me, but I also wanted to take some time to let his passing sink in. The past 6 weeks or so these thoughts have been percolating in my conscious and subconscious.
My whole life, there had always been a Stan Lee. In a way, he was like an alternate version of my own Dad (who is still going strong at 96 years of age). While my Father has always been around for me in my “real world” life, he is not big on the unreal worlds of sci-fi, fantasy, and heroic adventure. For those fantastic worlds Stan was there, in the foreground when my nascent love of comics was setting in, and in the background as I grew older. Stan was my surrogate Father figure in that world of imagination. The fact that he was pretty much the same age as my own Dad, coupled with being the opposite half that made a combined real world/world of imagination role model was the thing that linked the two very different men closely in my mind.
Armie Hammer originally criticized people for commemorating Stan’s life by posting pictures of themselves with Stan. He later apologized for his statements, after getting roundly chastised by people pointing out that posting photos of themselves with Stan was a tribute and their way of processing their loss and acknowledging the connection they had with Stan and how much he meant to them. I’ll be doing the same throughout this Blog… showing various interactions I had personally with Stan, not as a way of aggrandizing myself, but as a way of showing the connections that existed, however slight, and why Stan meant so much to me.
I’ve told the story before of how I got into reading comics. I had certainly read comics before I started “collecting”. My older brothers often had comics around the house and I remember as a child reading Uncle Scrooge, Richie Rich, and Hot Stuff comics. But when I was 8, my older brother Russ gave me a computer keypunch card that was redeemable for 10 comic books. I could buy whatever comics I wanted, show them to Russ along with the card, and he would reimburse me the cover price, marking off one of the numbers 0-9. Famously, the first comic I bought myself was Amazing Spider-Man #88 by Stan Lee and John Romita. The 2nd comic, bought the same month (both issues are cover-dated August 1970) was Detective Comics #402 by Frank Robbins and Neal Adams.
My 1st comics were arguably the 2 most successful super-heroes ever created, one from Marvel, one from DC. Both illustrated by artists at the top of their game. Why did I come back for Spider-Man issue #89 (and every issue after that), but did not buy another issue of Batman for at least 5 years? I believe it was Stan Lee.
In Amazing Spider-Man #88 Spidey fights the disembodied arms of Doc Ock, saves a crowd of people from being crushed by rubble, and has a climactic fight with Doc Ock onboard a plane. Alongside this, Peter Parker is having trouble keeping his grades up at school (because of being absent when he was needed as Spider-Man), we see Gwen Stacy, the blustery J. Jonah Jameson, check in with Joe Robertson and Betty Brant at the Daily Bugle, and get a cliffhanger ending where Doc Ock appears to be blown up, but Spidey wonders “Can I be sure Doc Ock is dead?” right before the title of the next issue “To Live Again!”. Given the next issue’s title, I assumed Ock was going to be still alive and kicking to cause more trouble (…and I had to come back to see what happened next!) All tolled, there are just about as many pages devoted to Peter and his supporting cast as there are to Spider-Man and Doc Ock. Maybe I was a weird 8-year-old, but this mixture of the super-hero and his alter ego was VERY appealing to me.
I might also point out that this issue also features students protesting against a foreign general who is a “war monger”. Stan also famously published the “Stan’s Soapbox” reproduced above spotlighting that bigotry and racism are wrong. Some people today say “keep politics out of my comics”, but current events and recognition of politics/injustice have been in Stan’s comics since the very first issue I read 48 years ago (and before that as well)! Stan never shied away from adding this kind of thing into Marvel Comics, which was another element that made them seem more real to me as a kid, as well as helping set my moral compass about right and wrong. Stan brought that mixture of superheroics, the tribulations of the heroes when they were out of costume, and real world issues into comics. It was the hallmark of Marvel comics to spotlight the human elements of the superheroes and give the reader insight into their lives both in and out of costume and also reference issues from the news of the day (sometimes allegorically). This is Stan Lee’s legacy.
Before Stan’s Marvel Comics, the general wisdom of comic book publishers was that they were writing stories primarily for 8-12 year olds. Stan wrote comics that could be enjoyed by an 8-year-old (my age when I started reading his comics), but the underlying themes that he was working into the stories were capturing the imaginations of college kids too. Stan did a lot of speaking engagements at Universities in the 1960 and 1970s, and his work had a depth and significance to it that readers appreciated even while many who did not read comics do not understand. Those who were only observing the bright colors and bombastic super-hero battles from a distance, but not experiencing the storytelling first hand, were understandably ignorant of the nuances picked up on by the dedicated readers.
This plays into how many people say Stan was a “carnival barker”. I don’t see that as a negative. At the time he was EXACTLY what the comics industry needed. Stan’s bombastic outgoing personality is what made Marvel Comics. It helped grow Marvel and helped the entire industry. I know that as a kid I felt I was PART of something reading Marvel comics. The nicknames Stan gave everyone; Jazzy John Romita, Gene “The Dean” Colan, Jack “King” Kirby, made everyone seem fun and friendly. The style of the letters pages and Stan’s Soapbox column made us feel like he was talking directly to us and we were on the inside of a club. His catchphrases, from “Make Mine Marvel!” and “Face Front, True Believers!” to the simple “Nuff Said!” and “Excelsior!” were immediately recognizable and created the cult of Marvel. What Marvel fan can hear any of these and not think of Stan and Marvel Comics?
Stan was a showman as much as a writer in the early days. The classic Marvel characters we co-creations working with some of the best artists in the business, but what put Marvel on the road to becoming an entertainment juggernaut was Stan’s flash. He made Marvel “Marvel”. The feel, the attitude, the connected universe, making the fans feel included. This is all a part of Stan’s Legacy.
Most people know the rest of Stan’s story… moving to Hollywood and moving away from regularly writing Marvel comics in the early 1980s. Ultimately moving away from most responsibilities at Marvel, aside from forever being linked with them as a cultural ambassador, Stan was involved in a string of new companies (most of which were not terribly successful), and ultimately a resurgence in popularity after his long string of cameo appearances that made him a worldwide cultural icon. I won’t go into all of this, I’m not writing a biography. What I will concentrate on are his interactions with fans, because this was a key element of his larger than life status with many fans, myself included.
He did a LOT of public appearances at conventions, stores, and more. He seemed to thrive on the adulation of the fans, and why not? Every time I met him, he was “on”. He was very pleasant and giving, fans went away with a smile on their face. However brief the interaction, he made us feel good having met him.
As I was doing the research for this Blog, I realized I had fogged my first meeting with Stan out of my memory and had been thinking of my second meeting with him as my first. Let’s look at why:
At the 1999 San Diego Convention I realized Stan was doing a signing at the Marvel booth. I had not planned out meeting him in advance, so hadn’t brought anything in particular along to the con to have signed. I bought Amazing Spider-Man #50 at the con, waited in line with the other fans, snapped a picture of Stan with an actor in a Spider-Man suit, and he signed my ASM #50, probably the 5th or 6th he had signed that day. I was getting a book signed that LOTS of people got signed. It was a really popular issue, a classic story, a very cool cover, and while I’m sure I gushed about how I loved his writing, I don’t think I did or said anything that made me any different from the 1000s of other people who had him sign ASM #50 over the years. It was cool to meet him, but really, this meeting was SO overshadowed by the SECOND time I met Stan, that I had forgotten about it until I found the picture I had taken in a photo album (yes, this was before the days of ubiquitous digital photography, we used film….barbaric!)
The NEXT time I met Stan was at the Long Beach Comic Convention in 2004. This time I knew he was going to be at the show and I chose something to get autographed in advance and brought it with me to the show. It turns out I made a really good choice, second time was the charm, as they say. Stan was still not HUGE outside of comic book people at that point in time, and Long Beach was not a really big convention, so there were maybe 50-75 people lined up to see him when he got there, I was around the middle of the line. Most people in line were getting “key” issues signed. Avengers #1, Amazing Spider-Man #1 or #50 (hmmm, who would do that? Just like me the 1st time I met him!), etc.
This time, when I made it to the table to see him I laid down Amazing Spider-Man #88 for his signature. He looked at the comic. He looked at me. Instead of just signing it, as he had all the key issues he saw all the time, he picked the comic up and started flipping through it. He smiled. He chuckled at something he had written in the story. He looked back up at me and said something like “I don’t think I’ve seen this issue since I wrote it, what made you pick this one for me to sign?” When I told him that it was the very first comic I had bought off the rack for myself, it made me fall in love with comics, and I’ve been buying comics every month since, for the past 34 years (at that point), he asked if I’d like a picture with him. He told me to come around the table and sit next to him, had me hand my camera to one of the convention volunteers, and the photo above was the result.
This is how I remember Stan Lee. Having made a connection, he took that extra moment with me as a fan, putting his arm around my shoulder, and posing for that picture. I’m sure he did tens of thousands of photos over the years but I think he realized that every one of them was special for the fan he was taking them with.
The next year, at the San Diego Comic Con, Stan was signing for his new company POW! Entertainment.
The people organizing this signing were VERY clear that Stan was not signing any comics or memorabilia except things from POW!, and went so far as to hold fans bags before they were allowed to approach Stan, so fans could not pull out a comic for him to sign (because Stan would sign it if you put it in front of him). They handed out promo slicks for Mosaic and Condor, 2 comics being produced for POW!, that was all Stan was signing. I flipped mine over and had Stan sign the blank white back, as you can see in the photo above). I’ve always meant to trim this down and use the autograph as a signature plate in my Fantastic Four or Spider-Man Omnibus, but I still just have that sheet, signed by Stan, just as it was handed back to me in 2005.
At the 2006 San Diego Comic Convention I was able to meet John Romita, Sr. and add his signature to Stan’s on my copy of Amazing Spider-Man #88.
Later at that same convention, a booth was selling the “Stan Lee is my Superhero” t-shirts (featuring the image you see at the very top of this blog). If you bought a t-shirt, you could get a comic book signed. I had my son with me, we each got a t-shirt, which allowed me to get 2 autographs from Stan. I chose typical fan-favorite comic Avengers #1 (which I had purchased at he show, and also Fantastic Four #97, which had some personal meaning to me. However, the people organizing this signing were keeping the line moving and actively discouraged any interaction with Stan, so I was not able to tell him why FF #97 was significant. Put it in front of Stan, get it signed, move along…. no posing for pictures (thus me just being in the photo from my mustache down as the guy behind me in line snapped an impromptu picture).
FF #97 was an issue I remember reading as a kid (a copy belonging to one of my brothers). I always remembered and loved how Johnny was playing with a young Franklin, who was, in one panel, mimicking his Uncle’s battle cry, saying “Fwamm Omm”. Combined with the other familiar interactions of the characters, this page has stuck in my head to this day. Read the page. Pure Stan Lee… not “just dialogue”, it breathed life into the characters.
A few months later, November 1, 2006, Stan was at the grand opening / ribbon cutting ceremony for a new Golden Apple Comics location on Melrose Ave in Los Angeles. This was a media circus, with local news and radio stations and LOTS of fans. No signings at this appearance, just some handshakes for fortunate fans up at the front of the crowd (I was one of these). After a short speech punctuated with an exuberant “EXCELSIOR!”, he was whisked off to some other engagement by a group of people escorting him. This was characteristic of meeting Stan from 2005 onward. He was always accompanied by security and assistants that seemed very motivated to prevent Stan from unsupervised interactions with fans, though he would break away and have short interactions on occasion.
For the next 8 years I’d see Stan up on stage at various conventions, but no “close encounters”… Until the 2014 Comikaze convention where I would have personal exchange #6 with Stan. At first, I saw him up on the stage, at a distance, along with hundreds of other fans, regaling the fans with the standard stories about creating heroes and writing stories, but I never tired of hearing these tales no matter how many times Stan told them.
In the early afternoon I had waited in a short line to get a sketch of The Hulk from Herb Trimpe. While Herb was working on the sketch, Stan walked by on his way out of the hall after doing one of his stage appearances. Stan saw Herb (his table was at the end of an aisle) and he broke away from his handlers and came over to say “Hi” to Herb. They chatted a bit, Stan addressed the fans in the area letting them know what a great artist he thought Herb was, and generally complementing how Herb’s art enhanced the stories. I was right at the front, since I had been “up” talking to Herb while he did my sketch, and Stan stayed for 5 minutes or so chatting with the close up fans, posing for pictures with Herb, and generally getting energized from the attention. But it was a two-way street, the fans (myself included) were loving the opportunity to interact with Stan. This is another example of Stan “The Man”. He broke away from his handlers who just wanted to get him out of the building so he could say hello to Herb, and while he was there, he took extra time to chat with the fans in the area. While he didn’t sign any autographs (though people were asking), I thought the conversation was far more precious.
I met Stan again in December 2014 at the Taschen store in Beverly Hills. I had been collaborating with Taschen for several years, lending them comics and other ephemera from my collection to photograph for their various DC and Marvel Comics related projects. The largest project I had worked with them on was the “75 Years of Marvel” book. Ultimately, I had provided close to 3 long boxes of comics and numerous other items, including my collection of 1970s 7-11 Marvel Slurpee cups, menus from the Marvelmania restaurant, and various toys.
When the book debuted, they did a signing with both Stan and Roy Thomas at their store in Beverly Hills and I was invited to the event. While standing in line before Stan & Roy arrived, the people from Stan’s office went along the line briefing people on interactions with Stan. He was only signing the 75 Years of Marvel book (no comics or other things people may have brought along with them). Keep the line moving. No conversations with Stan. No pictures with Stan. Pretty standard for any organized autograph session I had seen with Stan since 2005. On the plus side, autographs on the book were free (autographs from Stan at conventions had been running from $50 – $100 and up for many years at this point).
We’d get the standard walk by while Stan was chatting with Roy (they were sitting next to each other signing the massive books) which is better than nothing for super Stan fans. However, when I got up to Stan & Roy, the books editor/designer, Josh Baker, who I had been interacting with while providing many of the materials for the book stepped forward and introduced me to Stan & Roy, telling them that I had allowed access to my collection and had provided the bulk of the comics from the Silver Age onward for the book. He also pointed out to them that I held the Guinness World Record for largest comic book collection. This prompted 2 things: Getting Stan and Roy to engage me in conversation about my collection for a few minutes AND a tremendously dirty look from one of Stan’s handlers who had laid down the rule of “no conversations with Stan”. It was a treat to once again be able to chat with Stan (and my 1st time talking with Roy) about how much the stories they had written had meant to me. It was also an indication of how willing Stan was to interact with his fans when he was not actively prevented from doing so.
This 7th meeting would be the last time I met and interacted with Stan personally, but there would be one more significant virtual interaction I would have.
As I said before, I had been contributing items for comic book related projects Taschen was working on for years, and the latest thing they were working on was a doozy for Stan Lee fans: The Stan Lee Story. Written by Roy Thomas, who has written all of Taschen’s Marvel offerings so far. A massive 13″ x 19″ limited edition that comes in a thick acrylic slipcase accompanied by a separately bound reprinting of Stan Lee’s 1947 “Secrets Behind the Comics” (which, I might add, was reproduced from my own copy of this book!) Certainly a specialized item for mega-fans, but Taschen pulled out all the stops. Another long box of comics and other miscellaneous items were loaned out and the final product is impressive!
The book was completed and shown to Stan by Benedikt Taschen himself just 10 days before Stan’s passing. Stan LOVED it.
There are 1000 signed and numbered regular copies, plus 200 signed and numbered Artist’s Proof copies. My own comp copy was AP 92. These books must be among the last things Stan signed.
Throughout the book there are reproductions of comics bound in (see the story from Amazing Spider-Man #50 above… does the signature on the reproduced cover look familiar? It should, it’s my copy, signed the 1st time I met Stan in 1997, shown higher up in this Blog).
I feel privileged to have been able to contribute items to this project honoring Stan. To be able to share things I have been collecting for most of my life with other fans. The book itself has taken on an honored place in my comic book room (I still need to get the Glenn Fabry Spider-Man painting framed so I can display it properly… soon!).
The Stan Lee Story sold out of its limited run the day after Stan passed away, but fear not True Believers! Taschen is putting together a non-limited and less expensive version that will be available in 2019. It will likely not be quite as large and will also not include all the bells & whistles like the bound-in comics and acrylic slipcase, but the bulk of the material paying tribute to Stan Lee, his legacy, and his amazing body of work will still be there.
This brings the walk down my own personal Stan Lee memory lane to an end.
Happy 96th Birthday, Stan! I’ll never forget you and I’m sure I will continue to think of you often. I’m glad to have had you and your creations in my life. As I say in the blog title, Stan Lee is my Superhero!
Bob Bretall: email@example.com
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