Sunday, November 18, 2018


So the news came out this past Monday that Stan Lee had passed away. I remarked to my wife that day that I felt as if I'd lost another grandparent -- which is in no way meant to diminish my grandparents, who I loved dearly, but is simply meant to illustrate the extent of Stan's presence in my life. I mean, I only met the guy one time (though I was in the same room as him a few more times after that) -- but during my childhood, as was the case for countless others besides me, Stan Lee was Marvel.

I'm not here to discuss the rightness or wrongness of that, by the way. Debates about creator credit and "who did what" will rage for as long as there's any sort of historical interest in sequential art. But regardless of the truth or fiction behind the whole situation, the unchangeable fact is that Stan Lee represented the public face of Marvel for more than one generation.

For me, as a child of the eighties, that didn't necessarily mean in the comics themselves. Sure, Stan still wrote a comic now and then -- usually something special like an annual or whatever -- and yes, his work was often reprinted in series like MARVEL TALES, but he had left the Marvel offices, left New York, and moved to California by the time I was around. So my exposure was primarily through Stan's voice and appearances as Marvel's pitchman. He was the announcer/narrator for the Marvel cartoons I watched, like SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, and even the X-MEN pilot episode, "Pryde of the X-Men". Whenever Marvel popped up in the news, Stan was there with an interview. He wrote the Spider-Man newspaper strip, and "married" Spidey and Mary Jane Watson in a real life ceremony. He wrote introductions for books collecting Marvel comics. And of course, even though he was no longer writing or editing them, all Marvel comics began with that famous blurb, "Stan Lee Presents..." He came across as genial and approachable and enthusiastic through all of it.

I guess it's arguable that Stan became even more high profile in the decades since then, hosting TV shows, making cameo appearances in all the Marvel movies, and generally becoming a pop culture icon (as if he wasn't one already) thanks to the mainstreaming of comic book superheroes. But he pretty much severed ties with Marvel around the time the first Spider-Man movie came out (if not earlier). "Stan Lee Presents..." was gone, and while Marvel occasionally hired him for scripting duties and special anniversary events, he had his own company and clearly wasn't as involved with Marvel as he had been when I was young.

Anyway, I'm meandering a bit, but the point I'm trying to make is that as a child, Stan Lee was a huge part of my life even if I wasn't necessarily reading anything he had directly written. And the fact that his death has felt far more imminent in recent years than ever before didn't stop it from affecting me more profoundly than any other celebrity death in my lifetime. I've never wept for a celebrity, but I'm awfully misty-eyed just now as I type this post.

And now, my "Stan Lee Story" (because everybody has at least one). It's maybe not as exciting as others, but it's mine:

When I was about nine years old, Stan was to be a guest at our local comic convention, WonderCon. This was long before it moved down to Southern California. At the time, they held it at a hotel in Oakland. I'm pretty sure this was only its second or third year in existence. The owner of our local comic shop was a co-founder of WonderCon, and he had some connection with Stan from a prior job. So he mentioned to a few of his regular customers that Stan would be popping by the shop the morning before the convention. My mom was one of the lucky few to whom he mentioned this, so she and my dad brought me to the shop the Saturday morning before the convention. (I should note that my mom didn't read comic books; she was told simply because I was such a big Marvel fan.)

I can't remember whether I was told in advance that I'd be meeting Stan, or whether I found out when we got there, but I'm pretty sure it was the latter. My parents let me buy a couple items for him to sign, and I chose a Spider-Man poster and, after digging through some back issues, a reasonably priced copy of SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN magazine #2. I later learned that Stan would sign pretty much anything Marvel published, but I wanted something he had actually written. And though that issue certainly cost more than a copy of that month's AMAZING or whatever would have, I've always been happy with my choice. It's written by Lee, it's drawn by Romita, and it's a really good story, too!

I waited in a short line and had my moment with Stan. He asked my name and I told him, then he looked at the issue I had for him to autograph. "Wow, this is an old one," he said. I enthusiastically replied, as noted above, "I wanted to find one you wrote!" I've occasionally wondered over the years if he found that statement insulting, i.e. he was so old that I needed to find a back issue for him to sign -- but I doubt he felt that way. Anyway, he autographed my comic and my poster, and that was that.

Funny notes: Apparently nobody had procured any Sharpies for this informal appearance, so he was signing everything with a ball point pen! As a result, the autograph on the poster is barely visible these days (though it was always pretty hard to make out), but the one in the comic is fine, since he signed the first page rather than the cover. The comic was in pretty good shape when I bought it, but has degraded over the years as, early on, I repeatedly removed it from its mylar bag to look at Stan's signature since it wasn't on the cover.

I did sort of encounter Stan another time, more than a decade later. At Comic-Con in 2001, I attended a Fantastic Four fortieth anniversary panel, and he was a guest. My major memories are that Stan came in a bit late, as Len Wein was answering a question from a fan, and Stan piped up, "Is that Leonard I hear?" I think that was the first time I realized Stan had been a mentor to guys like Wein, Wolfman, and so forth when they broke into the business. And then after the panel ended, I was standing outside the room checking my schedule for what to do next when Stan came out with his entourage. Joe Quesada hustled over from out of nowhere and shook Stan's hand, introducing himself as the new editor-in-chief of Marvel -- so that was kind of cool.

The post is pretty much over, but I'm going to take one last paragraph for some weird thoughts that are swirling in my head just now. That day when I met Stan, in 1988 or 1990, he was just about the exact same age as my parents are now. When he died this week, he was 95, the same age as my grandfather was when he passed away about a year-and-a-half ago. And right now, I'm the same age as Stan was when FANTASTIC FOUR #1 was published. None of this means anything, but that's the sort of stuff you think about sometimes.

So -- Excelsior, Stan! I'll never forget that day a wide-eyed elementary school kid met you at the local comic shop. It meant a lot.

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