The other day I was wearing a shirt with Stan Lee on it, and my coworker commented that I was even cooler now. And really, I’m sure that anyone familiar with the Marvel movies loved seeing his cameos. Being a comic book fan since I was a kid, I have loved Stan Lee for the majority of my life.
In case you don’t know, Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) was the co-creator of and wrote many of the superheroes you know and love today. Iron Man, Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Hulk, Doctor Doom and the Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, the Black Panther, the X-Men… the list goes on.
My first introduction to “Stan the Man” was when my grandma went to a Sam’s Club in the late 80s and bought a comic-book collectors kit for my brother and me. It was, I think, 5 or 10 comic books and a cardboard box to hold them in. I can’t remember if my brother was into it then, but I was hooked! I devoured them all. Over and over.
Eventually, I would be given older comics by friends or find them around, and if I had the money would buy them. Living in the middle of nowhere, comics were a portal to another world.
I read everything from the front cover, all the ads, all the way to the letters to the editor page, and Smilin’ Stan would respond to the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins. He would always refer to whoever wrote in a “True Believer!” and respond with Excelsior! Or ‘Nuff Said! If your letter pointed out something that didn’t make sense, or was inconsistent, or noted a character’s costume colored wrong in one panel, they would award you a “No-Prize.”
Being 8 or 9, it felt like a secret club to know this inside lingo that had no practical use in the real world.
One of the thrills of reading comics back in the day was you might not have read the issues prior, but there would be little notes from the editor to fill you in. Something like, “Which happened in issue #354, True Believer!” It felt like he was talking to me.
I remember reading once that Stan wouldn’t shy from using large or complex words in comic books. He reasoned it wouldn’t kill a kid to crack open a dictionary. It made a big impression on me, making reading less scary and more enjoyable. Large words were not insurmountable.
Then in 1990, Marvel released the Marvel Trading cards (which I collected all except for the holograms). Wouldn’t you know Stan Lee had his own trading card! He was sporting the likeness of all the characters he created or popularized.
Cut to 1995, and watching Mallrats, I saw my first Stan Lee movie cameo, where he played himself fending off Jason Lee’s perverted line of questioning about the Fantastic Four and teaching him a life lesson. It was fantastic.
But for me, the best was yet to come! While working at SUCCESS magazine, I learned that Stan Lee was coming to town and made a very weak pitch to write an article for the SUCCESS blog if they would cover my entrance fee.
I was a graphic designer/web guy then and had no aspirations to become a writer. I just like getting free stuff.
I scored a few badges, and a coworker, my brother, and I went to check it out. It was my first time at a Comic Con, and there was Stan Lee signing autographs all morning long. The line looked like it went forever.
We had paid to get our photos with Stan Lee, and the time came to form a line and wait. We assumed that signing his autograph all morning would have taken a lot out of him and were joking that they would have him propped up in a chair, and he would be snoozing behind his dark glasses as we took photos with him. And being 89 years old at the time, I would not have blamed him.
However, as we got closer in line, we noticed that, without fail, he would say a word of encouragement to everyone he took a photo with! He might have cycled through ten sayings so you wouldn’t be able to hear the same thing twice when you were in line, but when it was our turn to take a photo with him, he emitted such incredible warmth and energy I felt pretty special. After taking the photo, he gave us a hearty, “Well done, good job!”
Wondering if it was a fluke, I returned the following year with my stepson, and the experience was the same.
You might read about Stan Lee stealing much of the credit for the characters he co-created, but to me, he loved the stage and put a large spotlight on Marvel Comics, making it the brand we know and love today. Without his warmth, curiosity, and showmanship, I certainly wouldn’t have found the medium that means so much to me.