I knew something had gone wrong with the day when two coworkers approached and interrupted met at lunch. They usually know better, but they felt it was their duty to break the news to me that the legendary Stan Lee himself had at long last passed away at age 95. In many ways I’m glad they were the messengers, as opposed to finding out by stumbling into random, cryptic retweets from strangers.
The average comics fan has many thoughts on Stan’s career, on the decades he’s been in the entertainment biz — young comic-book writer in the 1940s, co-creator of several key super-heroes in the 1960s, Marvel’s ambassador to Hollywood from the late-’70s onward, and congenial human running gag among the various entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, none of which would’ve existed or captured billions of dollars and imaginations if he hadn’t been been present at the births of so many of their characters.
I found my earliest entry points into the original Marvel universe through Spider-Man-s assorted titles — Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel Team-Up, and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man — after Stan had stopped writing their stories full-time, but he kept one foot in their New York City milieu through once-in-a-blue-moon special events, and still wrote the occasional columns with his exhortations of “Excelsior!” and his frequent command to “Face Front, True Believers!” which his fancy way of saying “Hi!” but in a way that elevated you as part of his super awesome club, instead of talking down to you like a corporate pitchman pushing IP-based product.
It wasn’t long before I discovered reprints of his original stories — some rerun in the ongoing Marvel Tales series, others in a series of trade paperback collections (years before those became the rule rather than the extreme exception) that Marvel released through Simon and Schuster’s Fireside Books imprint as a means of getting comics onto traditional bookstore shelves instead of disposable spinner racks. It wasn’t long before I found myself immersed in the world Stan helped build alongside numerous talented geniuses such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, much of it continued through the ages by other writers and artists following their footsteps and chasing the same dreams.
For a lot of kids like me, comics were our stepparents, teaching us what we weren’t learning from our absentee flesh-and-blood elders. Peter Parker showed me that kids who get picked on in school may be hiding talents and accomplishments no one sees, that we need to do the right thing even when we can’t brag about our victories, and that a lot of the dumb teenage nonsense gets left behind after graduation. The Thing taught me you can grow up in a rough neighborhood and still come out okay. The Hulk showed how even smart guys can have anger issues, but sometimes anger can be redirected for constructive purposes. Captain America — created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, but Lee helped relaunch him into a new era — better exemplified what it meant to aspire to American ideals than most social studies classes.
All of that filtered into my brain, through Lee’s reprinted classics as well as the stories emanating from the early waves of his successors. Stan’s landmark three-parter in Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 (included in a 1979 Fireside Books collection) was probably one of the most powerful anti-drug stories I ever encountered on my youth.
When I grew up, the Bible and the church weren’t a part of our home or my childhood. With rare, fleeting, inconsequential exceptions, neither was my dad.
But Stan Lee and the Marvel heroes were there for me.
Stan continued cameoing in my life here and there as I got older. I first heard his distinct, happy-huckster voice as the narrator for Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. In later years the quality of his projects for other companies varied far more wildly depending on the quality of his collaborators, but I can definitely say his role as host of the Sci-Fi Channel reality show Who Wants to Be a Superhero? was among the most fun of the post-Marvel lot, cheesiness and all. And it was cool when Marvel finally figured out how to make decent superhero movies, and even cooler that Stan was there to give his blessing, to participate, and to find a new way to represent for a whole new audience.
When my wife Anne and I began attending more conventions on a regular basis, I had the undeserved pleasure of basking in his presence at Wizard World Chicago 2012, the source of our lead photo. Before that year we tried keeping our wants and our budgets modest. Stan was the first celebrity for whom I was elated to get both an autograph and a photo op, which were not cheap at the time. As he continued doing more conventions over the next 5-6 years, they didn’t get any cheaper, and Stan didn’t exactly grow younger or more robust through the 2010s. Honestly, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to say hi when I did…and to say hi to him in person at all. The moments weren’t exactly suited to meaningful conversation, but they meant a lot to me nonetheless.
That unforgettable occasion is in stark contrast to the second and final time I ever shared close quarters, as previously recounted from our experience at Cincinnati Comic Expo 2016:
Then there was the incident in which I came thiiiis close to ruining the convention for thousands of fans.
Early Saturday morning, we packed our bags and prepared to check out before returning to the con. I’m carrying a laptop bag, my conventioning carryall, and a large gym bag filled with all our laundry and the books I’d bought on Friday, including that weighty hardcover you see in the Larry Hama photo. It was heavy and kind of killing me. I expected my chronic back pain to kick in any second.
We and another older, non-geek couple wait patiently for an elevator to meet us at the ninth floor. The door opens. Four or five people are already inside, lined around the walls but leaving a good gap in the middle.
Anne’s in front of us four. Her eyes widen and she hesitates. A fairly muscled gentleman invites us aboard. She goes in first and I follow. I do an about-face toward the door and begin to step backward and to my right to make room for the other couple to join us. I know there’s someone scrunching into the corner behind me, so I’m trying not to back up too quickly.
Anne’s eyes grow to Powerpuff Girls size. She grabs the gym bag strap and yanks me forward. Hard. I presume I’m threatening the life of the corner dweller without realizing it. For a guy my size, I’m constantly trying to stay overly conscious of how much space I’m taking up in crowded areas, but I guessed by her reaction that I was about to miss the mark and injure someone.
The friendly muscle-guy says to me, “It’s okay.” I relax a tad, but keep myself locked in the same approved neutral position. Anne’s eyes contract only slightly.
The elevator lets us off at the main lobby with no further stops. The couple from our floor exits, then the two of us, then everyone else aboard.
As we’re walking to the front desk, she says to me in her sustained state of astonishment, “Do you know who that was?”
I was out of sight-line when we got on, then had my back to the guy in the corner for the whole ride. I confessed I didn’t get a good look at him.
Now I have Powerpuff Girl eyes. And a slack jaw, and the sound of the world’s loudest needle-scratch clearing all other thoughts from my stunned brain.
I nearly snap my neck whipping around to look. Stan the Man and his friendly handler are walking away in the other direction, toward the hotel restaurant for breakfast before the mythmaker has to clock back in and go meet several thousand more fans over the next two days.
…and that’s the story of how my wife saved Stan Lee’s life and mine. If word had gotten out that Stan had to cancel his Saturday and Sunday appearances because some clumsy schmuck put him in the hospital, I doubt those thousands of fans would’ve let me leave town alive.
All things considered, I knew Stan wasn’t literally immortal, but it’s astounding that he lived for as long as he did, accomplished more than any fifty ordinary humans could dream of, and had such an extraordinary effect on the American entertainment experience in general and comics in particular.
After I heard the sad news at work this afternoon, while processing my fannish sorrow I half-joked it would be awfully nice if my employers could let me go home early due to a death in a family. As word crept around the office, more than a few people thought to come check on me. I was fine, but gave up on concentration — like, on anything — for the rest of the day. Obviously we weren’t related in the traditional sense, but one of Stan’s greatest talents was making his readers and followers feel like a welcome part of the enormous, worldwide, merry marching Marvel family.
It’s hard not for us fans to grieve the gap in our reality left by his departure, and the gravitational pull it’s exerting on the childhood memories of countless True Believers.