Stan Lee (1922-2018)
Stan at the Avengers premiere in 2012. His tongue was in his cheek when he called it “The Marvel Age of Comics,” but that's what it's become.
I got to meet Stan Lee in November 1975 when I was 12. I‘ve written about it before. Here’s the longer version.
I'd been collecting comics for about two and a half years and Stan was legendary to me. He was “Stan the Man,” credited as “Editor in Chief” in the front of every issue, with “Stan's Soapbox” in the back of every issue. Plus his outsized personality permeated the Marvel world. It was a kind of tongue-in-cheek braggadaccio, chest-thumping but with a wink. He'd say “ish” for “issue,” “Excelsior!” as a sign-off. I loved it all. I was a “true believer” who was ready to “face front” in the “Mighty Marvel Age of Comics.” ‘Nuff said!
One Sunday night, my father, a reporter for The Minneapolis Tribune, called my brother and I into his bedroom. I think I went grumpily—or warily. Was I in trouble? There was memorabilia—books and calendars and things—on the bedspread, and I didn’t think much about it until I noticed they were all Marvel comics characters.
It was like Christmas in November. We jumped onto the bed with him. I grabbed a calendar, “The Mighty Marvel Bicentennial Calendar,” and began flipping through it. January was “The Invaders,” an attempt to reboot ‘40s-era superheroes like the original Human Torch and Toro, Captain America and Bucky, and the Sub-Mariner. They were all standing on the deck of a Revolutionary-era clipper ship. I groaned: “Frank Robbins,” I said.
“Which one is Frank Robbins?” Dad asked.
“No no. The artist.”
“You can tell who drew it?”
I shrugged. “Looks like Frank Robbins.”
Dad had been going through “Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics,” Stan Lee’s much-anticipated (by me) follow-up to “Origins of Marvel Comics,” a trade paperback which had featured reprints of the debut issues of characters like the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Spider-Man, and Thor, along with Lee’s memories of their creation. The sequel would focus on Captain America, Iron Man and X-Men.
“I’m interviewing this guy tomorrow,” Dad said.
“Stan Lee. You know him?”
It was like asking if we knew Jesus. Chris and I actually shouted with joy. We couldn't believe it.
“So do you want to meet him?” Dad asked.
And that's when I suddenly felt nervous. Meet Stan Lee? What would I say to him? What if he turned out to be an asshole? What if he didn't like me? What if Dad embarrassed me? Oh god, Dad was going to embarrass me.
Their interview took place during a late lunch at a swanky downtown restaurant. I got out of school early and took the unfamiliar bus to the unfamiliar location. A maitre d’ led me to a dark back table where my older brother already sat next to my father, both listening to an older guy with graying hair, sunglasses, and a moustache. I think I was initially disappointed. I don't know what I thought Stan Lee looked like (Reed Richards?) but I didn't imagine a hood from “Baretta.”
My father asked him how old he was and he said 52, then added, “Does that sound too old? How old would you like? Make it 50.” He gave great quote. He talked up the secret to his success. “We took the one-dimensional cardboard figures that had inhabited comic books until then and breathed life into them. The good guys weren’t all good and the bad guys weren’t all bad.” When the interview was over, staff photographer Mike Zerby asked me to stand on a chair and hold a light for him. Stan posed. He did the classic strong-man pose. Zerby loved it. The next day when the article appeared, the photo looked dark and I thought I'd screwed up in some way. “No,” Dad told me. “That's the way it's supposed to look.”
As for meeting Stan? It was amazing and incredible and fantastic and uncanny. After the interview, he didn’t turn off. I don’t know if he had an “off.” He invited Chris and I over and drew us out. He drew a cartoonish Captain America holding a banner up to his nose—like Kilroy. Beneath, he added the usual semi-ironic Marvel braggadaccio: “Another practically priceless Stan Lee original!” He signed our books and gave us bullpen nicknames in the Mighty Marvel Manner. “To Charismatic Chris,” he wrote in Chris’ “Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics.” “To Erudite Erik” he wrote in my copy of “Origins of Marvel Comics.” He may have been the nicest famous person I ever met.
It's interesting contemplating what it would‘ve been like for him then. A dozen years earlier he was a middle-aged dude working for a dying company in a disprespected industry. Then his boss, Martin Goodman, told him to create a team of superheroes like DC did with “Justice League of America.” Apparently it was Lee’s wife who suggested he do with the characters what he'd long said he wanted to do:
The characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to; they'd be flesh and blood, they'd have their faults and foibles, they'd be fallible and feisty and—most important of all—inside their colorful, costumed booties they'd still have feet of clay.
The team turned out to be the Fantastic Four, of course, and they were followed by Hulk and Spider-Man and Thor and Iron Man and X-Men, and the rest is both history and not history, since it's ongoing; since the biggest movies in the world are based on those characters that Stan and Jack and others created for a dying company in a disrespected field more than 50 years ago.
Thanks, Stan. Excelsior.