Face front, true believers, and let me tell you about me and Lee.
My personal, in the flesh encounters with Stan “The Man” Lee, father of the X-Men, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, and so many others, architect of Marvel, and most prominent face of comic book culture for the past 50 years, were unfortunately limited. I met him 1 and a half times.
The first was at a special appearance at Comic Odyssey in Pasadena. Since then they’ve become Collector’s Paradise, but this was back in 2010. May 1st, in fact, several months before I got into grad school. A transitional period in my life. Still waiting on that big news, still figuring things out, still uncertain about a lot of things. One thing I never doubted, however, was how much I loved comic books, especially Marvel, and most especially the ones created by Stan Lee. A hero among heroes, since he had created so many. The store was crowded, naturally, with pilgrims eager to meet the man Buzzfeed once said, humorously but not inaccurately, “co-authored our childhood”. Of course, more credit goes to God and our parents, but come on. They might have given us life (thanks all, truly no small thing!), he helped make it so colorful, so wonderful, so full of magic.
I was naturally ecstatic to hear that Lee was coming to town. I bought Kraven’s Last Hunt by J. M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck, a Spider-Man comic that was one of The Man’s personal favorites. He even wrote the introduction. After waiting in line for a good hour or so, I finally got my turn. Already pushing 90, he was perhaps a bit tired after a tedious and repetitive morning of indulging loyal fans, but he was still Smiling Stan Lee, still pleased to be there and bask in the adoration of just a small fraction of the billions of lives he touched. He was happy to see the comic I brought. He remarked that his was a very good one. I thanked him for X-Men. I don’t remember what he said. The group organizers, eager to rush everybody along, took our photo together. They had me write down my email, and so they could send me it.
The second “encounter” was more a sighting than anything else. It was San Diego Comic Con 2012, and a short film I had written, “The Batting Cage” had gotten into the film festival! It was, up to that point, the xenith of my career as a storyteller and filmmaker. Is there any doubt that this would have been nowhere near the cultural event, the touchstone it is, without Stan Lee’s contribution to the zeitgeist.
I was extremely proud, of course, to be featured at this event. After a long day well spent, my fellow filmmakers and I were walking out of the convention center. We walked past one of the adjourning hotels, and one of my friends pointed out The Man himself walking to the lobby. In that moment, I decided not to mob him. Not to rush at this hero-maker with my gratitude and wonder. I figured he had enough of that for today. I thought I was doing him a kindness, leaving him at peace, and probably I was. Still I do now wonder if I should have gotten more than a photo of us with him walking in the background.
Well, if Stan Lee helped make Comic-Con what it is today, there’s no doubt there would be no Stan Lee’s Comikaze without him. So that’s another thing to thank him for, because that’s where I met Summer Glau.
There’s no doubt in my mind without the lovely and talented Ms. Glau’s characterization of the android Cameron on Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a show I enjoyed greatly, watched with The Colonel for some subtle bonding, there would be no Batting Cage, and therefore I wouldn’t be nearly so celebrated as a screenwriter. Of course, the success of The Batting Cage is mostly due to Donte Murry, our fantastic and esteemed director, but it never would have happened in the first place without her inspiration. That film was not only a triumphant experience in itself, it was also a learning opportunity, a chance to grow as a writer, and without it, I would not have the network or the experience to make “Aunt” the first post-film school short I directed myself, still touring the festival circuit.
That’s a story for another day, but I just meant to point out how those we look up to in culture can mean more than simply fandom, as if that is not enough. Pop culture, I maintain, is who we are. It’s what fills our lives and influences our own imaginations. It helps us craft our own works. It’s what brings us together in common entertainment. It’s not trivial. It’s real.
And Stan Lee was a part of that.
Man, was he a part of it!
I can’t sum up the past 31 years of my life and how his characters and creations played a role. I could give you highlights. A lot of them have to do with Wolverine, a character he did not create, but who came out of something he had. How Wolverine inspired me, a short kid. How I went for him as Halloween. How yellow is STILL my favorite color.
I remember watching X-Men the Animated Series with my siblings, after school or Saturday morning, arguing with my sister Katie over who gets to call out which name in the awesome opening credits (Naturally I got “WOLVERINE!” She got “BEAST”!, no slouch himself). I remember playing with the action figures, particularly a massive Juggernaut and a fascinating Blob with a foam stomach. Making my own stories. I remember going to the musty dollar store and buying packets of comic books, reading his Smiling Stan Lee question and answer forum in the back of each issue. I remember seeing an ad for the Marvel Swimsuit issue, how Psylocke was the very first woman I was ever attracted to, the birth of my heterosexuality.I remember reading Spider-Man the newspaper comic strip in the morning before school I remember my brother KK’s birthdays at UltraZone, a four story laser tag arena back in Virginia. How easy it was to pretend you were Cable or Bishop in a some dystopian blue future imperfect, especially since there actually was THE SENTINEL. I remember seeing X-Men movies with my Mom after all those half-marathons. I remember talking with my friends for hours on end about the universe Lee helped to create, our enjoyments, our arguments. I remember the Marvel vs Capcom arcade game in the student union at Simon’s Rock, and how bummed Jared, Dan, and the rest of us were when it broke. I remember the movies, the cartoons, the toys, the game. I remember the fun. I remember the story. I remember.
Briefly, there are, of course, legitimate complaints about Mr. Lee. Some will call him a self-promoter, say he acted unfairly to some of the writers and artists who worked with an for him, didn’t give Jack “King” Kirby and Steve Ditko among others enough credit. I don’t mean to dismiss these grievances outright. A World Was II veteran, a devoted husband and father of over 65 years, Stanley Martin Lieber, The Man, was a man, as human as any of us, and flawed. In singing his praises, the only thing I’m interested in doing now, we must not forget all of his collaborators, the fellow geniuses who built an entire culture. But let the more cynical dwell on his short-comings and mistakes today. I’m a true believer. Excelsior!
I do think, despite what may be said to the contrary, that Mr. Lee was a source of social good. He created The X-Men as a direct parallel to the Civil Rights Movement. He gave the world Daredevil and Black Panther, crossing lines to make disabled and black superheroes. His contributions as a storyteller are epic and fascinating. He gave us heroes with both incredible powers and human vulnerabilities. Not fantastical weaknesses directly tied to their superpowers, like kryptonite, but rather real human obstacles we could relate to. Peter Parker, who can defeat supervillains but still has trouble working up the nerve to ask Mary Jane out. Matt Murdock, the man without fear, who still is blind. The Hulk, who must conquer his own rage. The X-Men and social prejudice. Etc, etc. Without ever sacrificing the escapism, fantasy, or fun, these made the characters more resonant, more inspiring, more real.
Many of the examples I listed came from characters and adaptations Lee didn’t create himself. But they stem from him, emanate from the world he, Kirby, and others built. Would geniuses like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and so many others, wield such gravitas and honor if Lee hadn’t played such a role into making the medium such a cultural force, something that had to be acknowledged, not ignored or trivalized. And without him, we’d never have the X-Men movies or Rami’s Spider-Man trilogy, which I love so much. Let alone the MCU.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt that speaks to who Stan Lee was, how he crafted the amazing, the spectacular, and brought it to an Earth we could all relate to, to love and be inspired by.
“I thought that was one of the best lines I ever wrote,” he said. “I just thought it was such a beautifully dramatic line. And certainly nobody could find any problems with it. Is that religious? If that’s religious, I guess I’m religious.”
May that One Above All Bless you, Stan Lee. I hope you’ve gone now to join the ranks of all the other heroes we’ll see again one day. Kirby, Ditko, Joe Simon, and all the rest.
I never did get that photo.
I did get everything else.