The first comic book I ever read was written by Stan Lee. As a kid in the 1970s, I knew no different. His name was on all of the coolest characters: Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Daredevil and The Hulk, to name only a few. In the late seventies, Pocket Books published a line of digest size paperbacks reprinting all of the early issues of Marvel’s greatest characters. It was my first introduction to comics as well as the giants who created many of the most popular characters and stories: Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Stan ‘The Man’ Lee. It was more than an introduction. It was an invitation into a world of heroes and villains, good and evil, and doing what’s right even when it makes everything in your life go wrong. I took that invitation and haven’t looked back.
The first time I met Stan Lee was at San Diego Comic-Con in 2008. I won the opportunity to stand in line and get something signed by him, back when a signing was free (GASP!). I went with my copy of Avengers #4, the Silver Age return of Captain America (a classic!). When I was finally face to face with him, I’ll admit to being star struck. I babbled some kind of gibberish that I thought was unique and original, but I’m sure it was the hundredth time he had heard my (not so) witty verbiage that day. Like everyone else in that line, I felt like I knew Stan through his work. There was always a familiarity, like coming back to an old friend at different points in your life. But the hard truth is that I didn’t know him. I knew the public persona, the mythology, and that smiling face I routinely saw in the pages of the comics I read as a kid and collected as an adult. At that time, I had no clue that was about to change.
About three years later, I was hired to work on a film. It was a feature length documentary about Stan Lee. The producers needed someone with extensive comic book knowledge and wide access to Marvel Comics images that they could scan. I was a shoo-in when I showed them my comic book collection, earning me the lofty title of Comic Book Researcher & Historian. As a part of the crew, I was around or ran into Stan about half a dozen times. One particular encounter was a once in a lifetime opportunity that changed how I viewed this comic book legend from then on.
Close to the end of my time on the film, I accompanied the two producers on a local errand. Try to imagine my heart palpitations when I found out that errand consisted of going to Stan’s office to hang out for the afternoon. I’m sure I looked cool and collected walking down the halls of POW! toward his office, but the ten-year-old in my head was screaming and making Spider-Man thwipping noises the whole time. Entering a corner office, Stan was reclined behind an expansive desk and a few close business friends were also eased into plush chairs and a mid-century styled love seat. It was just before the December holiday break, so everyone was relaxed and in good spirits. I stuck close to the documentary producers and tried to look like I belonged there. I became overly aware of every awkward movement I made, how underdressed and overwhelmed I felt. I consciously refrained from making a sound for about half an hour, for fear of raining down any judgment from this god-like presence who was only a few feet from me.
It was Stan himself who broke the ice for me.
Stan liked to check his email, almost obsessively. During any lull in conversation, he’d turn to his computer and click away for a few moments then swing his chair back around to his friends. But on one occasion, he swung around in my direction and looked directly at me. “Hey! I just got an email asking if I’d like to do a cameo on some show called Big Bang Theory! Ever hear of it?” When asked a direct question by Stan Lee, it’s best to forget your nerves and answer.
“Is it funny?”
“Yeah, but all the characters on it are fans of DC heroes.”
“Well, we’ll change that, won’t we?”
That was all it took. We all hung out for another hour and a half, chatting freely about anything and everything. My guard was down and I noticed so was Stan’s. In the comfort of his office among the people he felt safe around, he was showing us his normal self and not the persona that had to always be ‘on’ for the fans who would line up for him. That’s not to say that the persona was fake. It was one hundred percent Stan. But when we only see him as the infallible public character, we disrespect the real human being who existed alongside it. People are imperfect. Accepting this makes their victories more triumphant and their shortcomings more understandable. On that day in his office, I feel like I got a peek at Stan ‘The Real Man.’ Since then, the stories and characters he helped push into the public limelight feel more intimate and the news of his passing feel so much more bittersweet. But while others mourn the loss of Stan, I’ll choose to celebrate his life and thank him for the invitation into a world of heroes and doing what’s right that I’ll never look back from.