The first time I met Stan Lee I thought I nearly killed him!
In 2008 I was on the verge of graduating school and had landed an internship working on With Great Power, a documentary on the life and times of Stan Lee.
One day the producers needed Stan to come in to do some pick-up questions. They were shorthanded and didn’t want Stan to have to drive himself, so I was asked to go get him. I was both terrified and ecstatic.
The drive itself was surreal. We chatted about Daredevil, my favorite co-creation of his; LA traffic; and the time he got a flat tire driving home on leave from the Army during World War II.
I eventually got him to the interview, he aced it of course, and we were quickly back in the car returning to his office. As we ambled along in traffic, we passed a pharmacy in Beverly Hills. Without warning Stan yelled out, “Oh I forgot I need to pick up something for Joanie! Thanks for the lift, True Believer!” and leapt out of my (slow) moving vehicle.
My stomach dropped and my heart burst through my chest. Stan was about 86 years-old at this point and I figured that was it. This American icon just fell out of my car into traffic and I was going to jail for killing Stan Lee. Thankfully, I spotted his trademark green sweater bouncing into the drugstore in my rearview mirror. Phew, national crisis averted.
Shortly after meeting Stan I was offered an internship with his company POW! Entertainment, which later turned into a job as Chief Staff Writer (Stan liked to put the word “Chief” in front of everyone’s titles). I’ll never forget my first day at work when the whole office went out to lunch together. I was unaware that Stan was a power-walker. Everyone else let him jet ahead, but I foolishly tried to keep pace with him.
He casually turned to me and asked, “Want to see something?” Before I could answer he swung one leg over a parking meter. When my heart attack subsided, he quipped, “My wife hates it when I do that,” and continued on his way. (I’ve heard similar stories over the years so this was something he apparently did often.)
Working at POW!, I was initially surprised that Stan came into work every single day. He was well past retirement age and his contributions to the culture had earned him a rightful rest.
I soon learned that writing wasn’t work to Stan. It was fun. It was as if he was playing a game or solving a puzzle. He got so animated when coming up with a story, he would stand up, act out his ideas, and his enthusiasm was infectious. I attribute his endless energy and sharp mind to his fervent work ethic.
For the longest time at POW! I was known as “Not Scott” to Stan. Stan was famously bad at remembering names; it’s why he always used alliteration when coming up with new characters. Every day he would bound into the office and say, “Mornin’ Scott!” I would have to tell him it was Steve, and he would correct it with “Not Scott!”
Soon he just started calling me Not Scott. Sometimes he would tell me I should wear a shirt that read: Not Scott. Eventually Stan made it his mission to remember I was Steve by associating me with Captain America (whose birth moniker I shared), but secretly I always kind of liked Not Scott. It wasn’t an alliteration, but it felt like I was in the small club of people given nicknames by The Man himself. Stan was able to turn something as miniscule as not remembering a name into making people feel like they belonged.
Working with Stan and the crew at POW! was/is one of the best experiences of my life, for which I am eternally grateful. I got to travel across the country attending comic conventions with Stan’s entourage. I experienced a few candid cameo shoots and occasionally the grandeur of a Marvel movie premiere. I got to be a fly on the wall as Stan watched all of his co-creations from decades prior become film franchises loved the world over.
It seemed to me that he really got a kick out of it all. Seeing how others adapted his stories and carried them forward fascinated him. In later years, when his eyesight and hearing weren’t as strong as they used to be, he would have his long-time Chief Executive Assistant, Mike Kelly, relay the plot of the latest Marvel movie to him and even the storylines of the ongoing comicbooks. He always wanted to be kept abreast of the Universe he had a hand in creating.
We often had what I guess you could call “Signing Parties” at the POW! offices. Periodically Stan would get in large shipments of books to autograph. When this happened, it was all hands-on-deck. We formed a little assembly line to get through all the items. During the signing Stan would serenade us with old Irish folk songs and poetry. It was a lot of work but worth it for Stan’s soliloquies and tunes. He would sometimes reward us with pizza in his office afterward where he’d regale us with stories of the old days.
Once a few years back a friend of Stan sent him a scooter so that he could easily get around comic conventions. Instead of taking the scrambler home, Stan cruised around showing it off to everyone in the office. We spent the rest of the day taking turns racing the thing up and down the halls at work. The hog had two speeds: turtle and rabbit. I’m sure you can guess which one Stan had it set to.
At one point during my time at POW!, Stan and his partner Gill took me along on a pitch to a studio. It was my first-time pitching anything and I was a nervous wreck. Stan was going to give the opening statement, and then turn it over to me. We arrived at the studio, and they put us in a cavernous conference room. I was a mess reading my notes over and over when Stan asked me what the name of the villain in the story was. I reminded him, and Stan then began practicing out loud in the room, but he kept getting the villain’s name wrong. I had to stop my own rehearsing to keep correcting his. Soon three suits arrived to hear our pitch. Stan launched into his bit and when he got to the villain’s name, he nailed it, then turned to me and winked. I never asked him about it, but I’m sure it was his way of getting me out of my own head.
Over the years I often wondered if this was even a tiny bit of what it was like to be in the fabled Marvel Bullpen of the 1960s. The nicknames, the singing, the goofing around and razzling each other. There were tough times too, but they seem insignificant in retrospect. I know nothing could ever compare to the Bullpen, but I hope the spirit was there in some small way, shape, or form. I know Stan’s energy had to be of equal enthusiasm.
People often ask me what it was like to work for Stan Lee and I never have a good answer. The best I can do is to say: imagine if Santa Claus were your grandpa. He was a legend who happened to be your best pal. He always had a story to tell, a song to sing, or advice to give.
I only got to know Stan in the last decade of his life, when one would assume he’d be slowing down, but it was quite the opposite. Whether he was leaping out of moving cars, skipping over parking meters, racing scooters, traveling the world, or pitching movie studios well into his 90s, as long as Stan was having fun he was never slowing down. I’ll carry the countless memories of our time spent together with me for the rest of my life.
Godspeed, Boss. Upward and onward to greater glory.
– Steve Voccola, Chief Staff Writer, Stan Lee’s POW! Entertainment