For over twenty years, I was one of the privileged few who actually got to spend time behind the scenes with Stan Lee at San Diego Comic-Con International (SDCC).
As I posted previously, although Stan was an official Guest or Guest of Honor at SDCC only a handful of times, he attended every year from 1995 to 2017, with the exception of summer 2001. That year Stan concentrated on founding his new company, Stan Lee’s POW! Entertainment. And I was at SDCC with Stan every year that he attended from the 1990s-2010s.
Before SDCC became the hugely attended phenomenon it is today, it was up to me to book Stan’s hotel for the convention. He had me contact the same hotel, which was right next to the Convention Center, every year. He always had me ask for a room facing the San Diego Bay, not so much for the view, though it was very nice, but because it was the only side of that hotel which had slide-open, i.e. not sealed, windows and doors. Stan in general disliked air-conditioning and a cracked open window or sliding door would get a nice breeze off the marina at night and make it a much more pleasant experience for him.
In those days, Stan’s wife Joan would come down for a day or two to do some shopping while Stan worked at the convention and then have lunch and/or dinner with Stan simply to enjoy San Diego’s weather and ambiance. I had the rare privilege of joining Stan and Joan occasionally for these meals, and this always turned out to be the most pleasant diversion of the weekend. Joan never really bothered attending the convention, though she greeted Stan’s peers and friends as they saw them dining together with all the grace and humor that was so characteristic of their long marriage. After a day or two in San Diego, she’d wisely head back to Los Angeles on Saturday night, ably avoiding the northbound traffic as folks left San Diego en masse on Sunday. Stan left Saturday nights when he could, as well, if he had no signings or panels scheduled for Sunday.
When Stan was being filmed for the With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story documentary, he was surrounded by over a dozen people as he moved around SDCC. He had security, the film crew, the producer, an interviewer, the make-up team and equipment all following in his wake as he speed-walked through the growing convention crowds. This was the early 2000s, when the annual attendance grew astoundingly every year. A master walker, everyone in his entourage was hard-pressed to keep up with the septuagenarian Stan as he moved from autograph signing to panel to meeting in rapid, efficient fashion. You could tell he was having a lot of fun leading the pack.
There were quiet times, too. I remember being in the company of Roy Thomas, Maggie Thompson, and a handful of other comicbook legends when we had dinner behind one of the major hotels near the Convention Center. I looked around at this august company with wonder and appreciation as Stan humorously held court over this rare and fond gathering of his peers. There I was, surrounded by figures of comicbook history at the annual convention that celebrated this history so aptly.
And there were many moments as Stan waited in the green rooms or press rooms for an upcoming panel or appearance, or yet another round of interviews where Stan did what he could do like no other, shamelessly plug his latest POW! or Marvel project. Once, as we entered one of the press rooms for a scheduled interview some 10 minutes early (Stan preferred to be early when he could), the X-Men film cast was being interviewed, including a buff Hugh Jackman just off his latest Wolverine film appearance. Hugh looked up as he was being photographed and spotted Stan as we entered the room. A big smile lit his face, and Hugh spontaneously called Stan over. The two met, hugged and mugged for the cameras together. Hugh could have handled this photo session easily on his own being the consummate professional that he is, but as soon as he saw Stan, he just had to include him in the X-Men press pictures for the sheer delight of the moment.
Finally, there were those few times when just Stan and I would be returning to his hotel, often behind the Convention Center itself, an area that was lightly populated in the late 90s compared to the heavily patrolled zone it has become out of necessity since the early 2000s. Stan still walked fast, but I was easily able to keep up with him. An occasional fan would wander by and spot Stan and spontaneously ask for an autograph, which if Stan had time to stop, he’d happily do. If not, I’d offer the fan Stan’s office contact info to possibly get an autograph from Stan via the mail (a practice we had to eventually curtail because of such high demand). These were always nice, fleetingly calm moments, with the ship-filled marina on one side, the Convention Center on the other, and Stan looking forward to a return to his room for a nice rest, however brief, before his next flurry of activity. As busy as things inevitably would get, I’ve always deeply appreciated the rare privilege and real pleasure of being at Stan’s side backstage at San Diego Comic-Con for over twenty years.