Up front, I don’t … I didn’t … know Stan Lee. That is to say, of course, Stan Lee didn’t know me.
Despite working in and around the comic book industry for nearly 23 years now, I only had the opportunity to meet him once. It was sometime in 2003, during my ill-fated 14-month tenure in Marvel Comics’ then-communications office (well, as Marvel’s communications office, but that’s neither here nor there). Word got around the crowded halls that “Stan was in the building." If my memory serves, I was given a brief intro by by then-Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada and an unremarkable, but perfectly gregarious handshake on Stan’s part was the entirety of the encounter.
And despite covering the news of the comic book industry for the other 262 months of the last 23 years, others have served as Newsarama’s point-of-contact with Stan. For half of that time it was my partner and Newsarama co-editor Matt Brady who reached out when we wanted a word from the legend. For the latter half it has been my friend and friend to the site Jim McLauchlin who was our go-to Stan Lee guy.
But despite my lack of a personal relationship with him, as I tweeted yesterday in the aftermath of the news of his passing, he, like I’m certain he’s done for thousands of others like me, helped alter the course of my life.
For me, it was his presence in the back of my mother’s bedroom closet during the months of November and December sometime in the late 1970s or early 80s that is without question a stepping stone in the path of my comic book career.
I know that sounds a little strange but bear with me a moment, please.
In the 70s/80s in rural-suburban New Jersey, you could leave an 8-to-11-year-old kid home alone at night and not only feel secure doing so, but also feel safe from the prying eyes and concerns of neighbors googling the number for Child Services.
During those years I spent a considerable amount of time home alone in the evening. My father had begun working the overnight shift in a bad job market, and my siblings were both older - often out of the house and off doing a variety of things. And my childhood memories say by this time my mother was involved in community theater and out at night regularly for weeks or months at evening rehearsals.
That left me home alone fairly regularly with a 19-inch television (black & white until some time in the 80s) and three or four channels depending on whether it was clear or cloudy as reception was poor with an aerial roof antenna in Northwest New Jersey.
But in November and December of that particular era, there was another home alone pastime that trumped the A-Team on NBC - searching the house for hidden Christmas presents.
Oh sure, like I’m the only one…
Anyway, finding toys and games and sports equipment was good and fine, but you couldn’t open the boxes or scuff the equipment so their discovery value was significant though fleeting and somewhat frustrating. Clothes of course didn’t even hold any discovery appeal. But one November I hit the jackpot – in the back of my mother’s closet was a crisp white sleeve bag from a small comic book shop tucked in a small corner of the Livingston Mall near Macy’s.
A quick search tells me that sliver of a shop was an outlet of “Heroes World,” the infamous chain of comic book stores that left its own notorius mark on the industry. But before all that, because NJ’s Rockaway Mall was “the mall” to me growing up, the extra 10 miles east to Livingston was a rare excursion, and that shop held highly exotic charm for me for a good part of my childhood.
It was there that I purchased my first-ever back-issue – a title I don’t even recall, selected almost completely at random and bought for less than $2 no doubt. Prodded by my older brother, the transaction was made simply for the new experience of buying a comic book out of a box, bagged and boarded, as opposed to off a spinner rack. I think in my mind it meant I was entering the world of “collecting” and investing and that my purchase would increase in value from that day forward.
But I digress. Being surprised by that familiar bag in the back of that closet conjured up images of my mother going out of her way to visit that store in secret just for me, stirring up emotions that I felt but probably didn’t understand for years later.
I was a comic book fan since I could read, but unlike for some, comic books weren’t things I possessed in volume as a child. We didn’t have a reliable newsstand close by and despite their prices, money was tight back then. Comic books were a treat … a luxury. A new one would appear during a week home sick from school or when my brother or I discovered a full comic book rack while on a family vacation. Much bigger piles than mine existed in the finished basements of my friend's houses.
Which makes the point of the story – what was in the bag – all the more impactful on me. It was copies of Origins of Marvel Comics and Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics, authored of course, as Iron Man said, "by Stan Lee."
This was like discovering a secret long box hidden inside a wall.
The find was also the all-time motherlode of sneaky Christmas present discovery, because unlike toys that had to remain in their packaging, I could read the books so long as I had a moment home alone … and read I did.
In what in my memories feels like months but couldn’t have been more than six weeks at very best, I carefully slipped those books out of the bag every chance I got, mindful to retain its crisp, unwrinkled newness as I did. Kneeling over my parents' bed, the window over which overlooked our driveway, I could read until bright white light from our car’s headlights poured into the room, giving me ample time to return the books to their hiding spot and make my short way back out in front of the TV in the living room.
I recall the contents of both volumes quite well – the debut stories/issues of all the iconic Marvel characters, followed by a later story showing how the character(s) had evolved, along with preambles introducing each story written by Stan.
I’ll tell you here I’m not a nostalgic person, at least not in a tactile way. My last memory of the books are as yellowed, damp and musty someplace in my childhood home's damp, musty basement, the ultimate fate of which I don't know. And I haven’t sought to replace them later in life, although I suppose someday I might see if they’re still in print or if I can secure new or old copies on Amazon. I’m satisfied to let favored memories remain in the idealized world of memories and those volumes and those few weeks of stolen moments with them serve as profound ones. The cover image of that typewriter and those striped sleeves is as evoking of strong memories as certain songs from my senior year in high school.
Of course I received the books on Christmas Day of that year and I’m sure I acted sufficiently surprised. I’m also sure I reread them for years with legitimacy, but nothing nearly equals my memories of those first evenings, during those holiday weeks, in that bedroom, discovering (before I was supposed to) the backstory of a world I didn’t know had a backstory.
"Stan’s Soapbox" is likely the place most Marvel fans of my era established a relationship with the legend. For me it was those volumes, as I read with fascination Stan's recollections as to how the characters came to be with as much interest as the origin stories themselves.
I don’t need to reread the books now to know that Stan’s idealized expository passages almost certainly didn’t do full justice to the contributions of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others that would lead to disputes and controversy over the decades. That’s a complicated issue with complicated implications. And my point isn’t to excuse or condemn, but just to recognize an influence.
I was a Marvel kid growing up - I believe that’s the first time I have admitted that as a professional - and that there was a someone to tell me those meta-origin stories, be it for ego, ambition or otherwise, was almost certainly one of the reasons why.
As I’ve told friends over the years, my being the managing editor in 2018 of a comic book website I founded in the 90s is due to a series of happy accidents, each doubling down on the other. The odds of me being here now are probably akin to the odds of winning Powerball – one slight deviation and the whole chain of events breaks down and leads me somewhere else.
And it isn’t lost me that this chain of events began in part because I retained until later in life a keen interest in the backstory of how comic books came and come to be - in the people and the circumstances that led to their creation. That my first experiences in that meta-world were wrapped up in another form of adventurous discovery are almost certainly two ingredients in the chemical reaction of my professional life.
As I tweeted Monday, whatever the part of Stan Lee was that led to those volumes and his participation in them … whatever that part of him that made him tell those backstories in his bombastic style, was a fluttering of wings in a butterfly effect on me, and a life I’ve been privileged to lead.
I never got to tell him that and I don’t think I would have attempted it had I the chance, but I think I can say for certain thousands of others did get to tell Stan their stories of love, respect and appreciation, and how he genuinely impacted them, and I’m sure all those stories became a part of who he was.
So I’ll just say thank you Stan Lee, for being a part of the exposition of my origin story.