I’m sure everyone and their brother will be penning their thoughts about the passing of Stan Lee. But I would be remised if I didn’t tell my story of how Stan Lee and the expansive world of superheroes he helped create affected me. I will try very hard not to get longwinded, though this is a topic I could write a long diatribe about.
My story of Stan Lee and Marvel comics becoming an integral part of my life occurred when I was a kid, and it came around at the time I needed it the most. This isn’t a part of my life I talk about much, and since the inception of Marvel into my life effectively eclipsed it, I never felt the need to go into much detail. But in tribute to Stan Lee, I will delve into one of the most traumatic moments of my childhood.
I was 8 years old when I got my first Marvel comic. It was a pocket sized 9 page comic that came in a box of Drake’s Devil Dogs. It featured Jubilee being kidnapped by the Rhino. Spider-Man witnessed it and tried to save the day, but Rhino got away. And it became evident that the Rhino was just the henchman delivering Jubilee to a higher evil. That was the end of the comic. Over the span of the next few weeks, and a few more Devil Dogs, I collected the remaining 3 comics in the series. In the second one, Spider-Man recruits Wolverine to find Jubilee. But he is accosted by Sabertooth. Wolverine ended up the victor (this time), and joined Spidey. In the third one, the Silver Surfer showed up… I don’t know how, and I actually can’t remember the third installment that well. But the fourth and final pocket comic featured the three heroes finding Jubilee in a warehouse where they confront the mastermind (I think it was Stryfe, but I can’t remember). He wanted Jubilee and her mutant power of light refraction to operate a war machine. Wolvy, Spidey, and the Silver Surfer team up to free Jubilee and stop Stryfe’s evil plan.
I was absolutely enthralled with this story, and how it was told. I was familiar with Superman and Batman at this age, but it was the first comic arc I had actually read. And it was great. I wanted more.
Shortly after completing the Devil Dog Marvel comic arc, my parents announced that they were going to get a divorce.
24 years gives you a lot of perspective, a lot of clarity, and, most importantly, a lot of time for the dust to settle. That’s when you’re 32 and you understand. When you’re 8 and it happens, you just don’t understand. You don’t know why this is happening. And you’re so focused on elementary school–making friends, playing tee ball, beginning to read chapter books, etc.–that you never even noticed your parents were having problems. So when they announced that they were splitting up, it came like a nuclear bomb out of the clear blue sky.
Things happened in a blur thereafter. We lived in Maryland at the time. And after the separation, we left it behind to move to New Hampshire, a thousand miles away. We moved in with my grandmother for a year until my mom found a solution.
I entered the 3rd grade that fall. And that’s right around the time that the social schism divides students. When you’re in kindergarten, everyone is friends. 5 year olds are innocent enough that they didn’t denigrate their own classmates. Around the 3rd grade is when that division between popular and outcast begins to form, and I was floating rapidly toward outcast. I was short, and everyone had a midget joke. I was a weird to begin with, and now I was the “new kid” (don’t mistake it, there’s no way I would have escaped being an outcast even had we stayed in Maryland). I was nearly beaten up on my first day of school because one of the kids said something I didn’t like, and I called him a “fairywinkle”. That is basically a microcosm for my childhood.
I was an outcast in school in a new place in a strange situation. This was the crossroads. I could have let everything turn me down a wrong path. I could have let the situation eat me alive at a young age. Three things kept me normalized:
- The reassurance of my mom, and my dad, and their continued to support and love despite the situation.
- My grandmother acting as an intermediary and a parachute for us kids.
- Marvel comics
I read those Devil Dog comics nearly every day. They gave me comfort, watching Spider-Man valiantly take on Rhino; seeing Wolverine clash claws with Sabertooth (without even knowing their rivalry extended WAY beyond a 9-page pocket comic); seeing the Silver Surfer sail through the cosmos and come to earth to rescue Jubilee. It kept me calm.
My dad moved to Connecticut, and we were able to see him every other weekend. One of the first times, we stopped at a Mobil station in Brattleboro, Vermont. In the back, they had a magazine rack packed with comics. I felt like a kid at Toys R Us. I begged my dad to let me get one, and he did.
It was the 3rd issue of the Mr. Sinister-Scott Summers cloning saga; an admittedly confusing one to enter on. That didn’t make it any less enthralling.
When we returned after the weekend, my sisters and I were channel surfing on an afternoon after school when we stumbled upon this:
(Greatest cartoon intro music of all time, even after all these years)
(With respect to Tom Holland, still the best Spider-Man)
I became obsessed. As the year dragged on, we watched X-Men and Spider-Man religiously. Every time my dad would pick us up, we’d stop at the Mobil, and I would get a Marvel comic–often out of order, but I didn’t care. I bought the action figures from Ames and Bradlee’s (times before Wal-Mart). I went to the library and checked out the Marvel almanacs they had where I was introduced to the rest of the universe: the Hulk, the Fantastic 4, Dr. Strange, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Daredevil, the Punisher, Blade, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Iron Man, the Avengers (which in my day were Hawkeye, Vision, Black Panther, Wasp, Giant Man, and on occasion Captain America). Every hero I read about was mind blowing to me. And for a kid who felt so isolated, and with a rampant imagination, each character I committed to memory made me feel like maybe I wasn’t so alone.
I was a short, strange kid who didn’t have many friends when I first moved to New Hampshire. The emergence of Marvel comics, and cartoons, gave me something to divert all of my focus upon. It offered a distraction to the separation. It made me feel ok to be strange–the X-Men prided themselves on their strangeness.
As the years moved forward, the obsession just blanketed my existence. I became a Marvel nerd many years before it was cool to be one.
Every comic had the same name on the back. It was the same one that appeared in every credit of the cartoons.
He was an intangible figure that attached itself to everything Marvel. An omniscient connection that stitched together every comic, every hero, every cartoon like the overseer of their universe.
In 6th grade, my class was given the task of doing an oral report on someone we considered our hero. Some did reports on sports stars, while others did family members. I decided, even though I didn’t even know if he really existed beyond the credits at the end of the cartoons, to do my report on Stan Lee. Much of what I know about Stan Lee to this day–that he served in World War II, that he became editor of Marvel Comics at 19, his catchphrase “Excelsior!”, and the unbreakable bond he shared with Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby–I learned for that report. I brought comics from my personal stash for the class to pass around. Nick, one of the douchebag populars, said it was stupid and threw it on the floor when one got around to him. He got a detention.
I got an A on the project.
Since that project, Stan Lee wasn’t just a name in the credits anymore. The benevolent omniscient of Marvel comics had a face. And I started seeing him everywhere–when the first X-Men movie was released 2 years later, they showed him in his cameo (the first of many) as the hot dog vendor on the beach. I hollered in shock while we were in the theater “Stan Lee!”
I looked at everything Marvel different after that. Before, they were stories and characters that filled the void of parents separating and being isolated in school. I was in 8th grade, and I felt like I knew this old man who always wore light shaded aviators, a grey mustache, and a smile–always smiling, when was the last time you didn’t see Stan Lee smile? I recognized him for what he was: a kindred spirit.
He created these characters that I related to so much. Wolverine, the Hulk, Nightcrawler, and Dr. Strange were the ones I resonated with the most. I felt like he must understand what I felt. These heroes were more than the capes and costumes. They were people trying to balance power, responsibility, and their everyday lives. They had emotions and jobs and problems just like normal people. Their plights were on a grander scale, but still felt all too familiar. Stan normalized superheroes… while at the same time making the “normal” feel like they were on the same level as the superhero.
Stan felt like the cool uncle that showed up around the holidays and told the best stories after dinner. His incredible stories and humble nature really made it feel like you knew him personally. Not in one instance did I ever see or hear of Stan Lee acting bigger than he had when he was 19 year-old editor. He was a man who had a blast doing what he loved: using his imagination.
I understood Stan Lee, as did millions of others. We were on the same wavelength. Stan helped me get through the roughest stages of my childhood and come out all the better for it. He helped me gain clarity and put everything into perspective–Peter Parker had to live with his aunt because both of his parents were gone, at least I didn’t have it that bad. Stan Lee bridged the gap that could have sunk me.
I had a chance to tell him “thank you”. That’s all I wanted… I didn’t want a picture or an autograph. I just wanted a handshake and to tell him “thank you for everything”. When we first moved to Florida, he made an appearance at the comicon in Orlando that I had every intention of going to. But something came up–something I can’t even remember–and we didn’t go. It ended up being the last comic convention he did in Florida. I’ll live with that regret my entire life.
He was 95, but for a man who gave as much as he did, who helped millions realize there’s a superhero within all of us, who filles the world with so much joy, 95 was far too young.
I’m truly going to miss him.
For what it’s worth, thank you for everything, Stan.
He is taking his meeting with One-Above-All now. May the Living Tribunal recognize his deeds upon this world, and shout “Excelsior!” at his arrival.