New Release: Balance & Ruin

It’s done.

It was a pet project that has been on and off the backburner so many times, I’m surprised it didn’t boil over. Over five years since it first began, I’m proud to say it finally draws to a close.

The first part, anyway. Which means I should finish the entirety by, what… 2150?

This is the official announcement of my latest release, Terra, the first installment of the Balance & Ruin saga.

Terra awakens in an unfamiliar land with no memory of how she got there. Now she must run for her life without knowing why. Escaping capture, Terra finds herself at the epicenter of a war she wants no part of. On one side is the Empire, using malicious means to gain land and power. And on the other side are the Returners, a rebellion bent on the Empire’s demise. Terra must make a choice of who’s side she is on in this war. At the same time, there is a war waging inside of her mind. Her amnesia stole from her memories she so desperately tries to reclaim. Without them, she is a hollow vessel possessing unheralded gifts of mysterious origin. To fight the war outside, she must win the one within.

If some of the buzzwords sounded familiar, you may have once played a game called Final Fantasy VI. Indeed, my pet project was the dramatic retelling and novelization of, in what I believe to be, the best video game ever made. If you played, you’ll love reading this to return to that world and going deeper into the story (without worrying about finding a save point!)

And if you have never played, this is an epic tale of the purest nature, pitting good vs. evil. It takes place in a world at the dawn of a technological era while unearthing the olde magic of the past. It’s a steampunk-meets-classic-fantasy tale that features emotionally charged characters fighting battles of self, vengeance, love, and truth.

And now the good part. Being that this isn’t copyrighted to me, and is how one might describe as “super detailed fanfiction”, this book costs $0. 100% free.

If you have anything but a Kindle, you can download the eBook here

If you have a Kindle, you can download the MOBI file here

If physical copies are more your speed, that is available too. DM me on Twitter @robertjrelyea to request a copy. I will personally order a physical copy, then ship it off to you. It costs $10.50 to print from the distributor, plus shipping.

Thanks, and whether you’re familiar with the game source or whether you’re just a fantasy junkie, I really think you’ll enjoy it!


Song of the Year, And the Deeper Revelation

Happy New Year! 2019 already. A lot to look forward to, and a lot to look back on.

One of my favorite things to do as the new year approaches is count down my favorite songs of the year. I have such a wide and strange taste in music that it always winds up being way different than the typical end of the year countdown. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably saw the countdown progress.

(Start here, keep going until you hit #1! )

And if you reached the end of the thread, it’ll lead you right back here for an explanation as to why I picked the #1 song as the best of the year.

The song of the year, for those who don’t have the time to follow the thread and listen to 50 different Spotify links, is “Ghost” by the band Badflower

It gets the crown over established acts like A Perfect Circle, Tom Morello, Portugal. The Man, Nothing More, and 49 other songs on the countdown (over 160 originally getting consideration), as the best of 2019.

It rocks, of course. It has a powerful message, yes. Musically, it’s a fantastic song. But what sent it to number 1 was the chord it struck for me on a personal level.

The song details the downward spiral of a remorseful subject who continually self-harms and attempts to take his own life, until the final extended chorus where he succeeds.

Let me preface it with this…

I never considered myself suicidal. I never got to the point where I thought that killing myself was the only way out. I know there were always people out there in way worse mental shape than I ever was. And to this day, I accept that I was an odd, lonely kid in junior high into high school—but I never felt the depth of despair that lead young people to put a blade on their wrist.

But I knew people like that. I had two of my classmates commit suicide during my four years in high school. I have relatives who are chronically depressed that I’m afraid to leave alone. And I have friends who suffer, who have made idle threats, and who have made attempts on their own lives. All the while I empathize and I try to help, but I believed that I never truly understood because I had never felt that horrible emptiness that would lead me to self harm.

This song, and certain lyrics, made me realize how close I was to the precipice of that despair.

All I really wanted was someone to give a little fuck

But I waited there forever and nobody even looked up.”

Public high school is absolutely brutal on a young person’s social mentality. It instills the idea of subdivisions of students, whether you’re on the inside or the outside. And worst of all, it made you believe that you needed the approval of every single student and teacher you came in contact with. Some select few got that approval, and some knew enough to not care about needing everyone’s approval.

I was unfortunately neither one of them. I had a few friends, I was in band, drama, and on the golf and baseball teams, but I still felt like I was mostly just a background character, a walk-on part in my own show.

This life is overwhelming, and I’m ready for the next one.”

End of sophomore year into junior year was the time I felt most alone. And my grades were slipping. I was an advanced student when I was young. I was at a 3rd grade reading level in kindergarten, I was given extra reading assignments in 1st grade because I aced every bit of cirriculum the teacher had, I won every single spelling bee from 3rd to 8th grade (except 4th, and believe you me, I never misspelled “government” again for the rest of my life!). But the rest of the students caught up with me over time to the point that, by junior year, I was the one struggling. Things became more difficult, and the willingness to learn that was there early on was shutting down.

“I thought about my friends, and the way I didn’t give enough”

My classmates were beginning to take the PSATs, talking about colleges, talking about majors, graduation next year. And … I just couldn’t get excited about any of it. I was feeling the pressure beginning to mount, and failure becoming imminent. And trying to figure out how I was going to graduate, what I was going to do after I graduated, where I was going to college, plotting my entire life out (as some students were) made me feel like I was trying to climb Mt. Everest with nothing but a pair of mittens and a snow shovel.

For most of my junior year, I felt like I was on a conveyor belt getting molded and formed to factory setting being prepared to be shipped off but… oh no! I was a defect heading to the incinerator.

Even the slightest thing, like algebra homework or making it to drama rehearsal on time, became overwhelming.

I should have left a letter, but I had nothing to write about.”

I felt pointless, like all that was being led to was a trite life of mediocrity because I had my shit together and then it all fell apart slowly. And of course, I suffered in silence. I didn’t tell my parents, my sisters, my friends… no one knew, because I thought this was normal, and I didn’t believe I was depressed. Depression is often affiliated with a deep sadness, but now I know it’s not even close. Depression doesn’t feel like anything; it’s a numbness that devours your emotions until you’re a husk of your former self; until you don’t even remember what it’s like to even feel sad, or happy, or angry, or even the standard malaise that students feel… All you feel is exhaustion with everything. But I didn’t know that then. I wasn’t sad, ergo I wasn’t depressed. Just numb, overwhelmed, uninterested, and accepting my own failure as an inevitability…

I lived that way from sophomore to most of junior year. Then, by the punctual crossing of fate, I snapped out of it. I was invited over to hang out with some underclassmen, realized that people actually cared about what I thought, what I said, and how I was, and by the time I graduated high school, I had the best damn year of my life. And I haven’t been that close to despair since—don’t get me wrong, I still have low moments but nothing as bad as that year.

No, I never felt suicidal. But when I first heard this song, “Ghost”, and processed it, I had a flash that had I not so luckily “snapped out of it” maybe the course of the song was where I was going to end up. Overwhelmed, numbed to reason, self-loathing, and willing to end it all.

I wish everyone who suffered had that realization; that moment that they just snap out of it. But it doesn’t work that way. If not for the support of others, even unbeknownst to them that I was suffering to begin with, I don’t know how much further into the void I would have slipped. Maybe this song is a parallel universe where I did fall into that emptiness…

Who knows what would have happened then? This song made me realize how close I was to the edge. It struck me on a personal level that I haven’t thought about in over 17 years.

For that reason, this was the #1 song of 2018.


The State of the Author Address, 2018

As 2018 draws to a close, it’s once again that time to look back at the year that was.

2018 was a banner year for me as a writer, if only because it completed the decade long journey thus far. It was 2008 when I had to ask myself “What am I doing with my life?” I was working a dead-end job at Target wondering if that was it, and what was next. What was I aiming for? I was 22 years old, struck with a fear that I had nothing to look forward to. It was during a blizzard in 2008 when I called out of work, stayed off the roads, and hunkered down into my studio apartment. With a sudden case of cabin fever came a sudden burst of creativity. I sat down at my computer, started typing out the first three chapters of what would be my first manuscript. And I haven’t stopped typing words in ten years.

What do I have to show for the last ten years?

  • self-published 3 novels
  • published stories in 3 separate genres
  • 40 query submissions, 21 rejections, 2 full manuscript requests
  • 13 completed short stories (compilation forthcoming?)
  • 25+ partial stories
  • a blog
  • thousands of friends, colleagues, and contacts on various social media platforms
  • a veritable wealth of knowledge of the book writing process
  • a respect and love for all things literature
  • a minor case of carpal tunnel
  • sleep deprivation

And that’s just the beginning…

I did something in 2018 that is generally frowned upon in the writing community: I worked multiple projects. Not only multiple projects, I tried to press forward with as many viable projects as I could. I’ve often said that ideas are the easiest part of writing, so much so that I have a long Word document full of ideas. This year, I tried to press forward with some of the ideas that have been burning a hole in my brain for years as well as some of the instant flashes of brilliance that only came about during the year. In all, I put pen-to-paper (finger-to-keyboard?) on 13 different projects that, all things considered, will see the light of day within the next 10 years. It’s usually a writer’s own death sentence to work so inconsistently. But I believe it’s better to put the ships out in the bay than moored in the harbor. Let them sail!

Many of the projects are still in the infant stages of the creative process, but every novel begins with a thought and an outline. One of the projects was a backburner project for years that is finally on the outskirts of publication. And several others are projects stretching into genres and territories I don’t normally visit. It fits to aid my main goal as a writer, which is to not be pigeonholed into a genre. I want to be viewed as a versatile author who uses many voices, styles, and genres. And in trying to give a kick to 13 different projects this year helped take another step toward that goal.

I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time in 3 years, but took an unorthodox route. Rather than the customary 50,000 word count, I decided to put in 55 hours of hard edit time and knock a 200,000 word draft down to 125,000. I was not successful in either account, but it ended up for the best. The final word count was left at 170,000. But in all honesty, it feels complete. Cutting anymore would start to put holes in the plot. I’d rather leave a long edit than shorten it up and leave readers confused. The fruit of NaNoWriMo will be the first big announcement for 2019.

I’ve shortened up the leash and tried to re-center my attention into one WIP at a time, while at the same time offering a very limited time to ships already in the bay. What good is leading them into the bay if they don’t catch a wave every now and then. I am optimistic that this year will be my most successful yet. Here are a few goals for 2019:

  • First on the docket is getting the i’s dotted and t’s crossed to get this pet project of mine through the pipeline and onto the e-readers of the world. This will be the first announcement, likely coming the first month of the year. I hope you all like steampunk fantasy!
  • I think this is as good a time as any to go back and release an “author’s edition” of a past novel. What I considered complete at the time still left a lot to be desired, so I feel a second edition is necessary. It’ll include a finer edit, sanding some of the rougher edges, new cover art, and an alternate ending!
  • Two organic WIPs are slated to be completed this year. I want one of them 100% published, and the other to have its first draft completed. One is a straight-up horrifying thriller that plays off of a modern paranormal legend. The other is an avant garde look at one of the most self-destructive acts of humanity: the break-up (for real!). They both will get written, but which one will come out first? That remains to be seen.
  • I flirted with a new feature I referred to as “micro stories”, offering a small story to my Facebook readers. It was a success, and I think it is a great way to engage readers. Be on the look out for a regular slate of micro stories.
  • And now, this. I stopped blogging because I thought I didn’t have the time, or that it would somehow hurt my writing style or process. But it is far from a hindrance, and I will update regularly with essays, peeks into life, opinion pieces, and straight up minutia. Once again, I expect no one to read it or be that interested, but hey, it’s there.

2018 was relatively quiet on a publication front. But I trust that all the preparation I managed to accomplish this year will lead to a very successful 2019.

Good luck, and may the force be with you.

Robert J. Relyea. Author. Writer. Wordsmith.

Twitter: @robertjrelyea

Instagram: @rob.relyea.writer.chef

Facebook: facebook.com/robertjrelyea


Temporary Vegan Report #1

12 days in. Certainly a carnivore like me couldn’t last long replacing his lunch break by adhering the strict rules of veganism, right?

You would be wrong. I know, I was shocked too. But of the 15 participants in the Food & Nutrition Vegan Lunch Break Challenge, I am still among 13 still remaining in contention for that gift card (a $50 Visa gift card, which will be used to buy meat).

It wasn’t without its close calls. 3 minutes after punching in, while making my morning coffee, I nearly dropped the 2% milk in… which called into question the rules: Was it the entire shift, or just the lunch break?

It was the entire shift that needed to be vegan strict. So I nearly blew it 3 minutes in. But I’ve been taking my coffee black with Stevia, which is actually more enjoyable than I expected. Maybe I’ll get in touch with my inner psychopath and continue drinking my coffee black even after the competition.

Much of the last week and a half has been me asking Google “is ____ vegan?”. Good news: barbecue sauce is vegan! That’s saving my hide right now. I stuck to what I knew,which was mostly mixed green salads and red wine vinaigrette. Lately, I’ve been having vegan burger patties over spinach with the aforementioned barbecue sauce, and a few pasta dishes as they’re available.

The vegan side of the hospital cafeteria isn’t what you’d call “picturesque”. It tastes better than it looks, I’ll just say that. But the point of this challenge is to promote healthy eating through the holiday. But all it’s doing is making me crave a big, fat cheeseburger as soon as I get out of work. I ignore it… for now.

So far, so good for Temporary Vegan Bobbo.

But still 20 days to go until Christmas. Everyone, eat a steak for me, okay?


Writing Novels and Growing Whiskers

A lot went on in November, as it does every year. But the end of the month brings a close to two important “challenges”.

Movember, also known as “No Shave November”

I usually don’t partake in this tradition. For the longest time, my wife has spoken of her disdain for facial hair. Something about it was a distinct turn off. More recently, she has come around to it; probably something to do with getting older (or perhaps she wants to see what I’d look like as a lumberjack. But I still refrain, mostly because my propensity forgrowing a beard isn’t exactly on Nick Offerman levels. Try as I may, I don’t think I’ll be getting in to ZZ Top any time soon.

(I feel this meme all too well)

I usually make one exception, andthat’s for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s tradition to get behind your hockey team of choice and refrain from shaving so long as they are in the playoffs. In 2014, the Montreal Canadiens went to the Eastern Conference Finals, thus growing my “longest” playoff beard. Since then, the April/May facial scruff has been few and far between; the window for the Habs has unfortunately, and painfully, closed.

(No beard on this face come spring.)

This was my first time participating in Movember. I’m not any better at growing a beard now as I am any other time of year. But I didn’t do it to defy my wife or to appeal to myinner lumberjack. Earlier this year, a college classmate of mine, Ryan, revealed on Facebook that he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. We had a couple classes and hung out in college, but it was a little bit of a stretch to say we were friends; more like good acquaintances—good enough to keep in touch on social media. Still, no matter the connection, the news was a shock. Ryan is my age (a few weeks younger than me, actually). To hear someone my age getting cancer—a very serious form of cancer—reaffirmed my mortality, and the fact that time is marching steadily. Cancer can happen at any age, and for any number of reasons—or sometimes what feels like no reason at all. Truth be told, I lost a night of sleep thinking about it. Thinking about how Ryan’s life was going to change from here on out, hoping that he has a long life to change and this disease didn’t claim him young, was a real wake up call.

I gave him my condolonces and well-wishes, told him to kick cancer’s ass. But I wasn’t in the kind of place where I could chip into his GoFundMe, short of the $5 minimum. So while it really means nothing, I thought in solidarity of his diagnosis, and to remind me of that the frequency of these sorts of things will steadily rise as I get older, I decided to dispose of my razor for a month.

That is what it’s all about. Most guys just look at is an excuse to get scruffy, or stay scruffy. Some ladies threaten to join in as a way to shoot back at guys. But Movember began in order to raise awareness for male health, particularly to get the nerve up to ask the uncomfortable questions that could save your life. I’ve got my appointment coming up, and I will be asking my doctor some questions knowing the earlier they detect something, the better off I may be. And I implore others to dothe same.

The month is over, yet I’m debating whether to go back to baby cheeks, or see if this face full of moss actually turns into something. Suppose I’ll consult with my wife… or the Montreal Canadiens.

November was also the return of National Novel Writing Month, or as writers lovingly refer to it:“NaNoWriMo”.

I’ve been an entrant ever since I learned about the “competition” in 2011. The idea is brilliant: spend an entire month trying to furiously slap 50,000 words into a story. And for my first few entries, I nailed it. The first draft of Burnt Hill Road was finished during NaNoWriMo of 2012. And all was going well.

Then, in 2014, by the time November rolled around, my newborn son was already 3 months old. Children will change your life, and my contribution to NaNo was not withstanding. Not just the competition—having children will change how you write. Before kids, you can pick and choose when you write, and for how long you want to write. It comes easier because there, essentially, is no time limitation. After kids? Free time is a rarity. That time you spent writing you’re spending with your kids now. It’s a beautiful thing, don’t get me wrong. But the work to put in writing becomes more difficult. You end up dropping a sentence here, a paragraph there, an extra 20 minutes while they take a bath.

That first NaNo after my son was born was an unmitigated failure, to the point that I straight up deleted the 1,300 words of the story I had started because it was so stale and uninspired I didn’t want it wasting my hard drive space. The NaNo’s after that weren’t any more successful. I took a few years away, and this was the first NaNo I attempted since moving toFlorida.

This year, however, I didn’t adhere to the standard 50k, but instead implemented the self-goal of getting the final edit of a pet project finished. My plan to was to put in 55 hours of editing and slash a 200,000 word draft down to 125,000.

Sitting here on the final night of NaNo, I put in 45 hours, and cut down to 177,000… Yet the story feels complete. Cutting anymore felt like it was beginning to biteinto the plot or character development too much. I didn’t meet my hours allotment because… life happens. It was a busy month, including birthdays, Disney trips, holidays with family, and working my tail off at my day job.

Did I “win” NaNoWriMo 2018? I’m not sure. Judging my original goal, I would say technically no. But I’m happy where I stand on my pet project, I gained momentum in my next original project, and I felt a more like a writer than I have in years. In the end, isn’t that the point of NaNoWriMo more than anything? I will carry that momentum throughout the year. I have big, BIG plans for next year, for future discussions.

Here I sit on November 30th with a face full of scruff and a bowl full of writing confidence with a pet project at the finish line. All in all, that’s a successful month!

(Yay! I participated!)


The Vegan Lunch Break Challenge (And Those Who Want To Watch The World Burn)

First off, Happy Thanksgiving! Sure, the holiday itself is behind us, though there’s still plenty of evidence left in the refrigerator. I like to consider the whole long weekend apart of the holiday though. Thursday, you indulge in culinary delights. Friday, you indulge in retail therapy. And then there’s still the weekend remaining for shenanigans. For most, it’s a glorious 4 days off. I worked during the day on Thanksgiving yesterday, but I did manage to finagle the remaining 3 days off this weekend. And I will enjoy it…

Because on Monday, the real challenge begins.

In order to promote healthy habits during the holidays, the food & nutrition unit of the hospital runs a survivor-style contest each year. While on duty, the “contestants” would adhere to a challenge and see how long one could do it. If the contestant breaks the challenge, they were out. Whoever is left standing gets a substantial gift card. In years passed, they’ve done a No Sugar challenge, a No Carbs challenge, a “weighted lunch” portion challenge.

This year, they’ve decided the “Food & Nutrition Healthy Holiday Challenge” is…

Vegan Lunch Break.

If you know me, you know how much of a carnivore I am. So why would I even bother signing up for this?

But if you know me, you also know how competitive I am. You say the word “challenge”, and I am there! And unfortunately, this is no exception. I signed up to offer my chef salads and club sandwich lunches in trade for a plant-based vegan lunch. (God, I hope the winning gift card is to Texas Roadhouse!)

It was argued (I may or may not have been the arguer) why we couldn’t just go vegetarian instead of the extreme. The answer was that A) Challenges are supposed to be difficult and extreme, and B) SOME people would just make a bowl of macaroni and cheese every lunch break (I may or may not be some people) 

The challenge goes from Monday, November 26 to December 31. Luckily for me, I will be taking vacation on the 20th. Still, 4 weeks eating vegan on lunch break will be a challenge. If anyone has any advice, tips, or recipes for jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, please comment. 

Never thought I’d say this, but Bobbo is going vegan! (sort of. temporarily.)

I’ll be posting progress of the challenge plus lunches I can come up with on Instagram (@rob.relyea.writer.chef)


Stan the Man: A Tribute to Stan Lee

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:

  1. The reassurance of my mom, and my dad, and their continued to support and love despite the situation.
  2. My grandmother acting as an intermediary and a parachute for us kids.
  3. 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)

Shortly after:

(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.

Stan Lee.

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.