Back Issues: A near miss and missing Stan Lee

Twenty years ago, I didn’t meet Stan Lee.

As a high school graduation gift, my mother took my best friend, Jeff, and me to the Chicago Comic Con. On the second day, we headed over to the massive Marvel Comics booth to see who would be signing autographs when, suddenly, I heard a familiar voice.

This was before comic book content permeated every aspect of popular culture. Outside of the Superman and Batman franchises, memorable comic-based projects with audio were few and far between. Whose voice would I recognize at a comic convention?

Stan Lee’s. Less than 20 feet away.

I knew that voice from the introductions to the “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends” and “Incredible Hulk” cartoons. I knew his writing from “Stan’s Soapbox” in Marvel comics, and I knew his reputation as the co-creator of basically all my favorite comic titles.

Scheduled to sign later in the day, Stan showed up early at the booth and a line quickly formed. Jeff snapped a few pictures as I frantically dug through my bag to see what I had that Stan could autograph. Surely there was something he’d written or some generic Marvel item?

Still searching, we finally started heading toward the growing column of fans… and were the first people stopped when someone pulled the rope barrier to cut off the line.

We returned several hours before his scheduled signing, but the line was already stretching around the venue.

At some point, a fact I knew well resurfaced in my brain: for decades, every Marvel comic produced, whether Stan wrote it or not, bore the phrase “Stan Lee presents” on the title page.

He could have signed any of them.

There’s no chance of an update to my story now, as the larger-than-life figure came to the end of his earthly tenure. At age 95, it wasn’t a surprise.

But man, it still stings.

Though age sapped some of his vigor, Stan’s voice remained largely the same in recent years: excited, friendly, brimming with energy that made you feel like he was talking just to you and thrilled to be doing so.

Stan has gotten a bad rap over the years for what some people see as his hogging the spotlight from the plethora of talented artists and storytellers with whom he worked. I don’t know about the personal and professional goings-on between them, but as a comic book fan, I always inherently understood that Stan’s fertile imagination only produced its most famous fruit with the irreplaceable contributions of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and so many more.

He was the ultimate pitch man for Marvel Comics, in part because you believed that he believed every word he was saying about the bombastic and brilliant, daring and dynamic characters and stories he shared.

Born Stanley Lieber, he started working for Marvel in 1939, over the years writing a host of stories in multiple genres. He adopted the pen name Stan Lee because he wanted to save his real name for when he wrote the great American novel.

When he grew tired of the work in 1961, his beloved wife Joan convinced him that if he was going to leave, he ought to do so on his terms, writing the story he wanted. And so, he and Kirby produced “Fantastic Four” #1.

They weren’t necessarily any more “fantastic” than other characters on the market. Heck, Marvel had already published comics featuring a Human Torch. But they were different because they were friends and family who spent as much time bickering with each other as they did fighting villains.

Then came the Hulk. Spider-Man. Thor. Iron Man. Doctor Strange. The X-Men. No, they weren’t Stan’s alone, but he was a part of them all.

With Stan at the helm, Marvel Comics reinvigorated a medium that was always dismissed as just for kids. And Stan sang the praises of these modern-day folk heroes and led the charge as more tremendously talented writers, artists, inkers, letterers and colorists followed, building upon the world he helped create.

He followed the heroes to Hollywood, with his omnipresent cameos as the jury foreman in “The Trial of the Incredible Hulk,” the hot dog vendor in “X-Men” and maybe, just maybe, the same character in every single Marvel Cinematic Universe film. (My money’s on Woodrow McCord. Or just Stan Lee.)

Stan Lee was the face and voice of an entire medium. His work and enthusiasm will live on for another 100 years and beyond. In comics and film, we’ll always have him, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a sense of loss among so many of us whose lives have been touched by his work and his boundless enthusiasm.

Excelsior.

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