With the reported death of Stan Lee, acclaimed comic book creator, we’ve lost one of the most prolific writers of our lifetimes. Rather than concentrate on the hopeless task of describing everything he created in his lifetime, I want to describe my first meeting with Stan.
I barely remember reading comics as early as 1954, but at that time I was simply pointing to pictures of Disney’s ducks and making up my own stories since I couldn’t actually read the words. By the late fifties, I was finally reading the words and spent a lot of time with the reboot of the Silver Age by DC. In the early sixties Marvel comics launched a line of monster comics, and on weeks where DC didn’t have too many comics I would throw down my dimes and nickels and pick up Strange Tales or Tales to Astonish and read stories about mankind outsmarting monsters that were intent on stomping their way through cities.
I usually got to go to Camp Townsend in upstate New York in the Summers. In 1962 we stopped at a soda shop in Parksville and our Dad let us each pick out one comic book to buy and read on the way home. I snatched a copy of Fantastic Four #1. While I had been reading stories written by Stan Lee for years (mostly cowboy comics, but also a large number of the monster comics), this was the first true superhero comic from Marvel in the sixties. After reading that comic I started paying closer attention to the comics from Marvel. My attention became much more focused a monthly later: the fifteenth issue of Amazing Adult Fantasy changed its name to Amazing Fantasy and put Spider-Man on its cover.
Marvel comics quickly developed a unique relationship with their readers. The writers, artists, and inkers were credited on the pages of the stories and a bullpen page was added that included information about events. There was even a Merry Marvel Marching Society (which I joined, member #14784) that sent us stationery (I still have some) and a flimsy 45 rpm record and a membership button. I even ordered the first Spider-Man poster direct from Marvel. Jack Kirby kept putting pictures of himself and Stan in the comics, and a few times there were even photographs.
All the better to recognize them.
The sixties were a turbulent time, and while I would have preferred going to college at MIT or one of the other schools that excelled in Mathematics, my mother limited my choices to a handful of southern states. I was not allowed to attend college with Northeast Intellectual Liberals (Mom was from Birmingham). They had computer classes, so I ended up exiled to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. I stayed there in the summers In an effort to graduate as part of their three-year program. In the Summer of 1969, I was on a nearly deserted campus taking a few classes mostly with basketball and football players. While walking across campus from a classroom back to my dorm room I spotted a man sitting under a tree talking to three or four other students.
I instantly recognized Stan.
I went over and mumbled something about his name and Stan smiled and waved and invited me to sit down and talk with him. Nashville had some sort of annual convention for cartoonists and Stan was there to hobnob with some of his friends, and for some reason was walking across campus when a few students recognized him.
For about two hours we peppered Stan with questions and listened to him tell us tales about the comic book industry and our heroes – for me the heroes were the writers and artists, but most of the questions were about the superheroes in the books.
For years a question about the early Hulk comics had bothered me, and one of the questions I asked Stan was pretty simple: whatever happened to the Secret Empire? The early Marvel comics had featured a number of secret societies, including Aim and Hydra, and the Secret Empire had tangled with Hulk a few times and then just disappeared. Stan’s response? “Oh, right, I forgot about them.” They eventually were retconned into yet another arm of Hydra and made life miserable for a few issues.
When the session was about to break up, Stan asked the four of us who were left to vote. Marvel was thinking of reviving a fan club and was unsure about whether to resurrect the Merry Marvel Marching Society or create a new club called Friends of Ol’ Marvel. By a vote of 3 to 1, we chose the new name, and Stan declared all of us to be charter members of the new club. It was nearly four years later that FOOM was announced, but when I wrote in and reminded Marvel that Stan had named some of us charter members I got a package in the mail that included the membership package and a few other goodies.
What impressed me most about Stan was how friendly and personable he was to a collection of random college students. He seemed to really enjoy talking with us and was clearly as big a fan of the comics as we were. It took several decades and a few hit movies before everybody else found that out.
Over the years I ran autograph sessions for Stan a few times, got him to sign my copy of Fantastic Four #1 a few months after Jack signed it, sent him the Spider-Man poster because he didn’t have one, and got a thank you letter from him that is one of my prized possessions. He even signed it with an Excelsior.