I met Stan Lee for the first time on five different occasions.
Back in the 1980s I worked at the Marvel Comics offices as the assistant direct sales manager. My job was to make sure the comics got to all the retail comic book shops on time every week. Every so often, Stan would jet in from the left coast and visit the offices, check in with the big shots, do executive stuff that I couldn’t even begin to fathom. And in carrying out my duties, I’d typically run into him in the hallways. I’d always greet him the same way, introducing myself, telling him what I did, and he would always smile and shake my hand and say hello.
I did this because Stan’s lousy memory was fabled and notorious throughout the industry. It was no secret. In an early issue of Spider-Man, the hero’s alter ego was cited as “Peter Palmer” rather than “Parker.” In the most notorious malfunction of Stan’s memory, The Incredible Hulk’s Bruce Banner exclaimed in shock that he had transformed from his superhero self into his day-to-day one: “Bob Banner.” It was subsequently “explained” that his full name was actually Robert Bruce Banner. And we, as fans, all nodded and said, “Okay.”
So, four times I introduced myself. The fifth time I ran into him, before I could say a word, he pointed at me and said, “You’re Peter!”
My breath was taken away. I was stunned. Stan Lee remembered me. That was it. I had now fully arrived in the world of comic books.
So that was how I met him in person. The first time I met him in the pages of comics was many years before that, when I was visiting my cousin’s house and he showed me Fantastic Four Annual #3. Written by Stan and penciled by the incomparable Jack “King” Kirby, it gave us the wedding of Reed Richards and Sue Storm.
Now, understand that I knew nothing about the Marvel Universe. I hadn’t read a single issue of anything. Yet I was able to read the entire story and understand every single thing that was going on. Considering it featured pretty much every hero and villain in the Marvel Universe, that was quite an accomplishment. Stan’s meticulous writing held to the concept that every comic is someone’s first issue.
The only thing I didn’t get was why in the last panels, two guys in top hats showed up and were refused entrance to the wedding. I didn’t have a clue who they were. Naturally, it was Stan and Jack, in a scene that, many years later, would be reprised in the film Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (a movie that in retrospect looks way better compared to the more recent FF disaster). Jack had long passed away, but there was Stan, trying to get in, and being turned away.
Stan the Man. That may have been coined to refer to Stan Musial, but I’ll wager many today have no recollection who Musial was. Yet they all know Stan Lee.
Everyone knows Stan Lee.
And there’s no reason they shouldn’t. Stan has been omnipresent in the American social realm and consciousness since the rise of Marvel Comics sent comic books spiraling off into directions no one ever could have seen coming. Before the rise of Marvel, comic books were considered strictly kids entertainment. I think it was Neil Gaiman who pointed out that words by themselves are literature and for adults; pictures by themselves are artwork and for adults; but combine words and pictures and suddenly, it’s just for children.
Stan took that concept and turned it on its ear. Despite admonitions from publisher Martin Goodman that heroes never had problems, Stan gave us the Fantastic Four, a family of heroes who are as likely to squabble with one another as to challenge a villain. He gave us Peter Parker, who went from being a teenager with huge issues to a superhero with huge issues. Mythic heroes from Gilgamesh to Hercules had huge personal difficulties and outsized personalities that landed them in trouble more often than not. Stan followed that lead and gave us heroes who had sizable problems to overcome, ranging from personal trials to physical drawbacks. By contrast, the DC heroes had weaknesses, yes, but theirs were arbitrary and supernatural. Superman had problems with a green rock; Martian Manhunter crumbled before flame; Green Lantern, depending on which one we’re discussing, was vulnerable to either yellow or wood, meaning you could take out either one with a #2 pencil.
Compare them to Tony Stark, whose heart was constantly menaced by pieces of shrapnel that were prevented only by the chest plate of his armor from piercing it. Stan actually took a hardened defense contractor billionaire and made him sympathetic.
Even as Stan turned over the writing of the comics to others, his support and promotion of Marvel was unrelenting. He crisscrossed the country, making appearances at dozens of colleges. The fact that Marvel’s comics were hugely popular in universities was surprising to everyone. Students would argue over whether The X-Men was based on racial inequality or served as an allegory for gay experience, and Stan would listen and shake his head.
Still, there was a time where Stan became the incarnation of that line from The Dark Knight: You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain. In the ’80s and ’90s, it became increasingly stylish to bash Stan, to accuse him of hogging attention for his creations from the artists. But the fact is that before Marvel Comics, comics writers and artists were anonymous. It was Stan who made the artists the centerpieces of the work, giving them snappy nicknames like “Stainless” Steve Ditko, “Genial” Gene Colan, “Larrupin’” Larry Lieber (no, even his brother wasn’t immune), and many others. We would come to know the artists (and other writers) as well as, if not better than, members of our only families. DC editors were so disdainful of this practice that they referred to him as “Stan Brag,” before eventually following suit and crediting people.
But the hostility toward Stan seemed to wane over the years. Maybe it was all his cameo appearances in the multi-billion dollar Marvel movies. We saw how much fun he was having just being Stan Lee, and it was hard to resist his charms.
Over the years, I became faster and faster friends with Stan. We worked on projects such as the Marvel 2099 line. I worked with him to write an anti-drug book for the FBI (it was terrible; don’t look for it). I visited with him whenever I was in L.A. Once, we were driving to lunch, and he was asking me about what I was going to be doing on my new assignment, The Incredible Hulk. I told him I was bringing back the Hulk who took his superhero form when the moon rose, like a werewolf. Stan looked surprised and said, “I thought he changed when he got angry.” “Not in the beginning,” I said. “It was at moonrise.” He frowned and said, “I wonder why we changed it.” Then he shrugged and said, “Eh. It was probably Jack’s idea.”
I once saw Stan and Jack in huddled, private conversation in a hotel lobby at a convention called WonderCon. I wondered what in the world they were talking about. I never had the nerve to ask him.
At least now they can resume their chat.
Peter David is an award-winning comics writer. With Stan Lee, he co-wrote Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir, illustrated by Colleen Doran.