Article by: Anthony Florez
It’s difficult to go anywhere on the internet today and not see a tribute to iconic comic book writer Stan Lee, who sadly left this world yesterday at the age of 95. In the coming weeks we’re going to hear endless stories about what a lovely, decent human being he was. The co-creator (in collaboration with artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) of superheroes such as Spider-Man, the Hulk, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, and many others, Lee was in his later years when he began making cameo appearances in films — most memorably for me in Mallrats where he was exactly as genuine, sincere, and kind as I remember. Because the thing is, I already felt like I knew the man for a long time. My favorite book was The Amazing Spider-Man, and although he no longer wrote for comics by that time, he usually had what was basically an op-ed article at the end of most issues, a kind of advice column that extolled positivity and self-esteem. The man wasn’t exactly the Dalai Lama, not that he tried to be, rather he would speak about his own experiences and offer thoughts about…well, just being good for the sake of itself and believing in ourselves. He was a rational, sober voice that seemed to say ‘everything is going to be alright‘ and you believed him like you believe that one uncle or grandparent who let you stay up late and treated you like an equal.
My own experience with Stan Lee was brief, yet tremendously rewarding. It’s not very often we get to meet our heroes, and it’s even more rare that those heroes are as great as we hope. Lee was. This was a little over 20 years ago, at a crowded mall in Northridge, California where I’d stood in line for roughly three hours with hundreds of other children and comic book nerds. Back then the Golden Age of comic book movies and the popularity of those characters were a long way off and being a nerd meant really being a nerd; it was not a fashion choice, more of a lifestyle. To describe myself as introverted is a little bit of an understatement. I was a bookworm, a Spider-Man fan, and could usually be found sitting at the edge of the playground by myself, face buried in the latest Goosebumps edition. So when it was finally my turn to step up to the table where Stan Lee himself was sitting, like some majestic Greek god awaiting an offering, I was too shy to say anything other than a mousy, “Hello.”
I think Lee detected my awkwardness and compensated, greeting me warmly and asking me to come forward so he could see the comic I’d brought for him to sign (it’s this one). While the whole experience was surreal in itself, the impression I remember most is genuine surprise at his enthusiasm, at how thrilled he seemed to be to meet me. I remember wondering at that, at how he surely must have met several hundred people at that point and had every right to be tired or perfunctory, but he still spoke to me like I was the celebrity. He loved my comic and took a minute to thumb through the pages, then asked to sign it on the inside so he didn’t ‘ruin the beautiful cover.’ Then he signed a few more things he’d brought along just because. I said ‘thank you’ and dissolved back into the crowd. And that was it. I wish I could say we had a funny conversation about Venom, or that I had some clever insight into J. Jonah Jameson that I wanted to share, but in reality what happened was that he made a skinny, lonesome kid feel like someone really special, which is the same thing that Peter Parker has done ever since I picked up my first issue.
“Every comic is somebody’s first comic.” Stan Lee used to say this and it’s stuck with me over the years. This approach, this reintroduction of the basics about a character within the first few pages is how I was drawn into that world, how it immediately became familiar and welcoming and while it’s certainly a necessary storytelling technique for a monthly serial and good practice for editors who can’t expect every new fan to start over at the beginning of a run, to me it’s an extension of the man himself, of his capacity for kindness and inclusivity. He didn’t write comic books for comic book fans, or create these characters to entertain children. He wrote stories about how being different doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, that even if the world takes away the most important people you can still be your own role model, that it’s okay to have a dark side to balance out the light, and that ultimately, science is cool, even if these guys are not. To the point, he wrote them for everyone and while the popularity of those characters is now worth billions of dollars on the big screen, those comics and his stories will always be there for anyone looking for what Stan Lee was to me that one morning in a crowded shopping mall so many years ago — Familiar and welcoming.
Thank you, Stan.