Meeting your heroes can be disappointing. But Stan Lee lived up to his billing.
The overseer of the Marvel Universe, co-creator (Stan never claimed to be a solo act) of every superhero therein from Spider-Man and the Mighty Thor to Black Panther and The Wasp, a force in the comic-book industry going back to before America entered World War II (the first story he penned appeared in issue #3 of Captain America Comics, dated May 1941, when he was only 17), Lee was Marvel Comics when they began to dominate the industry in the 1960s. From the time I began collecting (my parents would say devouring) comic books at age 9, he was a key formative influence on the pop-culture geek I would proudly become.
On those occasions when, as a mild-mannered entertainment reporter for The Baltimore Sun, I had occasion to write about the comics, Stan always made himself available. (And, yes, I know the Superman reference is to a DC character, but it would have made Stan smile regardless.) Whether I was writing about how comics were bringing the tragedy of 9/11 to their pages, how important casting was to bringing “The Fantastic Four” to the big screen, or the enduring popularity of Super-Man, he always returned my calls or emails, always provided a good quote and always took a few minutes to ask what I was up to.
(My favorite was the time I was writing about the internet’s effect on comics, and I emailed to ask whether he thought online storytelling would someday take the place of the books he’d been championing for some six decades. “No,” came his one-word reply, in an email signed, “Stan (Master of Brevity) Lee.”)
About 10 years ago, feeling emboldened by our casual acquaintance, I asked Stan if I could buy him lunch one afternoon while I was in L.A. covering the Oscars. Certainly he would be too busy, I figured, to just sit down for a chat with an East Coast reporter looking for nothing more than an hour or so to pepper him with questions about who inked the first issue of Fantastic Four; if he remembered a secretary at Marvel named Nancy Murphy, who once sent my brother a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #1, by way of apologizing for the cancellation of the sci-fi/monster title Amazing Adult Fantasy, wherein Spidey had made his debut; whether he stayed in contact at all with the reclusive Steve Ditko, the artist behind the first few years of Spider-Man.
To my delight, Stan was happy to accommodate — as long as you’re paying, he said with a laugh. And so, on the day after the Oscars, I drove to an office building off Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills, took the elevator up to his office and actually came face-to-face with Stan the Man. His handshake was firm, his demeanor engaging, his eyes expressive and his smile wide, just like all those photographs I’d been seeing over the years. He took me down the street to Nate ’n Al’s deli, in its way as much of an institution as he was, and for the next 90 minutes, I lived the dream of every kid who wished he could write the next issue of Iron Man.
No subject was off-limits, or too trivial. Sadly, he couldn’t remember who inked FF #1 (one of comicdom’s enduring mysteries). Yes, he remembered Nancy Murphy well. No, sadly, he hadn’t spoken with Steve Ditko in years, but let me tell you a few stories about working with him.
Stan spoke with pride of how well the movies based on his superhero creations were doing, and how they could never have happened without the wonders of CGI — having the Human Torch flame-on or Mr. Fantastic stretch his arm for a hundred feet or so would have been almost impossible with conventional special effects. He chuckled when talking about the cameos he was making in every movie, and maintained he still had stories to tell, through his new company, POW! Entertainment. He said that Daredevil, the blind superhero whose heightened senses of smell, taste and touch make him the nemesis of evildoers everywhere, may be the favorite among his creations, although he loved them all.
And he never neglected to note that he didn’t do any of his work alone, that great artists like Ditko, Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott were as responsible for the Marvel Universe as he was. (Revisionist historians are fond of saying that Lee took way too much credit, that the artists were as much of a creative force as he was — maybe more. But Stan, at least in my experience, never shirked sharing credit.)
But what really made him proud, at least that afternoon, was the impending publication of a collection of the best of “Stan’s Soapbox,” a feature of Marvel mags for years wherein the man who stood tall at the head of the Merry Marvel Marching Society took a hundred words or so to speak directly to the fans. Sometimes he’d talk about the comics, but he was just as liable to touch on the struggle for civil rights, or the need for people to be more tolerant, or some other subject in which he’d urge readers to be kinder, more accepting and maybe a little idealistic. He was genuinely touched that people remembered those.
We had lunch again the following year, and remained in touch via emails. In recent years, as his universe expanded and his time became more precious, it became harder and harder to get through to him; in most cases, the emails would come from his assistant, saying that Stan sends his regards, but maybe next time.
Still, I like to think we stayed in contact, at least peripherally. Last year, I helped my former colleague, Michael Sragow, get in touch with Stan for a series he was working on. The result was a charming interview in which Stan talks about his friendship with director Alain Resnais and how they almost worked together once, on a movie about the evils of pollution (to be called “The Monster Maker”). And when Stan’s wife of 69 years, Joan, died last year, I like to think my note of condolence made it through.
But being able to count Stan Lee as a friend, even in the most casual of senses, has been one of the most joyous by-products of my career. A few years ago, I called Stan’s office, looking for a quote about something or other. When he picked up the phone — his assistant obviously warned him who was on the line — I was greeted with the words, “So, what can I possibly tell Chris Kaltenbach about the comics that he doesn’t already know?”
I felt like a million bucks.
Wouldn’t you like to be in on the conversations going on in heaven now, as Lee, Kirby and Ditko finally get together to discuss the next project?
Excelsior, Stan. You had a hell of a ride.