It isn’t too often the death of a celebrity affects me emotionally, but today is very different. Stan ‘The Man’ Lee has passed away.
It’s difficult to talk about Stan without discussing my own life, so ingrained is he in the very core of the person I am today. Comic books were always around me, from my very earliest memories in the mid-1960s, those beautiful and crazy, four-colour treasures were always to hand, courtesy of a family that believed in the power of reading and in the stimulation of the imagination.
At first the comics were probably quite random, though I recall some Superman titles and an adaptation of King Kong that I literally read to pieces. These, along with the seminal American monster magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland, were the guides that quickly took me past Jack & Jill books.
Then in 1972, Marvel, whose characters until then had been spottily reprinted in comics from other UK publishers, such as Odhams, launched their very first issue of The Mighty World of Marvel. A weekly title, featuring Fantastic Four, Hulk and Spider-Man, it continued in the house style set by the original US Marvel comics, crediting the creators of the strips and led by the breathless purple prose of the personable and garrulous front-man for the company, the one and only Stan Lee.
Like Lee’s teenage hero Peter Parker being transformed by the radioactive bite of a spider, I was bitten and entranced with not only these larger than life super-hero characters, but by the very idea of Marvel and its editorial Bullpen, where creators such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Marie & John Severin, Don Heck, John Buscema, Gene Colan and many more dreamed up a never-ending series of stories to further stimulate my senses and, even better, encourage my own budding talents as an artist!
In October 1975, Lee and Hulk artist Herb Trimpe came to the UK to appear at the music venue, The Roundhouse, in London’s Camden. The show they put on was like a music gig, with Lee & Trimpe striding the stage like Plant and Page, rock gods of the comic pages to these youthful eyes. I had a front row ticket, alongside my lovely, flu-ridden Mum, who didn’t want eleven year-old me travelling across London on my own at night. Getting to meet my hero was beyond exciting, and that night is still firmly fixed in my head, as I can still feel the heat of the spotlights and hear my Mum coughing beside me.
I’d meet Stan again the following year, and buried somewhere in my loft (I hope) is a glossy, black & white still of me handing him my copy of Captain Britain, issue one, to sign (I still have that too).
I grew up alongside Peter Parker (some years older than me, of course, so he was a fictional, aspirational character), watching him graduate high school and head to college, then find himself in the hectic world of the freelance photographer – I could never have imagined my own life path would be so similar. This explains a large part of why Parker and Spider-Man remain my most-loved of Lee’s co-creations.
Only in my wildest dreams did I ever see myself actually working for Marvel, and yet, many years later there I was. Frankly, my career could have stopped at that moment and I’d have died with a grin on my face. Seeing my first Marvel pay cheque (ah, the days of printed pay cheques) emblazoned with images of the Hulk and Spider-Man was a genuinely surreal moment, to the point I almost (almost, mind…) didn’t cash it!
As I got older, I became more aware of the realities behind the comic stories: of the horrible practices of the comic book industry that saw creators robbed of their artwork and their intellectual ownership of characters that would go on to be financially exploited in all kinds of media. Slowly, and often posthumously, these creators or their families are seeing deals made to bring some equity to this shameful situation, and my hero turned out to have feet of clay as it’s pretty obvious that Lee helped perpetuate these problems.
That’s alway a useful learning curve for fans, of course, to be able to see those we admire as imperfect people instead of lofty icons.
And there was further sadness involving Stan, as in recent years he became embroiled in health and money issues, in seemingly endless attempts to recapture the creative heights of years long gone. This day has seemed ever more inevitable as he became more fragile with each appearance. And so it is.
But what a legacy this man left. A modern-day mythology that carries on the ages-old traditions of heroic storytelling, fables of characters we can and must aspire to be, whose ultimate goodness is set not in the wheel of victory, but in the attempt of victory, to be the better part of ourselves. Isn’t that something to get excited about?
For me personally, Stan and his amazing co-creations literally changed my life. Does that sound grandiose? Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Stan appearing in my narrative directly led to me working in comic books for many years, and I wouldn’t now be working in animation had his vast imagination (and those of the people he worked with) not stirred my own imagination, my own creativity.
Thank you, Stan, for everything. You were The Man.
Yours truly, with my original copy of the comic book that changed my life.
My copies of the Origins of Marvel Comics (and its sequels), signed by Stan in 1975 and ’76.