When I first heard the news about Stan Lee, I was upset. Not because he died, I rarely take the death of a celebrity too hard, especially ones who live into their 90s. Stan Lee was 95. He was blessed with a long healthy life. John Rogers was only 57, a year older than me. I was upset that Stan Lee's death would steal the thunder of the death of my friend. Then I realized something. John was a very private person. I think he would have been fine with the news of Stan Lee's death eclipsing his own. That made me feel better about it as well.
When Stan Lee took a job as an assistant at the newly formed Timely Comics in 1939, comics books were a relatively new commodity. Comics had been around for decades in the form of newspaper strips, but the idea of new stories being written and drawn specifically for the inexpensive small-format magazines known as comic books was still relatively new. Comic books were mostly aimed to children and adolescents. By the 1960s when Stan Lee and others started to re-vitalize the superhero genre, little had changed in the public's perception of comics. It was a childish medium, created for children, and the teens and adults who read them were delinquents, mentally deficient, or both.
In comic book production, it takes much much longer to create the finished artwork, than it does to write the content in that artwork. As a result, the artwork is traditionally broken into different tasks. A penciller draws all of the art of the artwork that appears on the page in pencil. An inker reproduces each line of the penciled art in India ink, so it will print properly. The letterer hand draws all of the panel and caption borders, word and thought balloons, sound effects, and all of the text on the page. Finally, a colorist lays out the colors on page. In the 1960s, Stan Lee was credited as writer, while the rest of the artistic team was credited with their respective tasks. It implies that the artists were only responsible for drafting what Stan Lee told them. In reality, Stan Lee would write a synopsis of the story. The penciller would often take a huge responsibility for the way the story played out. Then once the pencilled art was complete, Stan Lee would write the dialog and caption text to be placed on the pencilled art.
As a result, there tend to be two schools of thought when comes to Stan Lee and Marvel Comics. Either, Stan Lee created the Marvel Universe single handed. Or Stan Lee was a hack, who took all the credit for great artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. The truth is somewhere in the middle. What Stan Lee did do was revamp the superhero. Earlier superheros were near gods, who lived in a black and white world of good and evil, who dispensed justice and punished wrong-doers. Stan Lee introduced human frailty to superheros. Without his influence, I don't think the Marvel Universe would have thrived the way it did.
Other than newspaper strips and the odd MAD Magazine, I didn't read comics as a kid. When my wife and I first started dating, she mentioned that she was really into comics. On a lark, I picked up some Silver Surfer comics at a swap meet. They had been written by Stan Lee in the late-1960s. Being Southern California born and bred, I figured a superhero, who surfs, now that's cool. Then I made the mistake of reading them. Silver Surfer had nothing to do with surfing.
The Silver Surfer was originally a humanoid alien. When another alien, Galactus, a gigantic being who lived by devouring the life force of entire planets, came to the Silver Surfer's home planet, the Silver Surfer gave up is humanity to save his planet and the woman he loved. He became Galactus' herald, searching the universe on a flying surfboard for planets for Galactus to devour. When the Silver Surfer came to Earth, he realized that the Earth's human inhabitants were very similar to the people on his home world, and he rebelled against Galactus to save the Earth. As punishment, Galactus imprisoned the Silver Surfer on Earth.
Yeah, I know all of this sounds kind of stupid, but all of that is the back story. When I started reading Silver Silver, he was stuck on Earth, and all he wanted was to escape. He knew that humans were capable of nobility, but they were also capable of incredible cruelty to each other. The humans set up societies where all were supposed to be treated as equal, yet they didn't seem to be able to live up to the ideals they set for themselves. I was hooked. If the Silver Surfer had been just a guy on a flying surfboard, beating hell out of bad guys, I would have lost interest. But whole inhumanity of man thing, that got me, and I think that was Stan Lee. Yes, he did have help from writer/artists who were not properly credited for the work they did. But I think Stan Lee brought humanity to superhero comics, and that might not have happened had he not been there to foster it. That opened the door for many others to do really interesting work in the genre. Without Stan Lee, I don't think comics would have been the same.
In 1970, a small group of San Diego comic-book fans decided to hold a convention to celebrate comics as a legitimate art-form. Okay, that's probably overstating things. They mostly wanted to buy, sell, and trade, old comics and anything else they thought was cool and be able to meet and hang out with the people who created them. That convention would ultimately became Comic-Con International.
John Rogers started working for Comic-Con as a volunteer while a student at University of California, San Diego. He had a vision for Comic-Con, that it could be run like a business while still maintaining it original purpose of providing a venue for comic fans to geek over the things that they loved. By treating Comic-Con as a business, Comic-Con saw unprecedented growth, from 6,500 in 1986 to 34,000 in 1995 to 103,000 in 2005, to what it is today, about 140,000, the maximum number you can safely fit in a very very large building. What I think John realized about Comic-Con (possibly before anyone else), it wasn't about comic books or cartoons or science fiction; it was about people coming together over their shared love of these things.
I remember John telling me on a couple of different occasions that if we didn't show up, Comic-Con would happen anyway. In a way he was being facetious, but in a way he was not. He understood that Comic-Con was not just an exhibit hall with comic books and swag from movie companies, not just film clips in a programming room, not just a game room, a film room, an anime room, a whatever room, it was the people who came together because of their love for those things. Comic-Con is a gathering of the tribes. As custodians of the organization, we need to just provide a place for that to happen and make sure that everybody has a fair chance to participate. Like Stan Lee, John had help, but without John, I know Comic-Con would not be the same.
Sometime, in the late-1990s/early 2000s, some changes happened in the film and television industry:
- Hollywood took notice of comics. A lot of film and TV adaptations of comics and graphic novels started being produced.
- Hollywood took notice of Comic-Con. Stars, directors, and producers started coming Comic-Con in droves.
- Stan Lee as an elder statesman of the comics medium became a celebrity through his cameo roles in Marvel comic adaptations.
Are the three things related? I kind of think they are.Would Comic-Con have ever come into being had Stan Lee not breathed new life into them in the 1960s? Maybe, maybe not. Would Comic-Con have become a cultural phenomenon without John Rogers putting a structure into place that allowed the event to grow and thrive? Maybe, maybe not. On this one, I would venture to say, probably not. Then again, I am biased on this one. Would Hollywood have taken notice of comics had they not seen throngs of people descending on San Diego every year? Maybe, maybe not. Would Stan Lee have become a household name without the success of the Marvel superhero movies? This one, I think I can say, probably not to as well.
I didn't know Stan Lee, though I did meet him a couple of times. I do have two stories about him. What follows is the better of the two. It was at Comic-Con in the early-1990s, a good ten years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe made him a household name. At the time, he was a legend in the comics industry, but outside of microcosm of Comic-Con, not so much. I was working the program room he was appearing in. I honestly don't what the panel was about. I might have been covering the room for someone else. The room was crowded, about 80 to 100 people, definitely not overflowing. Back then, there was no Hall H. In fact, that part of the center hadn't been built yet. A hundred people for a comics panel was considered a good crowd at the time.
I had just shut down the panel and was trying to get the room clear, so the next panel could start on time. Twenty or thirty people came up to get autographs. Stan Lee obliged. He would have been in his seventies then. He sat on the edge of the stage signing very flimsy comic books on his knee. I had a clipboard and handed it to him. He signed it and gave it back. I told him, he could use it to sign on. He looked slightly sheepish, thanked me, and kept signing, faster now that he had a decent surface to write on. I quickly got the room ready for the next panel, throwing away empty water cups and name placards of the previous panelists. By this time, it was about a minute before the next panel was supposed to start. I asked if he could take it into the hall. He was gracious, finished signing the one or two he was already doing, and stepped out to sign for dozen or so people who were still waiting.
I got the next panel started only a minute or two late. When I stepped into the hall, he was just finishing. He shook my hand, thanked me, and gave me back the clipboard. I thanked him back and went on with my day. At the end of the con that year, I kept the clipboard.
About six months ago, we were cleaning out the garage at my mother-in-law's house, getting it ready as a rental, and I found the clipboard. I joked that I should wait until Stan Lee dies and put it up on ebay. Then Stan Lee did die and I actually did consider putting it up for auction but that seemed too mercenary. I mean, what is a decent interval to wait on a thing like this. The problem is I really don't have a place to display it. And to me, the story is better than the clipboard anyway. I figure if someone else wants it and will enjoy the object more that me, why not.
I told the story to a friend of mine, another Comic-Con person. She loved it. And asked if she could have the clipboard. She has done a gazillion favors for me and everyone around her over the years. She will give it a good home. And I don't have to feel like a mercenary piece of shit for selling it.