I’ve written about my personal history with comic books before.
As far back as I can remember (I can remember kindergarten quite well, and perhaps things that happened before then), comic books were a part of my life. At first, it was books such as Baby Huey, Little Lotta, and various Disney characters, including Scrooge McDuck and his nephews, and then I graduated to other Harvey mainstays such as Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich, and Hot Stuff the Little Devil. Eventually, I found my way into Riverdale, where Archie Andrews and the gang still live, apparently.
Then came the superheroes. The first superhero I loved was, appropriately, Superman, the grandfather of all costumed superheroes. I may have watched those Max Fleischer Superman cartoons at a young age. I remember having a plate-and-cup set with the Fleischer Superman on them.
I must have been around six years old at the time. I was beginning to read, and superhero comics seemed like something meant for bigger kids. Until only recently, I was always in a hurry to be older than I was (now I’m going for age-regression). While I didn’t abandon Archie or Richie Rich completely, I devoted the majority of my comic-book reading over the next five or six years to DC Comics.
Superman and Batman were much more one-dimensional than I thought they were at the time (I know, things have changed since those days, but that change came much later). Everything was morally black-and-white, and superheroes always did what was right. The moral of the comic books in those days was that if you lived right, were always honest and brave, then the universe would reward your actions. This became my operating system for many years. If I wanted to be like Superman, I had to be a good person, one who always knew what the right thing to do was, and then did it.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t believe that still, to a certain degree. My parents identified as Christian, even if they weren’t very religious. But, Jesus was less my role model than a fictional superhero created by a couple of Jewish boys from Cleveland, Ohio. There are worse things upon which to model your behavior.
In those days, all of the DC superheroes liked each other, and they were adored by the public and the government. None of the characters really argued with each other. Violence was reserved for the supervillains (even though it wasn’t especially violent), and antiheroes didn’t really exist yet.
When I began junior high school, I suddenly found myself separated from most of my grammar school friends. The first group of new friends I made were all kids who liked Marvel Comics. A lot. Call it peer pressure, or further evidence of my everpresent need to graduate to older reading material, but I dove headlong into Marvel Comics during sixth and seventh grades. I was hooked. After that time, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell you, “Make Mine Marvel!”
Marvel superheroes had real-life problems and concerns. They often bickered with each other, and frequently were not supported by the government or the public. They also made mistakes, didn’t always do the right thing, and they frequently were made to suffer. In spite of the costumes and super-powers, this felt more like real life, where doing the right thing was sometimes difficult and good guys didn’t always win.
I educated myself on the history of Marvel through trading comics with friends, and reading reprints of older issues. Pocket Books used to put out digest-sized reprints of old Marvel comic books, which is where I first read the early Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and Doctor Strange stories. I also watched the 1966 Marvel superhero cartoons, which were minimally animated and would be considered “motion comics” these days. Before long, I was as much an authority on Marvel Comics as any of my friends were. I had favorite artists and writers. Chief among these were Jack “King” Kirby and Stan “The Man” Lee.
Stan was much more than just the co-creator of the entire Marvel universe, although that would have been a big enough accomplishment. His was the voice of Marvel, for me and countless other Marvel fans.
A regular page called Bullpen Bulletins began appearing in Marvel comic books in 1965. Like the letters pages, this was a way in which Marvel was communicating with its readership. The highlighting of the “bullpen” made the reader feel more like an insider. As a fan, I imagined that all of these writers, artists and editors who appeared on the credit page were all in this one cubicled office space at the same time, looking over each other’s shoulders, gossipping at the water cooler, having nothing but fun and adventure while immersed in this stuff that I loved. While some part of my mind always knew that this was mostly a fantasy, the feeling persisted whenever I read one of the bulletins.
Two years later, Lee kicked off a new column that appeared in Bulletins, called Stan’s Soapbox.
It was here, even after Stan’s promotion to Publisher, that Stan would address the Marvel reading public directly, in his own inimitable writer’s voice with its excessive use of exclamation marks and percussive alliteration. When I would read Stan’s Soapbox, I felt like Stan was talking to me. So did every other fan. For me, Stan was a fatherly—even grandfatherly—voice imparting words of wisdom, not just about comics but a wide array of subjects, including racism and war (Vietnam was a popular subject among college-aged readers in the early days, as you might imagine). There are plenty of soapbox examples at this well-written site, many ending with his customary “Excelsior!”
I once became fast friends with an older boy named Jimmy, who shared a passion for playing the video game Space Invaders at a local convenience store the same time I was addicted to the game. I was a high school freshman or sophomore I believe, and Jimmy was no longer in school (graduated or quit, I can’t remember which). Jimmy was also a fan of Marvel comics, and of Stan’s Soapbox. It was he who told me about a soapbox column Stan had written about comic books being sent to stores on consignment, and that Stan said it didn’t matter if the books were sold or stolen, because Marvel still got credit for the missing issues.
I never read this column, although I’ll admit I haven’t searched too diligently for it. The story may even be apocryphal. I don’t condone stealing comic books, and I never have stolen any (what would Superman say?). But, if the column exists as Jimmy believed it did, then it’s a perfect example of the type of insider information Stan used to share with his reading public.
Stan stopped publishing his soapbox column in 1980, and I stopped reading comics for a long while not too many years after. I understand Bullpen Bulletins is no longer a thing either. I am a relic of a different age, I know, and Stan Lee was a big part of that long before he became everyone’s favorite cameo in MCU movies.
I haven’t been leading a life with my head in the sand. I know there has been some controversy about who deserves credit for the creation of superheroes such as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. The “Marvel method” of creating comic books gave the artists a lot of freedom to be creative that wasn’t necessarily offered at Brand Echh, which means that comic books were truly a more collaborative medium. Whenever money is introduced into an equation, disagreements and controversy are sure to follow. I’ve read comic books that were entirely written and drawn by Jack Kirby. While always visually interesting, they were not as good as the stuff he did with Stan Lee. The same is true of Ditko’s work. I have always believed that the evidence fully supported Lee’s claim to fame as co-creator.
But, even if Stan Lee was the P.T. Barnum of the comic book industry—a huckster, a con man, a booster—he was still the face and voice of Marvel Comics to most of us. Naively, I thought he was the owner of the brand at the time, when he was just its most well-known employee.
I didn’t write anything immediately after Stan Lee passed away. It has taken me two years to process his death. The passing of icons such as Stan leads, selfishly, to thoughts of my own mortality, of course. I feel the same way as all of my favorite rockstars keep dying as well.
In the world of superhero entertainment, Stan Lee was definitely a rockstar. And, today, I tip a glass in his memory.
Thanks for everything, Stan.