Why Stan Lee Was a Great Gateway Drug for a Lifelong Comic Book Addiction

Remembering the comics legend on what would have been his 97th birthday

Stan Lee

I was in second grade the first time I heard the name Stan Lee.

I couldn’t tell you what I did for my birthday that year, or the names of any of my classmates, but all these years later I remember the opening narrations from the 1981-83 Saturday morning cartoon show called “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.”

Just last month, I rewatched the entire show (thanks, Amazon Prime), and I’m particularly fond of Stan’s narration from “Triumph of the Green Goblin,” the show’s first episode: “A sudden storm inundates New York. Thunder, lightning and the incessant downpour of pounding rain. This is Stan Lee, hoping you’re warm and comfortable while you watch….’cause you’re about the witness one of the strangest adventures of all.”

That friendly New York City squeak of a voice sounded positively exotic to my Oklahoma-raised ears. Especially the way he often signed off with, “This is Stan Lee saying, ‘Excelsior!’”

This was before I’d ever even read a single issue of Spider-Man, or any Marvel comic. I’d never even heard of Green Goblin, the X-Men, “with great power comes great responsibility,” any of it. And I certainly had no idea who Stan Lee was supposed to be. But something about the way he talked about these characters — as if they were his amazing friends — made me feel like they were my amazing friends.

Around that same time, my parents were making renovations to our house which made their bedroom uninhabitable. So they took over mine, and forced me to room with my sister. I hated the arrangement, and so barely two days into it, one day after school let out, I just didn’t go home. My parents spent what they later told me was hours freaking the hell out, driving all over town looking for me. They found me at the grocery store just down the street from school, sitting in front of the comics spinner rack, reading issue after issue of “Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man.”

Yep, in the middle of what felt like a devastating (but in hindsight, hilariously trivial) crisis, I turned for comfort to the superhero I’d never even heard of until about a month earlier.

Two things happened after that: 1) I moved to the couch in the living room until the work on their room was complete; and 2) They bought me a subscription to “Spectacular” that I kept until seventh grade.

“Spectacular Spider-Man” was practically a bible for me through those years. I made my own (badly drawn) comics with characters blatantly ripped off from it. I carried issues around in my backpack for months on end. And it sounds ridiculous, but I’d wager half or more of what I thought adulthood would be like I gleaned from Peter Parker’s relationship problems, his financial struggles, his dropping in and out of college and so on.

That title, or course, wasn’t written by Stan Lee, who had long since stepped down as writer and editor at Marvel. Roger Stern, Al Milgrom, Cary Burkett and Peter David wrote during the years I was most obsessed. But it was Stan Lee who pointed me to them, thanks to that cheerful cartoon narration.

And not just “Spectacular.” Soon enough, piles of “Spectacular” were joined by sister title “Amazing Spider-Man” — followed by “Power Man and Iron Fist,” “Daredevil,” “Superman,” Richie Rich,” “Archie” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

As I grew up, those comics were replaced by more mature fare like “Hellblazer,” “Sandman,” “Watchmen,” “Powers,” “Astro City,” right up to the present day. It even seeped into my professional life: I’ve probably spent a good 25 percent of my career writing about movies, television shows and games based on Marvel characters and concepts that Stan co-created.

Of course, we all know about Stan’s shameless self-promotion, his controversial reputation within the comics industry, the low esteem Jack Kirby in particular held regarding his quest for credit for their shared creations. We know there are dozens of other equally important and influential creators over the nearly century-long history of comics. There were likely other gateways to comics addiction I would have stumbled upon eventually.

But Stan was a tireless, public advocate for comics. And in my remote little world as a second grader in small-town Oklahoma, it was Stan who first opened that door. I’ll never stop being thankful.