No doubt many of today’s creators of film, TV, music, comics and video games wax nostalgic about the days before Twitter and Reddit and comments sections, when there was something of a wall between fans and artists, when members of the public had to sit down and write a letter to the people who were ruining “Star Wars” and who should stop talking about politics.
But if that wall existed in the 1960s through the 1980s, before every home had a personal computer connected to the internet, Stan Lee installed a window, interacting directly with fans before interactivity was cool. To be a reader of Marvel Comics was to enter a sanctum — a Sanctum Sanctorum, if you will — where in every issue Lee would write a full-page letter plugging the new titles, yes, but also cracking wise, sharing opinions, fostering inside jokes and generally making fans feel like they were in on something.
To be a comics reader in the 1970s, as I was as a child, was about as far from cool as you could get, and yet somehow Stan Lee made you feel like you belonged. He would address Marvel’s “True Believers,” assigning nicknames to the company’s legendary line-up of writers and artists (e.g. “Jolly” Jack Kirby, “Joltin'” Joe Sinnott, etc.), and award “no-prizes” to hardcore fans who caught errors of logic or continuity in the books. (The “no-prize” was exactly what it sounds like, but to be bestowed one in the pages of a Marvel book was a sought-after achievement nonetheless.)
While I didn’t get to read comics every month (you kids with your comic-book shops will never know the difficulty of trying to follow sequential issues when you buy them off a spinner rack at a 7-Eleven), I got hooked on Lee’s welcome-to-my-club prose style in the books he published in the 1970s that provided background on the company’s biggest stars. “Origins of Marvel Comics” was followed by “Son of Origins of Marvel Comics” and “The Superhero Women!” These tomes provided the origin stories for various heroes — the Fantastic Four’s cosmic rays, Peter Parker and that radioactive spider — as well as the behind-the-scenes stories as to how these various characters came about.
Lee, of course, placed himself squarely at the center of every great idea Marvel Comics ever had, which historians will no doubt continue to debate, but his style was a unique blend of aw-shucks modesty, canny exploitation of the product, and it-was-all-my-idea braggadocio. No one else in show business could pull off his purple prose, like this example from the prologue of “Origins of Marvel Comics”: “Marvel Comics. Let us savor the sound of those heart-warming words. Let us bask in the glow of the pleasure they promise. Marvel Comics. Not so much a name as a special state of mind. Not so much a group of magazines as a mood, a movement, a mild and momentary madness.”
What comics-loving kid could resist? On a rare trip to New York City from my home in Atlanta in 1978, I convinced my dad to take me to the Marvel offices in Manhattan. I was hoping for rooms bustling with artists and writers, and perhaps Stan Lee with his sleeves rolled up offering encouragement and enthusiasm; what I got was a friendly, very patient receptionist who sent me on my way with a handful of comics. But I remained a fan, as did millions of others. (It’s telling that when Kevin Smith graduated from low-budget indies after the success of “Clerks,” one of his very first big-shot moves was to get Lee to make a cameo appearance in Smith’s sophomore feature, “Mallrats.” As legions of moviegoers would discover in the decades to follow, the camera loved Stan Lee almost as much as Stan Lee loved the camera.)
If I stopped reading superhero comics as an adult, it was out of a dearth of time but never a lack of love for the medium. And had you told me in 1978 that Marvel Comics’ creations would become one of the most dominant forces in 21st century popular culture, I probably would have rolled my 11-year-old eyes in disbelief. But belief in himself, and for what Marvel represented, always drove Stan Lee, and it made him an ambassador to fans around the globe until his death this week at age 95. And as Lee himself would always end his letters from the publisher: Excelsior!