My brother Vinnie and I had good reasons to be comics fans. Our family was poor, our neighborhood was dangerous and our parents were crazy (and not the fun kind). We couldn’t run away; we already lived in NYC, the runaway destination of choice. (Anyplace else was a step down. Nobody runs away to Newark.) The farthest we got was the luncheonette at 1st Avenue and First Street. Each month we looked for the newest comics hanging on clips in the back of the store. Superman and Batman had dumb plots and cardboard characters, but Spiderman had regular kid problems and the Fantastic Four was a close, loving family (who fought monsters). Those issues were the only escape we had.
Years later, a PR colleague asked me to escort a speaker to a Sci-Fi event. “He’s not a tin foil hat guy, she reassured me. “He publishes comics. He publishes Spider Man.”
She looked surprised. ‘You know him?”
When the limo pulled up, an older man with glasses, graying hair and sideburns waved me in. I was so amped he could have read Tales to Astonish by the light of my face; he was surprised that a 30 year old professional woman in a business suit was as giddy as a 14 year old fanboy. If he said “Flame On!” I would have gone up in smoke. I told him I was a huge fan (duh), and had an awesome comics collection…that my mom threw out.
He nodded sympathetically. “I hear that a lot. My mom tossed my baseball cards.” He leaned in and asked, curiously, “What was your favorite?”
“Fantastic Four; my brother liked Spiderman.” Stan nodded again. “Lots of guys do. Spiderman’s why I’m at the Convention.”
It was surreal to talk to an icon of my childhood. We talked about Jack Kirby’s fantastic costumes and Steve Ditko’s trippy imagination. I asked who was his favorite character; he said it was like picking a favorite child but enjoyed Thor most. “I liked writing that Shakespearean stuff. the thee’s and thou’s.
“You had great titles for it too,” I said, “With my Hammer in Hand.”
“You remember the titles?” he said. My fangirl enthusiasm amused him, but this seemed to genuinely touch him.
“Sure,” I said, “I was a member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society. I had the membership kit with the little record.” And I sang Stan Lee the theme song for the fan club he founded years ago. He actually had the grace not to look embarrassed.
As we pulled up, I told him Darth Vader was a rip-off of Dr. Doom, the armored royal villain of the Fantastic Four. “It’s obvious” I said, “you should sue.” He considered it a moment, shook his head and said “Naaah, too much trouble.” He extended his hand, said thanks and I shook it. The door opened and he left.
I returned to the office with mixed emotions. I was thrilled to meet him, but didn’t have the time or opportunity to tell him what I really wanted to say.
His costumed heroes, who had problems and fought monsters, were an escape for countless kids who had no other refuge except his comics. Kids who were fighting real monsters like Poverty, or Neglect, or Abuse, could find some respite, and some hope and inspiration that we could win our own battles, too.
And don’t get me started about that. “Nuff said.