I owe the lion’s share of my own creative education to three men, all of whom, as of yesterday, are no longer with us. In reverse chronological order, those men are Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games in general; Harlan Ellison, the greatest American author of all time; and Stan Lee, creator of the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine: Fantastic Four, and an entire universe of science fiction and fantasy that is more popular today than it’s ever been.
Though I worked at TSR, it was long after Gary Gygax had been removed from the company and I’m sad to say I never had a chance to meet him. I wrote here, after the passing of Harlan Ellison, of my brief encounters with him. Now, though I wish it were under better circumstances, I’m happy to share this, my one encounter with Stan Lee.
Just a few years ago I was on my way back home from a writers conference in Los Angeles, waiting at my gate at LAX. I noticed someone else waiting there—he looked familiar, but I tried not to stare. Then it hit me: Paul Dano. There he was, in the flesh, one of the great character actors of his generation and star of a handful of my favorite movies including There Will Be Blood. I surreptitiously took a blurry cellphone photo of him to text to my wife, who didn’t recognize him. But it never occurred to me to approach him, ask if he had a milkshake, or confess that I had abandoned my boy… even after a few teenage girls took a selfie with him. Give the guy his space.
Then the plane arrived at the gate and people started coming off the flight and I instantly recognized Stan Lee. He walked off the plane talking to another man—I got the feeling they knew each other—and he was walking fast. My thought process took all of one second, a “conversation” with myself that could be summed up: “If you don’t shake his hand you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”
He was going to walk right past me so I stepped up to him with my hand out and said, maybe a little too loudly,” Stan Lee!” He noticed me, took my hand in a firm grip and smiled—still walking—and I said, “I’m a huge fan.” He said, “Thank you,” and I said, “No, thank you,” and he was gone, never having missed a step.
I think I stood there for a minute or so like some great dork, just basking in the fact that I had an opportunity to thank Stan Lee. I don’t think ever thanked Harlan Ellison, and I know I never had a chance to thank Gary Gygax. I guess I’ll have to content myself with that one out of three.
Stan Lee died yesterday at the age of 95, which goes back to a point I made here a long time ago that there might be something in the life of a science fiction and fantasy author that they live a long time because, like Stan Lee, they’re—we’re—doing what we love.
What else can I say about a man who has had, whether or not you feel superhero comic books should be taken at all seriously, so massive an impact on American popular culture for the past 57 years? When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Stan Lee told the New York Times, “When I’m gone, I really don’t care.”
Well, I do. Excelsior, Stan Lee!