Excelsior, Nuff Said! How Stan Lee affected the lives of comic book readers and lovers of pop culture

By Kirk McConnell. 

I was a boy when I read my first comic book. At the time I had no idea who was who in the comic universe. I was unaware of the importance each person had in the creation of a comic book, the writer, the editor, the penciller, the inker, the layout artists and letterers, need I say more?

As a boy enamored with comic books, I struggled with reading regular books, but I understood how to read pictures. I struggled with understanding words, and ideas, and somehow I could understand when I read the sequential art and the dynamic visual language articulated on the halftone colored page. I knew who Spider-Man was and the Incredible Hulk. I knew who the Mighty Thor was, The Avengers and The Fantastic Four. I remember my grandmother taking me to the store and she would let me pick out a comic book, and when my dad took me along to the bookstore, getting to pick out a couple of comic books. It was not until I reached the age of twelve, and in junior high, that I noticed I had become much more than a casual fan of comic books. I have to give credit to Stan Lee for much of my appreciation for comic books, animated television and movies, as well as the gift of literacy.

He made reading possible for me.

Stan Lee, author and writer, movie cameo hero, friendly neighborhood narrator, soap box commentator, editor, and all around lover of his fans, recently passed away in November at the age of 94. Stan Lee, for me, made reading fun and something I could relate to. Don’t ask me how or why, but I often identified with the down on his luck, character, Peter Parker. I often thought that Stan Lee was genuine and had a happy demeanor that reflected his love for story telling. That is in fact what Stan Lee was all about, story telling, and connecting with his fans. It was once noted on the television series the Big Bang Theory that Stan Lee often created his characters with double consonants like Peter Parker, Reed Richards, J. Jonah Jameson, Sue Storm, Bruce Banner, Pepper Potts, Matt Murdoch to name a few, so that they would be easier to remember when working through heavy writing deadlines. I think that was pretty clever.

The reason I want to write to you about Stan Lee is not to share his life story with you. You can find that anywhere. I want to write to you about the influence Stan Lee had in people’s lives. In this short article I have interviewed a few people and I will share not only my responses, but their thoughts and feelings as well. I do not think that Stan Lee knew the scope of his influence and how much he inspired a love of literacy in others. Reading, imagination, writing, storytelling, life experiences, these are just a few gemstones to add in one’s Infinity gauntlet.

I asked my friend Allen Callaci, who is a librarian, an English teacher, author and a fan of comic books when he first became knowledgeable of Stan Lee.

Allen replied, “I was maybe 5 years old when I read my first comic. I became a full- blown addict by age 8. I realized who Stan was at a pretty young age…the STAN LEE PRESENTS monogrammed atop every splash page made it hard not to notice. I liked Stan’s wit and the way his work never condescended to the youngest of his readers. My bullshit meter was already pretty strongly attuned as a kid and Stan Lee easily made it past.”

Allen and I have discussions about literacy and pop culture often, and he has his own story to tell. Any time we get together at Subway for lunch we often discuss movies, comics and science fiction as well as literacy programs and upcoming events to promote literacy at the library.

Another friend, Will Plunkett, high school English teacher and avid lover of books and Converse high tops, also shared when he first learned of Stan Lee, “ I was living in Ohio around 1977 or so when I had to take a couple cross-country flights to see where we’d move to in California. To keep me entertained in the pre-electronic devices age, my parents bought me comics (some “funnies” like Popeye, Tweety & Sylvester; heroes like Spider-Man, Batman, Superman). I didn’t learn who  Stan Lee was until around the early 1980s, from his Bullpen Bulletin columns.”

Tony Abbondanza, a fairly new friend with whom I had the pleasure of enjoying pizza at my belated birthday gathering in November, had this to say about when he first became aware of Stan Lee.

“I can’t put an exact number on it. Say, probably my tweens.” From our conversation, I got the impression that he knew Stan Lee was someone famous, but he was not as familiar with him as I was. I think that Stan Lee to some was just a famous person, and did not have as great an impact, and that is okay. I am a nerd looking to share my nerdiness with others, and not everyone I encounter is going to share that commonality. Tony’s responses to my questions were more than adequate. I had also asked Tony if he had a particular comic book that was influential to him, and he said that he had “nothing as particular as comics, but I am a big Wolverine fan.”

At a different time, when I asked Will Plunkett what kind of impression Stan Lee made in his life, he said, “I saw him as the idea generator and pitchman for Marvel Comics. I found him funny and loved his puns and word play, did not see him as fake or manipulative at all nor a goofy guy who just played at kids’ games, and was a genuine lover of comics and comics readers.”

I asked Allen Callaci what was the first comic book story that he read with something written by Stan Lee, and Allen replied, “It was most likely a Marvel Tales reprint of The Amazing Spider-Man 90. The classic ‘The Death of Captain Stacey.’  A four color meditation on guilt, loss, and grief. Once I finished it I could never again go back to the simplistic and formulaic comic being pumped into the squeaky 7-11 comic racks like raw sewage.”

I shared in Allen’s sentiment. There is something to say about how a story can draw you in, cause you to think, make real life connections.  Consider how the stories reach into one’s soul.

My earliest comics were Shazam!, The Justice League, and The Amazing Spider-Man, although the Spider-Man story that reached me first and affected me most was The Amazing Spider-Man 252, the arguably first appearance of Spider- Man in his black symbiote costume after returning from Marvel’s Secret War and confrontation with the Beyonder. It was for me a turning point that taught me about transformation, moving beyond what is accepted as tradition, and that people change. The symbiote costume proved to be too much for Peter Parker as it wanted him to be more than he was willing to be, and it also had a way of turning Peter Parker into a darker personality rather than his usual cheerful and sophomoric Spider-man.   

I often related to the stories that were told in comics, and sometimes a little too much. It was during the mid 1980s that I escaped into comics because I could not handle the changes I was going through in my own life, starting high school, body changing and awkwardness, having to start working at an early age carrying newspapers and mowing lawns for money.  It was for me a turning point and a paradigm shift in the way stories were told in comics.

I asked Will Plunkett what he thought was one of Stan Lee’s greatest contributions to comics and literacy was, and Will said, “Stan Lee spoke to the fans. He made worlds that existed alongside the ‘real world.’ He understood people and humanity and how to make stories that utilized that concept so well.”

I thought about what Will said in his answer to me, and I could not agree more. You never know what kind of impact you will have on someone’s life, what kind of legacy you will leave behind, how people will remember you. I never got to meet Stan Lee, but I saw him one time when I was at San Diego Comic-Con, and the experience left me with the feels for a long time.

I asked Allen Callaci how Stan Lee affected his life.

Allen told me, “Before I discovered Bob Dylan it was Stan Lee who helped mold my social conscious. His tales went beyond good guys disposing of bad guys with a few quick hits to the gut. He wrote about equity, social responsibility and compassion. His writing struck the themes that would ring with me the rest of my life.”

Continuing from my conversation at dinner, I had asked Tony what he thought one of Stan Lee’s greatest legacies was, and we both seemed to agree that his influence and cameo appearances in the Marvel movies seemed to be his biggest legacy. The one thing we both agreed on was that Stan Lee could be so unpredictable with his appearances. I had told Tony that the one thing I liked about Stan Lee’s cameos was that it reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock making subtle appearances in his features. We both laughed.

It was movies, more than comics for Tony. For me, I think the movies are a big part of who Stan Lee had become in the later part of his life, and for younger generations, I think Stan Lee will be remembered for his friendly demeanor, humor, and inviting personality that welcomes us, the readers and the viewers, to become part of something greater. I think Tony agreed on that, too. At that point I had to cut our conversation short because our pizza had just been placed on the table, and my appetite was winning.

One last question I asked Will Plunkett what he thought was one thing he would miss most about Stan Lee, and he said, “Unless he has stories in a vault or closet somewhere, there won’t be anymore new stories from his brain. Others who were inspired by him will come close, but it won’t be the same, of course.” I agreed with Will that others could come close, but it would never be the same.

Stan was a unique personality, one crafted by the energies of the cosmic dust in the universe, a voice that said hello to us “true believers,” and made us enjoy Saturday morning cartoons in the seventies and eighties. He was the ever loving voice that announced new stories on the first page you read in a comic book, he was that hidden Waldo in the Marvel films, and every time he was a delight to find.

I think one thing I will miss most about Stan Lee, although I will not be sad because having lived almost a century, there was a good and cherished life, I will miss seeing Stan Lee connecting with us, the fans. Thank you Stan Lee for making a difference to me, and helping me to realize that reading is fun and a way to imagine new ideas, and places. Thank you for helping us as readers to value “life” stories filled with magic and inspiration. Thank you for all you have done. Until then, sir, Excelsior. ‘Nuff said.

Thank you Allen Callaci, Will Plunkett, and Tony Abbondanza for taking the time to respond to my questions.

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