Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Memories of Stan Lee (1922 – 2018)

Stan Lee Atomic Junk ShopLike most everyone reading this, I was shocked to hear of the death of Stan Lee on Monday. Even though the man was 95 years old, it still seemed like he would go on forever. He had the energy and work ethic of a person a quarter of his age, and though his legacy in comics was long since secure, he was working on new projects up until the very end.

It’s amazing when you realize how far his influence reached in the world of pop culture. As luck would have it, Hugh Jackman was the first guest on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show on Monday night. He and Colbert both had some very nice things to say about Stan Lee.

Looking at the listings of the other late night shows that night, it struck me that the lead guests on two other shows also played Marvel characters, two that Stan Lee co-created. Jamie Foxx, the first guest on The Tonight Show, played Electro in 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Kerry Washington, the lead guest on Late Night with Seth Meyers, played Alicia Masters in 2005’s Fantastic Four movie.

And this wasn’t because Stan Lee passed away earlier that day. It was just happenstance. By sheer chance, the lead guests on three different talk shows all had a Stan Lee connection. Stan’s influence is truly everywhere.

Stan Lee’s legacy is truly too great for just one person to sum up, so I thought I’d ask for some help. I emailed about every comics professional in my contact list and put out a call on Facebook for other notable people to talk about Stan. I told them to send me anything from a couple sentences to a few paragraphs. Personal recollections, professional appreciations, anything they wanted to write. This is what I’ve gotten so far. Except for some edits and formatting adjustments, all are as I received them. Some of them are extracted from longer pieces, some of them have appeared elsewhere on social media, and some of them were written exclusively for us here at the Atomic Junk Shop, but all of them are from the heart.

I suspect I’m going to get more. And when I have enough for another column, I’ll share them here. Because if anyone deserved this many tributes, it’s Stan Lee.

So without further ado, here we go:

Stan Lee John Cimino Roy Thomas Atomic Junk Shop
Stan Lee, John Cimino, and Roy Thomas, November 10, 2018.

Roy Thomas (writer and editor, The Avengers, Conan the Barbarian, Star Wars):

I’m sadder than I can say that Stan has died… even though I know, from my recent phone conversations with him, that he was more than ready to leave this Earth. I’m so grateful that, by sheer circumstance, I got to spend a half hour or so with him this past Saturday, less than 48 hours before he passed away. At that time, it was obvious that he lacked much of the old Stan Lee energy that everybody had got to know at conventions and in movie cameos, but when I asked him about future cameos, he expressed a real interest in making them, if he could find a way to do it without their being too much trouble. He asked me about [my wife] Dann and all the animals on our place (Dann had, at his request, sent him a DVD we made for him a couple of years ago), and got fairly animated when talking about his battles with publisher Martin Goodman over doing Spider-Man. I opined as how maybe the one important creative decision Goodman ever made was when he commissioned Stan to create a super-hero group back in 1961. Stan seemed to get a kick out of that. He posed for a couple of pictures with me, and then the last one with me and my friend and manager John Cimino, who had worked (in concert with Stan’s buddy and handler Jon Bolerjack) to arrange for Stan and me to get together one more time. But I wish I could look forward to seeing him and sparring around with him again. Still, I consider myself so very lucky to have known and worked with him for so many years… one of the most important mythmakers of the 20th century.

Roy Thomas

Tom DeFalco (writer and editor, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor):

Stan–along with Jack, Steve and a host of others–took us on a wild ride from Flushing to Asgard, from Yancy Street to the Negative Zone. This ride continues to thrill us and always will. ‘Nuff said!

Thor Walter Simonson Atomic Junk Shop
Thor by Walter Simonson.

Walter Simonson (writer and artist, Ragnarök, The Mighty Thor, The Fantastic Four):

Long, long ago, when Marvel had their offices at 387 Park Avenue S., I was leaving the office to head home.  I took the freight elevator for some reason.  Almost never did.  And as I was getting into it, Stan joined me, also heading out of the office. I didn’t know Stan really at all although we had met briefly.  We started chatting and the only thing I remember of our conversation during the descent was that Stan suggested that we ought to work together some time.  He would love to write a story for me. I was astounded that he actually seemed to know who I was. It was a friendly offer but I didn’t take it terribly seriously.  He was out on the West Coast by then and back in the office rarely.  But I was buoyed up tremendously by the recognition, the conversation, and the ride.  And I’m pleased to say that we did eventually get the chance to work together on a couple of projects.  Bucket list checkoffs!

Godspeed, Stan, and thanks.

Walter Simonson
New York

Stan Lee Gerry Conway Gene Colan Tom Palmer Daredevil Atomic Junk Shop
An early 70s Stan and Joan Lee cameo in Daredevil. Written by Gerry Conway. Art by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer.

Gerry Conway (writer and editor, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, The Mighty Thor):

[Excerpted from a longer post on Gerry Conway’s tumblr, used with permission.]

Among my most vivid childhood memories is my discovery of the Fantastic Four with issue 4, the first appearance of the Sub-Mariner. I was nine years old, and I’d been a comic book reader for years at that point. I knew about Superman, I knew about Batman, I’d read the early issues of Justice League. I was a compulsive reader, voracious (still am)– devoting hours a day to books and stories and comics and even my parents’ newspapers. […]

And then came Fantastic Four.

I’ve never been hit by lightning but I have to imagine the shock might be similar to what I experienced reading that early adventure of Reed Richards, Sue Storm, her kid brother Johnny, and Ben Grimm. If you weren’t a comic book reader at that time you cannot imagine the impact those stories had. There’s nothing comparable in the modern reader’s experience of comics– nothing remotely as transformative. (To be fair, I suppose both The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen come close, but both remarkable works built on prior tradition and were perhaps a fulfillment of potential and creative expectations. The Fantastic Four was sui generis.) Over a series of perhaps five issues, a single year, Stan and Jack Kirby transformed superhero comics in an act of creative alchemy similar to transmuting lead into gold, and just as unlikely.

They also changed my life. Because Stan credited himself as writer and Jack as artist, he opened my nine year old eyes to a possibility I’d never really considered before: I could be something called a comic book “writer” or “artist.”

Think about that, for a moment. Before Stan regularly began giving credits to writers and artists, comics (with a few exceptions) were produced anonymously. Who wrote and drew Superman? Who wrote and drew Donald Duck? Who wrote and drew Archie? Who knew? (Serious older fans knew, of course, but as far as the average reader or disinterested bystander knew, most comics popped into existence spontaneously, like flowers, or in some eyes, weeds.)

Stan did more than create a fictional universe, more than create an approach to superhero storytelling and mythology– he created the concept of comic book story creation itself. Through his promotion of the Marvel Bullpen, with his identification of the creative personalities who wrote and drew Marvel’s books, he sparked the idea that writing and drawing comics was something ordinary people did every day. (Yes, yes, to a degree Bill Gaines had done something similar with EC Comic’s in-house fan pages, but let’s be honest, EC never had the overwhelming impact on a mass audience that Marvel had later.) He made the creation of comic book stories something anyone could aspire to do as a potential career.

That’s huge. It gave rise to a generation of creative talent whose ambition was to create comics.

When I picked up that issue of Fantastic Four, I was a nine year old boy with typical nine year old boy fantasies about what my life would be. […] Stan and Marvel Comics gradually showed me a different path, a different possible career. By making comic books cool, by making them creatively enticing, and by making the people who created comics real to readers– Stan created the idea of a career creating comics. […]

Now he’s gone. Part of me goes with him, but the greater part of me, the life I’ve led and built under his influence, remains.

Like so much of the pop culture world we live in, I’m partly Stan’s creation.

‘Nuff said.

Gerry Conway

Stan Lee Peter David Atomic Junk Shop
Stan Lee and Peter David at the first New York Comic Legend Award for Stan Lee at Virgin Megastore Times Square on April 17, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage)

Peter David (writer, The Incredible Hulk, X-Factor):

[Excerpted from a longer post on Peter David’s site, used with permission.]

[…] While DC was still publishing comics with no creator names on the title page, Stan broke from that tradition and slapped the artists’ names right on the credits page. While DC artists labored in anonymity, Stan gave us King Kirby, Stainless Steve Ditko, Jazzy Johnny Romita, Genial Gene Colan. We would have known none of those names if it wasn’t for Stan. DC editors privately dubbed him “Stan Brag” because they thought taking credit wasn’t…I dunno…gentlemanly. At least, they thought that until they started doing it, too. […]

The Village Voice dismissed him as merely a “writer of word balloons.” Yeah, well, compare the word balloons of Fantastic Four with Jack Kirby and the word balloons of New Gods with Jack Kirby and you’ll realize what a master of dialogue he was. But it’s way more than that. The fact is that the comics industry as it currently exists would not be around if Stan had not only co-created the characters, but made Marvel Comics into what it was:

The House of Ideas.


Jerry Ordway Maximum Security Marvel Comics Atomic Junk Shop
Jerry Ordway art from the Maximum Security miniseries from Marvel Comics, 2000.

Jerry Ordway (writer and artist, Superman, All-Star Squadron):

I only had a few personal encounters with Stan Lee, but his impact and influence on me was great. As a 10 year old, the discovery of Marvel Comics was life changing. Stan brought a new level of both realism as well as fantasy to the characters he co-created with Kirby, Ditko, and others. That Peter Parker could have what seemed like real problems to a 10 year old was crazy enough, but I never forgot the over the top heroism of them either. Peter Parker, as Spider-Man is always doing the right, or moral thing, despite being hounded by J Jonah Jameson’s editorials in the Daily Bugle, branded a criminal. etc. The Police are after him as well. But he is still a hero, above all. That’s the lesson I learned from his works, that you don’t have to be perfect to be a hero. I worked with Stan on the 25th Anniversary issue of the Fantastic Four comic book in 1986, as well as for the Justice League version of “What If Stan Lee Created The DC Universe,” and he was an upbeat, funny co-worker. As a child of Marvel Comics, those were treasured experiences.

Jerry Ordway

Mike W. Barr (writer, The Maze Agency, Detective Comics, Batman and the Outsiders):

Stan Lee was a man like the heroes he co-created — flawed and imperfect.  Yet he was, in the final analysis, a towering figure who altered — and perhaps saved — the comics industry.  The characters he co-created with collaborators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko will never be forgotten.

Nor will he.

Mike W. Barr

Dan Johnson (writer, Back Issue, Alter Ego, Comic Book Marketplace):

I lost my father when I was 13. Now, I had been a comic book fan long before his death, since I was seven years old. But after I lost him, I dived into my hobby whole hog. Comic books became my world. And the center of that world was Stan Lee.

Stan became like a favorite uncle. He narrated Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends every Saturday morning. I read his stories in reprint books. And he was the friendly face of Marvel. He was an adult who told me it was okay to love comic books. Before him, only my parents had told me that.

Stan’s loss is not nearly as devastating as my father’s death was. But it hit me hard. Even now, a day later, I am still a little dazed. A world without Stan Lee…Man, that prospect sounds so bleak. But I know we can’t hold on to the people we love forever. We can, however, hold on to their memories and remember all the good times they made in our life. And yes, for a boy who lost his father way too early, Stan helped me make a lot of terrific memories. I will always be grateful for everything he gave me. Rest in Peace, Stan.

Dan Johnson

Jim Keefe (writer and artist, Sally Forth, Flash Gordon):

I already posted about the letter he sent me that means a lot – but adding that I’ve been reading a lot of similar letters online since his passing. Stan Lee consistently took the time over the years to write these kind of notes encouraging others in the business. Something quite out of the ordinary for someone with his fame. An amazing and iconic man who will be sorely missed.

Mike Lawrence Atomic Junk Shop
Mike Lawrence.

Mike Lawrence (stand-up comedian):

RIP to Stan Lee. I don’t think there’s a writer who’s work I’ve read more of. He was the world’s hip nerd grandpa, a man who made years of continuity and mythology accessible through his sheer enthusiasm of it. He hired the best artists of the time and pushed them to be even greater than they thought they could, and with them created a universe that will outlast all of us.

Chaz Truog (artist, Animal Man, Chiaroscuro: the Private Lives of Leonardo da Vinci):

I met Stan Lee only briefly a few times. My first impression was that he was like a bright light bulb shining in a dark room. He radiated light and energy, and his energy was contagious.

Spider-Man Amazing Friends Rick Hoberg Atomic Junk Shop
Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends title card. 1982. Character designs by Rick Hoberg.

Rick Hoberg (artist, Star Wars, designer & storyboard artist, Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends):

Working with Stan Lee was always an adventure. He was not only very creative, but exhibited an exuberant physicality, always gesturing and moving with a purpose. When I first went to work at Marvel Productions in the early eighties, the studio worked out of the old DePatie-Freling building, just off of the Ventura Freeway on Sepulveda in Sherman Oaks. It was a rather small, one story place built around a central atrium/patio, which all of the management offices were open to via windows and glass doors. And Stan had the main office which was open to view from nearly every office around the atrium.

Now, even though I was hired to be designer and storyboard for the Spider-Man and Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends animated series, Stan had taken advantage of our proximity to get me to ghost the Spider-Man Sunday pages, while regular artist Fred Kida continued to catch up on the strips’ dailies. This work had to be done on my own time, never on studio time, so I would do them on weekends and evenings, and deliver them to Stan at the studio.

Well, one day after Stan had gone over the newest Sunday penciled page I had delivered, he called me into his office to discuss a Spider-Man figure on the page that he wasn’t happy about. He wanted me to re-pencil it into a particular pose, and instead of describing it to me or pulling out a Romita or Kida example of the pose, Stan decided to act it out and have me sketch it right there. Right there, where everyone in the studio management could see what was going on.

So, Stan pulled a chair over to the wall, got up on it, and acted out the pose of Spider-Man. Standing there while I did my best to capture the pose while my real bosses at the studio looked on from the surrounding offices, and I knew my main boss, Lee Gunther was NOT happy about this. I squared it with him later, but found it a very intimidating experience, particularly because I had never been one who was comfortable working while others watched me, and that I was probably in hot water with the guy signing my pay checks. But, who could say no to Stan Lee? Certainly not this True Believer. That was working life with Stan, unpredictable as it was, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Rick Hoberg

David Anthony Kraft (writer and editor, The Defenders, Comics Interview):

Stan Lee — As I Knew Him

Stan was never anything but above board and honest in his dealings all the years I’ve known him, and was always willing to go above and beyond — even to providing a foreword to my YI SOON SHIN: WARRIOR AND DEFENDER graphic novel co-written with Onrie Kompan, with no interest in the property other than he liked what he saw, at no charge of any kind, of course. That’s the Stan I knew and loved.

His door truly was “always open” and he gave freely of his time and advice — on stuff unrelated to comics, even. It’s a funny thing (as he’d say), but we had many long conversations — and never about comics!

He stayed positive in the face of calumnies and accusations, was quick to admit error and forgive and forget (I know first hand!) when he was wrong (albeit couched in humor, of course). Stan had a terrific sense of humor, and was bad to interrupt you mid-sentence to correct mispronounced words (tho not appreciative of the favor being returned, LOL) and as I’m sure he’d have been first to say, his major flaw was impatience. He’d rather walk up six flights of stairs than wait for an elevator, as he often did at 575 Madison, and didn’t always allow time enough before losing patience. But that was also his strength, the reason he got so much done. I once said something to the effect that it must be nice having a secretary to straighten up and clear his desktop of work (Stan always had a spotless office) to which he retorted that he couldn’t stand having work waiting on him, so he did everything as soon as he could, immediately if possible. Then Stan shrugged and said it might not always be his best work, but by god, it was done and that’s why there weren’t piles sitting around everywhere.

Roy Thomas and Sol Brodsky both attested to that unswerving dedication to getting things done, in awe that even during the first big NY blackout, Stan still completed his script for a story due the next day — by candlelight. Stan took a lot of credit but really doesn’t get nearly enough. He not only revolutionized comics, he’s really been the template for revolutionizing mainstream movies with crossovers and flippant but well-defined heroic characters that he established first with comics. If not for the influence of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby on me and countless others in our formative years, we’d all be the poorer for it today.

David Anthony Kraft

Kid Who Collects Spider-Man Roger Stern Ron Frenz Terry Austin Atomic Junk Shop
The splash page from “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man!” The Amazing Spider-Man #248. Written by Roger Stern. Art by Ron Frenz & Terry Austin.

Roger Stern (writer and editor, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, Dr. Strange):

This has been such a costly year. Over the past few months we lost Steve Ditko, then Marie Severin, and now Stan Lee.

Despite his age, it was still a shock to learn of Stan’s passing. I had never thought of him as old.

Stan Lee was always so vital, like energy personified. You would see him boldly charging down the halls at Marvel, head held high, eager to get on to the next project. I was lucky enough to work alongside Stan on a couple of those projects, and I learned so much from him.

And I recall one particular encounter, during my first trip to San Diego for Comicon. I was sitting in a coffee shop in Seaport Village, waiting for my breakfast to arrive, when I caught a glimpse of a tall, lean figure striding South along the Embarcadero. Even though it was just a glimpse, I was struck with the thought, “That looked like Stan!” It had been few years since I’d last seen him, so I couldn’t be sure. But as I tucked into my eggs, I kept scanning the Embarcadero, and—sure enough—the same lanky form soon came striding back, and I smiled. It was Stan, out for a morning constitutional, and ready to face the day. That image of him is locked forever in my memory. I will never forget him.

— Roger Stern

Danny Fingeroth Stan Lee Jim Salicrup Atomic Junk Shop
Spider-Man editors Danny Fingeroth, Stan Lee, and Jim Salicrup at MoCCA in February 2007. Photo copyright Gary Dunaier.

Jim Salicrup (writer and editor, Marvel Comics, Stan Lee Media, Papercutz):

I was incredibly lucky and had my dream come true when at age 15, I started working for Marvel Comics. I left after twenty years, thinking I may never work for Stan again, but it’s time to move on. In 1999, surprisingly, I got to work with Stan again as his Senior Writer/Editor at Stan Lee Media. When that shut down, I got to start Papercutz, with my publishing partner, Terry Nantier. And we even published THE ZODIAC LEGACY, a graphic novel series with young super-powered teens, created by Stan.

Stan was my hero, and over the years became a mentor, father figure, and friend. I’ve already shared a few stories elsewhere, but exclusively for the Atomic Junk Shop, I’ll talk about the last time I saw Stan.

It was at a WIZARD WORLD convention in Madison, WI. Stan was brought onstage for an interview and a Q&A with the audience. He was at the top of his game—really funny and entertaining, the audience was loving him. Children were asking silly questions, and Stan still tried to come up with good answers. One asked, what’s your favorite milkshake flavor—vanilla or chocolate? “Vanilla, of course!” Stan enthusiastically responded.

Another asked, “What’s your favorite kind of wood?” Stan snapped, “I travelled hundreds of miles to get here so you can ask what’s my favorite kind of wood?” But upon reflection, Stan offered, “Wait, wait! I just remembered my favorite wood! It’s Biedermeier wood! We have some furniture that’s made from Beidermeier wood, it’s great! Very expensive. That’s my favorite!” (Turns out, fittingly, the Biedermeier period refers to, according to Wikipedia, an era in Central Europe between 1815 and 1848, during which the middle class grew in number and arts appealed to common sensibilities. Although the term itself is a historical reference, it is used mostly to denote the artistic styles that flourished in the fields of literature, music, the visual arts, and interior design.)

And most surprising of all, when asked what his favorite toothpaste is, Stan revealed that he doesn’t use toothpaste! Yes, ol’ Smiling Stan confessed that when his dentist asked him to used a certain type of toothpaste, he didn’t use it or any other. When he returned to the dentist, and was asked if he was using that toothpaste, he fibbed and said “Yes.” The dentist said that he could tell, because Stan’s teeth were in great shape.

After answering a few questions about the early days of Marvel and a few encounters with his old boss, publisher Martin Goodman, Stan suddenly grew wistful, and said something like, “Wow. Isn’t this something.” He explained he didn’t have a punchline, he was just reflecting on how he never dreamed he’d one day be somewhere, in a big hall, and that so many people would come to see him. He just thought, “Wow. Isn’t this something.”

For years, after seeing Stan speak somewhere, I’d always go backstage and hang out with him a little bit. He was always very gracious and friendly. But this time was different. I realized I had seen Stan countless times over the past 45 years, and in that time I had expressed all my heart-felt feelings for him. I truly admired and loved the man, and I’m eternally grateful for all that he inspired and all the opportunities he gave me. I didn’t want to be selfish, he had hundreds of people hoping to get an autograph or a photo with him, and I already had so much time with him. I decided, that the way he was on that stage was how I wanted to remember him. Onstage, loved by the audience, and truly touched by how much love he was getting back.

It just to prove I can be as corny as Stan, I’ll end with (what else?)…  Excelsior!

Jim Salicrup

One comment

  1. Le Messor

    one of the most important mythmakers of the 20th century.
    So true.

    I was reading his Fantastic Four comics just this weekend; when I got to work on Tuesday (due to the international date line) and found out… well, I was not happy. 🙁
    One of my colleagues even came in and told me he’d expected me to take a day off in mourning (which might’ve been tempting if I’d found out before I got to work).

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