I won’t say I had the “rare” opportunity to meet Stan Lee, because the man was a famously extroverted character, and he saw and met an unbelievable amount of humanity in his 95 years. But our meeting was rare for me.
The year was 1987 and I was (11 years young) already ferociously addicted to comic books and well on my way to being ferociously awkward with the opposite sex. It really didn’t help that there was this tiny little comic book store called Ninth Nebula within walking distance of my home. So, every week I’d get my allowance and rush off to the store to get my weekly fix of pulp-bound superheroes.
I worked jobs to earn money and was able to collect a few gems, my best being The Amazing Spider-man #5. One week,
my dealer… I mean um, the comic store owner told me he was having Stan Lee appear for a signing.
I was so nervous entering the small dark space of the store. There he was, a big smile on his face under his giant outdated sunglasses, sitting behind a small poker table in the corner of the shadowy shop that seemed even smaller for being wallpapered from ceiling to floor with comic books for sale.
Once it was my turn, he could see I was petrified and spoke to me in a friendly encouraging way. He saw the bagged comic book in my hands and his eyes lit up at its title and number, “Spider-man #5!” he boomed cheerfully as he signed. I hope I mumbled a thanks before I flew home on adrenaline-fueled feet that barely seemed to graze the ground.
I opened up the decades-old comic book in my room with the reverence of a deeply religious archeologist handling a holy relic.
“Ekelsior?” I mispronounced, and then nearly tore my parents dictionary in half looking for the word. (I learned later that it was his trademark motto.)
noun. used in the names of hotels, newspapers, and other products to indicate superior quality.
That was 31 years ago, so I didn’t yet have a shred of a clue about adult life. All I knew was that Stan Lee was a comic book legend, and it went completely over my teenaged head that a signing appearance at a store that wasn’t much larger than my bedroom, might not exactly be considered the pinnacle of one’s career. This was over a decade before his cameo in X-Men, in 2000, when Marvel movies began annihilating the box office.
And then I grew up, got a job, got married, and became an adult with three kids of my own, watching every Stan Lee movie cameo with a personally meaningful smile. Especially if I heard his uniquely friendly cackle of a laugh – hearing it in my forties, but also through the memory of my eleven-year-old ears.
Looking back as an adult, I’m more deeply impressed that he was so jovial and bright then, that he didn’t have that cringey fake smile of someone dying inside from the humiliating cuts of broken dreams during that time.
I’d never heard the word “excelsior” before Stan Lee, and haven’t heard it since, unless it was in connection to him. I feel like that’s a perfectly poetic thing, for him to completely own that word for me.
Rest in peace, Stan “The Man” Lee. You changed the world.