Stan Lee and My Life in Comics.

Posted: March 20, 2022 in Memoirs/A Teacher's Life
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This is mostly an original piece but is partly adapted from my upcoming book regarding my teaching career and travels around the world. ‘A Teacher’s Life’ is the working title (Feel free to offer title suggestions). On this blog I will add a few other excerpts about different topics. In time I hope to find an agent and get this properly published as a book. Feedback, suggestions, assistance are all welcome. Enjoy.

Even before Kindergarten I was able to read at a decent level. When I was really little, I would sit down on the floor of our home looking at the newspaper saying words I recognized out loud. My mother says she remembers taking me to stores and me not wanting a whole bunch of toys, but when it came to books then I would start picking stuff out.

When I was 5 years old my mom took me to a store downtown called Welker’s. While she bought lottery tickets my little legs hobbled over to the magazine rack. Comic books were placed conveniently at my eye level, and I picked out Amazing Spiderman #231. Stan Lee was no longer writing by then, but thanks in part to his creations, I became a life-long comic book fan.

Amazing Spiderman #231.
My very first comic book.

Amazing Spiderman was with me all through my childhood, and by the time I was an adult I was a full-fledged comic book nerd. I knew all about the history of Marvel and DC and all the characters and what not. One thing I never got to do in my youth was go to the major comic book conventions. In my twenties I went to a few small one day shows but going to a big show and actually meeting Stan Lee seemed like a pipe dream.

Drawing was never something I showed aptitude in, but ever since I was little, I was always thinking up little stories. For the future of my creative endeavors, I imagined I would bang out a novel or two, and poetry became a big part of my identity for a while. Perhaps I am misremembering, but if you would have asked me in my 20’s I don’t think I had any serious idea of writing for Marvel Comics and becoming the next Stan Lee.

Part of the reason for that is because in the late 90’s comic books almost died. The early 90’s had a speculator boom when ten thousand comic book stores operated in North America. When I began college in the small town of Bloomsburg Pennsylvania, there were three comic book stores downtown. By the time I graduated, all three were closed, among seven thousand other stores, Marvel Comics declared bankruptcy and was seven hundred million dollars in debt. It looked like the whole thing was about to go under.

My own life also went downhill shortly after this period (which I’ll cover in the book), and I went off to Korea to get myself straightened out. In time, my own life, and the industry I loved got to a healthier place. Having more stability with myself, I was writing more and planning what I would do once I returned home.

Still keeping tabs of the comic book industry online, I discovered an organization called Comics Experience. Founded by Andy Schmidt, himself a former educator and also former editor at Marvel Comics; Comics Experience offered online classes on writing comics. I took their Intro to Writing Comics course while gathering information on how to contact artists and sell books at conventions. Before Korea, I’d often talked with friends and various others about trying to do a comic or an online web-comic, and it never seemed to pan out. I’m sure some of those times it was on me, but it was discouraging. Partly because of that, I felt like if I could just make one comic and see my name on its cover, I would be happy. 

Advice I was given regarding independent comics was if you were going to make your own book, don’t do superheroes, do something that Marvel and DC aren’t doing. I also knew that making a black and white book was less expensive than color. So, I thought, a one shot, black and white, non-superhero book. What would that look like? As a kid I loved the black and white monster movies from Universal Studios and remembered in the 90’s when Dark Horse Comics did some adaptations of them. This led to my idea of Classic Horror Comics. I wrote a one issue script I called Classic Horror Comics: Bride of Prometheon. This Frankenstein-esque tale took place in Great Depression America and simulated seeing a movie during the Golden Age of Hollywood, as panels mimicked newsreel footage before the “movie” began. 

As my time in Korea came to an end, I managed to write my comic script, as well as a few other writing projects (including a book of poetry), and found an artist to draw it. Coming home from Korea, I was unsure what my long-term plans would be. In the short term, I planned to take time off for myself and go to comic book conventions selling my books and see what would come of that.

The New York Comic Con, one of the larger shows in the country, was held about a week after I came back to the United States. My own comic book wasn’t printed yet, but I attended this show as a fan and did some networking with other Comics Experience people and industry figures like Jason Aaron who wrote Scalped, a crime drama set on an Indian reservation. I got an autographed copy of one of his books that had a drawing of a Night Shield CD, who was my friend and Native American rapper (whom you can read about here). I also got to have a conversation with Len Wein, who created Wolverine and Swamp Thing and edited Watchmen, considered by many to be the best comic book ever.

Lloyd Kaufman, founder of Troma Films, was also there. When he was young, he had a cameo in Rocky. Lloyd was really nice; and didn’t charge anything for autographs. I told him his film Poultrygeist, Night of the Chicken Dead, was the best film of 2007. Aside from meeting all these people I took in all the cos-play, merchandise and the whole madness of the show. 

One good networking activity they had was an artist writer connection which was like speed dating but for creators. Artist and writers were paired up to swap contact info and ideas. This is where I met Sarah Benkin, an artist who, like me, was a fan of old monster movies. We collaborated on a short webcomic called Shock Value, and later she drew my next issue of Classic Horror Comics: Curse of the Mummy’s Stone.

While it was certainly cool to meet all these different people, what I was most excited for was meeting the man himself, Stan Lee. Stan was doing a signing for a graphic novel he was involved in which was a sci-fi take on Romeo and Juliet. I didn’t manage to get a picture of us together, but I did take his photo and got to shake his hand. I thanked him for all he did and told him I loved him. I remembered that five-year old little boy who hobbled over to his first Spiderman comic, and now years later I was about to publish my own, partly in thanks to this man who stood before me in New York. That was a real nerd dream come true. 

Meeting Stan Lee at New York Comic Con

About a month later, at long last, my own comic book was printed. Opening the package and unwrapping the plastic, it felt very satisfying to finally hold a comic book in my hands that had my name on it. Even if this were to be the only thing I ever did in the world of comic books, I was happy.

A few months later, and after doing a cross country road trip (which you can read about here), I attended three comic book shows three weekends in a row at three different cities. First was Chicago’s C2E2. At these comic shows I had what they call artist alley booths, a table where indy artists and writers like me rent to sell our books, merch, etc. During these shows I tried to talk to as many people as I could as they walked by my table. I also tried to network as best I could, talking to other people in the industry, media, podcasters, etc. Chicago was a little slow, sales wise, which was discouraging given it was my first shot at selling my stuff in public. 

A week later I was in Pittsburgh. Stan Lee was booked at this show, and he signed autographs right in artist alley; so indy creators like me got all the foot traffic from people coming in to see him. This was the best show I ever did. The convention was actually in Monroeville, just outside Pittsburgh, and the convention center was across the street from the Monroeville Mall. There, in the arcade, they had a mini-museum about Dawn of the Dead, the classic zombie movie by George Romero, which was filmed in that mall. 

The following weekend was the MOCCA (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art) show in New York. This was a more offbeat show, featuring more independent/experimental comics. Scott Adsit from 30 Rock was there and bought one of my books. Sarah Benkin, the artist I met last time I was in New York, was also there. While all these shows were for comics, I also brought copies of my poetry book that I also just published. I always managed to sell at least one per show. At MOCCA, someone at Poet’s House, a poetry library in New York City, approached me and happily took a copy of my poetry book.

A few months later I went to Charlotte North Carolina for Heroes Convention. Stan Lee was also at this show, so I got to see him three times in under a year. In fact, this time he walked by me in the lobby. As I said hi to him, he immediately stopped in his tracks and said “James the Amazing Murray! I’ve heard all about your world travels and how you’re hitting the convention scene hard. I’m gonna make you the next comic book superstar. Marvel and Murray, it’s a match made in heaven!”

Of course, I’m only joking. When I said hi to him, he walked by me, smiled, and said “How you doing?” I’d never see him again.

Just a few years later I was teaching in China. I woke up one morning and my mother posted the news on my Facebook. Stan Lee had passed away.

In 1961 Stanley Martin Lieber was approaching forty and had been writing comics his whole life. By then the industry wasn’t so hot, and he was tired and ready to quit. His wife encouraged him to write one more book, the way he thought comics should be written. This was Fantastic Four #1. Sales were great, and he decided stick around.

What followed was a comic book renaissance. Stan Lee, along with artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita Sr. Gene Colan, Jim Sternako, and many others created the Marvel Universe. Populated by champions with feet of clay, Marvel heroes faced the troubles of regular people while battling sympathetic villains. The Fantastic Four were a family that quarreled, Thor was a jock who had to live up to his father, X-men were freaks and outcasts, and the Hulk was an angry teenager who just wanted to be left alone.

Then there was Spiderman, a geeky nerd who was bullied and had few friends. Peter Parker had problems with girls, school, money, and his ever-sickly Aunt. He lost more than he won, gave more than he received, but always tried to be a hero. His motto, “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility,” was something Lee seemingly wrote on a whim, but became a creed for generations to follow. Spiderman’s full body costume allowed anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, etc. to imagine themselves under that mask. The hero could be you.

I don’t have confirmation on this, but there’s a story that Stan was sometimes invited to L.A. to pitch Marvel films, and supposedly studio executives were merely humoring him. Today the Marvel Cinematic Universe completely dominates popular culture and is the most successful film franchise ever at twenty-five BILLION dollars. One of the most fun things about Marvel movies was looking out for the Stan Lee cameo, and when that 71 Cutlass Oldsmobile drove by the army base in End Game, and its pimped-out driver proclaimed “Hey man, make love not war!” it was a fitting end to a modern tradition.

Stan Lee was a giant in American culture, and thanks to the movies was no longer merely a hero to the nerdy crowd. Hearing the news of his passing that morning, I informed my Chinese students, as most of them knew who he was. I remembered when I was in Korea, they knew who he was too. By the 21rst century, his influence was global.

As a nerdy teenager I read of the history of Marvel Comics and the comic book industry and memorized the stories of how Stan and company created these characters. They provided both fictitious and real-life examples of the importance of doing what you love and being who you were meant to be. Stan Lee gave me hope that I could write something great, and when I was young, I felt like I could only dream of meeting him someday. Now I’m so glad that I did.

Stanley Martin Lieber, A.K.A. Stan Lee, was 95 when he passed. Even now, years later, he is still greatly missed.

Excelsior my friend 🙁

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