I got to visit the set of the original X-Men in Toronto, Canada. This was in 1999, a time before superhero movies were a license for a studio to print money. Comics were for weird, thoughtful, imaginative kids like me.
I got to walk on the set of the Danger Room. I shook Hugh Jackman’s hand before anyone knew who he was. Sir Ian McKellan handed me a twice-baked potato in the lunch line. It was amazing, and surreal, and a dream come true.
But the highlight of that trip was, and always will be, Stan Lee.
Superheroes were like gods to us, and Comic Books, our religion. Every Wednesday, we'd pick up our new releases and head out for Comic Book Night dinner. We talked about upcoming storylines. We debated fictional brawls. And we read Stan's Soapbox aloud. EXCELSIOR!
Hearing about our love for Stan The Man, one of the producers on the X-Men set quietly excused himself for a moment. He returned, cell phone in hand, smiling broadly. "Someone would like to say Hi," he said. I turned white as a ghost.
Hand shaking, I took the phone from him. I could barely force myself to make a sound. Then I heard that famous voice.
"HI, HERO!" he exclaimed, with all the vitality and enthusiasm you would imagine.
"HOLY SHIT, YOU'RE STAN LEE," I screamed back.
He laughed. I HAD MADE STAN LEE LAUGH.
Being the man he was, of course, he had a self-deprecating quip on the ready. "You don't understand," I insisted. "This is like going downstairs on Xmas morning and finding Santa there, AND he gives you exactly what you want, AND he high fives you!"
I honestly don't remember anything else we said. I was in total shock. What I do remember is the warmth, enthusiasm, and understanding he showed to one of his fans, some random Wednesday evening.
Stan Lee built up a cult around Marvel by turning himself into a living mascot for comics. Some people focus on that public persona too much, saying he took more credit than he maybe should have while others never got a chance in the spotlight.
What they overlook is the fact that the stories Stan Lee developed resonated the way they did because of his empathy with those who weren't cut out to be Supermen. We connected with the characters because they had flaws, and they struggled, and they didn't always win.
Stan Lee changed the way comics are made, and he changed the way fans connected with them, and he changed the way we thought about what it means to be a hero.
I don't pick up as many comics as I used to, but I am forever grateful to Stan Lee for showing me it's not the POWERS, but the RESPONSIBILITY that make a hero.
Tonight, I'm going to pull out an old issue of Spider-Man, and read Stan's Soapbox one more time.
Excelsior, Stan. #ExcelsiorForever.