Happy 85th Birthday Stan Lee

This being Stan Lee's 85th birthday, my editor suggested that I tell you a few stories about Stan, which I am actually quite happy to do. Stan is someone whom I greatly respect, so passing on a few fun stories of our personal interactions over the years, is a genuine pleasure.

I'll start off by telling you that meeting one of your childhood heroes is an exceptionally odd experience. When someone has approached deification in your mind as a teen, how can they ever possibly live up to such ridiculously unrealistic expectations? As an avid Marvelite during the late-1960's and early 1970's I devoured every scrap of "Stan's Soapbox," and all of the information columns he wrote for fans. By the time I was 17, I was completely convinced that Stan Lee was the coolest man on earth. Well, when I finally met my idol in person in 1980, he was everything I that had ever imagined, and much, much more.

Now before my accolades get too deep, I do have to confess that there was a period of disillusionment that came about after I discovered that, much like the Wizard of Oz, that Stan Lee is human. When I ultimately realized that much of his public persona was a construct created to increase his personal brand appeal, I definitely had my moments of doubt. Having now known Stan for over 25 years, however, I have returned to my original opinion of holding him in the highest of esteem. It may sometimes appear that he is acting the part of a creation that he conceived, but his personal involvement with his public persona is so deep and genuine that Stan has superceded any doubts I might have once held. He really IS "Stan the Man!"

My first story begins with Jack Kirby going out to the corner store, near his home in Thousand Oaks, and wrecking his car. Jack and Roz were friends, and had agreed to come to Denver for a signing at the Mile High Comics stores, in the first week of June 1981. Unfortunately, however, Jack was in a traffic accident about five days before the signing date, and had to cancel. In a panic, I called up Stan, to whom I had been introduced in 1980, by Jim Shooter. During that brief meeting in the Marvel offices, and a couple of subsequent phone calls, Stan and I established a minor relationship. Stan would call me to act as a sounding board for how to resolve problems he perceived as hurting Marvel (including one in which I almost got Archie Goodwin fired over his choice of material in EPIC ILLUSTRATED...). Stan also made an offer to come do a signing in Denver, if I ever needed him. Well, I had spent a fortune advertising the Jack Kirby signings, so I was genuinely desperate. Stan was about the only "big name" creator who could realistically cover for someone as well known as Jack Kirby. To make a long story short, Stan generously agreed to fly out to help me, with almost no notice.

While Stan helping me out is a story in and of itself, what happened after he arrived is far cooler. First of all, I had purchased a brand new Chevrolet Chevette just prior to Stan's arrival, so that was my obvious choice for the vehicle in which to drive him around to the four signings we had scheduled. On an exceptionally warm day I picked up Stan at his hotel in Boulder, and hit the highway for Denver. As we drove along on that sweltering heat, I noticed that Stan was sweating profusely in his impeccably tailored suit, but had yet to roll down his window. He finally turned to me and said "Chuck, I don't think that your air conditioning is working..." I then had to tell him that my car didn't HAVE air conditioning, which caused a look of complete disbelief in his eyes. He told me then, that as a driver exclusively of Rolls Royces for many years, that he had no idea that they still made cars without AC.

On that same trip to Denver, I had to stop for gas. As always, I went to the self-service pump. Stan jumped out the car at the station, and asked me to show him how it all worked. It turned out that he had never in his life pumped his own gas. How cool is that!?!

On the signing front, it was all a complete and total disaster. With most of my advertising focused on Jack for the previous two weeks, my last-minute promotion of Stan's appearance drew only moderate crowds of about 30-60 fans per store. We held out hope, however, that a great many people were going to skip the store appearances, and instead come to the Saturday evening talk by Stan that I had arranged (out of fear that we would have too large of a turnout at the stores...), at Denver's 1400-seat East High School auditorium. I spent over $2,000 on ads in the Rocky Mountain News advertising Stan's talk, so we were absolutely stunned when no one showed up. Counting Mile High employees, we had fewer than 50 people in that huge auditorium. We didn't even fill the first two rows. I don't know if I've ever been so embarrassed in my entire life. But Stan was incredibly gracious, and gave a great talk for everyone who was there, and then answered questions for nearly an hour. He was a complete gentleman throughout, and left me feeling a huge obligation to make up to him somehow for this debacle.

Fast forward to June 1994, and the opening of my second Garden Grove, California store. I had been forced out of my wonderful first store near Disneyland by a highway expansion project, and I desperately needed help getting this new location off the ground. My friends Jim Lee, Chris Claremont, and Stan all agreed to sign autographs on that first weekend. Stan, however, limited his appearance to only one-hour, which only makes sense after what happened in Denver a decade before. Well, I ran a group of ads in the Orange County Register, and was shocked when I got to the store on the morning of Stan's signing to see over 500 people already lined up. By the time Stan arrived, the line went down the block, with the end being completely out of sight. Stan told me that he had to stick to his schedule, however, so we had to somehow get all those people through the line in just one hour. I worked with Stan in this bizarre exercise of hustling people up to meet him for only 5-10 seconds each. As crazy as it sounds, it all worked. We were able to get somewhere between 1,000-1,500 people in to meet Stan (BRIEFLY), and not one person with whom I spoke afterwards expressed any antipathy at having been hustled through so quickly. Just being able to meet Stan was such a pleasure that I still hear from folks who were there how much they enjoyed the experience.

I could pass on many more stories to you about Stan, but the point that I am trying to illustrate about the man through these two store-signing experiences is that Stan is completely unflappable. He remains in character, a consummate professional and gentleman, regardless of the level of response that day to his persona. I came away from those two experiences with the deepest respect for him not only as my childhood hero, but also as a man. It is one of my greatest honors in my entire life to be able to call him my friend.

Please send your e-mails to chuck@milehighcomics.com, and your letters to:

Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221

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