On Monday 12th November I was doing my Reading for Pleasure talks to children at a lovely little international school in Almere, Netherlands. It went pretty well, I thought. They all listened well, interacted well and seemed more enthusiastic about reading and about comics at the end than they did when they entered. I then got a lift into the city centre and had some tea at the local Five Guys burger place (after the recommendations of the school’s librarians). Now, I don’t lay all this out as a way of bragging about the wonderful places my career continues to take me, but as a way of framing the story of how I experienced one of the most influential people in my life – Stan Lee.
That evening I returned to my room and decided to watch YouTube on my Internet-accessible TV. I watched an episode of Star Trek Continues, a fan-made, online-only series that recreates the style and tone of the original 1960s show (seriously, if you’ve never seen it and you’re a bit of a Star Trek fan, you should look it up. It’s really good!). The moment the episode finished, and the wonderful Alexander Courage theme tune was playing away, my phone rang. It was a friend of mine called Richard. Now, Richard doesn’t phone me often. Not because he doesn’t like me much but because this is the 21st century and, like millions of other people, we tend to conduct most of our conversations via texting or via Facebook messenger. We're middle-aged, not dinosaurs.
“I’ve got some bad news for you” he stated.
“Oh yeah?” I replied, expecting it to be the death of some ageing rock star. Richard was, after all, the friend who had broken the news to me about Lemmy’s death in 2015. What a dark day that was.
“Stan Lee has died” he told me. “Oh sh*t” I answered him. I couldn’t really think of anything else to say except to thank him for letting me know. I’ve got to admit, I was shocked. Ridiculous really that the death of a 95-year-old man could cause shock in anyone but I guess that’s a testament to the aura of immortality that Stan Lee emitted. Many people thought he’d go on forever. I did honestly expect him to reach 100. The celebration of his life, his works and his creations that would come flooding from the comics community when he reached that milestone was something I’d sort of been quietly looking forward to. It seemed perfectly logical to assume that this man who’d been so full of life force (and had never really retired!) would be 100 years old one day. Alas not.
As I was on my own, I had time to digest the news fully. It was a bit of a downer after the highs of the day earlier. It settled in quite slowly. The first thing I realised was that my being in the Netherlands at that time was all down to Stan! In 2011, I’d created probably my biggest contribution to the field of children’s literacy, the Stan Lee Excelsior Award, with his blessing and permission to use his name. That was a big honour in itself. It was also the first step on a path of specialism in comics (including becoming the Bloke of Steel) that I have been travelling ever since, a path that had taken me all the way to the Netherlands. ‘Nuff said.
I went on Twitter next and started looking up all the tweet-tributes to Stan on there, from comics professionals to comics readers to the movie stars he’d worked with during his many, many cameo appearances in Marvel-inspired movies over the last 18 years. Here’s some of my favourites:
DC @DCComics He changed the way we look at heroes, and modern comics will always bear his indelible mark. His infectious enthusiasm reminded us why we all fell in love with these stories in the first place. Excelsior, Stan.
BOOM! Studios @boomstudios BOOM! Studios offers condolences to the family and friends of Stan Lee. We are saddened to learn of his passing but will carry his teachings of heroism and inclusivity with us forever. #Excelsior
ComicsintheGoldenAge @ComicsintheGA Stan Lee’s first published comic story, a text piece from Captain America Comics #3 (May 1941).
Diamond Comic Distributors @DCD_Nexus “No one has ever promoted comics the way Stan Lee did. Across eight decades as writer, editor, and ambassador-at-large, he sang the virtues of the medium to anyone who would listen." - Steve Geppi, President and CEO of Diamond Comic Distributors.
Erik Larsen @ErikJLarsen I met @TheRealStanLee on numerous occasions. One of the most flattering was him seeking me out and gushing over the Revenge of the Sinister Six, which I wrote and drew in Spider-Man, which he'd just read. I was floored.
Walter Simonson @WalterSimonson This arrived at Marvel not long after I began working on Thor in 1983. I was amazed Stan even knew who I was. It was a generous and surprisingly personal gesture on his part. Hangs on the wall of my studio, a reminder to try to do good work. Thank you, Stan. Excelsior, indeed.
As I read all these wonderful tweets about the impact Stan’s life had had on so many people across the world, it made me realise just how much of an impact he’d made on me and had always made on me! I’ve always believed that everyone has certain things that run through their lives like letters run through a stick of seaside rock. Sometimes it’s a life lesson that comes from parents or a certain career. Sometimes it’s a strong connection to a town or a football team. For people like us, dear reader, it’s often a piece of culture that slowly and quietly permeates our core and colours so much of what we experience throughout our lives. It could be a book (or a writer or an artist) or a song (or a band or singer) or a fictional character. Anyone who’s seen my Reading for Pleasure talks will know that I often open up with a brief personal history of myself as a young boy, first learning to read and slowly wading into the welcoming waters of literature. I talk primarily about the X-Men comics that were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s (although I didn’t read them until they were reprinted in Britain in in the mid-1970s). That’s where it started for me. That’s where I became obsessed with reading, with stories… and with comics. I never really stopped reading comics after that and the characters created by Stan Lee were probably the ones I read the most. Even in adulthood I became a school librarian and was lending comics (alright, graphic novels!) to kids as well as reading them myself still. Eventually I created the Stan Lee Excelsior Award (now just called the Excelsior Award) as a way of honouring Stan and of getting even more kids than just the ones in my schools reading comics. Stan had been a letter through the stick of rock that is my life for as long as I can remember, from the X-Men’s Cyclops (my first fictional hero) to being the driving force behind my current career. I even named my son after one of the Fantastic Four!
Eventually I left Twitter’s stream of praise behind and delved into the much more personal and literally private waters of Facebook (I have my privacy settings on Facebook set to “Royal Toddler” levels). I found myself inundated with messages from friends, family and close colleagues asking if I was OK and how I was the first person they’d thought of upon hearing about Stan’s demise. That was surprising really… and quite touching. Surprising to discover that so many people had, for years, linked me directly with someone like Stan Lee! And touching enough for me to make a replying post on Facebook to thank everyone for their commiserations. It was another example of Stan’s influence upon my life, and of how I don’t think I’d been fully aware of just how strong and positive his influence had been. It’s difficult to imagine what a Paul Register without the works of Stan Lee would look like.
So, there I was, in the hotel’s bar by that point, drinking beer all by myself, flicking about on social media and occasionally getting all teary and thinking about the importance of role models in everybody’s life. And that’s what Stan was to millions of people across the planet. He was a leader, a creative genius, a shining example of positivity and enthusiasm. He understood people and he understood storytelling – and the deeply intrinsic connection between the two. He was… a hero.
I’d like to end this blog with an anecdote. This is a story about Stan Lee that will stay with me to my dying day. It’s my story about Stan Lee. In 2012, through a series of fortunate circumstances and last-minute transatlantic communications, I was put in the privileged position of being able to meet Stan Lee at his hotel in London (he was in the UK for a comic convention - and he didn’t do many of those in the UK). The Excelsior Award was entering its third year and I was given five minutes one-on-one with him to talk about it. It was a bit like meeting the Queen at the Royal Variety Performance, but without the formal attire. Anyway, we were sat together at a table and I explained how the award worked and what I was trying to achieve. I then showed him the various books we had on the shortlist that year and eventually got to the Wuthering Heights adaptation published by Classical Comics. At this point, Stan grabbed by arm and asked, “Are you telling me this award is getting kids to read Wuthering Heights!”
“Ermmm, yeah” I nervously replied.
That trademark smile opened up again and he exclaimed “That’s great!” with a gentle swing of his clenched fist. I was bowled over. He got it. He got what the award was all about.
Farewell, Stan. You’ve left a huge void in the comics community that will never be truly filled. You were to comics and to superheroes what Elvis was to music and what Pele is to football. You will be badly missed but you are now… a legend. Thank you. Excelsior.