I was beyond awkward interviewing Stan Lee in July 2016.
We met in a hotel lobby moments after Mr. Lee arrived in Louisville, Kentucky from the West Coast. He was in town to participate in a now-defunct comic expo that weekend.
Jim, the co-worker with the serious face on the left, set up the interview with Mr. Lee through the man who acted as Mr. Lee’s bodyguard at conventions.
As the online entertainment report for ABC affiliate, WCPO 9 On Your Side in Cincinnati who mainly covered restaurants and local entertainment events, interviewing someone in the comic book industry was a stretch.
So, the rationale behind my driving the hour-and-a-half from Cincinnati, Ohio to Louisville to speak with Mr. Lee was tenuous at best. Basically, I promised to write a profile about the man who not only co-created such characters as Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and Black Panther but also transformed the comic book publishing industry by creating “the Marvel Way” as editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics before his appearance at Cincinnati’s own comic book convention in September.
Organizers for the Cincinnati Comic Expo had billed Mr. Lee’s visit to the Queen City as one of his last comic book convention appearances before the 93-year-old went into semi-retirement.
Jim and another co-worker under the guise of our photographer, cartoonist Kevin Necessary (far right) joined me on the road trip.
Mr. Lee’s handlers surrounded him when we first met in the hotel lobby. Those handlers told me questions I could ask and those to avoid. By the time we made it to Mr. Lee’s hotel room, I forgot what they had said.
As we walked down the hallway to his room, I grew more and more nervous about interviewing Mr. Lee.
It didn’t help that Mr. Lee was a bit hard-of-hearing or that his manager at the time hovered nearby.
I remember getting within inches of Mr. Lee’s face to yell questions, sometimes multiple times, at him.
I managed to avoid asking questions about some of the controversies surrounding his tumultuous relationships with fellow Marvel artists and creators such as Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby.
He was also reticent to delve too deeply into his time at the helm of Marvel Comics, which he stepped back from in the 1990s.
Instead, he enthusiastically and energetically discussed then-current creative projects and Hands of Respect, an initiative, symbolized by a pin, to unite people in response to racially motivated violence in the country, he launched with his daughter, JC Lee.
When asked how he stayed so motivated at the then-age of 93 Mr. Lee said, “Some men like to play golf. I like to meet fans. I love their enthusiasm. I love talking to them. It’s so nice to have fans. And I feel if you have them, the least you can do is pay attention to them and make them be glad that they are fans. From a selfish point of view, when you talk to the fans you learn what they like. So, it helps me to come up with more stories that I’m sure fit in the area that they like.”
While sitting there I knew Mr. Lee fielded the questions I asked a million times before. He had after all been working in the comic book industry and traveled to thousands of conventions for more than 75 years.
He still gracefully answered each and every question and managed to bring then-current projects with his name attached to them into the conversation as well.
And I’m sure some of those accusations leveled against Mr. Lee by his contemporaries concerning how much credit he deserved in the creation of certain Marvel characters was valid.
I personally checked those criticisms by remembering one of my girlfriend’s favorite saying: Being human is hard.
There is also the equally legitimate claim that Mr. Lee managed to turn Marvel, a second-tier comic book publisher in its early years, into the dominant cultural force it is today. The conundrum almost becomes one of the chicken-or-the-egg – would the Fantastic Four have existed without Jack Kirby or would the House of Marvel been around to publish those fantastic tales without Mr. Lee?
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
In the end, I don’t know if I will ever meet someone else in person who not only left such a huge imprint on American pop culture but also shaped my childhood and young adulthood in the ways Mr. Lee did.
Growing up I never imaged I’d meet Stan Lee.
I’m grateful for the opportunity and the legacy Mr. Lee left behind after his passing at the age of 95.
Excelsior, Mr. Lee.
You can read my story that resulted from that interview via the link below.