If it makes you feel any better, Stan Lee doesn’t know who I am, either. I know of what I speak.
In the early ‘90s, when it came my turn to work in the Direct Sales Department of Marvel’s Hallowed Halls, it gave me a thrill to see The Man himself walking down them. After my initial introduction and an offering I’m sure he’s NEVER experienced before — a gushing expository on how he was profoundly responsible for my career, sense of ethics, and need to look both ways before crossing the street — I’d always make an effort to say hello when we passed one another.
“Heyhowyadoin’!” was, without exception, Stan’s reply.
As weeks went on, despite his home in California, he did spend much time in New York. I started to get it through my fanboy head that it defined some version of “normal” to actually share workspace with this legendary man. Nevertheless, despite countless Hallowed Halls encounters, despite watching him sit through my presentations of the season’s offerings at retailer and distributor functions (pressure!), and despite taking every opportunity I could muster to have The Man just hear my name, he never learned it. Never.
Then came a once-in-a-lifetime chance which, I was sure, would solve my dilemma.
Each year Marvel’s Direct Sales Department hosted a Distributors’ Conference, wherein we’d invite executives from our dozen distribution companies to join us in some exotic locale to be treated to amazing experiences between presentations of what was coming out of Marvel during the ensuing year. It was — in a world where those on the front lines of selling our product typically worked in dimly lit, filthy stores, drove a 15-year-old car, ate 7-11 hot dogs for lunch, and lived in their mothers’ basements — a mortifying extravagance. To wit, in 1992, we spent a couple of hundred grand hosting our conference in Old San Jan, Puerto Rico. While there, in addition to crab races and a conch feast, we (…wait for it…) rented a private island. We also rented crewed sailboats to silently ferry our guests quickly to and slowly from our leeward island’s exclusive beach soirée. Ridiculous. Amazing, but ridiculous.
Once we set ashore, our evening was again filled with all-things-conch and other catered island food, the limbo, bonfires, and beach volleyball. At departure time, since we were headed windward, the captain told us the voyage back would take triple the time to return to Puerto Rico as it did to arrive from it. I unenthusiastically boarded, preparing for a 90-minute trip in darkness, hoping at least for a seat in the open air at stern so that I could enjoy the stars. There was, indeed, an empty seat in the back — right next to Stan Lee and his beautiful and charming wife, Joan. There were other people already in the stern, but the seat was open, as many people didn’t quite know how to approach Stan.
I lit up like a star myself and jumped at the seat. I introduced myself and reminded Stan of what I did at Marvel. Then, for an hour and 45 minutes under the clear splash of the Milky Way, I peppered both of them with questions about their life-long love affair, Stan’s teenage years at Timely Comics, the early office environment at Marvel, and given our overhead backdrop, the development of some of Stan’s cosmic, albeit second-tier characters like Dr. Strange and The Silver Surfer. Both of them were generous, entertaining (she as much as he) and entirely forthcoming. Out of courtesy more than anything else, I found ways to remind them of my first name during the conversation. I felt like I was in the company of respected relatives. At the end of our journey, we embraced. It felt like magic.
The following week I was back at 387 Park Avenue South, and so was Stan. I soon saw him coming my way, down one of The Halls. I walked toward him ecstatically. From now on, Stan “The Man” Lee would greet me by name! I couldn’t wait for it to happen the first time.
“Heyhowyadoin’!” he said.
Bruce Costa lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Monday, June 17, 2013