The Man More Than the Legend: Remembering Stan Lee

The following is probably embellished.
Stan would’ve appreciated that.

I bobbed and weaved through the maddening and crowded Javits Center. This was 2008, when New York Comic Con “crowds” quaintly equaled a quarter of what they do now. I finally made it to the designated booth, just as early as instructed. Only eight or nine people stood in line. Why aren’t there more? Was I in the right place? I checked my email printout six or seven times before finally asking the last woman in the queue. She assured me I was.

At some point in the week or two before arriving at the show, I – while sleep deprived – decided to drop $100 on the Hero Initiative via eBay for the pleasure of waiting in this very spot. Ever since I clicked “Buy” I wondered if I was wasting my money. I did that a lot in the weeks since my mother died. Was this just another bit of retail therapy I thought I needed? NYCC was already the largest and most expensive convention I ever attended. I didn’t need this. After my opinion waffled a few more times, I accepted my inability to rescind a donation from a cause I normally championed. Plus, this had the bonus of guaranteeing me two signed books, a photograph, and a few minutes with a hero himself: Stan “The Man” Lee!

I gingerly removed three bagged-and-boarded books from my backpack and waited. Two of them weren’t Mr. Lee’s most notable works. They were actually quite recent, but fun, stories. More importantly, the issues were easily accessible when I was in said sleep-deprived state before the trip. The third book I held was something else entirely.

Slowly (and I mean ever so slowly) more people joined the booth’s semi-coherent crowd. I swapped fan stories and highlights with the couple ahead of me and the woman behind me. The couple explained they lucked into meeting Mr. Lee on the street outside the San Diego Comic-Con one year! The woman followed her excitement with a quick side-eye glare at her boyfriend.

Finally, the general crowd in the aisle between booths parted and Mr. Lee appeared, flanked by an army of security, handlers, and assistants. He gave a broad wave with both hands and said, “Hey there, True Believers! Are you here for little old me?” We immediately cheered. At 85, the showman still knew how to work an audience.

What followed was a pace Pietro Maximoff would’ve found infuriating.

First, it was 15 minutes.

And then the waiting continued to the 25-minute mark.

At 30 minutes, I stressed again. The Hero Initiative’s email told us this event would be one hour, no more, no less. I was tenth in the line and had barely moved! What was taking so long? I kept craning my neck in hopes I could see or hear something, but Javits’ constant movement and rabble didn’t help.

As two people exited, grinning with their signed books, the boyfriend in the couple ahead of me finally got a good look. He, too, began to grin. “Stan’s talking to everybody.” The celebrity in our midst made sure everyone truly got their “few minutes” – the schedule be damned!

“Excuse me,” the first security attendant said as he inspected the couple’s ticket. He could’ve been Lou Ferrigno’s twin. “This is only for one person.” The boyfriend explained he was only there to take his girlfriend’s picture. They were waved forward.

“Excuse me, sir,” the same man said to me. He pointed at my three books. “You’re only allowed two signatures.” I thanked him for the reminder and explained the third (not comic) book was for me and he had nothing to worry about. I even split up the books, holding the two for signing in my left hand and kept the other in my right. He let me continue.

As I finally inched closer to the meeting of meetings, the woman ahead explained to Mr. Lee – and indirectly, me – that glare. When the couple had stumbled into their previous encounter with the writer, he agreed to take photo with her. The boyfriend set up the shot, gave them the one-two-three, and took a beautiful photo with their digital camera. And then he accidentally deleted said image as soon as Mr. Lee walked away.

“Well then, he clearly can’t take the picture,” Mr. Lee said. He pointed at me. “Do you know how to operate that camera?”

It was a Sony, like mine. “Y-yes.” I had never been star struck before. Was he really talking to me?

The boyfriend laughed, exaggerated a bow, and went to hand me their camera. I set my books down and took the device. I felt the weight of the couple’s relationship on my shoulders as I framed the subjects as perfectly as possible and made sure they smiled. After the flash, Stan looked at the woman. “Does that take video?” She apprehensively nodded. In my direction, he moved his arm like he was operating a reel-to-reel camera. “Start recording, good sir!”

I was not going to disobey Stan. I hit record and witnessed a fan interview a legend for several minutes. It was astonishing to see that much care for someone he didn’t know five minutes earlier.

The couple gathered their belongings while I passed my own camera to the woman behind me. She offered to help, I guess in a pay-it-forward (or would this be backward?) gesture. After the space was finally clear, Stan shrugged to me. “I tell you, some people just can’t handle technology. Thanks for the help!” He shook my hand and posed for a photo, careful not to disrupt the rainbow of Sharpies organized in front of him.

Stan and Me, 2008

“Are we signing something?” the co-creator of a universe asked.

I tried to find words.

Esprit, Spring 2006
The University of Scranton’s Esprit, Spring 2006

“Yes,” I finally managed. “But first, this is for you.” I made sure the Hulk wasn’t paying attention and handed him the third book: a copy of a Spring 2006 college lit mag with page 15 bookmarked. That was an essay wherein I browsed Comics on the Green while talking to Peter Parker. Through that premise, the piece said everything I feared I couldn’t in that instance. It explained how much Stan and Steve Ditko’s creation meant to me since his 1994 animated exploits. It detailed how I stayed up late in the eighth grade to read black and white reprints of the Webslinger’s tales. It even showed how – in 11 pages! – he and Steve crystalized my understanding of responsibility (and guilt) better than nine years of Catholic school.

“For me? Why thank you!” Stan accepted the gift graciously. He turned to his assistant. “Hold on to this for later.”

“And what do we have here?” Stan took my copies of Stan Lee Meets Spider-Man and The Last Fantastic Four Story. “These are some fine books here. Now…for covers like these, we need just the right color…”

He hemmed and hawed a few times before deciding which Sharpie best matched each logo and cover. (He chose red for Spider-Man and silver for Fantastic Four, the latter showing up nicely on the mostly black cover.) Each complimenting decision worked perfectly.

With stars in my eyes and still very few words in my mouth, I thanked Stan for his time.

Two hours later, as the Javits Center’s main floor began to close, I waited by the front doors for a friend. While pacing back and forth, I saw the now-familiar parting of the people while Stan and his entourage emerged. He was, of course, the center of the crowd-within-a-crowd as they made their way to events still happening downstairs. His assistant walked-and-talked with him like in an Aaron Sorkin-scripted scene. She carried a stack of folders against her chest. On top of that pile, facing outward, was a college literary magazine.

Writer. Editor. Co-Creator. Salesman. Ambassador. Chairman. Entertainer. Executive Producer. Cameo King. Through these roles and more, Stan Lee affected just about every pop culture consumer imaginable in true celebrity and legendary fashion. Still, he knew the importance of human connection. He was not he beyond controversy or flaw, but I will never forget meeting The Man and a man that day in 2008.

If you’ve been touched by Stan’s work, consider donating to the Hero Initiative. It benefits less fortunate comic creators by establishing a financial safety net for emergency medical aid and life essentials, as well as offering them access to paying work. The organization is particularly helpful to artists who worked in the industry before a royalty system existed.

Rest in peace, Stan. I know you’re dancing with Joan once again.


Farewell, Stan
🎨/©: Colleen Doran, 2015

Nostalgic to a T: Let’s Get Dangerous!


Other than he existed, I knew very little about Batman in 1991. It would be years before I even heard about the Shadow, Sandman, and Green Hornet. Tad Stones, however, prepared me for these iconic pulp characters. Continue reading Nostalgic to a T: Let’s Get Dangerous!

Nostalgic to a T: 10K Years Will Give You Such a Crick in the Neck!


It was animation, but it truly seemed like magic to me. Seeing the Genie on screen in a theater in 1992 blew my mind. I couldn’t believe he could contort his frame and voice into anyone or anything imaginable (and maybe even unimaginable). After viewing the film with my parents, they pointed out the source of the character’s genius: Robin Williams.

Just a few of Robin Williams' Genie expressions. No shirt could contain them all.
Just a few of Robin Williams’ Genie expressions. No shirt could contain them all.

I think I had already begun watching Mork and Mindy on Nick at Nite, so I least had a passing awareness of Williams’ comic frenzy. Once again I lapped up one sip of pop culture, which led me to spiral for more. “Who was this character he played?” I asked my parents. “Who was the Genie’s muscle-bound guy? Who was the thin-framed talk show host? Who was the guy with a cigar?”

I’m not sure if any of these cultural references were in the original Aladdin script or if they all sprung from Williams’ love of Warner Bros. cartoons. Either way, the man’s frenetic pace led to long conversations with my parents (and a few VHS viewings) about George Burns, Jack Nicholson, and Marx Brothers’ material.

Nostalgic to a T: Power and Responsibility


I had kinship with Peter Parker. I don’t mean the animated, stiff, always-wearing-the-same-clothing version I first discovered on Fox Kids. Nor do I mean the married-to-a-super-model adult who happened to have a few clones in the ’90s comics. I mean the Peter Parker Stan Lee and Steve Ditko originally envisioned. Continue reading Nostalgic to a T: Power and Responsibility

Nostalgic to a T: Life Is Like a Hurricane


At some point while reminiscing, I devolved into blathering blatherskite.

I can’t remember what sparked my interest in the Disney Afternoon. Likely the friendly corporate name in the programming block’s title gave my parents the confidence to approve some dedicated viewing in the ’80s. Through this, I discovered Donald Duck’s extended family on DuckTales. Continue reading Nostalgic to a T: Life Is Like a Hurricane

Nostalgic to a T: Cowabunga!

The desire to wear my past infected me too.

Retro style t-shirts likely proliferated because some designer wanted a theme party night (‘70s, ‘80s, 90s…). The style choked the world in nostalgia until creativity became stagnant. Continue reading Nostalgic to a T: Cowabunga!

Shazam and the Society of Memories

While moving books and discs from the other shelves, floor, nightstand, desk, and coffee table, I remember what I said. It’s a new year. It’s time to start again. That’s why I, with more than a little help, finally installed a third bookshelf. All that remains is the filing.

My process is slow. I can’t place a story on its perch without remembering its first viewing or reading. The spiral of nostalgia and memory is powerful.  Continue reading Shazam and the Society of Memories

Chuck Versus the Despair: A Nerdy Spy Helps Me Cope

“Don’t freak out!”

A painful cry came from the next room. I paused the episode, removed my headphones, and waited to identify the discomfort. Was it the agonizing-wake-up-and-need-help-repositioning-herself-comfortably kind of pain? She didn’t fidget. Her breathing sounded normal. No, it was the awful-but-bearable-enough-to-keep-sleeping kind of torment. Chuck Bartowski, Agent Sarah Walker, and Major John Casey’s stilled expressions of fear, concern, and blankness watched from the computer monitor as I fought back another round of tears. Mom wasn’t getting better. I put on the headphones and clicked play.

Februaries suck. In 2008, that’s when my mom passed away after battling melanoma for over a year. The allegedly short month is now an exhausting emotional gauntlet. It’s when certain memories seem a little clearer and painful than the other 337 days of the year. I miss being nine years old, oversleeping yet again, and waking up to find cinnamon oatmeal ready at the table. I miss Mom encouraging my writing and drumming. I miss her sending me IMs and not understanding Away Messages. I miss hearing my mother’s excitement when she found the right book to connect with a student at the school library. I miss her asking what comics were appropriate for what age group, what art style was popular, and what publishers focused on kids besides Scholastic. I miss her.

Photo by Olan Mills Portrait Studios.
Photo by Olan Mills Portrait Studios.

I dealt with my mom’s sickness in a few different ways. At my first post-college job, I buried myself in the data entry and quality control routine. I didn’t know how to act on weekends. I bounced between self-imposed lockdowns, worrying my family might need me, and drunken exiles to bars or friends’ apartments, grasping for some normality. There were days I just wanted to be entirely alone. That’s when I reread old comic books, listened to albums discovered in high school, and rewatched every movie possible. I wanted nostalgic comfort, which Chuck happily provided.

The TV series tells the story of – well – Chuck (Zachary Levi). It begins with the twenty-something character unhappily working at the Best Buy-ish Buy More. Ellie (Sarah Lancaster), the sister with whom he lives, often asks about his ideal future. He explains, “I’m working on my five-year plan. I just need to choose a font.” One day, the leader of the Nerd Herd tech support group unintentionally downloads government secrets into his brain via encrypted images. The CIA sends Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) and the NSA dispatches Casey (Adam Baldwin) to investigate, kill, and – eventually – protect Chuck. The surreal circumstances surrounding the newfound knowledge clearly stresses Levi’s character. Sarah realizes he isn’t a threat, sees him panic, and cautions, “Don’t freak out, Chuck!”

Chuck’s storytelling and production exudes 1980s pop culture nostalgia. Its comfort with the past quickly connects a very specific audience with its characters and usually propels the narrative forward. For example, the main character’s affection for the original Tron reflects the series’ inversion of the man-in-the-computer plot. The show also features the era’s film and TV actors as guest stars who reflect and connect with the plots.

“Don’t freak out!” becomes a sort of mantra for the series. Sarah repeats it with varying degrees of forcefulness and calmness depending on what Chuck needs to hear in a crisis, be it defusing a bomb, preparing for Ellie’s wedding, outrunning henchmen, maneuvering corporate politics, or going on a date. Chuck utters the phrase to himself whenever he’s isolated from his government handlers and doesn’t know who to trust or what to do. Casey grunts harsher-but-similar words whenever he needs his asset to get his head in the game and just do a job.

As Chuck continues, the title hero demonstrates the ability to interpret and apply the information stored in his brain. He becomes an asset worth protecting, which means Casey and Sarah invade his daily routine. One serves as a stone-face Buy More co-worker and the other poses as the dream girlfriend Chuck always wanted. Eventually action movie escapades eventually collide with the mundane. Chuck can try to protect everyone he loves, but the lead character has no control over poisonous attacks delivered upon his doctor and Good Samaritan sister, espionage missions at her “Captain Awesome” fiancée’s (Ryan McPartlin) bachelor party, terrorist organizations co-opting tech announcements the Nerd Herders (Scott Krinsky and Vik Sahay) attend, or the government removing every item in the Buy More without boss man “Big Mike’s” (Mark Christopher Lawrence) awareness. All Chuck can do is tell them not to “freak out.” He takes on the problem, not always willingly, and works toward a solution to save their – and the world’s – day.

The series’  pop culture comfort first hooked me as viewer, but the mantra was why I loved Chuck. It told me exactly what I needed to hear. After working my second shift job, I’d arrive home on Mondays wondering how I’d endure the rest of the week. Too many thoughts ran through my head. (Why is my mom sick? Why can’t I do anything? Why isn’t she getting better? What’s going on? Why is this happening?) Hearing other people – fictional characters! – rushing to calm others reassured me. The sentiment slipped through my tightly knitted and panicked questions. It reminded me to calmly look at its situation and decide if it was a five-year plan (choosing a career while helping my family) or a font issue (going out for a night). I weighed options differently and addressed them accordingly. Not every decision shared the same gravitas and I learned to identify what felt right in the given circumstances. I still made mistakes, but didn’t let them derail my life.

This February is still torturous, but I have a different sense of despair. As I revisit Chuck yet again this month, I remember my grandfather. He passed away in December. Not only do I miss him, but it feels like I’ve lost another part of my mom.

“Think of it as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, but with spies and action,” I said, hoping the reference made sense to Grandpa. He seemed skeptical. I knew my grandfather my entire life and still didn’t know how to communicate with him as an adult. He was a talkative person, but the conversations were often very one-sided. While Dad cared for Mom, I often ran errands or chauffeured my grandfather to appointments. In Fall 2007, he finally received the cataract and LASIK surgery my mom begged him to get for years. As I drove us home from his last follow-up appointment, he was excited the doctor said his eyesight was strong enough to enjoy TV and books again. “What’s good to watch these days?” he asked. Given the timeframe, my response seemed natural. Knowing our disconnect, I wondered if he’d like it.

“That Morgan fella’s a hoot!” Grandpa proclaimed at the next family dinner. He enjoyed the spy stories’ vibrancy and fun action, but loved the show’s supporting cast. The ease with which Chuck’s best friend, Morgan (Joshua Gomez), avoided Buy More responsibilities through blindfold eating contests, secret TV remote controls, and two-hour lunch breaks fascinated my grandfather. I discovered it was a skill he  tried to perfect himself. Grandpa also loved President Regan-devotee Casey and his angry grunts as he endured his fellow Buy Morons. The character’s guttural reaction to Chuck and Morgan’s preferred desert island sandwich  discussion was a particular highlight for my grandfather.

A TV series became our stepping-stone. Grandpa arrived for our Sunday meals and immediately wanted to talk about the latest episode. Through every conversation, he’d slip in an extra detail about his life I never knew. I learned about almost every odd job her ever had (pea picker, coal miner, accounting assistant, bookkeeper, salesman, and maintenance worker are only a few) and every beer he enjoyed (although he’d always come back to Yuengling). It all started with a pop cultural commonality. Chuck referenced films, shows, and comic books my grandfather never watched or understood. He did know, however, that Star Wars, James Bond, and Ex Machina were all stories I enjoyed and that’s all he needed to know. Eventually he insisted on buying me an iPhone one Christmas because his favorite tech support leader used one and “it was cool and fancy!”

Photo by Patrick Ridings.
Photo by Patrick Ridings.

Just as Chuck’s worlds collided, my common interest in his antics grew to include others besides Grandpa. In September 2008, my dad and I tried to find something to watch on TV. After an exhaustive On Demand search, I suggested the only new DVDs in the house. Dad had listened to me gush about Chuck for almost a year and agreed to try it. Sometimes you just need to be reminded how fun life can be. He burst out laughing at Chuck and Morgan battling a home invader who wrongly thinks secrets are stored on the Nerd Herd leader’s computer rather than in his brain. My recommendation was a success!

Mom would’ve loved Chuck. That’s what I realized the longer my dad and I watched. Had she been alive, she would’ve been sitting right there on the couch between us. My mom would’ve enjoyed the Die Hard homages, the recreation of the Hart to Hart opening sequence, and the guest stars like Bruce Boxleitner, Morgan Fairchild, Reginald VelJohnson, and Scott Bakula. She would’ve clapped at the sight of all of them. Having survived a few insane crowds herself, my mom would’ve loved seeing Buy More’s Black Friday anti-riot strategy hilariously repurposed to prevent a kidnapping and assassination. Mom either would’ve asked me a million questions about Chuck and Morgan’s pop culture jokes or already understood them from years watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Alias, and Firefly. Chuck offered us another chance to experience a program she would’ve enjoyed just as much as we did.

My dad and I continued to laugh and absorb the action, silliness, and – most importantly – heart the writers, directors, cast, and others  brought to the screen. The series impossibly survived for five years, outlasting flashier and expensive shows like Heroes. Matching its namesake, Chuck was the underdog whenever it came to renewals and was always on the cusp of cancellation. Fans and critics championed Team Bartowski online and petitioned corporate sponsor Subway to keep it alive. This led to a weekly campaign where fans ordered sandwiches every night an episode aired. Dad willingly indulged this form of support. After I moved out, we still  discussed the show and rewatched episodes together whenever we could.

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I'm still saying goodbye to #Chuck.

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Besides actively ordering foot-long sandwiches, I did my part to promote the spies’ adventures. I introduced the tales to as many friends as possible. It wasn’t a series for everyone. The susceptible friend needed to fit the niche audience who appreciated the plot, goofiness, fun, and heart the creative and on-screen Team Bartowski offered. Later, I would understand I was recommending the stories to friends who might need to hear the show’s mantra every once in a while. I wanted my friends to have as much fun as I did and not be weighed down by despair.

January 28, 2012 was yet another day that didn’t go at all like I expected. After working hard for years, I was laid off from the first position I considered to be my career. I felt anger, shock, helplessness, and aimlessness. Panicked questions began to swirl in my head yet again. My dad drove to my apartment that night with two Subway sandwiches. We sat down on my couch like we did countless times before and watched TV. That night, Team Bartowski saved the world one last time over the course of two bittersweet hours. I didn’t freak out.