November 14, 2018
(Stan Lee as he appeared in a 1977 in-house ad for Marvel's then-new teen-oriented publication, Pizzazz.)

One of the unexpected gifts that has come my way as a result of my chosen profession as a journalist and author has been the occasional opportunity to meet one of my childhood heroes.

Over the years I have written in this column about some of those one-on-one encounters with such luminaries as country music legend Johnny Cash; actor Adam “Batman” West; and two who actually became personal friends, Hugo Award-winning science fiction author Philip José Farmer and Bob Shane, founding member of the Kingston Trio.

As a consequence of their having accompanied me on various occasions, my sons Joshua and William have managed to accumulate a couple of “I met a celebrity” stories of their own over the years.

Like, for instance, that time in July of 2006…

That was the year when circumstance allowed me to attend what the teenaged Me would have considered “Geek Nirvana”: the San Diego Comic-Con. I was there not as a fan, but as a professional writer; a comics-related essay I had written, “Kiss Of The Vampire,” had just been published in an anthology entitled Myths For The Modern Age, and I was one of several contributors invited to speak at Comic-Con to help promote the book.

It was one of those “once in a lifetime” opportunities that one simply does not pass up, and so with my wife Melissa’s kind permission we planned that year’s family vacation around the event. (It would be the first of several times Melissa would find herself in such a situation, but those are stories for another day…) That July, the four of us piled into the minivan we owned at the time and made the cross-country trip from Oklahoma to California so that I could enjoy my five minutes of fame.

Both as a professional and as a fan, it was a tremendous experience. While I’ll never win any awards as a public speaker, my presentation went well enough (there’s even a video of it on YouTube, if you’re interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmX0Yc2oGBA) and afterwards I got to speak one-on-one with fans and sign their copies of Myths For The Modern Age

I also got to sit in on presentations given by other pop culture professionals, most memorably a roundtable discussion featuring author Ray Bradbury, special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen and writer/publisher/historian Forrest J. Ackerman. William and I even got the chance to shake Bradbury’s hand and briefly speak with him after that session, which was a truly special moment.

But when it came to memorable moments, none of us could top the chance encounter Joshua found himself experiencing one afternoon in the dealers’ room…

The boys and I were making the rounds of the various vendor booths, pouring through boxes of old comic books and paperback science fiction novels, looking for that one special prize we hoped to convince Melissa to let us buy. The room was well beyond crowded, as you might guess, and it was difficult to move around without bumping into, well, just about everyone. 

Think of the busiest, most crowded garage sale you’ve ever visited, multiply that by about a million, and my guess is you’ll still be nowhere close to the sheer numbers that were crowded into that convention hall this particular day.

At one point Joshua was wedged in amongst a seemingly endless mob of fellow conventioneers, thumbing through a box of old comics, and after finishing he attempted to back away and make his way towards one of the other tables. As he did, he felt himself back into someone who was executing the same move in the opposite direction at the table right behind him. Joshua, being the polite boy his mother raised him to be, turned around to apologize to the other fellow...

...And found himself looking up into the face of none other than Stan “The Man” Lee, publisher emeritus of Marvel Comics and co-creator of such mythic heroes as Spider-Man, the Fantatsic Four and the X-Men.

Mind you, this was still some years before the recent spate of blockbuster motion picture adaptations of the various Marvel characters (and in which Lee made all those fan favorite cameo appearances - the new films just won't be the same without them). But Josh knew who Stan Lee was - thanks in no small part to a lifetime of listening to me drone on about how important comic books had been to me as a kid, and how much comics writers like Lee, Jerry Siegel, Bill Finger, Marv Wolfman and others had inspired my own ambitions of one day becoming a professional writer.

I’m sure there were times when he was growing up that poor Joshua grew quite weary indeed of listening to his old man’s childhood reminiscences. But he managed to become a fan of some of those great characters in spite of it, having spent much of his own childhood watching their cartoons on television and picking up the occasional comic book and creating his own adventures with the action figures his mother and I bought for him during those occasional jaunts to Toys R Us.

Because his father is a lifelong geek, and because he had become something of a geek junior grade, Joshua knew that Stan Lee was a member of a special pantheon of pop culture icons, standing alongside such other legendary creators of myth as George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry, Rod Serling, Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. 

And on this summer day smack dab in the middle of Geek Central, this 13-year-old follower in his father’s fanboy footsteps was standing face-to-face with the man who gave the world the Incredible Hulk. 

If Joshua had been chewing a piece of gum at the time, I’m pretty sure he would have swallowed it.

And before Joshua could sufficently recover from the initial shock and voice his planned apology for being unintentionally clumsy, it was Stan Lee who smiled down on the boy and said, “Gee, I’m sorry, young man. I didn’t mean to bump into you. It sure is crowded in here, isn’t it?”

To which Joshua managed to reply, “Uh-huh.”

He then apologized in kind as he originally intended, and that was it. Just the briefest of exchanges between a man whose work revolutionized American pop culture, and a boy representative of every young boy that creative genius spent a lifetime writing for.

In the wake of Stan Lee’s death this past Monday, much has been written and said about his work as one of the pioneers of the comic book industry and the many characters he created during his lengthy career. He has been eulogized for his creativity, and criticized (not always fairly) for the way he sometimes seemed to downplay the contributions of some of his collaborators.

Citing the fact that he died the day after Veterans Day, some have pointed out that Lee was himself a World War II veteran. Some have discussed those occasions when he used his comics to speak out against racism, hatred and injustice (something I plan to do at greater length myself when I have the time). Some have even pointed out, rightly, that Stan Lee played a small but not insignificant role in the success of the original Star Wars back in 1977, when he accepted Roy Thomas' pitch to adapt George Lucas' science fantasy epic as a monthly comic book several months before the film's released.

But for this fan, one of Stan Lee’s greatest accomplishments - and the thing I’ll always most remember and appreciate him for - was that smile he brought to the face of my 13-year-old son that summer day in 2006.   

Excelsior, Stan!

And thank you.

(Column copyright © 2018 by John A. Small)



October 12, 2018

This year, 2018, marks the 200th anniversary of a novel that not only changed the life of its young author but essentially created an entirely new genre of literature.

Mary was just a wee snip of a girl - merely 18 years old - when she first conceived her tale. It was born from a challenge, issued by a friend while she and her husband visited that friend in Switzerland during the rainy summer of 1816.

As the story has it, the group amused themselves one evening by reading German ghost stories t...

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September 28, 2018

Once upon a time there was an enchanted land where heroes still walked the earth performing wondrous deeds, and where strange and magical things took place on a fairly regular basis. 

It was a place where children could take refuge from the humdrum realities of day-to-day life and be happy. I should know; I visited there a few times myself.

But there came to this happy land a Wicked Witch, who had forgotten what it was like to be young and did not believe in joy and happiness and fun. She looke...

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My Top 20 Favorite Batman Comic Book Stories Of All Time

September 13, 2018

Just another pointless list 

by John Allen Small

So this is how this list came to be…

On Sept. 12, 2018, I posted a picture of the cover of Batman Comics No. 251 and explained how the story - “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge!” - was one of my two favorite Batman stories of all time and shared how I remember getting this issue when it originally came out. I was 10 years old and Mom bought it for me at the old newsstand on Court Street in Kankakee. 

It was my first encounter with the ...

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The Left-Handed Rebellion: Childhood Act Defines Lifetime Of Heroic Character

August 25, 2018

I began my previous entry with the following comment: “My father was, is, and forever shall be my hero.” In trying to prepare my remarks for the memorial service we held for Dad last Friday (August 17), I wanted to find that one particular story that might best illustrate why I have always and will always feel this way. 

It proved to be something of a struggle. The problem was, there are just so many such stories to choose from - and each one would, in its own way, have served the purpose...

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A Tribute To The Best Father A Son Never Deserved

August 17, 2018

My father was, is and shall forever be my hero.

When I was a little boy, I truly believed there was nothing that he could not do. Even with the passage of time, and the adult realization that he was only human after all, Dad was still the person I most wanted to be like. The person I least wanted to disappoint. The person whose opinion always meant the most to me.

It was only when I became old enough to understand such things that I realized just how much of a hero Dad truly was. He overcame...

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A Propaganda Victory Of Historic Proportions... for Russia

July 18, 2018

“What if the democracy we thought we were serving no longer exists, and the Republic has become the very evil we’ve been fighting to destroy?”
(Senator Padme Amidala, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith)

The above snippet of dialogue was one of the most thought-provoking to be found in this series of science fantasy films that, for all its success, people all too often tend to dismiss as (in the words of a friend of mine who never has warmed up to the Star Wars movies) “mindless...

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Latest Tragedy Strikes Close To Home

July 3, 2018

NOTE: The following is the text of my newspaper column for July 5, 2018, written in response to last week’s mass shooting in Annapolis.)

Another week, another mass shooting.

That’s America in the 21st century.

“The new normal,” some people are calling it. But there’s nothing normal about it. 

Not one blessed thing.

There’s nothing “normal” about the average American leaving home to go to work, or to school, or church, or a movie or concert or the shopping mall, and wondering as the...

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Fandom, Disney Is Killing "Star Wars"

June 12, 2018

In one of the better-known installments of the Peanuts comic strip, Linus makes the following observation during a conversation with Charlie Brown: “I love mankind—it’s people I can’t stand!!”

I'm starting to feel much the same way with regards to Star Wars. I still love George Lucas' creation - it's the fans and the new distributor I'm learning to hate.

I just read an article stating that Solo: A Star Wars Story may end up being the first Star Wars movie to lose money, and that R...

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May 30, 2018

Hadn't had the time to do this before today, due to deadline pressures at my day job and other obligations, so I’d like to take a moment to share my thoughts regarding  Solo: A Star Wars Story.

WHAT I LIKED: Pretty much everything, despite my initial misgivings about the project. Alden Ehrenreich actually did a pretty fair job of channeling Harrison Ford as the title character (Ford has made similar comments himself in a couple of interviews I’ve read), and Donald Glover made a better Land...

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About Me

John Allen Small John A. Small is an award-winning newspaper journalist, columnist and broadcaster whose work has been honored by the Oklahoma Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Associated Press, the National Newspaper Association, and the Oklahoma Education Association. He and his wife Melissa were married in 1986; they have two sons, Joshua Orrin (born 1991) and William Ian (born 1996). Mr. Small is the News Editor and columnist for the Johnston County Capital-Democrat, a weekly newspaper headquartered in Tishomingo, OK. He obtained his nickname, "Bard of the Lesser Boulevards," from a journalism colleague - the late Phil Byrum - in recognition of the success of his popular newspaper column, "Small Talk." (In addition to the many awards the column itself has received over the years, a radio version of "Small Talk" earned an award for "Best Small Market Commentary" from the Society of Professional Journalists in 1998.) John was born in Oklahoma City in 1963; lived in the Bradley-Bourbonnais-Kankakee area of Illinois for most of the next 28 years (with brief sojourns in Texas and Athens, Greece, thrown in to break up the monotony); then returned to his native state in 1991, where he currently resides in the Tishomingo/Ravia area. He graduated from Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in 1981, and received his bachelor's degree in journalism from Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais in 1991. The years between high school and college were a period frought with numerous exploits and misadventures, some of which have become the stuff of legend; nobody was hurt along the way, however, which should count for something. In addition to his professional career as a journalist he has published two short story collections: "Days Gone By: Legends And Tales Of Sipokni West" (2007), a collection of western stories; and "Something In The Air" (2011), a more eclectic collection. He was also a contributor to the 2005 Locus Award-nominated science fiction anthology "Myths For The Modern Age: Philip Jose Farmer's Wold Newton Universe," edited by Win Scott Eckert. In additon he has written a stage play and a self-published cookbook; served as project editor for a book about the JFK assassination entitled "The Men On The Sixth Floor"; and has either published or posted on the Internet a number of essays, stories and poems. He has also won writing awards from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the National Library of Poetry. He is a past president of the Johnston County Chamber of Commerce in Tishomingo; was a charter member and past president of the Johnston County Reading Council, the local literacy advocacy and "friends of the library" organization; served as Johnston County's first-ever Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator in 1994-95; served two terms as chairman of the Johnston County (OK) Democratic Party; and has taught journalism classes for local Boy Scout Merit Badge Fairs. He is a member of the New Wold Newton Meteorics Society.
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