(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)