Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Happy Birthday, Stan!


Today is Stan "the Man" Lee's 83rd birthday.

Stan, for the very few of you who don't know, is the co-creator of most of the Marvel super-heroes, including Spider-Man and Doctor Strange (with Steve Ditko) and the Incredible Hulk, Thor, and the Fantastic Four (with Jack Kirby). Since Stan is a large part of the reason I'm in the comic book business, that makes it a good day to blog about some of my experiences with him.

I first talked with Stan in late 1985 when he called to tell me he was behind my efforts to have Stockton, California officially recognized as the "birthplace of the Fantastic Four." Stan wasn't involved in the day-to-day publishing of Marvel Comics then, but he could tell a good media story when he saw one. So when the well-respected features' reporter from the Los Angeles Times, Charles Hillinger, called Stan to get his take on my little campaign, Stan was all for it. Paraphrasing what he said, it went something like "We save universes as a part of our daily business, so when a fine city such as Stockton seeks the aid of Marvel, the least we can do is come to their rescue."

Shortly after the L.A. Times piece ran, Stan called me at my KJOY-AM office to tell me not only would Marvel agree to my request, but that he would come to Stockton in person to bestow the honor on our fair city.

In February '86, Stan and Spider-Man hit Stockton and a media circus ensued. I'm pretty sure every TV news outlet from San Francisco and Sacramento was represented at the event on the steps of Stockton City Hall. The Convention & Visitors Bureau had a 50 foot banner welcoming Marvel and Stan. He got a singing telegram from a scantily clad young woman, and a key to the city (which also doubled as a bottle opener---never let it be said that Stocktonians aren't at the very least utilitarian!)


After a crowded signing at Al's Comics on Pacific Avenue in Stockton (still going strong after all these years!), I took Stan (and Spidey) out to lunch. Finally, Stan was "off-stage" and could relax a bit. He told me "That was a lot of fun. Nice job!" And I told him if he ever needed someone for a public relations' job to please call me.

I was shocked about six months later when Stan did call and ask me to do some P.R. for his wife Joan who was having her first novel published, a steamy romance novel about love on a cruise ship called "The Pleasure Palace." The publisher had too many books coming out that month, so Stan wanted to help get her novel some publicity---and he called ME!

Almost every day for the next three months, I'd talk with Stan and Joan on the phone about the media contacts I was making and the interviews I lined up for them. For this long-time Stan-fan, life was good!

As a result of that gig, the group of Bay Area retailers that was about to start WonderCon got me involved doing advertising and promotion for their stores first, then for the convention. That led to my involvement with the Bay Area comics' community, which in turn led to my looking at getting into comics professionally.

I first tried to syndicate a radio feature about comics and pop culture. I had my pal and (then) KJOY DJ Jerry Fuentes put together a very impressive demo package of the show I called "Graphic Details." Probably twenty rejection letters later, I went in another direction and tried to get some interviews with comics' publishers and distributors. I interviewed for the Marvel West Coast sales rep position---only to be rejected because I had no publishing experience. I interviewed for any job I could get in the marketing department of DC Comics--- no dice. I tried for the Marketing Director position at Bud Plant's comic distribution company--- all to no avail.

Finally, I figured I had to make my own experience, so I looked at opening a retail comic book store. Nearly two years of research later, with the help of Libby and my three young daughters, along with help from her family, my family and my meager radio pension--- and that's how Flying Colors was born (short version).

Back to Stan. It's his birthday, right? That's what we're celebrating here. Sheesh!

Anyway, on October 3, 1988, when Flying Colors opened for our first day of business (and we did all of $63 business that day---that was scary!), Stan Lee left a message on our answering machine wishing us well on the launch of our new venture. Pretty darn thoughtful, if you ask me...

Nearly two years later, Stan visited the store when he was in town as my guest at WonderCon. That photo to the left shows a much younger me with Stan (who has always seemed ageless to me) and the Spidey cardboard stand-up, which Stan signed "Stan Lee Presents Flying Colors!" How cool is that?

When he came to town for that WonderCon, I picked him up at the Oakland Airport and was his offficial bodyguard for the weekend. As we drove around, I'd ask him non-comics questions. I found out that he liked to play baseball when he was a kid---second base was his favorite position. I found out, to little surprise, that Stan loves show-tunes, especially those sung by deep-voiced baritones like Howard Keel (who starred in many a post-war musical like Show Boat, Annie Get Your Gun and others). During that WonderCon, I had the privilege of introducing Stan to a young artist by the name of Jim Lee (How cool is that!?).

In the years that followed, I've talked with Stan and Joan many times, mostly at comic industry events, including the launch party for his first internet venture. He graciously wrote the intro piece to our "Flying Colors 10th Anniversary Special" in '98. And if you click on "Views" you can read the intro speech I wrote for Stan when he was inducted into the Cartoon Art Museum's Hall-of Fame with a "Sparky" Award (named for Charles "Sparky" Schulz) five years ago. All through my career in comics, Stan has been there and been a positive influence.

When I was a kid, Stan was one of my idols. He wrote my favorite comics, he kibitzed with his readers on the letters' pages, and he gave us some simple life lessons in his "Soapbox" columns. Who knows how many zillions of readers he has influenced over the years? He has entertained comic fans for more than 60 years! Some even think that without his breakout success at Marvel in the early '60s (the "Marvel Age of Comics!"), there might not even be a comic book business today. Consider that!

So however you choose to do it, today's a great day to lift a toast to Stan "the Man"!

Happy Birthday, Stan--- and while we're at it: Exclesior!

Nil Nisi Optimus!

FlyCoJoe
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