I learned how to read on my older brother's comic books and Peanuts collections when I was three. About a year later, I think that Stan Lee might have been the first writer who I was ever able to recognize based on his style alone. A Stan Lee sentence—throbbing with adjectives and engorged on hypberbole—was unlike anything else I've ever read. Because I could recognize his writing, I sought him out by name.
When I was a kid, I bought completely into the brand of Uncle Stan. I wanted to work in the Bullpen and put out those crazy comic books. It all looked like so much fun. When I became a teenager, I thought Stan Lee was the great Satan. He ripped off artists on behalf of the company; he didn't care about anything but money, and he farmed out his name like a big old Corporate Whore.
Now, my feelings for Stan Lee are complex. I follow him on Twitter; I think his posts are corny and funny and self-effacing. I think of the young Jewish kid who got into the business and changed his name from Stanley Lieber, reportedly because he wanted to save his real name for the Great American Novel he knew he'd write one day. I get a little sad thinking of that kid, and I think it must be exhausting being him all the time. In a way, his life is the Great American Novel. It's got everything—up to and including a mammoth financial scandal—and the central character, the real Stan Lee if you will, is impossible to find anywhere in the narrative. It's kind of brilliant, if you think about it.
When I was in New York last year for BEA, I attended an interview with Stan Lee. There were only like six people in the audience, for some reason, and I don't remember anything specific from the interview. It was like a walking press release for Marvel Comics and for Stan Lee. I do remember that he closed the interview by shouting "Excelsior!" and throwing his arm in the air. He certainly didn't half-ass it because it was an enormous room with just a half-dozen people; he would've acted the same way if 2,000 people had filled the room. It was corny and moving, all at the same time. I remember walking up and shaking his hand and saying "thanks" after the panel, and he smiled and nodded the same way he does whenever any nerd shakes his hand and says thanks and I swear it was just like going to the mall when I was 3 or 4 and meeting Santa Claus.
So there's that. Happy birthday, Stan Lee.