What Stan Lee meant to Iowa comic book fans (and one columnist)
Here's a look back at the life and career of comic book legend Stan Lee.
Stan Lee died Monday at age 95.
Lee, along with the late Jack Kirby, built Marvel Comics from a failing periodical publisher into the foundation of modern popular culture.
To say he wrote comic books is an oversimplification, on the scale of saying the story of Christmas was about how full the inn was in Bethlehem.
Yes, Lee wrote comics, but beginning with 1962's "Fantastic Four" throughout the early 1970s, Lee and teamed with the greatest artists in the genre to create some of the most memorable characters in history: Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, Black Panther, Thor, Daredevil, the Avengers, the X-Men and a nearly infinite list of heroes, villains and universes where good battled evil.
Lee's influence on popular culture was profound even for those who never picked up a comic. The CBS adaptation of "The Incredible Hulk" was a ratings smash in the 1970s and '80s.
Today, of course, films based on Lee's creations dominate the box office. Movies based on Marvel characters have grossed about $31 billion worldwide since 1998, according to Box Office Mojo.
"What's making all the money right now?" asked Jason Shreve, owner of Jay's CD and Hobby, with three locations in the Des Moines metro. "It's all the Marvel movies. Stan Lee is the name among names. There wouldn't be any comics today if it hadn't been for Stan Lee."
Lee worked with the greatest artists and writers in comics history, including Kirby, the master of the genre and co-creator on many Marvel ventures; Steve Ditko, who co-created Spider-Man; and many others.
Under Lee, Marvel characters lived in real cities, mostly New York City, but also Los Angeles and even the Great Lakes. (Archer Hawkeye is from Iowa.)
"I think that grounded Marvel comics here on Earth, where DC titles take place in another universe, like Gotham City and Metropolis," said Katie Manchester, comics manager for Mayhem Comics and Games.
Lee became Marvel's publisher and became the most prominent face in comics. He spoke at colleges. He was interviewed by Rolling Stone.
Lee's celebrity came with controversy. Lee was a talker and his Stan "The Man" persona sold well with the Hollywood types.
Kirby left Marvel and wanted to take his original art with him, but the company refused. Comics historians say Kirby felt Lee didn't do enough to help Kirby recover his artwork.
Similarly, Ditko believed Lee absorbed all the credit for creating Spider-Man.
It's always sad to read that old friends and colleagues had disagreements. It doesn't diminish how I feel about Lee.
Lee had handed over the reins of writing comics to others years before I picked up my first comics in the late 1970s. But he narrated the "Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends" and "Incredible Hulk" cartoons I watched as a boy. His column ran inside every Marvel comic for decades.
The image of Lee, with his white hair on the sides of his head and tinted glasses, is the first I conjour when I think about comics.
"He was basically the mascot for all of comics," said Ronnie Free, a longtime collector and former comic store owner.
Lee stayed in the public spotlight even as his eyesight darkened and his health faded. He made cameo appearances in nearly every Marvel movie, similar to thriller auteur Alfred Hitchcock, and even visited Des Moines for Wizard World in 2017.
LEE IN DES MOINES: 'Retire is a dirty word'
I interviewed Lee once, a career highlight. It was about 15 years ago for one Spider-Man anniversary or another. The talk went the way you would expect. Lee was "the Man" and I managed some semblance of professionalism despite being an avid fanboy.
Only when the call was near conclusion did I allow true feelings to show.
I thanked Lee for all the rainy Saturday afternoons his heroes rescued me from, all the escapes from the chaos of my rocky childhood his books allowed me to make and just for all the fun I had living in a world with the characters he helped create.
And Lee thanked me for saying that and asked me if there was anything else.
I asked him if he could say it.
Say what? Lee asked.
You know, the thing you always say, I said. The "e" word.
"Well, Dan," Lee said, "Excelsior!"
That was his catchphrase. It's also on the state seal of New York. The word means "ever upward." And if there was ever a guy who embodied that philosophy, it was Stan Lee.
Columnist Daniel P. Finney bought his first comics off the white wire rack at Montross Pharmacy in Winterset. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or firstname.lastname@example.org.