On Jan. 30, the iconic TCL Chinese Theater in Los Angeles was packed with stars — Kevin Smith, Mark Hamill, Laurence Fishburne, Seth Green, and Phil Lord were only some of the Hollywood heavy-hitters in the audience, but this A-list gathering wasn’t for a movie premiere or a handprint ceremony. This was a memorial tribute to a man named Stanley Martin Lieber, better known to the world as Stan Lee.
As any comic book fan will tell you, the comic book publisher slash entertainment juggernaut that is Marvel would be nowhere close to the pop culture powerhouse it has become if it weren’t for Stan Lee. We would certainly have no MCU, no Black Panther, no X-Men — the list goes on.
Born in 1922 in New York City, Lee began his comic book career as a teenager. His first work was providing filler text for Captain America No. 3 in 1941. He then went on to co-create many of Marvel’s most-beloved characters during the ‘60s and ‘70s, including Spider-Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man. His characters stood apart because he made them real people who face real-life problems — and just so happen to also be superheroes.
The January memorial event took place two months after Lee’s death on Nov. 12, at age 95. The event was a collaborative effort between fan-owned movie studio Legion M, Stan Lee’s Pow! Entertainment, production and consulting company Agents of Mayhem, and The Hero Initiative. At the event — officially titled “Excelsior! A Celebration of the Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible & Uncanny Life of Stan Lee” — both fans and Lee’s industry friends joined together to celebrate his life.
The idea for this celebration came about when two men who knew and worked with Lee — Agents of Mayhem founder Darren Passarello and Legion M’s David Baxter — realized there weren’t any plans in the works for a public memorial.
“When we first were doing this, we wanted to keep it small and intimate,” Passarello says. “At the time, we didn’t envision how big it was going to be. … We wanted it just to be a nice memorial to let people grieve the proper way for someone who touched their lives. And it kind of exceeded our expectations and wildest dreams of what the reception was.”
The man, the myth, the legend
Passarello and Baxter each met Lee in fairly unconventional ways: Passarello as a contestant on the first season of the 2006 reality show Who Wants to Be a Superhero, and Baxter at Danny DeVito’s Fourth of July party in the ‘90s (DeVito lived next door to Baxter’s friend, and the pair were invited on a whim). Both men went on to work with Lee throughout the following decades, getting to know the man behind the iconic sunglasses and mustache.
And that man, according to Passarello and Baxter, was incredibly kind. He always wanted to make people — friends and strangers alike — laugh or smile, and he truly cared about everyone.
“He never wanted anyone to feel like they were less than they were, and always wanted people to feel like he cared about them …” Passarello says. “He made you feel important. He recognized you as a person and didn’t just say ‘Hi.’ He really made you feel like he knew you, he was friends with you, and he recognized you.”
Baxter recalls a time at Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC), in the mid-’90s, when he asked Lee how he found the energy he had to interact with fans at his age. “He’s like, ‘David, don’t you understand? I’m a vampire,’” Baxter recounts. “I’m like, ‘You’re a vampire?’ ‘Yes, when I see all of the fans, I get energized. I take in all of the energy from the fans. That’s what keeps me going. And the moment the fans are gone, I take a nap.’”
And, according to POW! Entertainment Chief Marketing Officer Bob Sabouni, who also worked closely with Lee over multiple decades and at multiple companies, the Lee who fans met was the real Lee.
“When the lights were off and the cameras weren’t there and it was just a couple of you sitting around, he was exactly that guy,” Sabouni says. “Maybe pulled back a little bit, but he was exactly the human being you just saw. Warm, giving, gentle, kind, caring. He really was one of the most perfect people I ever met.”
Lee also had a reputation for projecting modesty when discussing his work, which Passarello says was very genuine. “To him, he was just writing stories. … He’s just doing his job.” Passarello says. “He didn’t see it as some big magnanimous thing that really revolutionized the industry and people. That’s the way he always was: He was humble.”
That isn’t to say that Lee didn’t love his work and the heroes he helped create. Passarello also recalls how excited and nervous Lee was on the set of 2012’s The Avengers when filming his cameo.
“He’s in New York City, he’s over the moon that he gets to do this, and he’s rehearsing his lines in the trailer over and over again to make sure he gets it right,” Passarello says. “He was so excited to be on set and to be in this film, that everything else was trivial to him, and he kind of was like a child on Christmas Day.”
There were other, perhaps lesser-known, facets to Lee as well, including his military service in World War II. “I think people don’t realize all the ways that Stan served the world, not just in co-creating a lot of these characters, but just in personal service,” Baxter says. “He really was a superhero.”
Baxter also describes Lee as “a wildly romantic person,” talking about Lee’s nearly 70-year marriage with wonder. Apparently, every single day at noon, Lee would stop whatever he was doing to go home to his wife, Joan (or he’d call, if he was traveling). Why noon? Because that’s when her favorite TV shows were on.
Carrying On the Legacy
It has been nearly nine months since Lee died, but his legacy lives on not only through the characters he created and the memories of those he worked with, but also through a variety of projects he started later in life. It’s a busy year for his company, POW! Entertainment: Stan Lee’s Alliances: A Trick of the Light was released on Audible last month, and a range of Lee-themed toys and collectibles are on their way to retail, stylizing him as a Funko Pop!, a Masters of the Universe figure, and more. Lee’s Superhero Kindergarten is also on the way, an animated series starring Arnold Schwarzenegger that will feature a cameo from Lee in every episode.
Legion M has a project in the works as well: an interview with Lee as part of its ICONS series. Shot to be a 360-degree virtual reality (VR) experience, these incredibly high-definition videos are designed for fans to feel as if they are in the room with pop culture icons. The footage features Lee being interviewed by Kevin Smith — his first and only choice of interviewer — in his home. It also features the last footage ever shot of Lee’s wife. There is no specific release date yet, but Baxter says the company plans to debut it within the next year.
In addition to supporting his projects, Passarello, Baxter, and Sabouni say there are many ways fans can continue to memorialize Lee and carry on his legacy.
“Just use the things that he talked about,” Sabouni says. “Stan talked about diversity. Stan talked about being kind to one another. Stan Lee was the most decent, gracious, polite person you’ll ever meet. Politeness and civility meant a great deal to him. I think, and this is so cliché, try to do what you want with your life and all that, but remember the things that Stan stood for.”
Passarello expresses a similar sentiment, noting Lee’s belief that all humans have a responsibility to be kind and care for each other. “He used his writing to impart his knowledge … and his philosophy on the world, and every comic book issue that he wrote, every dialog bubble he wrote, was his philosophy on mankind and humankind,” Passarello says. “It’s a large order and large shoes to fill, but if there’s anything I can do to memorialize Stan, it’s to live that philosophy and to teach that philosophy.”
“All you have to do is ask, ‘What Would Stan Do?,’” Baxter says. “I mean, he’s not Jesus, but he’s pretty darn close, I think. … If you look back, it’s really quite amazing what he accomplished in his life. I hope, at the end of it, he did understand at least a little bit of what he brought to the world. And the world’s definitely a dimmer place without him in it.”
Featured Photo: POW! Entertainment
This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Summer 2019 Issue No. 4, click here to read more!