Up to the age of nine, the greatest moment of my life was when I received a letter from Marvel Comics. It’s probably still in the top five.
This was because I had used an insult in conversation which I had previously seen crudely etched in cement on a wall in school, and assumed was beyond the pale.
But then it had appeared in a amusing comic strip called Jet Lagg in Spider-Man And Hulk Weekly, and I thought, “Well, if it’s good enough for Marvel Comics, surely it’s good enough for me.”
It was not. I was roundly admonished by my mother in the traditional early 80s manner and I never swore in front of her again, even as an adult.
When she stopped for breath, and I was able to get a word in, I explained my reasoning, and she demanded I show her the offending comic. “Hmph,” she said, and she dropped the subject.
I forgot about the incident until a week later, when the handwritten letter arrived from Marvel. I shook as I read it. It had a colour letterhead, with Spider-Man on one side and The Incredible Hulk on the other. And they were apologising to me.
“Sorry, Gary. Of course we meant to write ‘twit’.”
My mother had called to complain. It was all Stan Lee’s fault.
If he hadn’t, over a period of about 10 years, created or co-created or inspired the colourful and compelling characters which dominate popular culture in 2018, including the Spider-Man and Hulk at the top of that letter, there would have been no Marvel Comics, and especially no Spider-Man And Hulk Weekly, with the landmine onto which I unwittingly stumbled.
Stan Lee, who died on Monday at the age of 95, was one of the biggest influences on my life. It surprises me, as I write this, just how much of my childhood memories are tied up with the Marvel comics created and inspired by Stan Lee.
One of my earliest memories is watching the 60s Spider-Man cartoon in the house in which I lived when I was three years old.
And then I remember, a few years later, cuddling up to my Uncle Bernard, as we watched Bill Bixby’s eyes turn white before he transformed into a giant green Lou Ferrigno in a fright wig and trousers which ripped at the hem, but somehow never at the waist or bottom.
I remember the Spider-Man suit my Auntie Mary made me and the Marvel Top Trumps game that everybody in my primary school played.
I remember the chemistry set I got for Christmas, because I wanted to be Reed Richards of The Fantastic Four, although I failed to give myself super powers, unless you count the ability to make a bad-egg smell in a test tube.
And I remember, most of all, the comics. First of all they were an escape from mundane 70s and 80s childhood. I would read them curled up on the stairs, usually black and white British reprints of the American originals, but later, when I found an actual comic shop in my hometown, full-colour imports.
Second, it was through those that I bonded with my closest secondary school friends, people with whom I am still in touch. We would pore over the latest X-Men or New Mutants, as if they were sacred texts.
By this point, Stan had largely stopped writing comics himself, but his monthly Stan’s Soapbox letter still appeared, full of his catchphrases like “Nuff said” and “Excelsior”. He was easily pushing 65 at this point, but was clearly the coolest man on earth.
You can see that in his 1960s Marvel work. It’s quite quaint now, and a little antiquated, but compared with what his rivals at DC were publishing at the time, it’s like the difference between punk and Englebert Humperdinck. There’s an energy and reality to it, and the characters are solid and have proper motivations.
It wasn’t all his own work, but he brought magic and pizzazz to Marvel Comics.
If you had told me 15 years ago that people – actual people with legs and jobs and bills – would know, in 2018, who Groot is, I would have had you sectioned.
But these Marvel characters dominate popular culture now. And I take great pleasure in the fact that so many people see in Stan Lee’s creations what I saw in the pages of Spider-Man And Hulk Weekly.
And in the fact that he lived long enough to see this happen.