By Tom Filsinger, Instructor, Department of Psychological Sciences
“You must be some kinda cool college professor.”
Those were the words of Stan Lee to me the first time we spoke with each other. It was the beginning of an amazing journey of working together that was a young boy’s dream come true.
Our adventures together would take us to Los Angeles, New York City, Santa Monica and, of course, the San Diego Comic Con. This led to amazing moments meeting his celebrity friends and—what meant the most to me—becoming friends on a personal level.
But before that, the story must start at the beginning!
As a young boy, I was one of those creative dreamers, writing and drawing (and I use the word drawing loosely, I am mainly a writer) my own crude comic books in my spare time that I pretended in my mind had millions of adoring fans. I was also addicted to real-life comic books, mainly Marvel Comics. They opened up portals in my imagination and encouraged my already emerging desire to be creative.
But the comics themselves weren’t the whole story. Other comic book companies published books by anonymous writers and artists. But Marvel Comics had Stan Lee. And that made a big difference.
Stan was a master at writing great dialogue and delineating characterization. He also had a great sense of humor, which would come in handy decades later when we published a book of political humor together.
Marvel Comics was more than just throwaway reading to me and millions of fans. It was a movement and the forefront of that movement was Stan Lee himself, who became a larger-than-life figure by (paradoxically) seeming like he was a personal friend to all his readers. He wrote lines such as, “Dedicated to you—the new Marvel breed of reader,” and spoke to fans as if they themselves were part of the Marvel team. This lesson was not lost on me when I would go on to create a science fiction card game called Champions of the Galaxy and found my own company, Filsinger Games.
Fast forward to 1997. I was an Associate Professor of Psychology at Jamestown Community College in New York and also the owner and game designer for my company. I was also married with four children, so it was a busy life.
Somebody gave me Stan’s email address and I thought, what the heck, I’ll send him an email. The worst thing that could happen would be that he ignores it since he probably gets tons of mail from fans all over the world. To my surprise, he responded with a lengthy email including the line at the beginning of this article!
I figured as long as the communication channels were open, I would stay in touch and send him samples of my own work as a creator, from my games to other publications, including gift calendars I created and marketed for milestones in people’s lives such as weddings and baby’s due date.
To my surprise and delight, he heaped praise on my entrepreneurial projects and asked if I would like to work with him on a book.
Let me repeat that slowly: Stan Lee asked me if I would like to work with him.
I contemplated his offer for a nanosecond and replied, “Yes, I’d love to.” And thus, began the incredible journey.
Stan wanted to return to his humor roots (he published humor work during his classic Marvel years in the early 1960s). He wanted to target the 2008 election and I thought it was a great idea.
We met for the first time in person in 2005 at his beautiful office in Beverly Hills, which featured no less than a life-size statue of Spider-Man. This same office saw visitors like Ringo Starr, Kevin Smith and other celebrities, and that made me feel pretty special. In fact, our meeting was interrupted by Stan’s secretary who said, “Ted Nugent is on the phone,” to which Stan replied, “Tell him I’m busy, I’ll speak with him later.”
At that moment I knew I must be doing something right. A call by a rock star wasn’t enough to interrupt our meeting!
It was a flurry of activity after that. I purchased licensing agreements for photographs of famous politicians and public figures, from Barack Obama to John McCain to Hillary Clinton, even the Dalai Lama, for our book. I’d send photos to Stan and usually, within an hour he would send them back to me with funny captions.
We released our book, called “Election Daze,” in the summer of 2008 and it became a “Hot New Bestseller” at Amazon.com and went on to sell 20,000 copies.
In turn, Stan and I promoted the book at several venues including the New York Comic Con along with several bookstores, and even a live talk show where I appeared with Stan as the moderator. This event was featured on “Authors at Google” which was filmed at their studio in Santa Monica and transmitted live to Google employees throughout the world. Some of these appearances are available to view on YouTube.
It was the time of my life and even better because Stan was so much fun to team with when we toured together. He referred to our repartee as a “Lewis and Martin” routine, which is a reference to the famous comedy team that was before my time. But I liked it. We had a lot of fun together and his warm, humorous, charismatic personality was always a crowd pleaser.
We stayed in touch ever since. We shared a similar sense of humor and Stan loved word gags. Our email chains would be one joke after another with no end in sight.
Stan respected education and professors and this made him treat me as an equal. I taught him the theories of Abraham Maslow (self-actualization) and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (optimal experiences and flow). He loved it all because Stan was a very positive person who tried to see the best in life and people. In one email he jokingly referred to himself as, “Mr. Self-Actualized” and in another told me to, “Give my regards to Mr. Csikszentmihalyi.”
I taught him how to use YouTube and we corresponded often on twitter. Think about that. He was nearly 90 years old at the time but new social media didn’t scare him. He remained a child at heart, always wanting to learn new things. I think it’s a reason he lived such a long and healthy life.
Stan Lee had boundless energy and love and shared it with the world. I felt honored and thankful to be part of it.
As a psychology professor, I teach students about the creative process and creative people. Creativity is associated with several positive traits such as openness, intelligence and being inner-directed. These are lessons Stan Lee taught millions of people worldwide through his unique way of inspiring others.
I told him someday I would write a book about our experiences together and also relating his own life and personality to positive psychology and self-actualization. He loved the idea. The last thing he ever said to me when we spoke earlier this year was, “Good luck, I hope your book is a bestseller.”
Which chokes me up to think about. He was always gracious like that.
Stan Lee has passed away but he will never be forgotten. He brought so much creativity and love to the world and did so with rare measures of positivity, goodwill and humor. Millions (perhaps billions) of people worldwide have been inspired and entertained by his work.
To which I can only add: