We recently celebrated the 93rd birthday of comic book legend Stan Lee. He is adored by so many and his effect can be felt worldwide through the characters he co-created. Millions of fans identify with the adventures of The Amazing Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and The Uncanny X-Men, but there is one story about the man himself that has had the greatest effect on me.

Stan Lee began working for Timely Comics, later to become Marvel Comics, at the age of 17 in 1939. Starting as a lowly assistant and occasional nuisance to Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, he worked his way up to writer, art director and editor-in-chief. Over the next two decades, Marvel’s business model was very different than how we know it today. Before publishing the many superheroes we all know and love, the company merely followed the trends. After World War II, they jumped on the popularity of others publishers’ monthly titles, copying whatever was the flavor of the month. Stan helped to churn out fleeting and lackluster titles featuring funny animals, horror, crime, romance, war and giant monsters up until the early 60s. Nearing 40 years old, Stan had enough. He felt his talents were being wasted and considered quitting the field. What happened next may be half truth and half myth.

Stan told his wife that he was ready to quit and focus on writing something more substantial. She insisted that before he quit, he write a comic the way he wanted rather than follow any trend. What followed was Fantastic Four #1, featuring a new kind of superhero team. They fought, bickered and couldn’t get along. They didn’t wear superhero costumes (in the first couple of issues) and their exploits dripped with melodrama and pathos. The title was an instant hit, leading Lee to co-create several more superheroes in this new “Marvel style”: Spider-Man, The Hulk, The Avengers and The X-Men. In his forties and beyond, Lee found both creative and financial success doing what he wanted rather than what was dictated to him.

The parallels of this story to my own life and the inspiration it has given me is part of what helped me to reach where I am now. At nearly 40 years old, I was working as a web and graphic designer. It was the career I went to school for and I stuck with it longer than I cared to. Over the years my love for the field had waned and I can admit now that the quality of my work toward the end became lackluster. I knew I wasn’t happy, but I believed that finding yourself and what you really want to do was meant for people in their twenties, not for those in their forties.

I grew up reading and latching on to Stan Lee’s creations. As an adult, I learned more about the man and how he found his success later in his life. This gave me the courage to chart a whole new path for myself. I knew one thing: I loved comics. I wanted to be part of that world and also express myself creatively in it. My first step was leaving behind my old career. I began working for Geoffrey Patterson (later to become my partner in owning Hi De Ho) at Geoffrey’s Comics in 2008. The pay was less than what I was used to, but I was finally happy. I saw this work as the first step in a larger journey. This led to a yearlong side job in 2009 on a film called “With Great Power,” a documentary on the life of Stan Lee. If anything solidified that I was on the right path, this was definitely it! People say you should never meet your heroes because they will find a way to disappoint you. That year I met mine and that old saying couldn’t be more wrong.

In 2012, I fulfilled another goal and became a cartoonist. I began writing and drawing “Collectors,” a humor comic strip about my marriage and my obsessive comic book collecting, and have published three books collecting my work (all of which are available at Hi De Ho Comics). The biggest step on this new path was taking the huge leap to become co-owner of the legendary Hi De Ho Comics. As a comic shop owner and comic creator, I’m a long way off from where I was when I reached seven years ago and I couldn’t be happier. If you measure success in the joy of doing what you love on your own terms, then I achieved it later in life, just like Stan Lee. However, I don’t see this road ending just yet. Now in his nineties, Stan is still in demand because he continues to move forward and take on new projects. This has become my new inspiration and I can’t wait to see where my journey takes me in another 10, or 50, years.

– Eddie deAngelini

Photo credit: Eddie deAngelini