By Benn Joseph, head of Archival Processing
At the news of the passing of legendary comics creator Stan Lee, we looked back at the day the Marvel publisher visited Northwestern University to dedicate a brand new comics collection now held by our own Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections.
On Feb. 7, 1973, a crowd of about 250 gathered in McCormick Auditorium to hear “the high guru of picturebooks,” as the Daily Northwestern called him, speak about the shift of comic books from kid’s stuff to satisfying entertainment for grownups.
“Comic book publishers used to publish comics as quickly and cheaply as possible, putting down any kind of junk hoping to appeal to young kids and to adults with less-than-exceptional intelligence,” he told the crowd. “If somebody asked them what they did for a living, they’d say they were publishers and walk away before anyone asked them what they published.”
Lee played a significant role in changing that perception, through dint of his irrepressible creativity, prodigious output, and penchant for inserting four-color heroes in real-world situations.
“The success of the ‘Marvel Age’ is that we made our heroes real—if you can imagine as real a guy with green skin and the strength of a hundred men,” he said. “I mean, when a guy in long underwear walks down the street, people don’t just walk past him. What would really happen in that situation?”
Lee’s outsized personality didn’t hurt Marvel’s popularity either. As publisher, he penned his monthly “Stan’s Soapbox,” addressing readers (whom he called “true believers”) with exuberant bulletins filled with catch phrases like “Excelsior!” and “Nuff said!”
The 1,000 Marvel comics dedicated by Lee that day were donated by Northwestern student Juan Cole ’75. The collection contains many rare finds, including the first issue of “The Amazing Spider-Man” from March 1963, the first Marvel comic devoted to the now-wildly-popular web-slinging hero, written by Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko.
After McCormick Library curator Russell Maylone accepted Cole’s donation, fellow student Walter “Wally” Podrazik ’74, wrote to Lee, and invited him to an official dedication ceremony. Lee, who usually commanded substantial speaking fees, agreed to fly in for free to speak.
Cole also spoke at the dedication event (which was emceed by Podrazik), where he explained his rationale for donating his beloved collection was so “this particular Sunday school, which perhaps has a truly beneficial effect on the characters of maturing people all over the world, might be available to the historian and the student interested in popular culture or in the comic book as an artistic medium.”
Thanks to donations by more fans of funnybooks, the McCormick comics collection has since grown to thousands of issues dating back to the early 1930s. The library also holds many comics precursors such as illustrated “Big Little Books” (Whitman Publishing Company) that drew their subjects from radio programs and newspaper comics, as well as dime novels. These collections are open for research use and available for anyone to view.