Way back in 1977, The Stranglers opined that there were no more heroes but, you know, it wasn’t true then—strictly speaking—and it isn’t true now. I’ll tell you how I know.

A few years back, I was asked to write a story set in a world of costumed do-gooders and larger-than-life bad guys. (Heh . . . talk about a labour of love!) When I had completed the tale, I asked Nirvana’s management for permission to use a couplet from one of the songs on Nevermind (‘Lithium’, I believe). “Sure,” came the quick response from the band’s representative. But then she went on to explain that they would require a payment roughly three times the budget of the entire anthology . . . and that was for just the first printing. I politely declined.

Instead, I approached David Bowie’s management to use ‘Oh we can be heroes / Just for one day’. About a week later, I received a nice letter saying I could use the couplet in all incarnations of my story, wherever it appeared, and all for the somewhat less-than-princely sum of £50 (about $85). Needless to say, I accepted the terms and paid the fee out of the money I was going to receive for the story.

Now, I don’t intend to bad-mouth Nirvana here—I’m not sure if Kurt, Krist and Dave ever received details of my request—but I will say how wonderful I thought Bowie’s management had been. I had been a fan ever since Bowie’s first album (on Phillips, with that glorious gatefold cover and, of course, ‘Memories Of A Free Festival’) and it was nice—reassuring, actually—to discover that, if you look hard enough, there are good guys to be found. Indeed, heroes even.

Just last weekend, I discovered another.

I bought my first Marvel comic in 1960—I’d read lots of those wonderful horror stories from the anthology magazines put out by Marvel’s predecessors (Atlas and Timely) as back-up stories in British black & white reprints but, seeing them in colour was a real mind-blower. I was mainly a DC man—still am, to be honest—but I do confess that I lapped up those incredible Marvel sagas that spanned entire decades and multiple titles, and I dreamed of a world in which not only the goodies could band together but the baddies, too. And Marvel’s characters were just so big! I mean, hoo boy! Galactus? The Watcher? Come on!

But it was the man behind it all who dwarfed the whole lot: Stan Lee.

Thanks to PS Artbooks Series Consultant Roy Thomas (once christened Rascally Roy by the alliteration-mad Stan and his Marvel Bullpen chums), I made contact with Stan’s assistant prior to the soon-to-be nonagenarian Lee’s visit to Blighty to attend the London Comics Convention, and he said to come across and say Hi.

Now, I’ve had similar instructions before and been sorely disappointed when it came to the crunch so it was with some trepidation that I went over to the Convention green room, fighting a path through the three or four thousand fans waiting patiently in line to get the great man’s signature . . . and maybe even run a hand over the hem of his jacket.

Standing on either side of the green room door were two be-suited leviathans, kitted out with earpieces in place, no-nonsense expressions and hands firmly clasped just in front of their belts (they could not possibly have actually crossed those biceps-laden arms even if their lives life had depended on it). They listened patiently to my jabbering explanation before asking me to stand to one side and they’d get Stan’s Personal Assistant. Just minutes later, I was ushered by the PA—a charming fellow called Max—into the green room (Asgard, if you will) and into the presence of the man who has masterminded the enjoyment of millions of kids over six or seven decades. Was I nervous? You bet! I’ve spent time with the likes of Ray Bradbury, Ramsey Campbell, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Cliff Richard, Brian Wilson, Frank Zappa and many more but, somehow, to the kid who still lives not-so-deep inside me, this was different. I had ‘made mine Marvel’ umpteen times, I had laughed (and groaned!) at the puns and I had lovingly stacked first tens, then hundreds and eventually thousands of four-colour comicbooks in a succession of bedrooms (the house is now big enough to allow whole rooms to be devoted to specific types of literature) but I had never dreamed of ever meeting the man himself. What would he be like? I was about to find out.

I had barely got my name out as I stepped forward to shake his hand before he got to his feet excitedly—yes, dammit . . . excitedly! Stan Lee was excited to meet me! Nah, it couldn’t be . . . but that’s exactly the way it seemed.

He raved on about the books Roy had told him we were doing and he asked about what else we had coming up (and, boy, we’ve got some doozies heading your way!). Then we spent a little more time and whoosh! . . . he was raring to go. As he emerged from the green room, the cry went out (you may have heard it wherever you are and simply put it down to the shifting of tectonic plates over in the Bay area) and, I tell you, you could taste and even smell the excitement and the . . . well, the sheer love comicbook fans the world over feel for this man.

I thanked Max for his efforts and, rather cheekily, I asked if Stan might come over to the PS Artbooks stand. He patted me on the shoulder and said he’d see what he could do. And then he was away to look after his charge.

I went back to the stand in a bit of a daze and recounted the experience to the rest of the team (and, hey . . . don’t let anyone tell you different, man—we’re all of us fans, all of us comic-geeks . . . and mighty proud of it, too). And then I got on with the job.

A couple of hours or so later, Paul reached out and tapped me on the arm. I was facing into the stand at the time, explaining about pre-code comicbooks, Fredric Wertham and the infamous The Seduction of the Innocent to a couple of wide-eyed youngsters. As I looked up, Paul said to me, half whispering, “Pete, turn around.”

So I did.

And there, heading towards us, leading a tsunami of grinning faces (disciples, if you will) and a battery of flashing cameras, was Stan Lee, strutting out like one of Robert Crumb’s eternal keep on truckin’ hipsters looking as though he was barely a third of his ninety years, accepting handshakes and pats on the back, and returning good wishes and smiles galore. He stepped into the PS stand and said, “Okay, let’s take a look at these books—oh, my! They’re beautiful, Pete.”

Well, what was I supposed to say? They are.

And so he spent the following ten or fifteen minutes on the stand while I showed him all the books and went through the catalogue with him. Then, after we posed for a few photographs, he volunteered to write a Foreword for a future volume and then headed back to the green room, presumably to rest up for his next signing onslaught.

All we could do in the newly restored calm was shake our heads in a mixture of amazement and affection as we watched him walking away, a spring in his step like a modern day Moses leading his people to salvation.

No more heroes?

Nah, true believer. Not a chance.

Look after each other . . . and happy reading.