By Dena O'DellFebruary 19, 2019
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- As a child, Maj. Scotty Autin loved reading Marvel comic books. One of his favorite characters was Gambit, a fictional quick-handed, card-playing thief from New Orleans.
"Considering I'm from Louisiana, I was always drawn to Gambit," said Autin, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District. "I read all the comics that featured him and watched the X-Men animated series just to see him. I remember as a 10-year-old, I would practice throwing playing cards just to be like him."
So when Autin was invited to participate in "Excelsior! A Celebration of the Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible and Uncanny Life of Stan Lee" Jan. 30 at The Creative Life, or TCL, Chinese Theatre, formerly known as Grauman's Chinese Theatre, in Hollywood, it was an offer he couldn't refuse.
The event was a memorial tribute to Lee, the legendary writer, editor and publisher of Marvel Comics, who died in November 2018.
But it wasn't just because Autin grew up reading Marvel comic books that made participating in the ceremony so important to him; it also was a way to honor Lee's service to the nation as a fellow Army veteran.
Lee was a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. While in the service, he started out as a lineman, before the Army realized his writing skills and moved him into technical writing for training manuals, films and posters with a group that included the likes of Oscar-winner Frank Capra and Pulitzer-winner William Saroyan. After the war, Lee returned to Timely Comics, later renamed Marvel, where he served as the editor and co-creator for decades.
He was proud of his military service, said Lee's longtime friend, Karen Kraft, an award-winning television producer, Army veteran and the chairwoman of the Veterans in Media and Entertainment, or VME, Board of Directors.
"He was very proud to have enlisted and was hoping to serve overseas, but his skill set was quickly discovered as a writer, illustrator and storyteller," Kraft said.
Lee's appreciation for his military service carried over to his civilian role at Marvel Comics, where it can be seen in the patriotic themes of "Captain America," she said.
Organizers of the event, which included VME, wanted to ensure that piece of Lee's life wasn't lost during the tribute ceremony. So they organized a color guard. A bugler was brought in to play, "Taps." An Army band was asked to perform. Autin brought American flags he had flown in Iraq on Veterans Day to present to Lee's daughter, J.C., and the sponsors of the event. American Legion's Post No. 43, Hollywood, and Post No. 283, Pacific Palisades, California, got on board to help with a wreath-laying ceremony.
FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH LEE
Growing up in Rochester, New York, Kraft was drawn to the comic book creations of Lee.
She and her older brothers would go to the comic book store once a month, where she soon fell in love with Marvel Comics - the artwork, the words, the lettering, the coloring.
"No two comic books are the same," she said. "It so captivates you that you don't realize you're reading a comic book. Your mind is filling in the gaps between the boxes and the pages because you're so enthralled by it. That's a power; that's a storytelling magic."
Kraft first met Lee at a comic book convention when she was young. After the convention and at the recommendation of her mother, Kraft wrote Lee a "thank you" letter, and he wrote a "thank you" letter back. From there, the two kept in touch, she said.
Later, when Kraft worked for the Discovery Channel, she interviewed Lee and other comic book talents for the documentary, "Marvel Superheroes Guide to New York City." The documentary entailed traveling around New York City to the locations that inspired Lee and other comic book artists.
After she left Discovery Channel, Kraft worked with Lee on various projects. Their initial chance encounter and continued correspondence developed into a decades-long friendship.
In Kraft's eyes, Lee had his own superpower - the ability to connect with people.
"Stan was marvelous in the use of his vocabulary and the way he created these characters you can relate to," she said. "He created this entire world with all of these different artists ... Every character he created is a co-creation. That's also pretty stunning - including all of these people and inspiring all of that creativity from artists and writers."
Lee was known for a process called the "Marvel Method," a creative assembly-line style he used in comic book-making. Lee would write in the captions, another artist would sketch the scene, another would color it and a different artist would finish the lettering. Some credit Lee's process to his Army experience, where everyone had a job, or Military Occupational Specialty.
Throughout the years, Kraft said, Lee always opened his home and office to her and allowed her to bring veterans over to visit, where he would share his World War II stories. The two both joined the American Legion Post No. 43, Hollywood, together and Lee became an advisory board member of VME.
"He would talk to veterans about his military service ... he loved to share his story," she said. "His superpower is people. He's extremely generous, very open with his time, very kind, very funny and very positive. And, he was very proud of his military service. We bonded over that."
Kraft recalled one time when Lee spoke to about 300 military veterans with VME.
"I remember in the last meeting, he was very emotional when he said to the veterans in the audience, 'You're the real heroes in my world,'" she said. "It was very, very touching."
A LEGION OF FANS
The tribute to Lee at the TCL Chinese Theatre was nothing short of honoring his legacy of bringing very diverse groups together. Directors, producers, military service members and veterans, artists, writers, comic book fans and celebrities packed the theatre courtyard on the day of the event.
The diversity of the crowd didn't surprise Kraft, who said Lee made everyone feel like they were a part of his family.
On a small stage on the left-hand side of the courtyard, a military color guard posted the flags, while a bugler played "Taps" in the background. Army band members played "Amazing Grace" on bagpipes. Those who worked closely with Lee approached the microphone one-by-one to give testimonials of how he impacted their careers and their lives, including actor, director and producer Kevin Smith. A wreath was placed near a stone plaque engraved with Lee's signature. Folded flags encased in wooden boxes were presented to the sponsors of the event, which included Agents of Mayhem, Legion M and POW! Entertainment. A flag was later presented to Lee's daughter on the Red Carpet.
Following the courtyard tribute, celebrities, military members and others walked the Red Carpet leading inside the theatre, where celebrity panelists and others also paid tribute to Lee.
The diversity of the crowd, the presenters and the celebrities at the event spoke to Lee's impact and reach across not only generations, but ethnic and social lines, Autin said.
"During the ceremony, I stood next to a gentleman who was about my age," he said. "I was in my military dress uniform, and he was dressed as Mr. Fantastic (of the Fantastic Four). To the outside observer, that had no context of the situation, the sight would have looked like it was straight from a Marvel movie script. However, to us, we were both there to honor a man in our own way. The man that had an impact on us individually, as well as our entire generation."
Lee loved a crowd and would have loved the ceremony and all of the military representation, Kraft said. He would have snapped off a smart salute to all of the men and women in their dress blues, said a quick-witted phrase, and there would be lots of hugging and smiles.
"I'm proud that he touched so many lives and inspired so many people to come together," Kraft said. "People with very different passions, but yet they all share this passion for super heroes - people pushing themselves beyond what they think possible to do what's right and to be good in this world."
For Kraft, looking up into the Hollywood Hills, it's hard to imagine Lee not being there anymore, but she finds solace in his legacy and what he taught her - the power and importance of storytelling to human nature.
"Every culture cherishes its legends, its myths, it's identity through storytelling," she said. "Storytelling done truly well really uplifts you ... It helps carry you through tough times; it pushes you to do bigger and bolder things. His signature was 'Excelsior,' which in Latin means 'upward to greater glory.' It means keep pushing yourself, keep moving on, keep trying."
"I think that's the power of these superheroes that Stan Lee created," Autin added. "They each speak to us directly for different reasons, they each show us that it's OK to be flawed or struggling, but also push us to lean on our strengths and help others."