Monday, March 30, 2009

The Coming of Vroom!

More than a few of my blogophiles have noticed that my entries are signed Vroom! and have rightly queried whence the title comes. Sit back my faithful and enjoy. They’ll be a quiz in the morning.

As the creator of such iconic comic characters as Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four and Iron Man, Stan Lee is known and loved the world over. And anyone fortunate enough to have met him, knows him as a boisterous, affable and warm person, whose flamboyant hucksterism might appear insincere at first glance, but quickly reveals itself to be charming and genuine, not the least bit unctuous. Stan truly loves his characters, and that love is only matched if not surpassed by his love and appreciation for the devotion the fans have for his creations.

But Stan is also notorious for having a terrible memory when it comes to remembering people’s names, a debatable weakness in character that he is the first to admit having. One gets the sense that, had Stan his way, he’d recall the name of every person from hotel doorman to infant swaddled in Spider-Man onesies that he meets on his journeys, regardless of how scant the encounter.

This problem extends to comic book professionals as well. Having left the day-to-day rigors of the Marvel offices years ago, only sporadically writing a special one-shot story—say, for the 500th issue of Amazing Spider-Man or in regard to some other such prevalent event—and handling that work from his home or personal office, he rarely, if ever, faces the industry’s current crop of talent. Not that he doesn’t keep tabs on the field. Stan still loves the medium and follows it religiously. But though he’ll recognize a current writer or artist’s name, he won’t necessarily recall what titles that pro is working on or known for, never mind having a clue as to what he or she looks like.

This was even true in the mid-eighties when I was portraying his most famous character at a time when comics were still the milieu of comic aficionados (read, “geeks”), outside the mainstream. Today comic books (or “graphic novels” to which they are referred by those who still have a stigma against using the term “comic books”) from Spider-Man to Persepolis to Watchmen have gained greater respect and have become rooted in the public consciousness.

I was unaware of Stan’s “flaw” when I started doing Spider-Man gigs with him. It first came to my attention at the Mid-Ohio Con, an annual comic-book convention in Mansfield, Ohio. Spider-Man was appearing with his creator and a bevy of other comic book professionals. As was the case, I was stationed next to Stan at his signing table where we humorously bantered about what Stan put me (Spidey) through in the books. I also noticed that he would sometimes refer to me (Spidey) as “son.” That was how he regarded the Web-Slinger, so near and dear to his heart Spider-Man was.

As this was a comic-book convention, most everyone attending genuflected before Stan, who abashedly would beg their humility and always offer a self-deprecating comment about his work and the adulation bestowed upon him. More often than not the fans would also get Spidey’s autograph, though quite a few preferred not to mar the sanctity of the book now blessed with the signature of their beloved hero Stan Lee. My feelings were never bruised by this. I understood completely and probably would have acted the same way.

When my offer to sign their comic was met with refusal, I would joke “I don’t blame you. What’s saving the world a few times over compared to penning a handful of funny books?” Or I’d make a more pronounced reference to Spider-Man, grumbling “Probably reads The Daily Bugle; believes all those disparaging comments made by J. Jonah Jameson about my being a ‘menace to society’ . . . Sheesh!” These playful comments always got a chuckle from Stan and the fans.

(Above; left to right: writer Mark Verheiden, artist Mark Nelson, artist Marie Severin, Stan Lee and yours truly at a convention in Edmonton, Canada)

Occasionally, a parent would attend for the sole purpose of having their children meet Spider-Man. Mom or Dad or sometimes both would dutifully stand in line with their charges but, when they reached Stan, the kids walked past, beelining to yours truly and delivering a hearty “Hi, Spider-Man,” while paying no heed to the strange old man behind the table. Stan would never acknowledge the slight—to him there wasn’t one—instead enjoying watching the children interact with his “son,” like a proud papa. Inevitably, the parent would notice Stan and ask, “Are you anyone?” to which Stan would good-humoredly reply, “Naw, I’m lost; I thought this was the Bingo hall,” or “I just came in here to get warm.”

Even the other guest professionals would stop by, when they were on break or during a lull at their respective tables, to meet Stan. After all, he was Stan Lee, architect of the Marvel Universe, creator of Spider-Man and so many other superheroes, and as such an inspiration, instrumental in their being in the business. Stan would greet them warmly with a vigorous handshake and copious “Aw, shucks, t’weren’t nothin’”s when they thanked him for all Stan had done for them. As they walked away, Stan would lean over to me and ask, “Who was that?”

When this first happened, I was taken aback a moment. The way Stan had so heartily spoken with the pro, one would have never suspected that he hadn’t a clue who he had just met. I do not fault Stan for not asking the pro who he or she was; it would be awkward after the person basically deified Stan for him to ask, “Who are you? What do you do?” Not to mention potentially crushing the professionals feelings.

Being a comic-book geek myself, I had all the information Stan needed. “That’s Joe Public. He’s draws SuperDuper Guy for Splendiforous Comix,” I’d reply quietly enough so that the next fan in line getting their autographs wouldn’t hear. It certainly helped that no one could see my mouth in costume. Stan always recognized the name and the series on which they worked and usually in a tone that suggested he enjoyed the work. From that point on, I would surreptitiously lean into Stan and whisper any pertinent information to him when a comic-book professional approached. This way he knew the person’s significance before he greeted them. And as the resident comic-book expert cum Spider-Man actor, I was most often the one to accompany Stan at comic events.

I even acted his Cyrano when not in costume, just more circumspect as my mouth was exposed. It got so Stan naturally leaned toward me when someone that he wanted the goods on approached, much like Anne Hathaway’s Andy Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada in the scene at the industry gala wherein she has to feed Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly the three-sentence bio on the VIPs as they arrived, so Miranda would greet them accordingly.

Still, given Stan’s memory or lack thereof when it came to names, I have no doubt I’d have had to reacquaint him with my name at every new event had it not been for one incident at the Mid-Ohio Con. While waiting for one of the other guests who would be accompanying the show promoter, Stan and me for dinner, Stan asked the origin of my last name (Of course, this followed his asking my last name to begin with, since he had characteristically forgotten it).

Understandably, as a consummate wordsmith, Stan loves words, their origins, usage and clever juxtapositions. He spent his tour in the army writing copy for posters that warned GIs of the dangers of contracting VD, and did so in a clever manner that proved much more effective than a more dry, surgical approach. I spent hours conversing with him in off hours about words, discussing questions like “How come you always hear of someone being uncouth, but never couth,” or listing the nomenclature for groups of animals, such as a pod of whales or murder of crows, and then suggesting alternatives or making up ones for other groups of creatures, such as a cacophony of clowns.

So when he asked about my last name, he wasn’t just taking an interest to be polite; he really wanted to know. He understood that Vrattos was Greek, but was more curious as to where the odd “v-r” consonant combo derived, since there is no V in the Greek alphabet. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure. My father had never been forthcoming with my surname’s origin, despite my persistent queries growing up. I shame-facedly admitted my ignorance, but quickly made light of my odd last name by saying, “There is only one other word in the English language that begins with a “v-r” . . . Vroom!

The M had nary a second to linger on my lips when Stan exploded in ebullience. “VROOM!” he pronounced, extending both outstretched arms to me. He was so tickled, he was giddy. I couldn’t have been prouder had Bugs Bunny knighted me “Sir Loin of Beef.” From that moment forward, I was known to him as Vroom! and he knows me still by that title today.


twi-ny said...

one of the best holiday cards ever!

Vroom! said...

Stan and I exchange cards every year. This was last year's and you can still tell he gets a kick out of my name.

John III said...

I know I've said this before, but Good Lord you are one lucky guy! lol. You stopping by Sioux City, Iowa anytime soon? Would love to hear more great stories.

Vroom! said...

Alas, in my ten years of Web-Slinging, I never got to Iowa. But I'll try to continue as long as I can with stories.

Thanks for the kind words!


John III said...

That's okay. Weird though that you didn't get to go to America's heartland, good ol' Iowa. But you had to go play Nanuck of the North in Canada in winter time. Ah well...

Erique Fat Owl said...

Wow! What a great story! I live in Sydney, Australia and during one of the biggest conventions Stan made an appearance via teleconferencing because he said that he is no longer in shape to do air travel (wonder if it's true?). Now that you mentioned it, he does forget names easily. How lucky of you to have your nickname given by the great man himself!

BTW, can I say, this is the BEST blog I've read in months! Please keep telling your stories!

Vroom! said...

Wow, my face hasn't been this red since I wore the suit.