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This story first appeared in the July 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Long before I’d ever laid eyes on the actual San Diego Comic-Con, I would visit the pop-culture mecca in dreams — the same way I’d repeatedly watch The Empire Strikes Back over and over again at age 9, months before the actual film was ever in a cinema. As a Jersey boy raised in the ’70s — decades from his first anti-airline tweet — I had no instant access to cosplaying pics of bikini-clad Princess Leia. The idea of a pre-studio-cease-and-desisted YouTube clip of a new Marvel movie trailer writ large in Hall H? Preposterous!
I first entered the docked-cruise-ship-looking San Diego Convention Center in 1995 and bore witness to the beasts within. It was like a circus, wrapped up in a treasury edition-sized comic book, stuffed inside a month of Saturday morning cartoons, served with cheese sauce. I had been to many a local comic book show in the tiny common rooms of Jersey Shore motor lodges, and I’d even been to what I thought was a true comic book convention that took up three ballrooms of a New York hotel. But San Diego wasn’t another planet, it was another consciousness altogether. I was a bug who only dreamed he was a man — but suddenly, I was a god of light, my divinity revealed. And one of the first people I ran into was that old light-bringer himself, the Grand Ambassador of Comics and the modern-day Mark Twain: Stan Lee! I’d already shot a movie called Mallrats with Mr. Marvel — indeed, I was in San Diego to screen that movie for its intended audience that very weekend — so we’d become acquainted. But it didn’t matter: seeing Stan Lee on the Comic-Con floor was proof that dreams do come true on occasion.
“Stan!” I called out as he passed, a long trail of disciples all angling for an autograph or photo. And the most amazing thing happened: He saw me and stopped. Stan Lee, the co-creator of Spider-Man, waved me over and hugged me — in front of that massive Comic-Con crowd. People passing us exchanged looks as if to say, “Who is that fat man trying to eat Stan Lee?” That moment was surreal, not only because it felt plucked from my fantasies, but also because it legitimized me with a crowd that had barely even heard of the art house movie Clerks, decades before AMC would air a single episode of Comic Book Men. That was my first moment of my first San Diego Comic-Con. And I’ll never forget that Stan Lee took my cherry.
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