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Searching for San Lee in 'The Vault'

Editor's note: This article originally ran in a May 2012 edition of the Casper Star-Tribune. In light of Stan Lee's death Monday, we are republishing the article.

If you take the elevator down to the basement, let in by an archivist with the pass code, you find yourself in a place where the walls move.

With the press of a button, 250 aisles of shelving slide along tracks on the ground. Laser sensors detect object between the stacks -- boxes, people -- so as not to crush anything when the aisles close.

More than 75,400 cubic feet of history are kept here, plus 60,000 rare books.

The air is dry and cool, the lighting dimmed low.

These are the archives.

Among the manuscripts and memorabilia are the Oscar statuette won by actress Barbara Stanwyck in 1982 and the original scores of composer Carl W. Stalling, who created the "Looney Tunes" theme song.

In row 21: actress Whoopi Goldberg's things.

Row 20: sheet music, scripts and correspondence of comedian Jack Benny.

Then there is row 1: the personal papers of comic creator Stan Lee.

Along with artist Jack Kirby, Lee co-created Spider-Man. And Hulk.

Iron Man, X-Men, Thor and the Fantastic Four are his.

Lee challenged the image of the prototypical superhero by giving his characters humanistic flaws. He created the serialized comic, stories continuing from one issue to the next. His characters once again appear in theaters Friday (May 4, 2012) with the U.S. debut of the Marvel film "The Avengers."

And it is the University of Wyoming's American Heritage Center in Laramie that houses his archives: 118 boxes of working drafts, photos, video, articles and fan mail.

"Stan was a major game changer," said manager of collections William Hopkins, a comic book collector himself. "He essentially changed the entire genre."

How did Lee's things end up in Wyoming? First, a bit of history:

Prior to the 1950s, most archives focused on items of regional interest and importance. The American Heritage Center in 1945 started that way, too, collecting Wyoming and Western items, said associate archivist John Waggener.

By the 1970s the center began growing a collection of items from genres other archives ignored: the performing arts, entertainment industry and popular culture. Entertainment wasn't viewed as a field worthy of research, and Hollywood itself didn't think to keep those things, Waggener said.

"The motion picture industry is really here and now," he said.

The center has archived some 188.56 million items since its start, making it one of the largest non-governmental archives in the U.S. Its entertainment- and pop culture-related archives expanded and now include 35mm slides and scripts from the "Dick Van Dyke Show," and the music scores and arrangements of Nathan Van Cleave, who worked on the TV show "The Twilight Zone" and the film "White Christmas."

Search long enough, in the right places, and you'll find the papers of William Dozier, who produced the 1960s "Batman" and "Green Hornet" television series, and the hand-written scores of composer Earle Hagen, who created the whistling theme for "The Andy Griffith Show."

There are scripts and research notes for "The Addams Family" and "Gilligan's Island," drafts of "Jaws," "Driving Miss Daisy" and "A Few Good Men," audio outtakes from the recording of the "Beverly Hillbillies" theme song.

Animator Michael Maltese's papers are here, too. He helped develop Warner Brothers' characters Pepe Le Pew, Yosemite Sam, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.

Hollywood is permanent, Waggener said, focused on the final product. What you see on film or TV is what you get. In the archives, you can watch, hear and read about the process from the primary source.

"That's where I think an archive is really powerful," he said.

Once the American Heritage Center landed the collections of a few people in the entertainment industry, it became appealing to others who wanted their scripts and drafts preserved for posterity.

That's how the center got Stan Lee.

In a January interview with the Wall Street Journal, Lee said: "I have this little archive at the University of Wyoming. You may wonder why I picked that university, but when they asked if I would archive my material there, they said that Jack Benny, he had his archive there, and I was a big fan of Jack Benny's and I figured if he's there I want to be there."

Since 1981, Lee's collection has trickled in via UPS Freight.

It took Waggener several months in 2007 to process 91 boxes of Lee's mail, manuscripts and recordings. Since, 27 more boxes have arrived.

The center's comic book industry collections include items from writer and editor Harold Straubing and Mort Weisinger, editor of Superman comic books from 1945 to 1970. Hopkins said the comics collection is focused on individuals who made significant contributions to move the industry forward.

Lee got his start as an assistant with Timely Comics in 1939 and wrote for the Captain American comics. He cartooned and wrote training films as a playwright with the Army in World War II, but by the 1950s Lee considered leaving the comics industry. His wife encouraged him to write something the way he wanted to, Hopkins said. Lee created the Fantastic Four.

"It was a phenomenal best-seller," Hopkins said.

Starting in the 1960s, Lee wrote a column called Stan's Soapbox that for the first time opened up dialogue between the industry and its audience, Hopkins said. Throughout his career Lee developed multi-layered storytelling that hadn't existed before and challenged the Comics Code Authority, which put restrictions of writers and illustrators, Hopkins said.

In terms of impact on the industry, "He's kind of the guy," Waggener said.

Waggener has corresponded with Lee and his assistant. Sometimes Lee will contact Waggener to find something in the collection. Lee always follows up with a handwritten thank you note.

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"He's very personable and down to earth," Waggener said. "Talking to him, it would be like talking to your dad."

Among the pop culture archives, Lee's is one of the most requested, Waggener said.

"One of my favorite researchers to work with is the fan," Waggener said. "We have a lot of people who come and just want to hold something from Stan Lee."

Those who look inside Lee's boxes will find manuscripts and notes on Lee's Soapbox column, character outlines for the Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer proof sheets.

Photocopies of proofs for the Spider-Man comic strip show notes written in the margins.

"Not too dramatic a pointing gesture," is written to the artist in one panel.

"Make more imaginative," appears on a Silver Surfer pencil sketch.

Lee kept boxes of fan mail: drawings of the X-Men done in red marker by young boys, letters written on lined school paper.

There are some written by the famous, like one sent to Lee and his wife by Linda McCartney: "Just a note to say that our 4 year old son James thinks he's Spiderman at the moment, and loves Hulk and a few of the others as well -- so ‘keep rocking'!"

One woman wrote Lee to thank him for his comic books: "I went through a lot of child abuse. ... I was so much into the X-Men that it escaped me away from reality."

In 1994, a 23-year-old from Laramie named Jason Kimble wrote Lee a letter. He handed it to Lee in person when he was in town, giving a talk. Kimble was a tattoo artist.

"This is not what I want to do for a living," Kimble wrote. "I want to work in comics -- I want to draw."

Lee wrote Kimble back and gave him contact information for a Marvel editor.

Nearly 20 years later, Kimble runs a studio in Denver and has published comics with companies in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He's in talks with another publisher about illustrating a book on how to draw mixed martial arts.

Kimble got rejected by that Marvel editor. Even today he applies with Marvel a couple times a year.

Still, he has Lee's letter.

Kimble said he doesn't know if it means anything, that Lee kept his note.

That his letter is in an archive, preserved with Lee's things, Kimble said: "I'm definitely glad he kept it.

"... It's cool as hell."

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