By Avery Kaplan and Rebecca Oliver Kaplan

On Tuesday, July 18th, 2023, the new exhibit “Excelsior! The Life and Legacy of Stan Lee” opened at Comic-Con Museum in Balboa Park, San Diego. Curated by Comic-Con Museum, Michael E. Uslan, and David Uslan, the limited-time exhibit celebrates Stan Lee and the co-creators of the Marvel Universe with rare artwork, issues, and artifacts assembled from the vaults of a number of private collectors and auction houses. 

Excelsior! The Life and Legacy of Stan Lee

The “Excelsior! The Life and Legacy of Stan Lee” exhibit is arranged chronologically, offering a sequential survey of how Stan the Man’s legacy spans a whole century. The exhibit places an emphasis on Stan’s role as a team leader (with due credit to co-creators Jack KirbySteve DitkoDon HeckJohn Romita Sr.Marie SeverinJohn Severin, and many others). Well-read comic issues have been placed on display alongside original art and other unique artifacts for a truly singular exhibition. 

Speaking with The Beat amid the horde of True Believers’ treasures, exhibit co-curator Michael Uslan admitted he had a personal favorite out of the issues on display. “There are certain comic books that had more of an impact on me growing up than others,” said Michael. “One of which was X-Men #1.”

Michael explained that as a seventh-grade student, he began to wonder whether he might be outgrowing comic books. But X-Men #1 came as a contrary revelation. “This is something that I can relate to; this is speaking to me,” Michael described his reaction to the issue. “I realized that comic books were growing up with me and that they would not be something that I would have to leave behind.”

Michael is known for being the instructor for the first accredited college course on the serious study of comic books. Among myriad other accomplishments, he is also the originator and executive producer of the Batman movie franchise, and with exhibit co-curator David Uslan, consultant to Kartoon Studios’ “Stan Lee Universe.”

Categorizing Stan as a promoter not just of Marvel Comics but of comics generally, Michael credits him with widening the aperture of comic book readership. He continued that Stan “talked to us, not down to us, but communicated with us. Through letter columns, through Stan’s Soapbox. And he didn’t just plug the next comic book, he talked to us about racism and bigotry, he talked to us about the environment and ecology, women’s rights, civil rights, the war in Vietnam. You know, I felt we were members of a secret club. It was very subversive.”

While Michael says he misses the subversive element, he admits to personal responsibility for helping usher in the mainstream success enjoyed by superhero media today. However, he hopes the exhibit will help raise recognition of the fact that these empires originated on the comic book page.

“That’s what I want to show the world: this is where it all started,” Michael said. “It’s the comic books that are the creative wellspring, and that’s the only reason the movies and the gaming and the TV and the animation exist. You’ve got to appreciate and respect where it all started and where it all came from.”

A Personal Exhibition

Many of the comics on display come from Michael’s personal collection. “These are not pristine, slabbed comic books. These are comics I read a hundred times over, rolled up, and put in the back pocket of my jeans,” he said, reflexively executing the practiced gesture as he described it. But in addition to comics from his personal collection, there are also issues and art on display from other collections and auction house catalogs.

In an interview, Museum Executive Director Rita Vandergaw said that this variety is thanks to Michael’s personal knowledge and connections. Vandergaw explained that Michael had knowledge of the locations of the objects on display. “He went to all these people and said, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to put you in my exhibit,'” Vandergaw told The Beat.

Currently, Comic-Con Museum has only one permanent exhibit: “Cover Story: Five Decades of Comic-Con,” showcasing fifty years of Souvenir Book cover art. Vandergaw explained that this presents some unique challenges: most fine art museums have foundational collections to fall back on for display. However, she said it also affords the opportunity for working closely with individual curators to provide museum patrons with one-of-a-kind exhibitions.

She illustrated the point by mentioning that Comic-Con Museum worked closely with Rod Roddenberry for an exhibition of Majel Barrett-Roddenberry‘s personal favorite Star Trek costumes. Taken from Rod’s personal collection, Vandergaw stated that many of the precious articles displayed during the exhibit’s tenure “won’t be in the public eye again.” The same may be said for some of the items on display in the “Excelsior!” exhibit.

True Believers’ Treasures

According to Michael, the artifacts on display as part of the “Excelsior!” exhibit are only present thanks to “about sixty years of relationships.” In addition to many of the first issues and appearances of keystone Marvel Comics superheroes, the first appearances of several supervillains are also on display, including the introduction of Doctor Octopus.

“These are amazing pieces that have been kept by people who have loved and cherished them,” Michael said. Indicating a frame holding original Kirby art, Michael elaborated, “Just the fact that somebody like Gary Stiffelman has let this out of, literally, the vault in his house. I mean, to get into Gary’s house… You might as well try and get into the Pentagon.”

Furthermore, Michael cites his lifelong relationship with comics for providing him with the necessary credibility to ask for a loan of the exhibited artifacts. “They know I’m not some Hollywood corporate suit that gets thrown there, that some PR person has written me something I can read off a teleprompter,” Michael told The Beat. “They know I’m a fanboy. This is the life, this is the community that I come out of. And my heart and soul are in it.”

The assembled exhibit speaks for itself. However, because of the variety of sources for the exhibit – a list that includes Heritage AuctionsDC Comics, and Metropolis Comics in addition to more than a half-dozen private collectors – experiencing this unique collection is a limited-time opportunity. For this reason, a pilgrimage to the Comic-Con Museum during San Diego Comic-Con 2023 should be considered compulsory for the most devoted of True Believers.

Comic-Con Museum exhibits

Vandergaw states that this variety is part of what makes being a patron of Comic-Con Museum so rewarding. “When you go to the MoMA, you kind of know what you’re getting,” said Vandergaw. “You’re going to find a different experience every time you come to the Comic-Con Museum because it changes that often. As a patron or a member, you really get your membership value out of it, because you can come as often as you want and as long as you want, and you’re going to see something different every time.”

To whit, upcoming exhibits will be announced during the “Amazing! Fantastic! Incredible! News from the Comic-Con Museum” panel on Thursday, July 20th, 2023 at 10:00 am in Room 29AB.

However, visitors to Comic-Con Museum this July will also be able to enjoy two additional fresh exhibits alongside “Excelsior!”: the “Cowboy Bebop 25th Anniversary Art Exhibition” and the “My Hero Academia Installation.” These are presented alongside ongoing exhibits including “The Animation Academy – from Pencils to Pixels,” “Rick Geary and the Comic-Con Toucan,” the “PAC-MAN Arcade,” and the aforementioned exhibition of SDCC Souvenir Book cover art.

“What I hope we’re doing, which is Comic-Con’s mission too, is elevating the creators and the writers and all the people that put their energy into creating comics and fandom, and all the things that come out of it,” said Vandergaw.

Comic-Con Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, with last entry at 4:00 pm. Furthermore, the museum will be open the Monday after Comic-Con, on July 24th, 2023. Tickets are available in advance or at the door; please see the Museum website linked above.

Cover: Michael Uslan and Rita Vandergaw at the “Excelsior!” exhibit. Photo by Rebecca Oliver Kaplan.

Miss any of our earlier SDCC ’23 coverage? Find it all here!