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(PHOTOS) Excelsior! University of Wyoming showcases artifacts from life of comic book legend Stan Lee

Visitors at the University of Wyoming's recently-opened "Stan Lee, Beyond the Book" exhibit. (Submitted Photo)

LARAMIE, Wyo. — In the world of pop culture, few Americans have touched more lives than Stan Lee, the comic book visionary who created such iconic characters as Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and more. Now, hundreds of thousands of pieces of memorabilia from his life reside at the University of Wyoming for all to enjoy.

“Stan Lee, Beyond the Book,” a free exhibit in UW’s American Heritage Center, is one of the most exhaustive collections of Stan Lee documentation in the world and is the culmination of several decades’ worth of correspondence between the comic book giant and the university.

(Submitted Photo)

According to UW Professor Paul Flesher, Lee’s relationship with Wyoming began when he befriended Gene Gressley, a former historian with the school. Gressley asked Lee to donate some personal items to the university, and Lee readily agreed. Ultimately, the partnership was more fruitful than even Gressley could have imagined. For the next roughly four decades, Lee regularly sent pieces of his life to UW.

Donations began in the early 1980s and continued until 2011, when Lee made his last gift to the university.

(Submitted Photo)

Flesher estimates that the exhibit contains approximately 300,000 pieces of memorabilia. And while it may be easy for some to quantify Lee’s life and legacy through the art he produced, the exhibit goes far beyond Lee’s comics. Flesher stressed that the exhibit is not an exhibit of Lee’s characters or the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“While the exhibit certainly has some of his works, because you can’t tell the story of Stan Lee without telling the story of his art, there’s a lot more than just that,” Flesher said. “We have a lot of fan mail that he received over the years; we have letters and journal entries; we have early photographs of him, including some from when he was in the military. … There’s really a lot.”

Also featured in the exhibit are pieces of history from Lee’s early comics career with Timely Comics, the family-run enterprise that would eventually become the juggernaut known as Marvel Comics. Visitors of the exhibit will also be able to read many of Lee’s overlooked political cartoons.

(Submitted Photo)

“A lot of people don’t know he ever even made political cartoons,” Flesher said.

Flesher noted that one of the few parts of Lee’s life that isn’t immortalized in the exhibit is his family, as the writer was especially guarded and private regarding family matters.

Flesher said that even the most ardent comic book fans will be sure to learn something new. One piece of history he’s excited for people to learn of is Lee’s work on “the movie that was never made.” In the 1990s — well before the Hollywood film industry changed forever with the 2001 release of director Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” film — Lee was hard at work conceptualizing his own live-action Spider-Man film. Though Lee’s idea never materialized into its own film, Lee’s notes for the movie that never was provide a fascinating look at what might have been and at how Lee saw the potential of live-action superhero movies before many others.

(Submitted Photo)

Additionally, “Stan Lee: Beyond the Book” highlights the impact that Lee had not just on culture at large, but also on an individual level.

“We have a map that shows all the countries he received fan mail from, and it’s really remarkable,” Flesher said. “It shows how Stan’s stories impacted lives in every corner of the Earth, and how that impact was different in so many different countries.”

Flesher said he believes the collection is truly one of a kind.

“I’ll put it this way: I know of no other [Stan Lee] collection like this,” he said. “There’s an online finding aide that is essentially an online catalog. … In that, we say, ‘Other collections on this person or topic can be found here, and we’d list other archives.’ Ours is empty, because we don’t know of any other collection where Stan donated his stuff.”

When it came time to curate the gigantic collection of memorabilia, Flesher points to a trio of UW students who learned the vast collection and then designed the exhibit to best highlight the artifacts.

“This really is a student project, and they’ve done a phenomenal job coming up with a design and actually creating the exhibit that people can experience,” he said.

The free exhibit is open through Nov. 1.