When Stan Lee appears at this weekend’s Planet Comicon, fans will pay hundreds of dollars each to enter an exclusive area to get an autograph from and have their picture taken with the Marvel Comics legend.
Meanwhile, Neal Haze will be roaming the crowded floor of Kansas City’s largest annual comic book and pop culture convention. It’s where he’ll be garnering curious double takes and spontaneous snapshot requests from those who recognize his unmistakable resemblance to the 93-year-old creator or co-creator of such iconic superheroes as Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Avengers.
What does Haze, an 80-year-old retired construction electrician, get out of his sincere tribute to “Smilin’” Stan “The Man” Lee? Smiles all the way around – even though he isn’t really the man.
“I’m an imitator and a crowd-pleaser,” Haze said. “I’ve had people come up to me at comic conventions and say, ‘Are you Stan Lee?’ And I say, ‘Well, today I am.’
“I don’t want to deflect from Mr. Lee and his time with fans. What I’m trying to do is represent him as the highest quality person I possibly can. What I get a kick out of is seeing the joy on people’s faces. That’s my biggest thrill.”
Haze and his wife Barbara, who live on a farm near Topeka, have accompanied their professional cosplaying sons Chris, Mike and Neal (aka, Iron Brothers of Topeka) to more than 25 comic conventions around the country. When not helping his three boys suit-up in their towering Marvel-inspired superhero outfits, Haze commits himself to the part of a Stan Lee “doppelganger.” He even has his own character nickname: Agent Stan.
But it was only a few years ago at a Detroit comic convention featuring Lee that Haze became aware of his uncanny likeness to the Marvel ambassador, whose visage has grown increasingly familiar to the general public thanks to his ongoing cameos in Marvel movie blockbusters. “People kept asking me for my autograph,” Haze recalled. “But I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”
The mystery was solved during an eye-opening elevator ride at the convention hotel, Haze said.
“There was a young man in there and he says into his cell phone: “Guess who I’m in the elevator with? Stan Lee!’ My sons looked at me and told the young man that I wasn’t signing autographs.
“When we got back to the room, they sat me down and said, ‘Dad, you have got to play the part of Stan Lee. With those glasses that you have on, you look like the guy.’ And so from then on, that’s what we’ve done.”
To Haze’s own surprise, it’s been relatively easy to pull off the passing illusion that he might be…could he be…hey, is that really Stan Lee?
“There was a gentleman at one convention badgering my wife with: ‘Is that really Stan Lee?’” Haze said. “She finally said, ‘Well, he does walk around incognito a lot of times. You’ll have to ask him.’ He said, ‘Aw, he’s not Stan Lee.’ Fifteen minutes later, he came back to my wife and said, ‘You know, he really is Stan Lee. I’m going to have my picture taken with him. You lied to me!’ My wife was really laughing about it, because she didn’t say yay or nay. She was just leaving it up to his imagination.
“I don’t say that I am and I don’t admit that I’m not. I see what people want to accept. And it’s amazing how many will accept it as a true fact.”
True fact: Haze got to meet his celebrity double at the 2015 Wizard World Comic Con in Chicago.
“When he saw me, he actually told his agent, ‘I want a picture with this guy,’” Haze said. “He actually came away from his booth to do it. He was just grinning and laughing. I think he really enjoyed it.”
Haze likes to think that the sight of two Stan Lees might have given onlookers a case of double-vision. Although, he concedes that there might be at least one slight difference between them.
“I don’t mean to be arrogant or anything, but a lot of people have told me I’m better looking,” Haze said. “I don’t know. I just try to portray the individual and do the best job that I can.”
The way Haze sees it, he and Lee have a lot more in common than their lookalike status.
“We were pretty much raised in the same era,” he said. “We both went through the Second World War. We’re both Depression children, also. We probably have seen a lot of the same situations.”
Haze plans on reuniting with Lee at Planet Comicon. Will he ask for his autograph this time?
“I’m going to try to get it if I can,” he said. “I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but he may want mine.”
Planet Comicon is from noon to 7 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Bartle Hall, 301 W. 13th St., Kansas City, Mo. Tickets cost $30 to $75 (children 10 and younger get in free; limit two with each adult admission). For more information, go to planetcomicon.com.
Brian McTavish is a regular arts and culture contributor for KCUR 89.3. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.