That’s the image we all have of Stan Lee, Mr. Marvel, jaunty self-nicknamed “Stan the Man,” the grinning, self-mocking mascot of the comic book universe he presided over, cameo good lock charm in the legions of blockbuster films that come out of Marvel Studios, still his baby in soul if not Disney bean-counter reality.
The image doesn’t take too much of a ding in Bob Batchelor’s workmanlike new biography of Stanley Lieber, “The Kid” who got into comic book publishing in his teens, surfed the ups and downs of the business for decades, and became every bit as famous as his many creations.
Because whatever credit Lee deserved (and it’s a LOT) for the Comic Book Renaissance of the 1960s, which continues to this day, his self-mythologizing and endless self-promotion have tended to inflate his role in some ways and his versions of the “luck” and “hard work” and genius that brought him riches and glory have some holes in them.
Family connections, not “luck” and “pluck” got him his job at Timely Comics just before the war. His uncle married the daughter of Martin Goodman, the guy who owned Timely.
He stabbed fellow employees in the back — “Captain America” co-creators Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, most infamously — to take over the comic book division of Goodman’s publishing empire.
This isn’t a hagiography, and Batchelor, to his credit, doesn’t take Stan’s word for everything. Or anything. Having only read Stan’s autobiography as prep for a couple of interviews I did with him over the years, I was a little surprised to see some of the “cuddly” Stan rubbed off in this way.
But here’s what Stan DID do. After years of well-compensated struggle, Lee and Jack Kirby hit upon “Fantastic Four,” though their contentious relationship gets in the way of getting the real scoop of who was more important to making that the breakthrough comic that launched the Age of Marvel. Lee probably deserves most of the credit, though he was very generous at crediting Kirby’s rock’em/sock’em drawing style for making the comic come off.
“Spider-Man” gave teen angst its own superhero. “The Hulk” showed us a troubled, sensitive monster.
Lee hit upon what Marvel fans, even those who only know the work through the movies, experience as The Never Ending Story. Serials, cliffhangers, have worked since Dickens, roped in fans for weekly trips to the movies when Stan was a boy and still work their magic today.
Hell, I was at “Venom,” a bit of a dog, the other night at fully a third of the house got suckered into waiting through the credits to see what would be teased for the “NEXT exciting installment in the Adventures of Venom!” (A terrible let-down, like the movie itself).
The other thing Stan Lee did was pick up on the first real fan letters creators ever got, and start interacting with fans in the back of the magazines, answering letters, using readers as market research on what he and his team should do next, but also wising off and engaging in a little self-mockery with them.
You’re over 40 and writing teen slang? Reading a lot of letters from comic book fans helps with that.
He became the face of his industry in the process, created generations of LIFEtime fans (fanboys, fangirls) and set the stage for the Comic Book Takeover of the Cinema and to a lesser degree TV.
Fans really into the history of Marvel, Lee or comics in general won’t find a lot to surprise them here. I’ve read a few books on the early history (not Sean Howe’s Marvel book, but Larry Tye’s recent “Superman: The High Flying History” for instance) and found “The Man Behind Marvel” a brisk overview of Lee’s life and Marvel’s history, not officially sanctioned (the author got his photo taken with Stan at some signing, haven’t we all?) but a good, quick dissection of what made Lee tick and what made Marvel hit.