Stan Lee: A Life (Centennial Edition) by Bob Batchelor
Bob Batchelor’s biography of Stan Lee, titled unsurprisingly Stan Lee, is a solid if somewhat stylistically flat look at the life of a man who has had a huge cultural impact. People who pay attention to this sort of thing won’t find a lot new here, and may even find the book’s gloss over things a bit frustrating, but for casual fans of Marvel movies who have a first-time interest in where this behemoth began, the book suffices.
We pick up with a young Stanley Lieber growing up in NYC in the 30s, important because of how, as Batchelor makes clear throughout the book, the problems Lee’s father had in finding/keeping a steady job had a major impact on Lee, creating not only a strong work ethic but also making it nigh on impossible for him to quit a job that he wasn’t sure he wanted or enjoyed. Luckily for many of us, that belief in keeping the job you have rather than looking for the one you don’t kept Lee at Marvel throughout most of his life and created some of the world’s best-known stories.
Of course, Just as Lee wasn’t Lee early on, Marvel wasn’t Marvel when Lee began working in comics, getting hired soon out of high school as a gofer at Timely Comics under his uncle — publisher Martin Goodman — and comic book legends Jack Kirby and Joe Simon (ironically Kirby would be working for Lee in the not-too-distant future). Having a hard time keeping up with the demands of publishing, Simon assigned Lee (still Lieber at this point) a two-page Captain America story as a filler piece. When “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” (Captain America #3) came out in 1941, Lieber signed it Stan Lee. Who knew the course of comics and pop culture had just utterly changed? Lee continued writing (and editing) even though he was just a teen, thanks to the strapped staffing and financial resources at Timely. So when Kirby and Simon were fired for freelancing for DC (according to Simon, “Jack always thought Stan had told his uncle we were working for DC), Lee was primed to take over as “head writer, editor-in-chief, and art director.”
His tenure there though was interrupted by the war, with Lee enlisting in 1942 and eventually ending up in the Training Film division of the Signal Corps back in NYC where he worked with a group that included Frank Capra, Charles Addams, Theodor Geisel (Dr Seuss), and William Saroyan. Even while working on poster campaigns, films, training manuals, and more, Lee continued to received outlines of Marvel stories every Friday which he would turn into full comic scripts over the weekend, along with writing in other genres in Goodman’s media empire, including pulps, mysteries, and “adult publications.”
Batchelor takes us through the war years, the up and downs of the comics industry, the trends that came and went (and came again), and of course the infamous Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency that led to the Comics Code. As comics spun downward in sales, Lee rehired Kirby and also hired Steve Ditko. Only a few years later, employing what is now known as “the Marvel Method” where “both the writer and the artist had a say in how the final product unfolded, rather than the artist merely following a script as it had been in the past”, the trio, along with the rest of Marvel’s workers, would ignite perhaps the greatest creative explosion in pop culture, churning out in a few years globally known characters like The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Thor, and others.
Batchelor takes us through all of this, including spending some time albeit not a lot, on the controversy over just who created what, and does a nice job detailing the innovation Lee and the other made: heroes who had real problems, and who squabbled like real people; heroes placed, as Lee said, in the real world “instead of living in a fictional Gotham City or Metropolis” so one might see them “running after a taxi anywhere from Greenwich Village to the Upper East Side”; heroes who ran into each other (sometimes peacefully sometimes not); thought balloons, meta-references, the idea of using comics to address real-world issues such as racism and drugs, and more. In the 70s, this eventually culminated in Lee ignoring the Comics Code for an anti-drug messaging in Spider-Man, an act that eventually killed off the Code for good.
As the industry continued its roller coaster ride, and was, as always, derided by the elite even as it gained pop culture cachet, Lee went back and forth on whether he was wasting his life working in the field, though as noted above, his fear of being unable to provide for his family kept him at Marvel. Eventually, of course, after some minimal success trying to broaden the market to other media, Marvel, with Lee as its face (eve if he was doing less actual work at the company), did break through and become the media monster it is today.
The story doesn’t end there though, as Batchelor covers Lee attempts at non-Marvel creation, few of which went anywhere at all and some of which were dragged down in accusations and actual indictments for fraud (though Lee himself was never implicated). There’s also the sad circumstances of Lee’s last few years amidst allegation of elder abuse.
In terms of “plot”, if one can use that word in this context, the coverage in Stan Lee is comprehensive, taking us from beginning to end. As noted, a lot of what is covered will be well known by fans, but people who know only the movies will find a thorough tracing of how those movies came to be. “Plot” actually might be a good term after all, since Lee was a man who created in large part his own legend (not to say much of it wasn’t well earned). Personally I would have liked a bit more depth on several issues, such as debate over creation of the characters, royalties, etc., more delving into the creations themselves, and the like, but I’m also someone who likes a hefty anthology of academic critical essays on pop culture/comics, even as I recognize that’s a minority position. I also would have liked to have heard more of Batchelor’s personal interview(s) with Lee, as the bits we do get make for a nice personal touch.
For the casual fan, this is a pretty good book to pick up in terms of content (the style is adequately workmanlike — effective in conveying content even if the writing won’t linger in the mind) though I’d also suggest fleshing it out with a few others titles (some long-form, some short-form) that offer up a wider perspective and a deeper exploration of some of the issues covered here.