Comics : Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Book of the Month Club

This review was first published on: 2006.

Background...

Some of you may have heard of Stan Lee. He was one of the guys who was involved in Spider-Man comics pretty early on. This book here is his bio-autography, which is to say an autobiography written with a little bit of assistance from somebody else, but not too much.

In Detail...

Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee
May 2002 : SM Article
Find ISBN 0684873052
Summary: Autobiography of Stan Lee (Spider-Man on Cover)
Publisher:  Schuster New York, Simon
Writer:  George Mair, Stan Lee
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Review

Stan Lee is a Living Marvel. It surprises me that it took until 2002 before Stan felt sufficient push to write about himself. For a guy with a pretty strong personality, I'd guess that it wasn't modesty that held him back.

He actually signed a contract in 1978 to write an autobiography. He never completed the contracted work, and had to refund the advance. If I had to guess, I might suggest that he was waiting for some sense of success in his "second career"... the independent one that he attempted to build after leaving Marvel. But when that didn't eventuate, then the 2002 Spider-Man movie might have triggered a more flexible and more profitable book deal that was simply too lucrative to turn down.

The first thing to say about the book itself is that despite the co-credit to George Mair, this really is Stan's work. George's contributions are clearly marked in italics, and form well under a third of the text. I'd guess that Mair also helped edit and organise the material, but he didn't write it. Some of the text looked familiar to me, so it could be that some of it is taken from earlier snippets written by Stan. But don't quote me on that.

The history starts from the beginning with Stan's childhood with his much younger brother Larry. It proceeds through his hiring at Timely comics, and heads right through to the current day. There's no expansive list of times and dates or "who said what to who". The content really is Stan just speaking from the heart about the things that mattered to him. At times, he's startlingly honest, and at others he's surprisingly discreet. There are some truly laugh-out-loud scenes, and some very touching moments also. Hey, what else would you expect from one of the greatest writers of our time?

I'm sort of kidding there, and sort of not. Stan truly is an excellent writer of prose. He's a dangerously intelligent guy, and he veers from the faux-modest to the mock-bombastic with scarcely a twitch of the pen. There's a ton of fun in the way he writes, and I feel almost priviledged that Stan saw fit to share some part of his personal history with us.

Speaking personally, I most enjoyed reading about the early days in Stan's life. Later, as the tale moved into the (several) "difficult" times at Marvel, I was torn between wanting to know the dirt on the various scandals: Stan vs. Ditko, Stan vs. Kirby, and wanting to just let the issues lie.

But if we're going to dig up the dead, I guess the Stan vs. Ditko thing is the big one that everybody puzzles about. Ditko has famously said that "Stan never knew why I left, and he chose not to ask." Most commentators (Stan included) assume that Steve was unhappy with Stan generally getting too much credit for Spidey's creation. The Ditko quote seems to indicate that there's more to it than that, but Steve isn't talking, so unless he wants the truth to be told, we really have to go with the "disagreement over credit" argument.

Now, I don't know what your angle on that is, but personally, when somebody says "Spider-Man" I think immediately of a guy in red and blue stuck to a wall, or Peter Parker the wallflower casting a shadow at Midtown High while Sally and Flash mock his Cha-Cha/Waltz confusion. Which is to say, a lot of my perception is visual.

However (and this is important) Stan says: "I feel that Steve has confused the 'Creation' of a strip with it's 'Execution'".

With the gravest respect to Stan, I say "BOLLOCKS". In a combined visual medium like a comic strip, a character is not 'Created' until it exists on the drawn page. Stan's idea was only half-created until Ditko finished the job. That's my objective opinion.

In this biography, Stan says many, many kind words about Ditko's contribution. He then offers with one hand the gracious title of "co-creator" to Steve. But then with the other he says "I really think I'm being very generous [in offering co-creator]". I think that kind of stinks. Steve doesn't want Stan's begrudging bestowal of the title. The only thing that means anything is Stan's honest and open acceptance that Steve DESERVES the title. A recognition bestowed with the caveat that the giver is being very generous is absolutely meaningless. I'm staggered that Stan can't see that, and I'm not at all surprised that Steve has never responded to the offer.

Why am I making such a big deal of this particular scenario? Well, firstly because as a SpiderFan, this is something pretty fundamental to my personal interest. But secondly I think this is worth emphasizing because that little piece of curmudgeonly reluctance on Stan's part takes the edge off what is otherwise an incredibly generous (though not always accurate) collection of reminiscences.

In General...

Over his years at Marvel, Stan got screwed sideways by pretty much ever owner of the place, until he finally managed to earn a decent deal and the title of "Chairman Emeritus". But in this book he is remarkably non-bitter about the whole experience. Stan comes off as a great human being, and the representation of "The Ditko Matter" is a nasty unnecessary wrinkle on what is otherwise a really enjoyable book.

Mind you, it's important that you understand that "Excelsior!" is very much one man's version of the world. There's a couple of things which do have to be clarified about this bio-autography to put things in perspective.

Firstly, everything in this book does need to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt. Stan is famous for having a hugely inaccurate memory, and several of the key events Stan describes in this book quite probably didn't really happen in the way he describes - if they even happened at all.

Secondly, while Stan certainly suffered a number of injustices in his career, they were nothing compared to the giant rip-off which was handed down to his co-creating buddies Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. All things considered, Stan has done pretty well out of the exercise, while many of his friends who contributed just as much (if not more) were far less handsomely rewarded.

Thirdly, Stan has enjoyed a very mixed career, and his version of the story greatly emphasizes the positives. Don't be deceived. Stan Lee has many talents, and is a wonderful guy. But he was always a master of showmanship, and his version of events glosses over much of the cynicism of his early work, the selfishness of his mid-life success, and the many failures of his later years.

None of these should detract you from enjoying this entertaining and elucidating work for what it is. This is a hugely entertaining biography, and is a must-have for any serious Marvel fan. Stan is an amazing guy, and this book is a credit to him. Sure, it's not really a history reference in any sense of the word. It is whimsical, loosely structured, and of dubious accuracy. However, it does put into writing Stan's version of many of the key moments in Marvel's history, and that belongs in any comic-book fan's library.

Overall Rating...

Excelsior! is enlightening, entertaining, and a real delight to read. When I approached this book, I must admit that I was worried by Stan's recent contributions to comics, e.g. Spider-Man/Kingpin: To The Death, which clearly demonstrated that as a comic scripter, Stan's time had long past. But this book quickly persuaded me that as a writer of auto-biographical prose, Stan still had plenty to offer.

Despite the inaccuracies, omissions, bias and occasional curmudgeonly moment, the importance of this book means I have to offer it a hefty four-web rating and the stamp of "essential reading".

Footnote...

Now, if you want to read a far more accurate, balanced and complete version of Stan's Marvellous career, you will need to refer to the far more thorough and independent Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book.