Comics : Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book

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

This review was first published on: Oct 2012.

Background...

In 2002, Stan Lee finally published his autobiography - the unsurprisingly bombastic, frequently apocryphal, occasionally stingy but always entertaining work Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee. In the following year, Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon produced this unofficial biography which immediately set to the task of clarifying, completing, balancing and correcting a number of points on the public record.

The contrast between the two versions of Stan's indubitably fascinating life could hardly be greater.

In Detail...

Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book
Sep 2003 : SM Article
Find ISBN 1556525060
Summary: Biography, includes Information on Spider-Man's Creation
Publisher:  Chicago Review Press, Inc.
Writer:  Jordan Raphael, Tom Spurgeon
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Review

Stan's wonderful "Excelsior!" is long on reminiscences, but painfully short on hard facts. Specifically, Stan's version clearly describes two or three events which quite probably didn't really happen. The sad but inescapable task falls to this subsequent biography to sift through the evidence and clarify what is the most likely explanation for the inaccuracy, be it spectacular exaggeration, or pure wishful thinking.

Stan started work young, and is still working on various projects at an age long after which many men would have retired to a quiet villa near a golf course. But the long course of his life has not always been so equally blessed with the spectacular success which he enjoyed in the sixties.

From 1940 to 1961, Stan Lee worked frantically as a writer and editor at Timely/Atlas/Marvel, producing material which aimed to flood the market with whatever trend happened to be popular at the time. Interrupted only by a brief stint creating comics for the army, Stan survived the ups and downs of two turbulent decades. During this era, Stan produced a huge amount of mediocre work, and the most positive thing that can be said about him was that he was incredibly hard-working, versatile, and was well-respected by his staff.

In 1961, Stan co-created the Fantastic Four with Jack Kirby, and unwittingly launched a phenomenon which will certainly outlast them both. Working with Kirby and Ditko, Stan went on to create Hulk, Thor, Spider-Man and the X-Men. Was this entirely due to Stan's incredible talent? More likely it was a combination of Kirby's ability, Stan's inspiration and enthusiasm, and the good fortune that just for once, Marvel comics was first to the market with an idea that matched the fickle public taste.

There's no doubt that Marvel's subsequent success benefited hugely from Stan's experience in following trends, while driving the best out of his hard-working team. But by 1972, it was equally clear that Stan Lee the writer was no longer an essential component of the winning formula. Instead, the continued growth of Marvel Comics was to be found at the hands of Stan Lee the promoter. Stan Lee was to become famous for being Stan Lee.

Stan Lee's transition from "creative force" to "promoter" was a gradual but relentless one. Even in the mid-60's, Stan developed a reputation as a man always keen to raise his own profile first. In 1972 Stan formally relinquished the editorial reins to Roy Thomas, in order to become the full-time public face of Marvel Comics. Stan travelled and worked relentlessly, appearing at colleges and other venues, and giving countless interviews. His tireless work achieved two ends - it succeeded in maintaining the momentum which Marvel had acquired in 1961, and it convinced the world that Stan Lee was the primary creator of the Marvel universe... even though he wasn't.

But Stan's deepest desire was to break into the world of TV and film. In pursuit of that dream, Stan and his small but close family made the move to Los Angeles in 1980. For a number of years Stan attempted to convince Hollywood to make movies featuring Marvel characters. This was to be a labour which produced nothing of any value. Most recently, Stan distanced himself from Marvel and founded his own commercial endeavours (first Stan Lee Media, then POW! Entertainment), attempting to demonstrate that there was more to Stan Lee than a few 1960's comic book icons. The jury is still out on that claim.

In General...

So the reality is that there are many Stan Lees:

  • Firstly the hard-working Stan Lee who kept his cousin's publishing business afloat for two decades by whatever business practices were required to navigate the storms of the 40's and 50's.
  • Secondly, the man who over the course of the 60's co-created the Marvel Universe we know today, greatly thanks to talented colleagues and the fortunate discovery of a successful formula.
  • Next came Stan Lee the hard-working shameless self-promoter of the 70's who humbly accepted all of the credit that others insisted upon heaping upon him, even though it pained him to see his co-creators fall by the wayside.
  • Then Stan Lee the movie promoter of the 80's was the darling of Hollywood, but who ended with nothing more to show than three embarrassing flops: Captain America, Punisher and a Fantastic Four disaster that never saw the light of day.
  • The final Stan Lee has spent two and a half decades attempting to demonstrate that he himself was the vital creative light of Marvel, by seeking success on his own terms. This has proved to be a challenging task.

This is the complete picture which "Rise and Fall" provides. It places Stan's achievements and disappointments into the greater framework of Marvel's victories and failures. In doing so, this book gives a great deal of insight into the pivotal moments of Marvel's history as well as Stan. As this title suggests, this is a book not merely about Stanley Leiber, but more importantly about Stan's place in the history of American comics.

As a comic fan during the 70's, 80's and 90's it was very easy to acquire a lop-sided view of Stan Lee's role in the creation of Marvel Comics. Both Marvel and Stan were pushing the same message... Stan was The Man. No other men were necessary.

Fortunately, books like "Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book" have taken the care to give us an objective view which gives Stan credit where it is due, but which are more even-handed when recognising the equal contributions made by Joe Simon, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

I'm not saying that this book is a beat-up on Stan Lee at all. There's no denying Stan's contribution, nor his enthusiasm, nor the sparkling life force which makes him such a larger-than-life figure. But there's no hero-worship here. The book is concerned with accuracy, insight, and balance.

Overall Rating...

Given that this is supposed to be a review, you may think that I've written far too much about Stan and not enough about the book itself.

That's because there's not much that needs saying. Biographies work best when they're about the subject, not about the writer or the writing, and this is a perfect example of such a well-written biography.

Five webs.