It may surprise you to learn that even with all the interesting in Marvel characters, and the oft-murky history that surrounds their creation, that there hasn't to date been produced a book which focuses directly on the "behind the scenes" tale of the creation of... (insert major Marvel headliner here). However, as the title of this review clearly indicates, such a book has just arrived. In fact, it's one in a series of six. But we're just going to review the Spider-Man version.
To be fair, nearly all of the material in this hardcover (library binding) 7.75" x 9.25" 48 pages offering has already been printed elsewhere. Naturally, a major source of information is Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee. Ditko doesn't say much these days, but he has offered some occasional insight in the odd magazine article or interview.
The other important point to bear in mind is that, despite this book being quite fact-focused and covering an interesting historical topic, it is definitely aimed at teens or pre-teens. It even goes so far as to including a "glossary of hard words" at the back, for the benefit of those families who don't own a dictionary. So even though this is a non-fiction book, and verges at times on to academia, it is instinctively hampered a little in the possible depth of discussion by its young target audience.
With that in mind, the book starts with a few pages on the origins of Amazing Fantasy #15, which first featured Spidey. It talks breifly about the state of comics at the time - the earlier "Golden Age of super-hero comics", and the post-war slump, and the fact that AF #15 was to be the last of the series.
Already the tone of the book is set. The headline facts are all present - stripped of much of the background, and of any detailed insight, but indisputedly present. The font is quite large, dropping the word count to a kid-friendly level, but the language is not patronising. In fact (ignoring a few clumbsily-formed sentences on the first few pages) the prose does a pretty good job of offering the clarity necessary for younger readers, without sinking into childishness. Not an easy task, and writer Paul Kupperberg deserves due recognition for that.
Following chapters give a summarised bio of Stan and Steve. Stan gets a little more space than Steve, due to the fact that much more is known about him - but Steve get's his full share of the credit. Then there's a section on the history of Timely comics (which later became Marvel), and a brief history of the comics industry in general - including mentions of the most major social factors such as the communist threat and the nuclear industry.
We then head back to Amazing Fantasy #15 to look at the actual creation of Spider-Man, who contributed what. There's a consise summary of "The Marvel Method" of creating comics, which Stan pioneered (mostly to shift work off himself on to artists, so that he could write even more comics each month). Finally, there's a quick summary through the first few years of Spidey, including the Ditko/Romita swap, and a rapid leap to modern day multi-media Spidey.
The back pages are quite large, with a Further Reading, a Bibliography, Glossary, Chronology, Index and Credits. Take out those and the intro and the guts of the book is hardly 26 pages of large print. There are a number of large images spread throughout the book, including several full-page covers. This means that, all in all, the total word count is pretty low compared to most "grown-up" books on these topics.
However, the low word-count is a comment, not a criticism. This clearly isn't intended to be the complete, definitive work on the creation of Spider-Man. That work has yet to be written.
This book easily achieves what it clearly set out to do. It provides a teen/pre-teen level bundle of the key facts and background information sufficient to give a solid understanding of why and how Spider-Man came to be created. That's all it ever set out to do. It's palatable enough for most younger readers to digest without too much trouble, but also there's enough meat in here to leave most adults a little enlightened too.
Of course, if you have any interest at all in this topic, you'll really find this does little more than whet your appitite for books like Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee. For a fantastic sociological investigation, I strongly recommend Comic Book Nation - though it's hardly for the casual reader. There are other reference books and magazine articles noted in the Bibliography, and I'll certainly be getting hold of those that I don't already own.
After all is said and done, this book is accessable and informative. Personally I found it a little frustrating, never giving quite enough detail. But being purely objective, I'm clearly not the target audience here.
I would recommend this book for anybody wanting to know more about Spidey's origins. Small SpiderFans with inquiring minds will lap it up, and bigger SpiderFans will find it a great introduction and launch pad to further study.
Perhaps the major detraction is the price. Amazon offers it for $30, which is a heck of a price-tag! They offer Stan Lee's autobiography for $11.20, and Comic Book Nation for $13.57. You can buy two fantastic reference books for less than the price of this kids version.
I guess it's the library binding that makes this so expensive. I'm assuming that not many kids are going to get this book for christmas, it's more likely to appear in school and public libraries. But I wouldn't be surprised to see a low-price paperback version out before too long.
I'm gonna give this four webs. Can't give it any more than that because of the hefty price tag. But despite the pain on the pocket, this is still a great little introduction.
Writer Paul Kupperberg dropped us a line to give us some background on this book:
As you say, these books are written for 5th-8th grade readers and are usually sold in sets to libraries and school libraries, primarily as reference works for reports.
Of course, the limitations of detail frustrated me too! As a comic book fan - and writer of a couple of Spider-Man novels! - I wanted to really do it right, but I'm limited to a word count, no matter what the subject, and I've done books on everything from history to biographies of astronauts and great scientists to rodeo clowns and careers in robotics; Spidey was I think 6,000 or 8,000 words. You should've seen what I cut out to bring the count down... and even that was just a few thousand words of history and back story.
But the idea is that these books are only supposed to serve as an introduction to a subject, not break ground with new information or undiscovered sources. It's not for a fan audience, but 'mainstream' readers who wouldn't know Jack Kirby from Jack Sparling. They just need enough information to write a paper on the subject.
Anyway, in spite of its limitations, I'm pretty happy with the book. It was fun to pay homage to Stan and Steve in print.
Thanks Paul. And we sure do remember those Pocket Book Novels!