Stan Lee. Genius or self-inflated huckster? Inspired creator of countless classic characters, or shameless appropriator of the work of his underlings.
When you read those classic issues of Fantastic Four, or Amazing Spider-Man, it's hard to tell what is Lee and what is Kirby or Ditko. Certainly for much of Peter Parker's formative years, Steve Ditko was the strongest (and for a while, the only) creative voice in the tale.
If you really want to read the unmodified (bar a little proof-reading) words of Stan "The Man" Lee's at his supposed "creative peak" of the 1960's and 70's, then the easiest place to look is "Stan's Soapbox" – an editorial outlet which appeared monthly in the back of each of Marvel's color comics between May 1967 and August 1980.
This glossy Trade Paperback format collects all of Stan's Soapbox articles in a super-handy format. Modern contributed comments and reminiscences are provided by a selection of colleagues with special connection to Stan. The profits from this book go to the Hero Initiative, a society benefiting comic creators in need.
Disclaimer: I started reading Marvel comics in the late 70's. But due to distribution disputes in New Zealand, we received black and white reprints with no "Soapbox". By the time I got my hands on the color comics, Stan and his Soapbox were long gone from the day-to-day workings of Marvel.
So I can't comment on how Lee's "wise words" and "merry marketing muses" appeared to readers during the time in which they were uttered – I can only give a modern perspective. Neither can I comment from the state of doe-eyed blissful Marvel Zombie fandom which afflicted many of the readers of the age. I'm old and cynical now. Worse, I'm most of the way through reading the incredible Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, which lifts the lid on the dysfunctional hot mess that was Marvel Comics for much of its existence!
The Verdict: The reality of commercial art is rarely pretty.
As an adult, with historical perspective and eyes wide open, reading Stan's Soapbox now is like walking around a Strip Club at 10am on a grey Sunday morning with the fluorescent lights turned on and the cleaners vacuuming the stained carpets. One can quite clearly see behind the Great Oz's curtain.
Stan's Soapbox was (supposedly) famous for it's ground-breaking acknowledgement and commentary on real-world social issues, for his decision to avoid "talking down" to the fans, and for listening to their feedback. Well, yes. But also no.
It's true, Stan did offer some touches of social commentary. Nobody can deny Stan a measure of credit for having the courage to even mention these issues in this otherwise kid-oriented entertainment format. But when you really dig down, there's only a handful of such moments. He does allude to Student Activism (SS Mar '69, SS May '69). The Attica Prison riot gets a mention (SS Apr '72). On three other occasions (SS Nov '68, SS Oct '78, SS Feb '80) he speaks generally about bigotry, or about the difference between cultures, classes and generations.
When bigotry is the topic, Stan is on relatively safe ground. While the idea that blacks and whites (and other various cultural sub-groups) should be treated equally was still not met with universal agreement in the 70's, it was nonetheless a concept which would have met with very strong support among the general Marvel fan-base. In these cases, Lee speaks with great emphasis and clarity, and shows himself to be a capable word-smith. Unfortunately, these few moments serve mostly to throw his other flim-flam into sharp contrast.
When hinting at any other potentially disruptive topic, the kid-gloves are donned, and Stan goes all Mister Rogers on us. "We need to learn to respect each other's point of view." "We must work to find solutions together, for the good of our species and our great nation." "Peace is better than war." (But not better enough to demand an end to any specific war).
Why so wishy-washy? Well, Stan says it himself in as many words (SS Sep '68, SS Apr '71) – Comic readers (and their parents who hand out the pocket money) are both Republicans and Democrats. They include both activists, and concerned citizens. In their midst is numbered pacifists, but also proud supporters of our government's just mission. Stan wants piece and love and justice. But he draws the line on taking a side or drawing Marvel into any divisive debate which could hurt the circulation figures. This rule applied equally to the Soapbox as it did to the comics themselves.
Perhaps the entertaining aspect for any keen historian is watching Stan's Soapbox try to put a positive spin on the revolving door Marvel Editor-in-Chief position during the 1970's. Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway, Archie Goodwin cycled through the position before and Jim Shooter finally settled in. In each case, Stan sings the praises of the departing E-I-C (as they head off to pursue their writing goals). No mention is made of the vicious infighting nor the stress-induced nervous breakdown which each suffered in their turn.
Sadly, the rest of Stan's Soapbox is either self-congratulatory summaries of his latest college lecture, or blatant marketing fluff for current and upcoming products – specifically for all of Stan's pet projects. Origins of Marvel Comics, Son of Origins of Marvel Comics and the other Fireside books were promoted ad nauseum over the course of nearly two years. Then when Stan attempted to court the C-listers and has-beens of Hollywood in his fawning and ill-received "CELEBRITY" magazine, his Soapbox followed him.
When Lee began his two-decade struggle to pitch live-action and cartoon material on the screens, Stan's Soapbox was read and willing each month to tout the next, greatest project. All-to-often these bombastic visions fizzled out to nothing, and were discreetly never mentioned again. For maximum ironic effect, try reading "Stan's Soapbox: The Collection" side-by-side with Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
To be fair, Stan does acknowledge his huckster tendencies. In (SS May '78), Stan promises to try and ease off on the shameless shilling, after a fan complained about it during a lecture. And for a couple of months, Lee did indeed attempt to return to more serious issues – e.g. (SS Feb '79) he discusses the differences between Marvel and DC. Mind you, the early days of knocking "Brand Ecchs" are long gone, especially with the Spider-Man/Superman collaborative project, so Stan is carefully respectful in his writing on this topic.
But it doesn't last long. Sure (SS Mar '79) describes the origins of Irving Forbush. But the next month we're back to promoting the NBC cartoons (which Jack Kirby was working on at the time), and nothing has really changed.
All in all, the book features 144 columns over 14 years for a grand total of 46,000 words. The book is high-quality print format, and well assembled (I noticed only one spelling error in the entire thing).
This book is a love-letter to Silver and Bronze Age Marvel, not a historical investigation.
If you have any interest in the history of Marvel Comics, this collection is an excellent piece of indirect reference material. It may be that truth in this advertising is hard to find, but the enthusiastic white lies are fascinating in their own right.
I'll give it Four Webs.
The far more accurate version of the events of these times can be found in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, or in Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book.