Bob Batchelor, Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). $22.95, hc.
Ask any true believer who Stan Lee is and you’ll get the following responses:
• The face of Marvel Comics.
• The creator of The Fantastic Four, X-Men, and The Avengers.
• The old man appearing in the Marvel superhero films.
Stan Lee is all of these things—and a whole lot more. In his book, Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel,Miami University professor Bob Batchelor explores the life of this pop culture icon. Batchelor’s biography covers Lee’s formative years, as well as the different acts in Lee’s professional life: journeyman comic book writer, master comic book editor and creator, corporate comic executive, and superhero media celebrity.
This book fills a glaring hole within discussions of the Marvel legend. Apart from books discussing Lee as part of the history of Marvel Comics (such as Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Storyand Ronin Ro’s Tales to Astonish), the only other study of Lee’s life is Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon’s Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book. The rest of the books written about Lee’s life fall into two camps: Lee’s own autobiographies and memoirs or biographies written for the young adult market.
Batchelor’s book lives up to its subtitle by focusing on the man, separating Lee from his legend. In taking this approach, Batchelor crafts an image of Lee culled from a multitude of published interviews and autobiographical sources of Lee and his contemporaries, as well as unpublished archival material from the Stan Lee Papers at the University of Wyoming. The benefit of Batchelor’s book is that he distills these myriad sources into a readable format. Perhaps more importantly, Batchelor provides a fuller view of some events in Lee’s life by telling these events both from Lee’s perspective, as well as from the perspective of his contemporaries. By using multiple perspectives, Batchelor allows the reader to make up their own minds on how to interpret those events.
For instance, take Lee’s possible role in the firing of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon from Timely (later Marvel) Comics in 1941. Batchelor first presents Kirby’s view of events: Lee discovered Kirby and Simon were moonlighting for DC while they were on the clock for Timely. Lee supposedly ratted them out to Goodman, who fired the duo and made Lee Timely’s editor. He then presents Lee’s view on events: Timely Comics publisher Martin Goodman fired the duo for moonlighting, although Lee suspected something else was behind it because he confides, “Truth is, I never knew exactly why they left. I only knew this: it was suddenly my job to be in charge of comics” as Timely’s new editor (29). Finally, Batchelor presents Simon’s view: it was an open secret that Kirby and Simon moonlighted for DC and possibly Goodman wanted to replace Kirby and Simon, the creators of Captain America, with “Lee or some other creative team [who] could take over the franchise” and be paid less money (29).
The above example demonstrates another strength of this biography: Batchelor focuses on the economics driving Marvel Comics and the business decisions that informed Lee’s creative decision-making. According to Batchelor, Marvel Comics was often on shaky financial ground because of the boom-bust cycle of comics, as well as the competitive nature of the business. That competitive nature affected its business arrangements and influenced its comic output. One such arrangement was the distribution deal Atlas (later Marvel) Comics made with DC’s distributor, Independent News. Atlas Comics’ regular distributor, American News Company (ANC), suddenly shut down its comic book distribution system in 1957. Atlas was forced to go with Independent News in order to stay in business and signed a harsh contract with its new distributor. The contract meant that for the next ten years “Atlas could only publish eight comic books per month” (61). The result of this limited distribution explains why Goodman cancelled the first run of The Incredible Hulk to make room for a promising super-hero that Lee has just previewed—Spider-Man (85-86).
Batchelor also spends a fair amount of time discussing the working dynamics of Lee with Marvel publisher Martin Goodman. Their relationship was complex and difficult at times and directly influenced the type of comics that Lee could produce. According to Batchelor, Goodman was not ambitious; he liked to capitalize on publishing trends, not create them. As a result, Goodman sometimes did not see eye-to-eye with Lee’s creative vision. When Lee pitched the idea of Spider-Man to Goodman, Goodman flatly turned the idea down because teenagers were superhero sidekicks. Putting his career on the line, Lee violated Goodman’s orders and published Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy, a comic book slated to be discontinued. When Spider-Man received bags of fan mail, Goodman came to Lee and said, “Stan, remember that Spider-Man idea of yours that I liked so much? Why don’t we turn it into a series?” (85).
Business decisions make up a chunk of the later chapters as Batchelor recounts Marvel’s economic woes in the 1970s, the various companies that bought Marvel, and Lee’s attempts to maintain a creative output amidst changing corporate pressures. Also fascinating is the torturous route that Lee took to get Marvel superheroes onto film and television. Not a fan of the early animated efforts of Marvel superheroes, Lee felt “that if Marvel created its own programming, like Disney, that its superheroes would rival Walt’s famous mouse and princesses” (128). Believing in this vision, Lee moved his family to Los Angeles and began a decade-long trek to achieve his dream with the creation of Marvel Studios, which would have full control over their superhero films. Along the way, Lee had many false starts and film projects stall in production before achieving his vision of total control with Marvel Studios’ first Iron Man film.
While this book covers a lot of ground within Lee’s life, its compactness sometimes gets in the way of greater understanding about Lee and the rise of Marvel Comics. I would have liked to see more attention paid to Lee’s work on creating and developing the different characters that make up the Marvel Universe, as well as a little bit more about his personal life. Batchelor goes into detail about the creation of The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, even doing a nice job narrating a key comic book appearance for each of these characters. However, this fanboy would have appreciated another chapter or two about the other characters created during the Marvel Age of Comics. Batchelor also shies away from discussing the complex relationship Lee has with his daughter, J.C. Lee, which could shed some light on their current problems with each other.
Lee’s life is as amazing as the superheroes he had a hand in creating and this volume raises interest in aspects of Lee’s life that other writers and scholars will explore in more detail. This book is a valuable resource for both the comic scholar interesting in Marvel’s Silver Age, as well as the lay reader who wants to know the story behind that old man who appears in all those Marvel superhero films.