I come to this book less as a Marvel fan and more as someone interested in the history of pop culture. Given the recent explosion of superhero films, Stan Lee has come to rank as one of the most important figures in pop culture history. Yet, I realized I knew remarkably little about him. I’ve enjoyed some of the Marvel movies, but had never read any of Stan Lee’s comics.
Bob Batchelor’s new biography is a good start for the uninitiated. He provides a comprehensive overview of Stan Lee’s life and work. It’s a largely sympathetic – but not uncritical – biography of a man who brimmed with creative energy and occasionally made bad financial deals.
As somebody who’d never read Marvel comics, Batchelor’s explanation for why Marvel became so popular during the 1960s helped me better understand their appeal. Part of the problem was that I lacked context. Batchelor explains what the comics industry was like before Stan Lee (generally dry and stuck chasing the latest fads). Starting with the Fantastic Four, Lee brought three innovations to Marvel. First, he wrote characters who acted like real people with real problems, not godlike superheroes. Second, he wrote lighthearted dialogue interspersed with witty banter. Third, and perhaps most important, Lee cultivated the Marvel fanbase by telling fans about the Marvel team, giving speeches on college campuses, and responding to fan mail.
Of course, this “Marvel Method” took the world by storm and catapulted Spiderman and other Marvel characters into pop culture icons. However, Batchelor also chronicles some of Lee’s less successful ventures. Lee had a notoriously difficult relationship with artist Jack Kirby, who deserves at least some of the credit for creating Marvel’s icons. Batchelor doesn’t exactly take Lee’s side, but he’s much more sympathetic to Lee’s position than Kirby’s. Lee also struggled to develop intellectual properties and business ventures outside Marvel.
One thing that’s oddly missing from this book is a look at Stan Lee the man. This biography focuses almost exclusively on Stan Lee’s professional life. Batchelor mentions Stan’s personal life almost in passing, and we learn almost nothing about Joan, his wife around 70 years. The book doesn’t contain many amusing or surprising anecdotes about Stan from friends or former colleagues. I don’t know if people weren’t willing to talk – after all, Lee is still alive – or if Batchelor simply didn’t have access to those sources. One almost gets the sense that Batchelor’s biography is of the showman persona that Lee carefully crafted rather than of the man himself.
If you’re interested in the roots of the 21st century’s biggest pop culture phenomenon, Batchelor’s biography of Stan Lee is a great place to start. It’s accessible to readers who’ve never read a comic book, but I’m sure Marvel fans will enjoy learning more about the man behind the legend.
[Note: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review]