Stan Lee, who turned 95 last week, still commands the center spotlight as the greatest living ambassador of comics. His towering presence as editor and showman runs through two of the most notable books from last year about the superhero industry.
The lore about the longtime Marvel mastermind abounds, as tales of Lee’s professional rise, the iconic 1960s characters born under his editorship and his push into Hollywood enliven scores of recent books. Of those, Sean Howe’s “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story” is one of the most illuminating; and the illustrated “Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir,” by Peter David, Colleen Doran and Lee himself, is one of the most entertaining.
Joining that shelf is “Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel” by cultural historian Bob Batchelor (Rowman & Littlefield), which neatly threads together so many Lee stories - and they are not always entirely consistent in Lee’s own retellings.
Batchelor takes us from Stanley Martin Lieber’s humble origins in Manhattan and the Bronx - his father, born in Romania in 1886, fled the pogroms and had landed at New York’s harbor in 1905 - through the Depression, as Lee’s mother urges him to complete his schooling quickly so he can work to help the struggling family.
From there, Batchelor notes the foggy variations on how Lee progressed from high school to Timely Comics, Marvel’s predecessor, as run by a relative of Lee’s. As Batchelor writes: “Many episodes in Lieber’s early life are shrouded in ambiguity,” and his Timely hiring to assist Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who were on the verge of creating Captain America, involved “both a bit of mystery and a touch of mythmaking.”
Where Batchelor succeeds most is fleshing out the settings and context along the narrative spine of Lee’s life. To understand Lee’s emerging choices as a teenager, for instance, is to comprehend the rise of the pulp book business, the branching out of comic strip publishing and the convergence of colorful men looking to make a buck after World War I, even if it meant making connections with the Mob. Superheroes are first embraced by American readers not yet economically lifted by the postwar boom.
“The Man Behind Marvel” is a thorough primer for the newcomer to the tale of Lee’s legendary 1960s rise. Batchelor delves into not only how Lee worked as an editor - the creative freedom he gave many artists worked to his advantage, too - but also how he built himself into a celebrity brand synonymous with the Marvel name.
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Batchelor’s biography serves the reader well till the 1990s - at which point, you might want to switch over to “Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC,” by freelance entertainment writer Reed Tucker (Da Capo). Although Tucker’s book spans about a half-century, the work particularly comes to life once the 1990s arrive, as the author often relies on the very words of creators and editors who are still working today.
“Slugfest” is at its best when it becomes a virtual oral history of the Big Two comics publishers after Frank Miller and Alan Moore alter the entire industry in the mid-80s through their epic Batman and Watchmen titles. (The incisive words from comics-makers help lend heft to Tucker’s breezy tone, too.) The author traces how Marvel was on the verge of conceivable extinction by the late 1990s, setting up the turn-of-the-century decisions we see playing out today.
“Slugfest” is a book best appreciated by those who have a true curiosity about, say, the motivations and controversies of such comics executives as former DC editor Paul Levitz and onetime Marvel editor Joe Quesada, the latter of whom gave an especially incendiary and divisive interview to my former Washington Post colleague Sridhar Pappu, published in the New York Observer in 2002. Leaders help raise or lower the tempers between the empires. Just as comic-book series cycle from inspired to tired, the dynamics between DC and Marvel run good to bad and back, with noted periods of detente and creative crossovers to mine comics-”event” stunts for money.
“Slugfest” feels very much in its comfort zone when covering the past two decades, as “Men in Black” became a huge box-office hit of a small-comic adaptation, and as X-Men and Spider-Man finally found their way to the screen after years of less-than-savvy Hollywood deal making by Marvel, and right as effects technology finally caught up to Spidey’s cinematic needs.
We are sure to see a new wave of these behind-the-comics scenes books, especially as the multibillion-dollar superhero film industry now generates daily coverage of its every casting twitch and creative feint. (How soon till the definitive Kevin Feige bio-tome arrives?) For now, though, it’s pleasurable to follow the industry roots back to the men and women who first shaped the superhero comics page, over long hours for modest page rates.
Where there was ink, there was money. Whether the profits are flowing or drying up, comics - as these two books remind - are as deeply human and flawed as any other great American enterprise.