APRIL 21, 2018
STAN LEE WAS FINISHED with comics. “We’re writing nonsense,” he once told his wife Joan. “It’s a stupid business for a grownup to be in.” After riding the early success of comic books, Lee was concerned about the future of the medium. He wanted to write more intelligent stories, something adults could connect to.
Following his wife’s advice, Lee decided to write one last story. With characters that were grounded in reality, stories that channeled Cold War tensions, and a narrative influenced by popular science fiction, Lee created the Fantastic Four. This was the type of story Lee would have wanted to read. If it was successful, maybe he would stick with comics a little longer.
Popular culture historian Bob Batchelor’s latest book turns a critical eye on the life of Lee, who ultimately became “the man behind Marvel.” Batchelor’s Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel focuses on where Lee came from, what influenced him, and how he became the immortal face of the comic book industry. In other words, to use the vernacular of the superhero genre, Batchelor gives us Lee’s origin story.
Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber in New York City, 1922. His parents were among the 2.7 million Jewish immigrants to the United States between 1875 and 1924. Growing up during the difficult post–World War I years and the early part of the Great Depression, Lee has many memories of his parents fighting over their struggles to get by. A Sunday-night NBC radio show called The Chase and Sanborn Hour provided a rare break from despair. Additional diversions came from Lee’s mother, Celia, who encouraged reading, education, and creativity during a time when many other families put their children to work.
Lee was interested in reading, writing, and drawing, but comic books were not yet an established medium. Though Lee certainly read the comic strips in the newspapers, he was enthralled by the action films of Errol Flynn and Tarzan movie serials. Watching stories unfold on the big screen undoubtedly planted seeds Lee would later harvest for content. Batchelor, a cultural historian as well as a biographer, provides readers with a useful picture of the era in which Lee grew up. The influence of the movie serials can easily be seen in the development of comics in general and Lee’s writing in particular. Short and punchy adventure stories, cliffhanger narratives, and strong heroes would all be central to Lee’s work.
Through the 1930s, Lee’s family continued to struggle, as unemployment remained around 19 percent. Lee found work to support his family. His father’s long battle to find stable employment had a deep impact on Lee, who would forever prioritize work and career over all else. This strong work ethic would pay off when Lee graduated from high school and landed a job at Timely Comics as an assistant to comics legends Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the creators of Captain America. Simon and Kirby, under publisher Martin Goodman, brought the newly branded Marvel Comics into the mainstream, selling nearly one million copies of the first issue of Captain America, whose soon-to-be-iconic cover showed the hero punching Adolf Hitler.
This job allowed Lee to watch the industry in action, form opinions about its operation, and decide what path he should pursue. Eventually Simon and Kirby allowed Lee to write a story for Captain America Comics #3 (May 1941), and his iconic pen name was introduced to the world. As the legend has it, Lee wanted to save his real name for a future novel.
Lee’s story led to more opportunities in an era when the comics industry demanded frequent content. Quickly moving up the ranks, Lee would begin writing longer stories and editing other writers’ work. Still a teenager, Stanley Lieber had become Stan Lee, a rising star in the comics publishing business. His luck continued after an unclear turn of events that ended with Simon and Kirby’s ouster and Lee’s promotion to head of Goodman’s comics division.
During World War II, Lee served in the United States Army Signal Corps (focusing on communication), remained stationed in the United States, and continued to improve his writing skills. Marvel hired someone to fill in for Lee when he was completing his army duties, which included a stint in the training film division where Frank Capra was also working. There Lee fine-tuned his writing skills through work on scripts and instruction manuals, in addition to editing film and drawing up promotional posters. It was during this time that Lee saw the potential of the mass media to both entertain and educate audiences.
During the postwar years, comics saw a growth in readership even as audiences began turning away from superheroes and toward pulp crime stories, Westerns, and female-centered genres like the romance (first adapted for comics by Simon and Kirby). To make matters worse, there was a growing trend of anti-comics crusading. Batchelor discusses the National Organization for Decent Literature and Fredric Wertham, the famed psychologist who wrote Seduction of the Innocent (1954), as major players in the growing distrust of comics.
Lee toiled to survive the cultural firestorm and massive decline in sales that left many in the comics industry looking for new work. After a series of failed projects, Lee reached out to other successful comics creators such as Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, and began brainstorming ideas for new stories. Lee had ideas for getting comics back into the superhero genre — ideas which started with a vision of cosmic rays that would end up part of the Fantastic Four.
Lee’s new vision for superhero narratives was characterized by a focus on realism. He wanted to “make the unreal real,” because if you “[p]lop an earthly superhero into a familiar setting […] you’ve got some classic pulp fiction.” Lee’s stories would incorporate relatable characters and current events, combining the fantastic and the everyday. While unsure if the Fantastic Four would connect with readers, Lee and his collaborator Kirby took a chance on their new concept and were rewarded with booming sales. Batchelor contends that this was a watershed moment that saved the comic book industry from collapse.
Lee’s publisher, Martin Goodman, had been known to jump quickly on any potential trend. With the success of the Fantastic Four, Lee could justify investing more time in superhero characters. His next major addition to the genre, this time working with Ditko, would be Spider-Man, who made his first appearance in 1962. While Goodman balked at both the character’s name and the unlikeliness of a teenage superhero, Lee pressed on, following up the enormously successful character with Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and the X-Men. “You just don’t stop when you’re on a winning streak,” Lee said.
Lee’s next step was to improve Marvel’s marketing, which he did by including publication updates, author biographies, and gossip about the industry in the back of new comics. Lee and his team took Marvel from a circulation of 18 million in 1961 to 32 million in 1965. Fan clubs began popping up on college campuses, television executives started to call (leading to several animated programs based on Marvel characters), and Lee appeared on The Dick Cavett Show. Lee’s characters struck a major chord with readers and brought in new fans daily. As the cultural tensions of the 1960s were peaking, Lee gave the world comics capable of changing with the times.
After surviving a company buyout, Lee continued to push the educational and cultural value of comics. While some readers wanted to escape from the troubling times in which they lived, Lee felt that it was his duty to use the comics platform for good. In his work he took on the topics of war, peace, rebellion, and civil rights. Though he engaged in some trial and error in his efforts to connect with the younger generation, Lee ultimately changed the industry with the release of The Amazing Spider-Man #96, a 1971 story which featured a subplot about a drug overdose. The Comics Code Authority (CCA) had rules against any mention of drugs, even in an anti-drug context. New issues from publishers always displayed CCA approval, but Lee ducked the seal and prioritized his message. The issue was successful and gave Marvel new freedom to explore more grown-up story lines.
But even with the new, adult readership that Lee cultivated, Marvel — like all comics companies — experienced the problem of declining readership. Lee had risen to the rank of publisher at Marvel by 1972, but the comics market, especially the market for superheroes, was stagnating, and at the end of the decade he went looking elsewhere for new avenues of production. This meant Hollywood.
Moving from New York City to Los Angeles promised many new opportunities. However, Lee experienced only minimal success bringing his creations to film and television in the 1970s and 1980s. The Incredible Hulk television series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno was perhaps his biggest breakthrough, but it was cancelled by 1982. A spin-off focused on She-Hulk also had a brief run. What kept Lee in his position was that he had become the eternal face of Marvel Comics. Fans surrounded him everywhere he went, and despite growing financial troubles back in New York, Lee and his smiling face continued to represent Marvel throughout the decade.
The 1990s were an even stranger decade: Marvel survived another merger, and Lee’s salary tripled, but plans to make major feature films with Marvel characters continued to stall. Adult graphic novels such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen had, in the mid-1980s, continued to expand the adult audience for comics, and, following the massive successes of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, and massive sales of DC’s comic book The Death of Superman (1992), superheroes occupied an even larger slice of the mass cultural consciousness. Lee continued to push projects and make connections in Hollywood, hoping to follow DC’s success on the big screen.
The rest of the story is what fans today are most familiar with: the current string of successful Marvel films, TV shows, video games, and comics. X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) kicked off a major genre boom that paved the way for the current megafranchise featuring Marvel’s heroes (although not the X-Men, whose film rights are owned by 20th Century Fox, and only recently Spider-Man, following a deal with Sony to bring that character into the Marvel Cinematic Universe). Lee himself, following in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, makes cameos in every film featuring Marvel characters, and he has at this point become the face of both Marvel and comics fandom.
Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel shows us how Lee became a larger-than-life icon. However, Batchelor doesn’t want us to forget that Lee began as a strong and innovative writer. Spider-Man was not just a successful title — it changed how the industry wrote superheroes. As Lee has said, Spider-Man is “a state of mind. He symbolizes the secret dreams, fears, and frustrations that haunt us all.” Batchelor shows us that fans have long connected to Lee for the same reasons they relate to his characters: his accessible persona that makes Lee as available to fans as the comics on the shelves.
Batchelor shares this enthusiasm for his subject. Unlike many fans, however, Batchelor was able to sit down with Lee and have meaningful conversations about his life. “Meeting Lee,” Batchelor writes,
one senses that his public persona grew out of a teenage desire to be an actor and later morphed into a kind of celebrity identity that enabled him to play up the brash, New York City attitude that he saw all around him in his youth.
Lee’s coming of age during and after the Great Depression, and his induction into the service just as his career was taking off, provided the necessary chops to play the rugged tough guy.
However, Batchelor admits that the “caricature […] falls by the wayside in one-on-one conversation,” where “Lee is thoughtful and reflective, answering questions as if after all these years he still can’t believe his good fortune or why the fans line up to see him by the hundreds and thousands.” Lee’s modesty is one of the many reasons fans love him: he is both a giant in his trade and himself a passionate fan. It is this accessible, down-to-earth persona that Batchelor captures so well in his biography.
While Lee has already penned his autobiography — which appeared, as one might expect, in comic book form — there was, before Batchelor’s contribution, no serious book-length study of this enormously influential figure. Comics, like many entertainment mediums, regularly have to be defended in academic circles as a serious field of study. Drawing from the Stan Lee archives at the University of Wyoming, Batchelor shows readers why both Lee and comics are essential to the cultural history of the United States.
Like many figures of the entertainment industry before him, Lee has printed his own legend for fans to enjoy. Comics readers and Marvel film fans are already familiar with his larger-than-life persona, which he has inhabited longer than many of us have been alive. It is difficult to imagine Lee as simply a regular person. Batchelor’s book introduces us to the everyman behind the icon and describes how Stan Lee became Stan Lee, or rather how Stanley Lieber became Stan Lee. The Man Behind Marvel provides an excellent introduction for new fans and a fascinating, humanizing read for those who only know Lee as the living legend he has become.