boston.com Arts & Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
BOOK REVIEW

Bio shows comics legend to be a marvel himself

Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book

By Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon

Chicago Review Press, 304 pp., with photos, $24.95

The opening line -- "Stan Lee is one of the most important figures in American popular culture" -- sounds exactly like the kind of breathless speech-bubble hyperbole one would expect in an examination of comic books and the people who make them.

Yet by the final page of "Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book," there is no questioning Lee's rightful place as a pop visionary. In their entertaining, persuasive book, authors Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon assert that Lee "helped build a formidable entertainment empire" with characters as indelible as those created by George Lucas, who filmed "Star Wars"; Gene Roddenberry, creator of "Star Trek"; and "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling.

Indeed, as the head writer and editor for Marvel Comics for nearly 30 years, Lee cocreated such iconic characters as Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, and the Fantastic Four.

He shepherded the company through its most fertile era, when comic books, glorious four-color slices of life, were a mainstay of childhood entertainment. Lee was an early advocate of women in the male-dominated industry, pushed for more female and minority lead characters within Marvel's pages, and helped mold superheroes who were made poignant by their all-too-human failings.

Almost as noteworthy has been Lee's position as the comic book company's grinning, indefatigable cheerleader, the human face of the mighty Marvel Universe. "Lee is renowned variously as a dazzling writer, a skilled editor, a prodigious talent, a relentless self-promoter, a credit hog, and a huckster, a man equal parts P. T. Barnum and Walt Disney," the authors write.

And it's these lesser traits that have been a bone of contention in the comic-book industry for years. Lee has always received most of the credit for Marvel's success, and his achievements, while considerable, have long overshadowed the contributions of his equally talented collaborators, especially artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

Yet this isn't a book rife with recriminations. Even as the authors bestow credit where it is deserved, they celebrate Lee's role in revitalizing comic books, which were as popular among kids in the 1960s and 1970s as video games and the Internet are today.

Lee was born Stanley Lieber in 1922, the son of poor Jewish-Romanian immigrants living in New York. As an escape from his family's difficult life -- and his hard-willed father -- Lee turned to pulp novels and later to action and adventure films when he could scrounge up the 25-cent movie admission.

In high school, Lee fancied a career as a writer. Unable to afford college, he drifted through a series of jobs until a relative offered him a spot as an assistant -- a glorified gofer -- at Timely Publications, which put out Marvel Comics. The job paid $8 a week and, with nothing better to do, Lee accepted.

What Lee lacked in knowledge about comic-book publishing, he made up for with boundless ambition. He was soon submitting his own stories, completing two or three a week. (He made more money, as writers were paid by the page.) A year later, after a messy managerial shake-up, Lee was named editorial director, ushering Marvel into worldwide renown.

While the authors interviewed Lee for this book, his cooperation didn't earn him a pass on his controversies -- namely, hogging attention to the detriment of his collaborators. Now 80, Lee, as Marvel's chairman emeritus, "is almost certainly paid more to talk about characters than Marvel pays the artists and writers who currently bring them to life," the authors write. (Among Lee's current projects is "Stripperella," an animated Spike TV series with Pamela Anderson.)

Still, it's always clear that Lee sought to elevate Marvel's profile as much as his own. With Lee at the helm, Marvel became a ubiquitous brand name, synonymous with all comics regardless of publisher, much as Kleenex has become an all-purpose name for tissues. For this, Lee deserves praise -- just not as much as he has received for decades.

"Stan Lee stands larger than life, lighter than air, and thinner than the pulp on which he made his name -- a disposable product that better exists in our collective memories than under the yellowing light of serious examination," the authors write. "But, thanks in large part to Marvel Comics, we expect our heroes to have feet of clay."

SEARCH GLOBE ARCHIVES
 
Globe Archives Sale Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months