Book: A Marvelous Life – The Amazing Story of Stan Lee
Author: Danny Fingeroth
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
People might know ten film directors or novelists. Maybe even ten painters. But comic book creators? One: Stan Lee
Since the 1960’s, few artists have bestrode pop culture like the ever smiling, omnipresent figurehead of the Marvel Universe, Stan Lee. Whether you’re a superhero genre true believer or if you’re of the opinion that the whole thing is a load of hokey, childish guff, one can’t underestimate the cultural reach of characters and stories developed by Lee, alongside his collaborators, the, at times, under-appreciated Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.
Author Danny Fingeroth, himself an award winning writer and editor at Marvel as well as a noted pop culture historian and critic, skilfully pieces together the incredible life and times of a man who was a tad more complex than the Marvel machine would have you believe.
Born in New York City 1922, the son of Romanian-Jewish immigrants, Stanley Martin Lieber grew up in the multi-cultural Bronx hot house – DeWitt-Clinton High School – alongside author James Baldwin, playwright Paddy Chayefsky and photographer, Richard Avedon and it was at that high school where he developed his prodigious work ethic. By the end of the ’30’s, the teenage Lee had already been writing celebrity obits and publicity materials for the National Jewish Health Hospital before landing a gig at his cousin’s company ‘Timely Comics’ as an assistant to writer/artists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. It wasn’t long before young Stanley’s aspirations were greater than the errand running he’d been tasked with. A wartime stint in Military publicity and information – Fingeroth reveals that Lee’s army classification was shared with only eight others; ‘playwright’ – saw him hone his ‘catchy’ chops with slogans like, ‘VD? Not Me!’.
However, this biography, as with Lee’s own story, really bursts into life when it reaches the early 1960’s. Following the death of its youthful leader, President Kennedy, America was a country asking serious questions of itself. While the hawkish element pushed for conflict in Vietnam, the young found release in the joyous form of The Beatles and Motown, an anti-establishment, non-conformist poet with 8 oz gloves in Muhammad Ali and the bright and bold escapism of Marvel Comics.
Lee, Ditko and Kirby brought their skills, married them to their own diametrically different life experiences, and conjured up characters whose innate shortcomings not only set them apart from the idealised yet two dimensional heroes but mirrored the imperfections of its readers and their parents. And like those flaws, Fingeroth explores the Machiavellian-lite power plays between the main creative trinity. Much has been written about ‘who created what’ and ‘who benefited most’ from the Marvel creations, and in this very detailed biography, Fingeroth does an admirable job in extricating the truth from the myriad of myths built up around the Marvel Universe, but whether this tome convinces you that Lee was the Shakespeare of his day, a remarkable but fortunate front man or a charming but manipulative bullshitter, that’ll be down to your take on artistic creation.
Needless to say though, Marvel wouldn’t be remotely close to the global phenomenon they are today without Lee’s drive, his effervescent passion and enthusiasm. As for business acumen, those Marvel boys had the smarts not to be forced into letting their billion dollar creations go as cheaply as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster did when they gifted all of the rights to their ‘Superman’ creation for the unbelievably paltry sum of $130.
Since the big screen reimagining of ‘Spiderman’ in 2001, the ability of the studios to visually match the most incredible effects to their treasured characters has meant that Marvel has gone on to dominate the box office in a way that few, in the company’s formative years, would’ve believed possible. Lee though, always thought big. There was never a truer believer than Stan Lee. He hung on in there, making cheesy cameos and charming the Spiders from the web until his death in 2018 at the age of 95.
This fine biography shows that behind the trademark glasses and hairpiece, Stan Lee may have been as imperfect as many of the creations he put his name to but like Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and the rest, Stan Lee’s name will remain part of popular culture as long as there are incredible stories to tell.