I’m old enough to remember Stan’s Soapbox and to have the Origins of and Son of Origins of Marvel trades on my shelf. I’ve known Stan Lee as the mastermind of my favourite comic universe my whole life. His trademark wit and that infectious grin have both been synonymous in my mind with the Marvel Universe since long before “The Man” started popping up twice a year in his Marvel Cinematic Universe cameos. To me, Stan Lee has always been as much a character as his creations, a larger than life fictional version of himself, not the very real and, dare I say, uncanny creative mind presented in fantastic detail by Bob Batchelor in his extensively researched biography: Stan Lee, the Man Behind Marvel.
Batchelor takes us back to Lee’s childhood, starting in the Depression era of New York City. He follows the journey of not just young Stanley Lieber, but his family and the culture around him. He describes Stan in his time writing short pieces for the US Military during the war, including educational pieces on STDs, right into his start in comics, writing teen romance and sci-fi stories.
The book invites us to learn about the world of comics that Marvel emerged from, how Lee was tasked with creating a pantheon of heroes to compete with DC Comics and the Justice League, and how he turned this challenge into the Fantastic Four. How this and his other creations spawned from the seemingly limitless drive Lee had to create and innovate within a genre he wasn’t always comfortable being a part of.
Absolute credit must be given to Bob Batchelor for the incredible amount of research and dedication to detail he has given this book. In what can only be described as a labour of love, he draws out a portrait of Lee, his motivations and relationships and his place in the pop culture landscape. He moves through his tumultuous but spectacular collaboration with legendary artist Jack Kirby, without taking sides and takes us into the legendary Marvel Bullpen, where Lee was crafting up to a dozen different comic books at any given time.
Time is spent on Lee and his post-Marvel works, for good or bad, his internal battles with the company he built, and his later emergence as a pop culture icon, recognizable to fans young and old as the face behind the Marvel Universe.
Perhaps my favourite theme through the book is the importance of Spider-Man. Time and again, we are reminded of just how much of impact the creation of Peter Parker has had on the industry, the genre and on Lee’s life. Using Lee’s own words, Batchelor quotes “Spider-Man is more than a comic strip hero. He’s a state of mind. He symbolizes the secret dreams, fears and frustrations that haunt us all. We all have our hidden daydreams, daydreams in which we’re stronger, swifter and braver than we really are – than we can ever hope to be. But, to Spider-Man, such dreams are reality.”
For anyone, like me that knows more of the myth of Lee than the details, The Man Behind Marvel is a fascinating and revelatory look behind the glasses and mustache at the man behind “The Man.” It places Lee, his life and work on a cultural timeline and provides enough material for someone to write a really interesting biopic about one of the great creative minds of all time.
Get to know the man. He made Marvel his, so you can make it yours. Excelsior!