Few figures in popular culture have been under more critical and biographical microscopes than revolutionary comics writer, editor, and publisher Stan Lee. Of course, since the ‘60s, Lee has been a constant self-promoter providing countless interviews, appearing at numerous conventions, and, along with co-author George Mair, writing his 2002 autobiography, Excelsior!: The Amazing Life of Stan lee. In short, no one would describe Lee as a private man shying away from attention or the limelight.
In addition, there has been no shortage of both appreciations and criticisms of Lee’s work at Marvel; the most exhaustive is likely Sean Howe’s excellent 2012 Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. With all this, is there a need for a new full-length biography of a man whose presence has always been public but perhaps a tad mythologized?
I suppose much depends on how much you already know about the life and legacy of Lee or how much you want to know about the main motor behind Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Avengers. To be fair, Bob Bachelor has done a very professional and well researched job, but many knowledgeable readers won’t learn much if anything new.
Still, if you want to understand the principal creator of the Marvel Universe, this new biography could serve as a one-stop shop. Other than Lee’s own Excelsior, I don’t recall reading in any other source quite as much background tracing Stan Lee’s early years living in poverty during the Great Depression when he was still Stan Lieber. The struggles of his parents left a lifelong impact on Lee, resulting in a strong work ethic and a fear of being unemployed. On top of that childhood foundation, Bachelor clearly demonstrates just how a relentless energy and superlative imagination drove Lee’s career. A bit of luck and being the right man at the right time didn’t hurt either.
Lee’s drive included a lifelong tug to do something more than create comics, like his unfulfilled mission of writing a great novel or working in television and movies. This led, in part, to the success of the Marvel movie franchise but also the financial disaster of SLM, Stan Lee Media. Lee has kept working into his 90s although most of his new projects haven’t had the impact Lee hoped for. Because of this, Bacherlor’s overview of Lee’s later years could contain revelations for readers who know little or nothing about Lee’s non-Marvel work after the glory years of the 1960s.
Bachelor’s history doesn’t include much about Lee’s personal life, leaving the reader with the impression Lee has had a life of enjoyable work but little play or home life. Inevitably, Bachelor had to touch on all the criticisms that Lee is a glory-hound who didn’t give enough credit to artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko for their contributions to Marvel. Bachelor also had to explore all the problems with Stan Lee Media and determines, echoing the court’s findings, Lee just wasn’t on the financial ball as much as he should have been. Bachelor retells the tales of how Lee came up with his ideas for his characters, how he shaped the brand-name of Marvel to appeal to his readers, and provides much information about the business side of Marvel from its roots in Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics up to its current corporate identity.
Bachelor clearly knows what he’s doing, being the author of cultural studies on subjects ranging from Mad Men, John Updike, to The Great Gatsby. If you want someone to provide an objective, outsider’s analysis of the life and work of Stan Lee, then it would be hard to find a cultural historian more qualified than Bachelor. This is especially true for readers who haven’t dived into the story of Marvel comics before. For all fellow baby boomers—remember how Stan the Man used to sign off all those Soapboxes—Excelsior!
This review was first published at BookPleasures.com on July 2, 2017: