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Excelsior! – ‘Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel’

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There’s a compelling argument to be made – and many have made it – that comic books serve as the mythology of contemporary American culture. These brightly-colored, spandex-clad archetypes of good and evil have become ubiquitous, a pop culture pantheon that serves as a common reference point spanning generations.

None have contributed as mightily to that mythology as Stan Lee. As the driving force behind Marvel Comics, the characters that he brought to the fore - the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk and, perhaps most impactful of all, Spider-Man – have become utterly interwoven with the American cultural experience. While DC characters such as Superman and Batman – with the advantage of a few decades – might have a bit more reach, there’s no disputing that Lee’s creations taken together take the cake with regards to cultural cachet.

Cultural historian Bob Batchelor offers up a longer, lingering look at Lee’s life with “Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel” (Rowman & Littlefield, $22.95). He follows Lee from his youth as Stanley Lieber growing up in Depression-era New York City through his midcentury comic book successes all the way to his current place as a sort of elder statesman of superheroes.

Born in 1922, Lee grew up as a child of the Depression, watching as his father Jack – a dress cutter – struggled to find work. Seeing the strain that lack of employment placed on the relationship between his parents imparted to Lee a tireless work ethic that would help turn him into a creative dynamo who would continue working well into his 90s.

Lee was just a teenager when he wound up working as an assistant at publisher Martin Goodman’s new Timely Comics. A nepotistic hire – Lee’s cousin was married to Goodman – he started out doing low-level stuff, filling inkwells and whatnot. But he soon found himself thrust into the world of comic book writing, penning his first story – some filler for a Captain America issue – in 1941. Not long after, when editor Joe Simon took his leave, a 19-year-old Lee found himself in the editor’s chair.

He spent some time in the Army during World War II, working on comics the whole time. Comics weren’t all about superheroes back then – he did westerns, romances, horror books … really, whatever Goodman thought might help him make a buck.

It wasn’t until the early 1960s when Lee, working alongside comic art legend Jack Kirby, would enter into perhaps the most impactful creative stretch in the last century of popular culture. In rapid succession, Lee would create (for the company now known as Marvel Comics) iconic characters like the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men, Doctor Strange … and a lonely teenaged bookworm named Peter Parker who was bitten by a radioactive spider and turned into your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

(The ongoing debate regarding credit for the creation of these characters and how it should be distributed between Lee and Kirby is touched on here; Lee’s version has proven malleable over the years and Kirby is no longer with us to offer his side. Suffice it to say, both men had a hand and Lee’s contribution, while maybe not all-encompassing, is undeniably significant.)

From there, we follow the rising and falling of Lee and the Marvel empire. We watch as Lee becomes the face of Marvel, a real and tangible connection between the company and the fans that contributes mightily to the publisher’s popularity. Even as the company struggled through the collector boom-and-bust of the early 90s and the bankruptcy of a few years later, Lee remained part of the picture, a sort of elder statesman.

And of course, in his twilight years, Lee has become an icon in his own right, a living piece of comics history whose omnipresence in the films featuring his creations has introduced the man to whole new generations of fans.

“Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel” gives fans a glimpse at the nuts and bolts of Lee’s rise to the top of his industry. It’s an opportunity to understand just what it took to bring this roster of heroes to life – the risks necessary to capture the reward. His efforts to bring comics into the mainstream span over half a century; it’s safe to say that without him, our pop cultural landscape today is a very different place.

Batchelor looks at Lee’s relationships with his colleagues and his characters; he also explores the nature of America’s connection with comic books and how superheroes have become an integral part of the American mythos.

“Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel” is a bright, easy read. It’s engaging, candid and informative; Batchelor does a good job of avoiding any dip into hagiography. Instead, we get a vivid and readable portrait of a man whose decades-ago vision continues to shape mainstream culture in ways he never could have anticipated.

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