Evenhanded and readable biography of comic maestro Lee and, through him, a history of the genre.
In 1940, 18-year-old Stanley Lieber—smart, ambitious, raised in poverty—went to work at cousin Martin Goodman’s Timely (later, Marvel) Publishing. Goodman had moderate success imitating the pulps and comics of market leaders, and Lieber, now Stan Lee, was soon running the comics division. An accomplished and well-liked hack, his hucksterish self-promotion was smiled at until characters like Spiderman and the Fantastic Four became hugely popular in the early ’60s. Working with now-legendary artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee revived the anemic superhero genre using the “Marvel Method”: he supplied outlines instead of detailed scripts, and the artists freely changed plots and characters, leaving Lee to write in dialogue afterward. Everything appeared under the rubric “Stan Lee Presents,” and Lee often took credit no matter who thought of what; in the small world of comics, years of controversy ensued. As the Marvel Universe became a money-making machine, Lee wrote less and promoted more. Company policy made him its sole public representative; he was management, the artists were freelancers, so it was in Marvel’s copyright interest to have all characters credited to Lee. Spurgeon and Raphael fondly but firmly supply all the details, correcting some of Lee’s own accounts and assigning credit to others where due. (Non-fanatics will find this occasionally lends a—possibly unavoidable—tempest-in-a-teapot tone.) On Lee’s watch, the comics gained a self-aware sense of humor, and superheroes revealed feet of clay, but seen here in context, he was more manager than creator of these genuine innovations, more huckster than genius.
Alternative comics are shortchanged, European and Japanese comics don’t even exist in this Marvel-centric account, but it will probably stand as the definitive history of this particular slice of American popular culture.