Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Stan Lee - How Marvel Changed the World, by Adrian Mackinder

"Somehow, Stan always managed to present himself as a modest egomaniac - an art in itself." (p. 168)

These words, from ex-Marvel writer John Tomlinson, come at the end of my friend Adrian Mackinder's fun, breezy and yet authoritative new biography of the great Stan Lee, writer and editor synonymous with Marvel superheroes in comics and more recently on screen.

It's an extraordinary story and there's a lot to pack in given Stan's long and busy life, but - like the best of the superhero movies - it never drags. Adrian's tone is friendly and direct, peppered with Stan-isms, addressing us as "True Believer" and concluding "Nuff Said", and there's a lot of direct quotation from Stan himself, even where his own accounts conflict.

We begin with the relatively humble early life of Stanley Martin Lieber, the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants in New York. A voracious reader, at 17 Stan got an entry-level job in the publishing company run by his cousin's husband Martin Goodman (Stan's uncle also worked there, and soon, too, would his own brother), which among its various titles had only recently begun publishing a superhero one, Marvel Comics. We're not sure exactly what lowly jobs he did, but within a year he'd published a first, text story in Captain America Comics (issue 3, cover date May 1941), and a year after that when Goodman fired star talents Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for skipping hours to work on other publishers' titles, Stan ended up as editor-in-chief, aged just 19. Yet, within months of that, he handed over responsibility to someone else and enlisted in the army.

Adrian's good on sifting the different accounts of how Kirby and Simon lost their jobs - their prior disagreements with Goodman over unpaid royalties, and the never-proven suspicion that Stan may have been involved in how they came to be fired. But it's the non-comics business that made my jaw drop: among the handful of writers Stan worked with in the USASC Army Pictorial Service during the war (Stan claimed there were "eight other men"), were director Frank Capra and artists Charles Addams - later to create The Addams Family - and Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss. Make a film out of that!

After the war, Stan returned to comics, doggedly working in the industry for more than a decade before hitting it big with the superheroes that made him famous. That success came when he was in his 40s, which I must admit is a comfort to this jaded old hack. Adrian's good at placing that success in the context of teenage baby boomers and the counterculture, so you understand why these costumed freaks caught on, and what made Marvel hold its own against or even outsell its competitors.

He's also good on the struggles to push Marvel beyond the printed page, the failed efforts to replicate the success of the Batman TV series of the 60s, Superman movie of the 70s and then Batman in the 80s. As all this was going on, Lee would go for dinner with his old schoolmate Bob Kane - a friendly rivalry between the creators of Batman and Spider-Man. The comics were making a lot of money, but the sense is one of frustration, creative spats, unfulfilled ambition. It's all very male-dominated and embittered, increasingly more so as the profits rise. Stan seems to have stayed largely out of it, or to have forced that steely grin.

I was never much of a Marvel Comics reader and much of the story is new to me, but I was surprised how much Stan and Marvel had a hand in things I did get into - the comic strip version of Star Wars, the TV series Dungeons and Dragons, even My Little Pony of which my daughter is now a devotee. There's a lot on the wider context of publishing and popular culture, even politics where it is relevant. Adrian nicely uses his own childhood experience of reading and collecting comics to explain the bursting bubble in the industry during the mid-90s - and in doing so made me understand why some of my older colleagues lost their jobs at that time. There's a warning here about saturating markets aimed solely at "collectors". It chimes, too, with the recent scandal in football, and the widening split between management and fans.

It all looks pretty gloomy at this point in the story but, like any superhero movie, there's then last-minute salvation with the success of some movies based on Marvel properties (Blade, X-men and Spider-Man) then leading to Marvel producing its own films - to extraordinary success in the last decade. I'm not sure I needed to know which ones Adrian does and doesn't like (he is wrong about Black Panther being "rather overrated"), but he's shrewd on what made the movies work when so many other superhero films didn't, what lessons might be learned from them, and also in not losing perspective.

"The truth is, only a handful of the MCU films are exceptional. Most of them are solid and a few are so-so. But none are objectively terrible." (p.163)

There's a final twist in the closing pages where Adrian addresses the scandals in Stan's closing years with those close to him accused of elder abuse and exploitation. Adrian then digs in to try and make more sense of the real Stanley Lieber rather than the "legend" Stan Lee. He cites a few examples where we get a sense of the man behind the showbiz mask - the "teeth" displayed in a contract negotiation, the sense he could sometimes be rude or have an off day. My clever old boss Ned Hartley is quoted, suggesting that "alienation" and "anxiety" evident in the comics "give a window into Stan's soul" (p. 167). 

All in all, it's an engrossing, insightful book, full of boggling detail and wise analysis. The feeling at the end, I think, is that for all Stan was in the limelight and for all he gave the world in terms of popular culture, he always held something back - and so remains a tantalising mystery.

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