The Amazing Life of Stan Lee

Stan Lee and George Mair
Boxtree. London. 2002.
Hbk. 247 pages.  £18.99.

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Even if you are a not a comicbook fan you will probably be familiar with Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four, which all came tumbling from the mind of Stan Lee. Here Stan Lee and George Mair take turns in telling the story of Lee’s life and career in comics, which turns out to be as colourful as his own creations.

He began life in a poor New York family - his Father spent all his time looking for employment. When Lee was in High School he had lots of part-time jobs, one was writing celebrity obituary notices for a news service but he stopped doing it because it was too depressing. His big break into comicbook writing came when he got a job with Timely comicbooks, which was owned by Martin Goodman who was a distant relative.

He progressed from writing a short story for Captain America #3 in May 1941 to running the department by the end of the year. This was meant to be a temporary arrangement but Martin Goodman soon gave up trying to replace him. At Timely all types of comicbooks were produced, Lee notes ‘ I was probably the ultimate, quintessential hack. If Westerns were the popular thing, I wrote Western scripts. If mysteries were what Martin thought would sell, mysteries were what I wrote.’

From 1942 to 1945 he served in the US Signal Corps where he wrote instruction manuals, posters and scripts for instructional films. He still wrote comicbook stories in his spare time and when he was discharged he returned to Timely where crime stories became all the rage. He kept busy writing and editing comicbooks of all types but he became disenchanted with churning out material that was following trends laid down by other companies. His dienchantment was increased by the fact that comicbooks were either ignored or regarded as the very lowest art form imaginable.

He was on the verge of leaving Goodman’s company when he was given the chance to create a new superhero title. Instead of stories that even young children could follow Lee decided to create comicbook stories that would attract older readers. Thus came issue 1 of The Fantastic Four in November 1961. This was so successful that he was given reign to create more super heroes and sales of their titles doubled.

With the super hero books doing so well Goodman changed the company name to Marvel Comics in mid-1963. Unfortunately, as the titles got more successful Goodman got colder towards Lee. By the end of the 1960s Goodman sold-off his ownership of Marvel and by the 1970s Lee became the publisher of the company and travelled the world to promote the Marvel Universe.

At the end of the 1970s Lee spent more of his time in Los Angeles to develop films that would include Marvel characters. In 1980 he and his wife and daughter, moved from New York to Los Angeles, so that he could concentrate on this side of the business completely. Two low-budget movies, Captain America and The Punisher were made but he had more trouble getting Spider-Man to the big screen. It went through many different companies that created a tangle of agreements and lawsuits. At one stage James Cameron was hired for 3 million dollars to produce a script but through the tangle of lawsuits and bankruptcy of various companies this version didn’t get to our screens.

There are many fascinating stories here about the creative and business ups and downs that have influenced Stan Lee and the comicbook trade in general. Stan Lee comes across as a workaholic, larger-than-life character who has weathered these ups and downs and continues push movie and TV projects through his own POW! Entertainment company.

Nigel Watson
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