writing sample for the agony booth: from a review of “Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book”

With Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, coauthors Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon provide a balanced biography — thorough, yet a concise 300 pages; sympathetic yet markedly non-hagiographic — of not only the titular comics stalwart, shown punching through the comics page like one of his larger-than-life creations in the playful cover illustration; not even just of Marvel Comics, all of whose major events are covered; but of the entirety of the 20th century American comics industry.

The book’s structure tracks the rise and influence of the iconic Stan the Man by chronologically following the life of his real identity Stanley Martin Leiber. From his origin all the way to the then-present of 2003, the ups and downs famous and obscure are all there (including his work in non-superhero genres), interweaved with surrounding industry events. The balance is so even that not a single word of the entire chapter devoted solely to a synopsis of Fantastic Four #1 feels redundant.

Stan Lee’s background is that of many other 20th-century American reshapers of their fields, from Carl Sagan to Howard Zinn to Milton Friedman: the child of a recent-immigrant Jewish family that despite steadily assimilating into mainstream American society left ingrained in them a stubborn, maverick streak. Like Zinn’s, Lee’s Jewish observance was perfunctory and ignored after the obligatory bar mitzvah:

I never believed in religion. I don’t mean the Jewish religion—I mean in religion. To me, faith is the opposite of intelligence, because faith means believing something blindly. I don’t know why God—if there is a God—gave us these brains if we’re going to believe things blindly.

While no rabble-rouser — with seeming risk-taking cannily executed in a “politically safe” manner — Lee’s formative outsider perspective provided him the ability to shift the tone of the superhero genre from the straitlaced earnestness of its original wave of popularity in the 1930s and 1940s to give it a lasting appeal to the more cynical audiences of the 1960s and beyond that eluded most of its contemporaries. For instance, the Hulk inadvertently “became popular on college campuses for its focus on military excesses and inner demons”. Lee’s adult life admittedly follows a relatively undramatic upwardly mobile professional career, albeit one enlivened by his relentless publicity antics.

Raphael and Spurgeon steer a careful course between the various controversies surrounding one of comics’ most polarizing figures. Their scrupulous charity in balancing criticism with credit for Lee’s substantial contributions is quaint by the standards of today’s era of fan venting. On the other hand, there’s plenty of frank discussion of Lee’s flaws that for his detractors would provide ample confirmation. The first paragraph of the front cover blurb calls him “a relentless self-promoter, a credit hog, and a huckster”, and there’s plenty more inside.

In the touchy matter of credit disputes, the coauthors are generous to both Lee and his collaborators. Their careful assessment of Lee’s true creative role cuts the popular perception of Lee as Marvel’s general prime mover down to size — not only in binary collaborations like the Lee-Steve Ditko Spider-Man and the roster of Lee-Jack Kirby characters, but for versions of his cocreations like the X-Men that hit their stride with developments brought after Lee’s authorial or editorial involvement and even “characters he had absolutely no part in creating” — while giving him his due as a collaborator who was able to elicit others’ best work, shining attention on areas in which he had been underrated, such as his “vastly underappreciated editorial career”.

The decade that has elapsed since the book’s publication has made it a benchmark for how far the cultural landscape has changed since. As the “fall” in the subtitle indicates, the tone is surprisingly pessimistic about the future of comics as a medium — “a venerable if now marginal art form” — which is not necessarily contradicted by the snowballing cultural influence of comics falling mostly outside the medium proper itself. This was a reasonable prognosis, given how it was clear that comics would never recover the mass audience and 600-million-copy annual circulations of their mid-20th century heyday, without anticipating the shift away from a mass-market culture that meant they would not need to.

With the Internet still in its awkward, spottily-adopted early stages of “E-mail, on-line bulletin boards, and the World Wide Web”, it was easy to miss the imminence of middlemen-bypassing distribution media and the power of small fandoms to drive mainstream culture. With a single passing mention of J.K. Rowling, the ascendance of the similarly passionate-fanbase-driven young-adult field and the mainstream acceptance of adult fandoms for “childish things” which were then still disreputable is not perceived. It seems jarring in retrospect that the popular identification of collaborative media with a singular creative mover was still ensconced enough that it needed so much pushing against. Despite the mention of Spider-Man becoming more popular in its summer season than the latest prequel from what was “once the Tiffany standard of popular imagination”, the George Lucas backlash still not yet crested.

Superhero movies, while gaining steam, were still far from the juggernaut of today. Marvel-based movies were getting their act together, with X-Men a solid hit and the first Spider-Man an established megablockbuster, but hadn’t fully shaken off the taint of the B-movie schlock to which even top characters were relegated and Howard the Duck. It is amusing to read elementary explanations of the various then-minor superheroes who are now among pop culture’s most famous characters, such as the “slightly less inspired” Iron Man, or that “none of the [Marvel] characters seemed to have the built-in recognition level that made for successful film franchises like those featuring DC’s Batman and Superman”. If anything, the era’s spate of serious film adaptations of comics with decidedly non-superhero subject matter, like the Jack the Ripper mystery From Hell or the period mob drama Road to Perdition, made it look like the comics medium was heading towards shaking off its cultural identification with spandex.

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