Bob Batchelor Shines New Light on Mighty Marvel's Prodigious Progenitor, Stan Lee

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Bob Batchelor in the Spidey Signal

With just a few scant hours until the release of SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, it behooves us to look back on the man, without whom, there would arguably be no Marvel Universe for a Marvel Cinematic Universe to have come. Stan Lee is sometimes a polarizing figure in the comic book industry, but no one can deny the influence he had on the direction it has taken.

And while there are several books and numerous convention tall tales told about the man, Bob Batchelor has set out to provide yet another perspective on the multi-faceted man behind THE FANTASTIC FOUR, THE AVENGERS, and, of course, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. We sat down for a discussion with the author of the forthcoming book, STAN LEE: THE MAND BEHIND MARVEL (September 2017, Rowman & Littlefield) to get some more of his perspective on the living legend.

When selecting a topic for your biography, what led you to choose Stan Lee?

I like to tackle with biographics subjects -- "big picture" ideas, topics that have touched millions of lives. So I've written about Bob Dylan, I've written about The Great Gatsby, I've written about various time periods. So as I was looking for a topic for the next biography, my editor and I came down on Stan Lee, because we're both huge comic book fans. We're both Gen-X'ers, so we both grew up reading comic books. To me, growing up in a small town, in the middle of western Pennsylvania farm country, Stan Lee was like a link out into the rest of the world. When I read Stan's Soapbox, I always felt like there were these cool kids out there, and they're doing amazing things. I had no idea Stan was in his forties by that time. And I just loved the comic books. So when I thought about the amount of scholarship and biographical writing that's been done on Stan, I felt the world could use a good, straightforward biography on Stan Lee, particularly as his fame has grown through the cameos, and fans -- general fans out there in the world -- now know who Stan Lee is, as opposed to just all of us comic book readers.

Something that always sticks with me, being middle-aged myself, is that when Stan Lee created Spider-Man, he was forty-five years old. I find that proof that it's never too late to do something that will impact the world.

Yeah, the funny thing is, and Stan's told this story but a lot of fans don't realize it, just prior to creating THE FANTASTIC FOUR with Jack Kirby, Stan Lee was about to quit comics. He was in his late thirties at that time, and really was tired of being teased and looked down on because he wrote for these kids' magazines. Because back in that time, in the 50s and 60s, comic books were really just for kids. They weren't even for teenagers, really, at the time. Some teens read them, but not that many.

So right before they came up with THE FANTASTIC FOUR, Stan was on the verge of leaving. And if one of his favorite artists had not died in a tragic train accident, they probably would have went off and done newspaper strips, or gone to Hollywood or something. The entire Marvel Universe may never have been birthed, or looked completely different. He was ready to quit. He was on his way out the door, maybe within days of quitting comic books altogether.

Artists didn't really want to become comic book artists back then; they accepted comics as a stepping stone to get into advertising or fine arts. Now the trend has reversed and a lot of artists start out in advertising and fine arts with an eye toward getting a comic book gig.

The importance of film and video and the use of visual arts is taking young people in a different direction than they used to be. So many famous comic book writers, when there would be lulls in activity, or in the 50s when comic books were really looked down upon and Senators were going after comic books, a lot of guys went off into advertising. They became the real life MAD MEN that we all watched on television.

When we look at Spider-Man, and specifically when we look at Peter Parker, I feel we're really looking at Stan Lee in comic book form. I think your earlier chapters describing his growing up during the great depression and his own self-doubts about what he was doing with his life really resonate in the early Peter Parker appearances.

Stan Lee often has been asked, "Who's your favorite character?" And it's very difficult for him to answer that question. But my sneaking suspicion is that when he says, "Spider-Man," he's closest to the truth. Stan skipped ahead in school, so when he graduated from high school he was younger than his classmates. He's always been tall and thin, so in his youth he wasn't really a sports star. I mean, he had a successful high school career, but this was in the midst of the Great Depression. He wasn't even able to go to college. So he skipped ahead -- he needed to make money for his family. So he could really relate with that: the outsider, the smart kid, who doesn't really fit in fully. He was a good looking guy, so I don't think he had too many problems making friends, even having girlfriends -- I don't know that he was Peter Parker, nebbish, to that degree. But definitely Spider-Man is close to his heart. And Stan, even when Spider-Man launched, he was able to capture that voice because he had spent his career writing comic books for younger readers. So he was in touch with that voice.

And then when you bring Steve Ditko in to draw Spider-Man and to really flesh out the character, Ditko's also kind of an outsider, and a loner, and could also add to that characterization that really made Spider-Man an instant hit.

When Stan Lee promoted the concept of Spider-Man to his publisher, Martin Goodman, the documented reaction was that Goodman was vehemently against it, stating, "People hate spiders!" That seemed so very much like a response you'd hear from Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson. Did you find anything in your research that would lead you to believe that Goodman might have been the archetype for the Jameson character?

I haven't found anything that directly alluded to that, but some people, ironically, think that Ditko created J. Jonah Jameson kind of after Stan Lee as a way to thumb his nose at Stan, because, amazingly, and I think a lot of what fans who aren't as in-depth in comic books as some of us are might not know, is that Ditko and Stan Lee did not get along. They had a very tumultuous relationship. That's one of the reasons why Ditko left the Spider-Man comic book series so early in its run. They just couldn't see eye to eye.

The jury's still out, and it's been so long that I don't think anybody's memory would allow them to remember, or maybe remember accurately. But I didn't find any smoking gun in the Stan Lee archives, in any case.

You have quotes from a lot of people you interviewed for this biography, but did you get to spend any time with Stan "The Man" himself, one-on-one?

My only time with Stan, I went in as a member of the press to the Cincinnati Comic Expo last fall -- it was Stan Lee's last Ohio appearance. And I got to spend about ten minutes with him, just talking. It was a nice chat. It was the thrill of my life, really. But I purposefully did not try to make this an authorized biography. I wanted to create an objective picture of Stan Lee for all of these hundreds of fans that I spoke to that would say that, "I love Stan Lee. I love Marvel." So I would try being a historian and scratch a little deeper and say, "Well, what do you actually know about Stan Lee?" And when they started talking, they knew almost nothing. Even the things that they thought they knew were often incorrect or factually stretched. So I wanted to write the cultural historian's biography. So I dug around in the archives, multi-archives. I did a lot of analysis of comic books, of Stan's writing style, but I wrote it in a way that the general reader would really get a full picture of Stan Lee's life in total. So I hope to inform those people who love Stan Lee -- and, really, because he's had an amazing life. He's not just the marketing guy or the carnival barker for Marvel. He really had a foundational impact on the formation of comic books and all the Marvel Universe that we know today.

In the chapter, "Marketing the Marvel Universe," you discuss Martin Ackerman buying up Goodman's property, with promises made to Stan by Goodman that were not fulfilled. You mention that Stan didn't pres or threaten to leave Marvel, "potentially at a time when he could have demanded a hefty fortune to not go running to DC."  This really made me wonder how the DC line might have changed if Stan had actually gone there. I know they did a "Just Imagine..." line where Stan Lee reimagined the characters of the DC Universe as if he had created them, but how might characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman have changed had Stan stepped in, mid-stream, and taken over the editorial reins?

If Stan Lee had left Marvel for DC in 1968, the entire comic book universe would have shook to its core. In the 1960s, Lee turned Marvel into the “hip” comic book publisher, even though it still lagged behind DC in terms of sales. He got teenagers and college students reading and studying comic books, a kind of precursor to the geek culture we see at the center of American culture today. One can only imagine that Lee would have done the same at DC, giving Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman a dose of humanity and normality that the DC heroes lacked. If nothing else, his energy and collaborative work with great artists would have reinvigorated the iconic DC characters at a time when they seemed less interesting.

Another critical point is that Lee would have run DC differently as editor-in-chief and art director, bringing in a mix of young, new artists and the stars that he had worked with while at Marvel. It would have been great to see Jack Kirby given full reign of Superman or Batman or Roy Thomas writing Wonder Woman. At DC, Lee would have also used the company’s leadership position to further broaden his role as the industry’s Johnny Appleseed.

What did you find most striking or surprising about Stan when you were researching this book -- something you didn't know or wouldn't have guessed about him before you began the project?

I knew that Stan managed many different roles during the Marvel heyday, but I never fully grasped the totality of his work. He really stood at the center of the Marvel universe, which is why the book’s subtitle “The Man Behind Marvel” is so fitting. The vast number of responsibilities he had will surprise readers.

I don’t know how he packed all his work into a 24-hour day. For example, in the Stan Lee Archives at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming I found sketches Stan drew for the layouts of several early Marvel coloring books. There are also copies of speeches he gave to get toy companies and other merchandisers to license Marvel characters. So, Stan’s work went far beyond scripting, plotting, and writing dialogue to a full range of management activities essential in running a publishing company.

A second surprise – and a pleasant one at that – centered on the consistency in Stan’s writing voice over time. A reader can look at his earliest published works, like the short story he wrote in Captain America Comics #3 from 1941 and hear the familiar cadence and style that he would later use in the 1960s with Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and countless other characters. For readers like me, more than the pictures or the plots, Stan’s voice was Marvel comics. His writing style drew me to the superheroes because he made them come to life on the page by giving them a voice.