Stan Lee & The Rise & Fall of the American Comic Book

I picked up Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book by Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon just recently, and tore threw it in a very short amount of time. I had put off reading it for a while fearing that it would repeat a lot of the material from Ronin Ro’s Tales to Asonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution which I reviewed in this blog last Summer. Actually, despite involving a lot of the same figures, and a lot of the same creations and timelines, they read like totally different books. Other than a few quotes and anecdotes, I did not feel like I was re-reading something I had read previously. I think the book does a good job of trying to assess exactly what Stan Lee’s role in the creation of Marvel comics was, since all of his “creations” as a writer were co-creations with visual artists, most importantly Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

What is amazing to think of is that from 1961 to 1964 Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were responsible for creating the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Iron-Man, the X-Men, and Daredevil; and based on a Jack Kirby concept, artist Steve Ditko and Stan Lee created Spider-Man. Now these creations dominate the cultural landscape, but before 2000 when the first X-Men movie was released, Stan Lee had little luck in interesting Hollywood studios in Marvel’s characters, which was his job to do for decades. There were a few cartoons, a Hulk TV show, and a few cheapie movies, but for almost forty years, Stan Lee struggled to interest Hollywood in his co-creations. People weren’t interested. Amazing to think about, now that the X-Men movies have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, the Spider-Man movies have grossed more than a billion, and Iron-Man just earned almost a hundred million dollars in its opening weekend. Who knows how successful the new Hulk movie will be later this Summer? It took only a few years for Jack Kirby and Stan Lee to create all these characters, and then it took forty years for these character concepts to take over the mainstream. Talk about being ahead of their time.

Stan Lee was a company man from his earliest days in the comic biz, the cousin-in-law of the publisher, and Marvel will continue to pay him a million dollars every year until his death. Jack Kirby was a freelancer, paid by the page, and never received a penny in royalties in his life from all of his creations. (Hell, he created the Silver Surfer and Galactus entirely on his own, but you can be sure his estate didn’t see any money from the second Fantastic Four movie which featured those concepts.) When he died in 1994, he knew he lost out on millions of dollars from his creations, but little could he imagine the extreme wealth that his characters would continue to generate for other people who had not a hand in their creation, within a decade of his death.

Stan Lee doesn’t come off as some evil scum in the book, but the book does show that he is largely responsible for the fact that most people think he alone created all the famous Marvel characters. He appointed himself sole media representative of the company for decades, and made everyone think he was the genius behind all of the Marvel properties in interview after interview. “Stan Lee presents” was emblazoned across the front page of every Marvel comic I read as a child in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and he was a legendary figure. In retrospect it seems that he was little more than a dialogue writer, who has made a living off of taking credit for the conceptual and visual creations of his artists. He does great cameos in movies, but he has always been a figure head, a representative, not the source of ideas that someone like Jack Kirby really was. If Marvel was the “House of Ideas,” it was Jack’s house. He built it. Not Stan Lee. He was just the realty agent. And over decades, he couldn’t interest anyone with big pockets to invest. It was only after Avi Arad took over as chief creative officer of Marvel Entertainment in the ’90s that all of the big deals have gone down, and all the big money has been earned. Stan’s job for most of his later life was to sell Marvel comics and Marvel characters. It took a businessman with a bachelor of business administration to broker the fantastic deals that Stan Lee always strived for and never achieved. After several hundred pages of examination, the book concludes:

Stan Lee stands larger than life, lighter than air, and thinner than the pulp on which he made his name–a disposable product that better exists in our collective memories than under the yellowing light of serious examination. But, thanks to Marvel Comics, we expect our heroes to have feet of clay.



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