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Review: Putting Stan Lee in his place

New biography offers context for Marvel Comics king

By L.D. Meagher

New biography offers context for Marvel Comics king

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(CNN) -- Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone, Thomas Edison and the light bulb, Steve Jobs and the personal computer -- all creators forever welded into the public consciousness alongside their creations.

It can be argued Stan Lee belongs on that list. It can also be argued, and often is at great volume, that Lee gets far more credit for the resurgence of the comic book than he deserves.

Authors Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon provide ammunition for both sides of the argument in their biography "Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book" (Chicago Review Press, 304 pages). They give Lee his due for shepherding Marvel Comics to the apex of its industry. They also deflate some of the claims Lee, his fans and his company have made about the role he played in giving birth to some of Marvel's iconic characters.

The up-and-coming office boy

Lee's metamorphosis from bespectacled kid in the Bronx to living symbol of a billion-dollar entertainment empire is every bit as impressive as any super hero origin story.

He was first hired as an office boy by a relative who owned a marginal publishing company. An ambitious workaholic, Lee made himself indispensable by writing for virtually every title in the company's line. At the time he was drafted for service in World War II, he was editorial director.

After the war, he clung tenaciously to his job. As a result, he was positioned to capitalize on the superhero renaissance of the early 1960s.

The man that emerges on the pages of the book is an affably shameless self-promoter. As the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk and the Amazing Spider-man rocketed in popularity, Lee went along for the ride, attaching his name to virtually every story carrying the Marvel brand.

He also made himself the living embodiment of "The Marvel Way."

'Showmanship and an endearing arrogance'

"Following a trajectory begun in the late 1960s," the authors write, "Lee reinvented himself in the 1970s as a public figure every bit as colorful as his comic-book characters. Stanley Lieber [his given name] was a distant memory. The skinny Jewish kid who once aspired to literary greatness had been shunted aside in favor of a persona that traded on showmanship and an endearing arrogance: Stan the Man. Lee never looked back. Even now, after three decades, he's older, grayer, a bit slower, but he still plays the part. Stan the Man has become Stan the Brand."

Several of the artists who were with Lee at the beginning of Marvel's ascendancy feel slighted when he is lionized as "creator" of popular heroes. Lee claims that misperception is not his fault.

Raphael and Spurgeon shed light on the dynamism that epitomized the Marvel "bull-pen" in its headiest days. They conclude that both sides are, in a sense, right.

"Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of American Comic Book" is an insightful examination of a publishing phenomenon that has become an integral part of pop culture. It offers keen insights on how the industry has risen, fallen, survived and teetered on the edge of extinction. And it illuminates the role Lee played in a long-running drama every bit as compelling as those depicted between the garish covers of Marvel Comics.

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