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Stan "the Man" Lee takes time to tell the story of his life
on September 28, 2002
"Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee" has a cover with Lee surrounded by some of his famous Marvel comics creations (or co-creations depending on where you stand on the whole Lee/Kirby debate), but you may be surprised and/or dismayed to find that only six of the twenty-one chapters are devoted to the glory years at Marvel. Much of what is contained within Lee has talked about before, which means that by now the stories of how the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the X-Men and the rest came to be born have been refined and polished to the point you really wish he would provide more of the details. "Excelsior!" starts from Lee's childhood in Manhattan to those early days when he stumbled into writing comic books, his work as a "playwright" in World War II, and then through the rise of the Marvel empire and beyond.
The focus of the book is on the narrative recollections of Lee and if you have ever had an opportunity to hear Stan "The Man" Lee do a lecture or speak at a convention, then you are familiar with his conversational style (I liked it when Stan would pretend to be Clark Kent, take off his glasses and have people wondering where Clark went--plus, the man's autograph is always legible). One thing that struck me was how much Lee was affected by the Great Depression, especially since he often laments over the value of the comic books he created but never bothered to collect. Yet it is also clear that Lee is not driven by money but more by love of family and work, two subjects he talks about with equal passion. He does take pains to try and address the issues of his infamous rifts with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and whether you believe his side of the story or not he certainly bears no animosity towards either man. There is no denying that Lee was a self-promoter of the first order, but he certainly tried to take along everybody else in the Marvel Bullpen and it is equally clear that Kirby and Ditko were not especially outgoing types.
George Mair provides a more objective view of Lee's life with historical facts and critical insights in his portions of "Excelsior!" which frame the lengthier excerpts from Lee. Mair is especially good when he points out how some example from the early year's of Lee's career translated into a principle he applied while running Marvel. Ultimately, Mair makes the case that Lee "created a new mythology for the twentieth century" by putting "the human in the superhuman." I rather like this approach, which allows a subject to tell their story in their own words and also provides a way for biographical assessments by another party. The book is illustrated with mostly family photographs, although rather sparsely at times, especially during the Marvel days.
I do not know if readers of Marvel Comics who came to Spider-Man and the rest after Lee's tenure as writer/editor will be as interested in this as us old-timers, but I would think Lee's stories about how comics changed would be worth reading. His chapter on "Seduction of the Gullible," dealing with the efforts of Dr. Frederic Wertham that resulted in the creation of the Comics Code, provides a much different perspective on those times than you get from reading Bill Gaines's thoughts on it all. This is by no means a major look at the life and work of Stan Lee, but it does have its shares of worthwhile insights. `Nuff Said.