Award-winning cultural historian Bob Batchelor has written the definitive biography of Marvel legend Stan Lee, celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Lee’s extraordinary life was as epic as the superheroes he co-created, from the Amazing Spider-Man to the Mighty Avengers. His ideas and voice are at the heart of global culture, loved by millions of superhero fans around the world.
In Stan Lee: A Life, Batchelor offers an in-depth and complete look at this iconic visionary.
Born in the Roaring Twenties, growing up in the Great Depression, living and thriving through the American Century, and dying in the twenty-first century, Stan Lee’s life is a unique representation of recent American history. Batchelor examines Lee’s fascinating American life by drawing out all its complexity, drama, heartache, and humor, revealing how Lee introduced the world to heroes that were just as fallible and complex as their creator—and just like all of us.
An up-close look at a legendary figure, this centennial edition includes completely new material to give the full measure of a man whose genius continues to mesmerize audiences worldwide. Candid, authoritative, and absorbing, this is the biography of a man who dreamed of one day writing the Great American Novel, but ended up doing so much more—revolutionizing culture by creating new worlds and heroes that have entertained generations.
I’m super excited to reveal that Bob will be joining the site next year and until them, take the opportunity to check out an exclusive excerpt from his fantastic book, which might be the last word on one of pop culture’s most inimitable icons.
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How the Marvel Universe Conquered the Globe
How did Marvel storytelling conquer the globe?
Since the early 1960s, there has been only one answer: Stan Lee. His unique voice and narrative defines the Marvel Universe.
And, it’s a creation that may just go on into infinity. According to Marvel executive Victoria Alonso, “There’s about 6,000 characters in the Marvel library…if this goes right, we will be telling these stories for many, many, many, many generations to come.” From this viewpoint Marvel’s future success centers on the “many different characters that you can actually voice.” Alonso’s instincts are pure – having many thousands of characters will enable the company to open up worlds and ideas that haven’t even been considered yet. However, what makes these characters fit into the Marvel Universe – the consistent thread – is the style (and attitude) that Stan created.
Lee’s voice from the dawn of the superhero age became Marvel’s house style. Other comic book writers mimicked his style and later scribes across other mediums. In the subsequent generations, that voice has become American mythology. Need proof? Surf over to Disney+ and listen to Robert Downey Jr. play Iron Man or check out a YouTube clip of Tom Holland as Spider-Man. What you hear in their banter is instantly recognizable.
While there are generations of great science fiction films and action movies, the difference between the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the others is voice. The contrasts are startling. For example, if we examine the Star Wars films, we find many iconic lines or catchphrases, but there isn’t a consistent voice or recognizable cadence. Just juxtapose Peter Parker’s wit when he’s in costume versus Darth Vader – the latter’s most memorable feature is the sound of his breathing apparatus. The emphasis for Vader is visual impact, not what or how the character speaks. As a filmmaker, George Lucas isn’t focused on dialogue. In Star Wars, he wanted to create an interconnected universe where the visual power propelled the story. Plus, Lucas started from a different wellspring, not decades of tales that someone like Lee dialogued or were created by others who mimicked his house style. The Star Wars hero tropes are drawn from literature and film, but there is not a distinct, unifying dialogue. At least since the earliest animation efforts, countless writers, directors, and actors have attempted to imitate or mimic Stan’s dialogue from the comic books, because that cadence is the voice of Marvel.
Many directors and producers can make a film chock full of action-filled fight scenes, stunning visuals, and out of this world computer-generated imagery, but what these others can’t replicate is that verbal expression. The Marvel feeling is so ingrained in the heads of fandom that it feels subconscious. It’s driven by Lee’s voice. No matter who directs an MCU film or plays a superhero or supervillain, the internal consistency prevails: Thor’s humor and stilted formality, Iron Man’s snark, Spider-Man’s relentless patter and earnestness. This is Stan’s enduring legacy.
Here’s a quick history lesson: in the early 1960s, after those first several superhero comic books became hits (Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Avengers), Marvel grew into, then fused with, the emerging cultural zeitgeist. The comics were suddenly as cool as the latest rock band or film star (thus appearing in hip publications like Rolling Stone and Esquire). In other words, Marvel joined the movement as it formed, then worked its way to the forefront of changing the culture through Lee’s guidance, though it would be hard to imagine that he thought of what was happening in these terms. Riding that cultural wave, Stan stumbled into – then later carefully crafted – a role as the face of comic books. Eager to hit the road, he barnstormed college campuses swollen to the breaking point with Baby Boomers who wanted to take over the world and had the numbers to bend culture to their wills. Stan turned out to be engaging – nearly mesmerizing in his belief in the power of comic books – propelling Marvel into the psyche of college-aged readers as if he were some kind of pied piper.
Within the comics themselves, Stan utilized tools to blow up the fourth wall, thus speaking directly (and frequently!) to readers. Tens of thousands of young people joined Marvel fan clubs, demonstrating the appeal of Lee’s message that something special was going on inside comics that was solely theirs, not the voices of authority in their lives. Soon, journalists started poking around, wondering what “today’s youth” found so interesting about comic books. Suddenly, Stan’s the guy to tell adults what’s happening. Lee’s effervescence and wit shimmered as he provided attention-grabbing sound bites and interview fodder. Here was someone who had insight into these crazy young people!
What happened over the course of a decade or so couldn’t possibly be duplicated, so formulaic in retrospect that it seems impossible that it happened. Unlike Bob Dylan or Jann Wenner, for example, Stan didn’t plan this revolution. He didn’t say to himself that he would co-create a character that would become part of American folklore. It wasn’t planned; yet it seems totally intentional. Like wash, rinse, repeat, Baby Boomers grew up with Stan’s voice in their heads. Interestingly, Lee spoke for Marvel’s superheroes to eager audiences talking about the characters, while at the same time creating the dialogue in the actual comics. So, he was the person talking about the characters he himself was voicing. In addition, he’s not just in the media; Stan was talking directly to readers within the pages. He was Spider-Man’s voice, while also talking about the comics, the company, his colleagues, and the world to a captivated audience.
By the time Gen Xers started reading comics, Marvel’s style was wholly entrenched. As each generation ages out of traditional comic book reading age, Lee’s voice becomes commensurate with nostalgia – a part of our lives we look back to with fondness and equate with better times. Immersed in a heavily capitalistic entertainment-driven culture, embedded stories are ones that get retold and Marvel superheroes become a balm for a cultural explosion driven by cable television, global box office calculations, and the web. In what seems like the blink of an eye, the Marvel voice became the voice of modern storytelling.
Yet, the term voice is difficult to comprehend. Jerome Charyn, one of the most important writers in American literary history, describes it instead as “music.” Charyn’s concept, although focused on books, can be applied to Lee’s comic books writing: “Writing…is about the music, it’s about the voice. This is what predominates. The music is all, the music is total, it’s absolute.” Stan’s dialogue provided Marvel with a kind of music that readers could hear and matched their internal rhythms, resulting in an experience that transformed them. “It’s music alive with extreme sympathy,” Charyn explained, “there is no space between you and the text.”[ii] As a result, readers could feel the Marvel style, while simultaneously that Lee patter paralleled the cultural explosion booming across society. We hear this in the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and J. D. Salinger’s short stories.
For this revolution to unfold, the spark needed an accelerant, like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, James Brown, or Star Wars. In terms of sheer numbers, one could argue that based on Stan’s voice and attitude, Marvel has a wider reach around the world than any other entertainment vehicle or single entertainer. The past success of Marvel film and television properties and the billions of dollars bet on its continued popularity ensures that Marvel will remain at the heart of global popular culture.
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There is a secret to all this MCU success, isn’t there? It can’t have been an accident…
Let’s not rest our argument on Marvel storytelling conquering the globe on opinion or anecdote. Researchers have attempted to pin down the reasoning behind why the MCU has been so dominant and pervasive. An academic study in Harvard Business Review by Spencer Harrison, Arne Carlsen, and Miha Śkerlavaj gets at the primary rationale: “The secret seems to be finding the right balance between creating innovative films and retaining enough continuity to make them all recognizably part of a coherent family.”
Next, the team looked at individual aspects of the MCU. They studied scripts, film crews, directors, and critical reaction, leading to several additional points emerging: the movies “showcase differing emotional tones,” are “visually different,” and the highest critically acclaimed films “are the very ones that are viewed as violating the superhero genre.” In other words, Iron Man is funny, but Thor is often sad (though frequently hilarious). Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera zipping across galaxies, while Spider-Man is set in Queens and Manhattan. Black Panther is filled with social commentary, as is Captain Marvel. Again, the through point is voice.
Mold the entire MCU into a ball, but don’t expect the contraption to roll straight – purposely. Moviegoers recognize (and have been taught) that each film will be different in tone, look, and outcome. They know the origin stories (and with Spider-Man, seen them several times on film). Yet fans also know that each new film or television series is going to seem fresh and new. An experience, not just a piece of entertainment. The MCU is giving people something created for the masses, but the stories are so infused within the culture that we each take something personal from the films. For me, it may be the Avengers coming to life – literally a dream come true – while you may find inspiration in T’Challa and Wakanda’s progressivism. Whether it’s thinking about what the MCU informs us about life in contemporary America or the nostalgia of the good ole days reading comics as a kid, something is being triggered for people all over the world.
For contemporary audiences, that experience is also inclusive, another point Alonso identified: “You cannot have a global audience and not somehow start to represent it.” The success of Black Panther, for example, went against unofficial Hollywood rules that a film wouldn’t open if it had “a completely Black cast.” According to Alonso, 51 percent of the Marvel audience is female and 28 percent Hispanic: “If we don’t represent the people that watch what we make, eventually they’ll go elsewhere because somebody else will figure it out.” Disney isn’t alone in this strategic thinking, but the results confirm the point.
And, let’s not forget how important the consistent use of Easter eggs has been, not only within the films, but as the credits roll. The anticipation alone gets the fan community revved up for future installments (as did Stan’s cameo appearances, which most fans still yearn for, even years after his passing).
An even more elemental facet of Marvel’s success is its commitment to a shared set of core values via storytelling. According to bestselling author Brad Meltzer, Stan “gave an entire generation creeds to live by…vital cornerstones of their belief systems.” The power of his stories was in how people assimilated them. “Stan Lee gave them real-world applications for all those values. And unlike politicians, corporations, advertising, or anything else, those lessons were good. For the sake of good.” The idea is not that Marvel entertainment must live up to these principles at every moment, but overall the ideals Stan punctuated established a tone and framework that could support a universe.
The superheroes that Lee and his co-creators brought to life in Marvel comic books remain at the heart of contemporary storytelling. Lee created a narrative foundation that has fueled pop culture across all media for nearly six decades. By establishing the voice of Marvel superheroes and shepherding the comic books to life as the creative head of Marvel, Lee cemented his place in American history. According to veteran industry analyst Paul Dergarabedian, the results have been breathtaking: “The profound impact of Stan Lee’s creations and the influence that his singular vision has had on our culture and the world of cinema is almost immeasurable and virtually unparalleled by any other modern day artist.”
From my perspective, this viewpoint does not diminish the role Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko played in co-creating the superheroes or the thousands of additional hands it took to create the comic books, animated series, TV shows, or films over parts of the last ten decades. Kirby and Ditko were phenomenal talents, but in contrast to Lee, they focused on one part of the production process. Obviously, the look of the superheroes and the plots they developed were instrumental in the final product. Then, like now, the artists and writers needed one another. Creative products are built on teams acting in concert.
Yet, there must be a boss. Stan directed, managed, or supervised it all. Lee was Jack and Steve’s supervisor and could change their work at any time. This concept adds a level of managerial and creative acumen to Stan’s Marvel story that is not usually discussed in evaluations of his role in modern mythmaking. The view will rankle some readers who would counter that Lee needed Kirby and Ditko more than they needed him. The argument is counterfactual, because the fusion of their collective talents could not have occurred if the fusion hadn’t taken place. This thinking is great for pop culture debates: “what if Mick and Keith hadn’t seen each other on the train platform” or “what if Joe Maneely didn’t die tragically?” I’m more interested in what happened after the spark that created the Marvel Universe. Roy Thomas, Stan’s protégé and comic book historian explained: “To Stan, it wasn’t all that important whose idea a particular story was; what mattered was that it sold comic books, and Stan had every reasons to believe that both his editorial guidance and his command of the dialogue contributed materially to that popularity.”
Every successful idea, person, organization, or entity is built by many, but again, what was the accelerant?
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Your favorite superhero…your favorite comic book. If you “got” Marvel…if you loved Marvel…then you heard or saw something that you shared with your friends, but you could also cherish alone. All the while, you felt that someone (or something) was behind all this; creating these treasured objects. You could find him on the front cover and in the letters page – talking to you! “Smilin Stan.”
Who was this guy? Maybe you were too young to understand, but what you could feel was that he was talking to you—in a voice that your parents didn’t understand. This is yours, not theirs. Former Marvel editor and Lee biographer Danny Fingeroth described his fascination with that link between Stan and Marvel readers: “In the stories, he and his – and your – bullpen pals delivered exciting adventures filled with (angst-fueled) moments of insight…He was better than a friend or a relative. He was Stan Lee.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, no matter the tiny hamlet, thriving city, or rural enclave, if a kid got their hands on a Marvel comic book, they understood they had a friend in New York City named Stan Lee. Each month (seemingly like magic), Lee and the Mighty Marvel Bullpen put these colorful gifts into our hands (in my youth, under the ever-present “Stan Lee Presents” banner), which enabled us to travel the galaxies along with Thor, Iron Man, Avengers, and X-Men.
Why did the Marvel Universe come to dominate global popular culture? Largely based on Stan supplying a voice to a mythology. Certainly, the creation of the Marvel Universe was a team effort, like all forms of entertainment, nothing is created in a vacuum. There are unheralded people in the process and those who deserve as much credit as Lee for their roles. Yet, it was the unmistakable “music” that Lee conceived that launched a cultural revolution.
Crisscrossing the nation while speaking at college campuses, sitting for interviews, and conversing with readers in the “Stan’s Soapbox” pages in the back of comic books, Lee paved the way for intense fandom. His work gave readers a way to engage with Marvel and rejoice in the joyful act of being a fan. Geek/nerd culture began with “Smiley” and his Merry Marauding Bullpen nodding and winking at fans each issue. Lee’s commitment to building a fan base took fandom beyond sales figures and consumerism to authentically creating communities. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has spun this idea into global proportions. It is the fans of the MCU across film and television that has reinforced and spread Stan’s voice across the world.
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Imagine the scene – at the height of the Great Depression, a desperately poor teenager who just graduated from high school enters a nondescript office building. He has a hunch about this interview. His Uncle Robbie works there, but the kid has no clue what takes place inside its towering concrete walls. Will this be it?
The teen emerges a little later with a full-time job – $8 a week. Even someone with Stan Lee’s imagination could not have conjured up in that moment what would unfold in his marvelous life or its consequences on modern storytelling.
Yet, he did give us a hint of what was in store, mischievously scribbling, “Stan Lee is God” on a high school ceiling where he was certain that all his friends would see the message.
This is his story – Excelsior!
Both Stan Lee: A Life (Rowman & Littlefield) and Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel, Young Adult Edition (R&L) are available wherever books are sold.
Bob Batchelor is a critically-acclaimed cultural historian and biographer. He has written three biographies of Stan Lee, and others including The Bourbon King and Roadhouse Blues: Morrison, the Doors, and the Death Days of the Sixties (Hamilcar Publications, 2022). Connect with him at bobbatchelor.com, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn.