Friday, January 18, 2008

Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book

Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book
by Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon

I'm part of the generation that grew up with Stan Lee. The first Marvel comic book I remember reading was Daredevil #48. It wasn't written by Stan but at that time all the Marvel comics were written in his style. Even if he wasn't writing them, you could feel his presence in every word. At that time finding back issues was fairly easy and inexpensive so once I started collecting comics I started going backwards as well as forward. Before long I was immersed in Stan Lee's writing.

I have to admit that Stan is one of the people that helped influence me more than most. His writing may be overblown and more than a little grandiose but at its heart there laid a truth about right and wrong, about how you should live your life. Then comic book heroes were true heroes, ready to lay down their life for others, not willing to bend the rules to help themselves. I grew up believing that "with great power comes great responsibility."

Today it's easy to criticize Stan. I believed that the Bullpen was a great group of artists working with Stan that loved everything about their job. Today we know the truth was a little different. Stan was as much a showman as a creator. During some tough times we would have liked to see Stan take to heart the philosophy of his creations and do the right thing.

During the Jack Kirby art situation Stan has claimed there was nothing he could do to get Jack's art back from Marvel. This was probably true, by that point he was little more than a figurehead at the company, but the right thing to do still would have been to stand up for Jack. Add his voice to the others that were calling for Marvel to give Jack his artwork back. Even if he couldn't do anything let everyone know he saw the wrong and wanted to right it. That's what Captain America would have done. And perhaps it's naive to believe in right and wrong according to a fictional character like Captain America, but that's how I grew up.

The voices of Stan's creations were always a part of my inner voices helping to guide me in right and wrong. They were added to others that helped guide and shape my life, but they were always there.

So all this is a preamble to the fact that I come to a book about Stan Lee with just little invested. As I mentioned above, today it's easy to lay the entire failure of the comic book market at the feet of Stan Lee. For some he's been demoted to no more than basically a secretary to Jack Kirby and Steve Dikto, just adding what they wanted in the word balloons.

The real truth of who created what and how much of each creation was due to who may never be known. Too many of the people at the point of creation are no longer here or no longer talking. All we can know for certain is that none of the Marvel characters were created alone and without help.

This book presents the most even handed portrait of Stan Lee that I have seen in a long while. The writers don't try to cover up Stan's mistakes, but they don't throw Stan on the garbage pile and ignore his contributions to the comic industry either. It presents a fascinating look into the creation of American comic books and their history alongside the history of Stan Lee who happened to be there alongside a lot of this history and helping to create some of it.

The history of the comic book intrigues me and I want to see more books like this. In the last few years we've been lucky to have a few more written, but we need to see more while some of the creators of the comic book are still alive. I'm eagerly awaiting Mark (who seems to know everyone in the comic book industry and a lot of the history) Evanier's book on Jack Kirby. I'd love to see more books about the history of the comic book medium.

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