Saturday, May 09, 2009

Oh, that Tom Spurgeon: A long, rambling post about a five-year-old Stan Lee biography

Last month I read, reviewed and then wrote some more about Craig Yoe's recent Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman's Co-creator Joe Shuster. At the time, I noted that Stan Lee wrote the introduction, in which he mentioned working with Jerry Siegel, the fact that a lot of the fetish art didn't exactly ring his bell, and that Craig Yoe was his "colorful friend."

It got me thinking about Stan Lee in the early days of comics again, when he, Siegel and Shuster were all working in them, as well as what he's up to now in his post-Marvel days. So I wandered over to my bookshelf where I have two biographies of Stan Lee, at least one of which I never even finished reading.

Before I began my illustrious comics blogging career—oh wait, a career is something you make a living off, right? Let me start over. Before I began my illustrious, time-sucking, quixotic comics blogging hobby, I was a writer and editor at a Columbus altweekly with a very small editorial staff and a very small budget with which to hire freeelancers to provide content (a budget that, near the end of the road, when he ultimately had to sell to the city's big daily newspaper, was about $0 a month). That meant that I and the other three writer/editors got to/had to write about pretty much everything in the paper: Hard news, soft news, opinion and arts coverage and reviews of all kinds.

That included book reviews*.

Publishers would send us advance and review copies of books, which would end up in a pile that the arts editor would pick through for potential review. I ended up with the two Stan Lee books, and while I'm fairly positive I reviewed one of them, I can't actually verify it or dig up my review, as when the paper was sold to the daily, they took down all of the old archives from the Internet because hey, why keep a decade or so's worth of story's online and linkable, driving Internet searchers toward your site, right?

So, long story not-really-any-shorter-at-this-point, I have some Stan Lee biographies sitting around on my shelf, biographies I'm not that intimately familiar with, really.

One is Excelsior!: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee, a rather weird semi-autobiography by Stan Lee and professional celebrity biographer George Mair, which was published by Fireside in 2002 (To coincide with the release of Spider-Man, I imagine).

That was the one I started but didn't get very far with, as it was such a weird format and, I'm afraid to say, crushingly disappointing. Stan Lee has, I think we can all agree, an incredibly unique voice, and has seen a great deal of comics history unfold before his eyes. Honestly, I think it's hard to overestimate his impact on comics (and on American pop culture in general, to a lesser extent). So a Stan Lee autobiography sounds like it would probably be pretty much the greatest thing ever, right?

Unfortunately, he writes short summaries of periods of his life for a few pages, and then Mair comes in and essentially corrects the record, writing a dryer, third-person account in greater detail of the same period. The two switch off like this for the whole book, and it make for an odd, frustrating reading experience. I appreciate the honesty of the format—instead of having Mair ghostwrite it or have his contributions somehow masked, as is so often the case when a celebrity writes an autobiography, and the who does what is unclear.

I don't remember exactly now—it was seven years ago‚but I don't think I even made it into the 1960s.

The other Stan Lee biography was Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book by Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon, and it was published by Chicago Review Press in 2004 and hey wait, Tom Spurgeon?! Comics Reporter Tom Spurgeon? A guy whose website I visit repeatedly daily? How is it possible that I read a book by a guy and then, a few years later, start reading his website religiously, and never realize it's the same writer? (How is it possible besides the obvious explanation that I'm not very bright, I mean).

There couldn't be two Tom Spurgeons who wrote passionately and wrote well about comic books, could there? (No, there couldn't. Well, there could be, but there aren't. That Tom Spurgeon is indeed the same. I checked.)

Being in a Stan Lee-wondering-about mood, and now thinking of the biography as a book co-written by a prominent comics blogger whose work I admire and enjoy (as opposed to thinking of it as just a biography by two guys I don't know anything about), I tucked into it again.

If the two biographies on my bookshelf were to fight, I declare ...and the Rise and Fall... the winner, as not only was I able to finish it, I was able to finish it twice now.

So if you want to read a biography of Stan Lee, I'd highly recommend the Raphael and Spurgeon one.

Lee's story is a great one, and he's a colorful, even complex figure. I remember when Will Eisner passed away, how striking the thought that a man who was there at the beginning of comics, played such a big role throughout their development, and was still making comics had just died. That, in short, a man who was comics was no longer alive, and comics were just now entering a period in which Will Eisner was no longer an active participant.

There are still a few more creators around who have been in comics as long or almost as long as still doing vital work—Joe Kubert springs immediately to mind—and while Lee isn't exactly producing Eisner or Kubert level work any more, he still performs the same ringmaster/carnival barker/huckster role and serves as a sort of ambassador to comics. In their book, Spurgeon and Raphael describe him in the sixties as sort of a with-it, cool uncle figure to his readers, and now I think he still is, although now he's become a great-uncle figure, or perhaps a grandfather figure (Spurgeon and Raphael described his role in comics in the early part of this decade as that of a grand old man of comics, and that sounds right).

Finishing the book, I was struck by the fact that—unfortunately—Lee's probably not going to be around for another decade; certainly not another two decades (He'll be 87 in December), and that while Spurgeon and Raphael have managed such a complete portrait of his professional career,it's like nine-tenths of that career, and another chapter or two may need to be written once Lee does pass on (and the industry spends some time coming to grips with his legacy).

But those first nine-tenths are really solid. The Golden Age of comic books, Lee's skills as an editor, the invention of Marvel Comics (and the reinvention of the American superhero), the collaborations and combat with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, the attempt to transform Marvel into a Disney-like entertainment company (with mixed results) and Lee's extremely busy golden years, where he finally finds himself and his work embraced by Hollywood and mainstream America, but more as a celebrity and personality than as a vital creative force.

It's a great story of a great man, and it's neither a hagiography nor a take down: Given how polarizing Lee can be, a lot of people have a very negative opinion of the man and his contributions to comics. Raphael and Spurgeon don't really cast judgement, but present arguments for and against many of his actions that have stirred the most controversy, and, when it comes to the issue of the who-did-what-and-how-important-was-it credit battles over things like Fantastic Four, they reach the conclusion that many of Lee's co-creations really were acts of collaboration. (Jack Kirby's FF, sans any input or scripting from Lee, might have still been fairly awesome, but it wouldn't have been The Fantastic Four, and Marvel certainly wouldn't have been Marvel).

So, anyway, that's my official five-years-after-the-fact endorsement of the book.

While re-reading it, I folded over the corners of some pages as potential blog fodder, and now, revisiting those pages, I'm not sure I want to devote whole posts to them, so I'll just do so briefly here, in bullet-point fashion.

—Here's their ultimate assessment of Lee's work, which reflects the complexity of his legacy and what I consider a rather tragic aspect of it, despite how silly it seems to apply the word "tragic" to the career of someone as rich and famous as Lee is:

Lee has managed to carve an unlikely career as creator emeritus for a body of work so broad it both exaggerates his public reputation and obscures his actual artistic contribution. Lee was briefly the most interesting creator in the comic-book art form. But the value of that legacy has faded, just as the American comic-book industry has faded. A story created from thirty-five years of press releases enjoys greater currency than one assembled from a considered understanding of an art form...

Stan Lee's belief in Stan Lee gave him a life where a mansion's view of greater Los Angeles takes the place of a city apartment's back alley wall. But it also cost him any real chance at developing something of his very own, and it created an almost impenetrable block of protective half-truths and obfuscation that protect and inflate the reputation of a the man doing the work at the cost of an honest consideration of the work itself. 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.

—There's a section in the fifteenth chapter, "Building the Brand," that got me thinking a bit about the difference between Lee's public persona and Joe Quesada's. (Not to single Quesada out too much; he is the guy doing what Lee used to do at the moment, but this applies to Dan DiDio at DC, and their fellow editors at their companies, and editors and publishers of other companies, and creators).

Raphael and Spurgeon write about the care and consistency with which Lee dealt with fans, admirers, critics and complainers alike. They list the great variety of correspondence Lee received, from requests for jobs, offers of original superhero creations (like a black hero with melting powers called Hot Fudge, and a character named Norhawk, whose secret identity was the much more virile-sounding Steve Action), inquiries as to why there weren't any gay Marvel heroes (yet), an expression of unhappiness seeing the Lord's name taken in vain in a comic, and a survey about Lee's religious beliefs regarding the end of the world.

Lee took keeping in touch with anyone who wrote him very seriously, even if it was just in the form of form letters from his secretary, and he took great care not to piss any one off. I suppose this could seem quite weasely at times, but, on the other hand, it did successfully build the perception that Stan Lee gave a damn about you and was pretty much on your side.

Of course, he had the advantage of living in an Internet-free, email-less world in which a fan message board couldn't even be dreaded yet, but it seems like such a contrast to the occasionally combative way that Quesada, DiDio, Tom Brevoort and plenty of creators deal with their fans and readers in their blogs, tweets and online interviews. I'm sure it's much easier to snap at anonymous assholes calling for your job or your head on a regular basis, and today's industry figures receive negative attention 24 hours a day, but it would be nice to see Lee's concern for his reputation and his company's reputation shared by some of the people doing similar jobs today. Or, at the very least, it would be nice to see more industry figures develop the self-effacing sense of humor Lee had.

As much as ninety-percent of what Lee said at any given time might have been bullshit, but it was delivered happily, and with an admission that it was mostly bullshit, which made him a rather hard person to hate. And hey, he cared enough to bullshit you. That's somethng, right?

I'd certainly prefer more "Well, you have a point there, and believe me, it's something we discussed quite a bit here in the bullpen, but at the end of the day, we thought this was the best way to go. Maybe it wasn't, but we're happy with the decision and so are most of the fans I've heard from. I hope you'll stick with us, because what we have planned next is going to be pretty fantastic if I do say so myself" sort of answers, and fewer, "Fuck you fanboy. Just because 50 assholes with Internet connections have nothing better to do than cry about our that doesn't mean they speak for all 30,000 of our readers."

But maybe that's just me.

—Things I did not know anything about before reading this book: Stan Lee's painful-to-even-read-about-decades-later one-man show at Carnegie Hall, his attempts to co-opt the then-fading out underground comix scene with a Marvel-published version entitled Comix Book, and that he and John Romita Sr. pitched Playboy a soft-porn superhero parody entitled Thomas Swift. That latter one is—oh man, Stan Lee pornography!. I'm not even going to quote anything from it, but jeez, you really need to read it. It's just as terrible as you think it is.

—While the comic book medium is in better shape than ever today (and mainstream acceptance of comic books has never been better) the comic book industry, particularly the one that Stan Lee helped build and was most active in, is no more.

Remember, this was written in 2004, and here's what Raphael and Spurgeon wrote of the comic book industry at the time:

Today's comic-book industry is virtually unrecognizable. Marvel bills itself as a "licensing-based entertainment company." DC is a subsidiary of AOL Time Warner. The comics themselves are disconnected from any sense of a larger readership. They're more stylishly illustrated, to be sure, but they indulge in recycled thrills made stale by years of repetition in service to their value as licensing properties...Comic books are past the point of decline. The top titles struggle to sell 100,000 copies. Kids prefer to buy anything and everything else, and at $2.25 per issue, it's not certain they could afford to return.

Five years later, the only books breaking 100k are stunt books like Brad Meltzer's brief JLoA run, Marvel's Civil War and Secret Invasion and the once-in-a-lifetime Spider-Man/Obama crossover. And now DC and Marvel comics cost between $2.50 and $3.99, with most falling at $2.99 but leaning toward $4.

Excelsior? No, what's the opposite of that? Failsior? Ruinsior? Sputteroutsior? My thesaurus is letting me down even more than the American comic book industry is...

*Sadly, while the altweekly I used to work for still exists, even if it's less "alt" and more "weekly" now that it's owned by a mainstream—but still locally owned—mini-media empire, they don't have much in the way of book coverage any more. Nor does the company's daily. In fact, book coverage seems on the wane in newspapers in general these days, which is really too bad.


Laplace Zombie said...

Y'know, when I saw the first pic it looked to me like Spidey presenting MJ with a miniature chewing Stan.

Teebore said...

...and fewer, "Fuck you fanboy. Just because 50 assholes with Internet connections have nothing better to do than cry about our that doesn't mean they speak for all 30,000 of our readers."Man, you hit the nail on the head there. I'd much rather hear Stan Lee-style BS huckterisms from the heads of Marvel and DC than the casual disregard or irritated frustration-bordering-on-rage we get nowadays.

I'm not usually a huge bio fan so I haven't made a point to check this book out, but I will now.