In the old wild west times of comic book publishing, one man rose to the top, becoming the face of an entire industry. And he took a publishing company with him, ushering in the world of comics we know today. It’s safe to say that Stan Lee, nee Stanley Lieber, is Marvel and Marvel is Stan Lee in the public’s mind. Bob Batchelor’s unauthorized biography, Stan Lee: A Life helps to outline how this happened and how modern media was forever changed by the visionary.
[Note: While I am reviewing this novel independently and honestly, it should be noted that it has been provided to me by Rowman & Littlefield for the purpose of this review.]
The story of a man or a company?
Batchelor’s depiction of Stan Lee’s life is told through the lens of Marvel Comics. He presents the growth of the two together so that the distinction between the man and the company is often blurred. Very little time is spent talking about Lee’s life before or outside of comics. Batchelor does share some of Lee’s life before Marvel but even then, he spends more time talking about the state of the comic publishing industry than he does about little Stanley Lieber.
Once Lee begins working at Marvel there is really no difference between his life and the progression of Marvel Comics for Batchelor. Hardly any words are spent on Lee’s private life, only on what was happening at Marvel and how it related to Lee.
I do understand that Lee was a huge driving and creative force behind Marvel but it feels like a biography about Lee should have at least some parts that are about his personal life instead of just his life at Marvel. I think there was one sentence about his wife of 69 years passing away. And I don’t remember anything being said directly about the birth of his daughter, she was just eventually there. It was a really weird way to present the life of a man, in my opinion.
Insight into Marvel and the comic book publishing world
As a history of the comic book publishing industry, Stan Lee: A Life was rather interesting. The speed and stress that the writers and artists operated under were tremendous. Putting ideas out there and having to wait months for sales numbers to find out if they were successful seems crazy in today’s world of instant information. And the sheer number of comic books that they expected individual writers and publishers to churn out is insane!
At the center of it all for Marvel was Stan Lee. The publisher he worked for only cared about profits (big surprise) so he kept the comic division chronically understaffed. This offered Lee an amazing amount of creative control. He basically wrote the entire Marvel Universe (minus the cinematic) according to Batchelor’s account. He was the Kevin Feige of Marvel Comics, the mastermind beginning one of the greatest dynasties in modern-day media.
And just like the central planning of the MCU has largely led to its incredible success, Lee’s central storyteller role created a strongly interconnected comic book world. I was intrigued to see that Disney wasn’t the first to approach the comic world with the concept of a central idea man overseeing the storytelling. Admittedly that wasn’t the goal originally for Marvel, but it had the same outcome. I think it was a combination of the interconnected stories, the flawed heroes that Marvel created, and Lee’s funny, self-deprecating style of humor that allowed Marvel to eventually rise above DC and become the king of the comic book world.
Stan Lee: A Life is still not quite a biography
Even if it was interesting to see how the publishing world worked, and even though it was interesting to hear how Lee (according to Batchelor) built Marvel from the ground up, it still didn’t feel like a biography. Maybe more of a work-ography? Perhaps an extensively detailed resume for one of the great minds in comic history is a more apt way to describe it.
If you’re looking to learn more about Stan Lee the man then Batchelor’s book isn’t for you. If however, you want to know how Marvel and Stan grew together, this book will interest you greatly. For me, the missing personal details about Lee’s life detracted from the book. A biography should have more details about the person, not just their creations.
A dry style but a clear fan
A lack of personal details wasn’t the only thing about Stan Lee: A Life I found off-putting. Batchelor also had a very dry style. The story of Marvel and Lee was pretty fascinating but something about Batchelor’s writing was a little boring to me. It kept the book from being as appetizing as it could have been. Some people might find the dry style appealing but I like a little more personality and excitement to come through.
The only time excitement really came through was when Batchelor would turn into a fanboy over Lee. Batchelor is obviously a huge Marvel fan and it comes through clearly in the books. I think that might be part of the reason that the book skews so strongly toward Lee’s career instead of toward his personal life. Batchelor makes comments about how Lee was Marvel and how fans can’t untangle the two. I don’t think he could either. Ultimately he wrote a great biography of Marvel and an okay biography of Stan Lee.
Fans who are looking for an inside view of what happened at Marvel during Lee’s long tenure there will enjoy this book. Fans who want to know more about Lee the man will need to find a different biography. I’m not sure Batchelor’s dry style will appeal to most readers either. Overall, Stan Lee: A Life is an okay book but there are probably better biographies of him out there.
My Rating: 6/10
Stan Lee: A Life by Bob Batchelor is available now! What are your thoughts on this book? Interested in checking it out? Let us know on Twitter or in the Cosmic Circus Discord. And if you haven’t already, check out our review of Madly Deeply, The Diaries of Alan Rickman.