Danny Fingeroth’s biography of the late editor, author and former chairman of Marvel Comics Stan Lee, A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee, published this month by St. Martin’s Press, is a loving but sharp-eyed account of the life and career of the man who the author worked under early in his comics career.
Born Stan Leiber, Lee (1922-2018) was an infectiously energetic writer, editor, and one-man comics industry promotional bullhorn. Over the course of more than two decades leading Marvel Comics, Lee (alongside a stellar team of such writers and artists as Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby) co-created many of the comics’ industry’s most enduring characters, from Spider-man and Black Panther to such superhero teams as the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and the Avengers. PW caught up with Fingeroth in the middle of his book tour to talk about Lee and his legacy.
Publishers Weekly: You started working at Marvel Comics shortly after college and stayed there for 18 years. That sounds like a dream job for a comics fan.
Danny Fingeroth: The best part about working at Marvel was on two levels: I was getting to contribute to this ongoing mythology that I had started reading when I was a kid. It was really a unique group of people who worked there, who were passionate about what they did and curious about life and who didn’t want to abandon their inner child.
You said it was “weird” to edit a man whose work you had grown up reading. What kind of working relationship did you have with Lee?
He was very professional. He understood what an editor was up against in terms of deadlines and having to balance all these different personalities—the writers, the colorists, the letterers, and then all the business interests. He was one of the most professional people I ever worked with. He certainly could have taken a prima donna attitude. Bottom line, he understood that an editor’s job was to make the characters and the story as good as possible and that was what he was all about.
What do you think accounts for Lee’s ability to create such an incredibly long-lived roster of characters?
Stan is pretty much the only comic creator who the casual person on the street would know. Because he became the voice and face of not just Marvel Comics but the comics industry, there was a long time when Marvel had no publicity department. Stan was in the office most days, he was available, he always had a quip and a quote. Stan took that on. He realized that this would be his vehicle for extending himself and Marvel beyond the attention of people who read comics. He cultivated it. Why nobody else took that on is hard to say.
You said that Lee “had the authority of an owner but the insecurity of a freelancer.” How do you think that sense of insecurity influenced the stories and characters he created?
He was related to the original owner of Marvel. He knew it was unlikely he could be arbitrarily fired one day. But Stan never owned the company no matter what lofty title he had. They would try to get rid of him. Some new owner would buy the company and they’d say, “Sure, Stan Lee was instrumental in creating Spider-man and X-Men but what has he done for us lately? Why are we paying him all this money?” He never lost that feeling that life was perilous, that things could change at any moment. I think that no matter how wealthy or famous he became that enabled Stan to keep contact with the regular guy. He understood what regular people were up against every day.
As you discuss in the book, many comic creators did not — or felt they did not — profit appropriately from their work. Did Lee feel he had been treated well?
Stan always felt badly that he didn’t own those characters. He owned no more of Spider-man than you or I do. I think he felt he had been treated well for a poor kid from Washington Heights. Yes, he was making more money than 99% of people in the world. But for someone who was so instrumental in creating these popular characters that generate billions and billions of dollars, I think he felt that he allowed himself to be a victim of that system.
What do you think is Stan Lee’s legacy?
On the one hand, recently we’ve had people like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola saying derogatory things about superhero movies. But by the same token they are noticing superhero movies. Lee made them so high profile and such an unavoidable part of the culture that so many people love that they had to notice them.
If there was no Stan Lee how would things be different?
If there is no Stan Lee, I don’t think we have the superhero phenomenon. He was the catalyst. It’s easy to look back and say, Well, of course Spider-man would be a hit, of course the Avengers would be a hit, of course Iron Man would be a hit. But none of that was guaranteed. Fantastic Four and Spider-man were attempts to take advantage of a short-term, temporary fad in a niche business. That Stan was able to be instrumental in taking these characters and stories and leverage them into something else is a pretty amazing accomplishment.