A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee

A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee

by Danny Fingeroth


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The definitive biography of the beloved—often controversial—co-creator of many legendary superheroes, A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee presents the origin of “Stan the Man,” who spun a storytelling web of comic book heroic adventures into a pop culture phenomenon: the Marvel Universe.

Stan Lee was the most famous American comic book creator who ever lived.

Thanks, especially, to his many cameos in Marvel movies and TV shows, Lee was—and even after his 2018 death, still is—the voice and face of comics and popular culture in general, and Marvel Comics in particular. How he got to that place is a story that has never been fully told—until now.
With creative partners including Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko—with whom he had tempestuous relationships that rivaled any superhero battle—Lee created world-famous characters including Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X–Men, the Avengers, and the Hulk!

But Lee’s career was haunted by conflict and controversy. Was he the most innovative creator to ever do comics? Was he a lucky no-talent whose only skill was taking credit for others’ work? Or was he something else altogether?

Danny Fingeroth’s A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee attempts to answer some of those questions. It is the first comprehensive biography of this powerhouse of ideas who, with his invention of Marvel Comics, changed the world’s ideas of what a hero is and how a story should be told.

With exclusive interviews with Lee himself, as well as with colleagues, relatives, friends—and detractors—Fingeroth makes a doubly remarkable case for Lee’s achievements, while not ignoring the controversies that dogged him his entire life—and even past his death. With unique access to Lee’s personal archives at the University of Wyoming, Fingeroth explores never-before-examined aspects of Lee’s life and career, and digs under the surface of what people thought they knew about him.

Fingeroth, himself a longtime writer and editor at Marvel Comics, and now a lauded pop culture critic and historian, knew and worked with Stan Lee for over four decades. With his unique insights as a comics world insider, Fingeroth is able to put Lee’s life and work in a unique context that makes events and actions come to life as no other writer could.

Despite F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous warning that “There are no second acts in American lives,” Stan Lee created a second act for himself that changed everything for him, his family, his industry, and ultimately for all of popular culture. How he did it—and what it cost him—is a larger-than-life tale of a man who helped create the modern superhero mythology that has become a part of all our lives.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly


In this enthusiastic biography of Stan Lee (1922–2018), Fingeroth (Superman on the Couch), one-time writer and editor at Lee’s longtime employer Marvel Comics, tells the story of the man who helped create comic legends including Spider-Man and Black Panther. Born Stan Leiber in New York City, Lee was “a classic American success story,” who turned infectious moxie, geniality, and restless creativity into a career. Starting in comics as a teenager, Lee became a whirlwind of editorial energy (he did not draw) at Marvel Comics, which prided itself on more human, “neurotic,” characters than DC’s simplistic supermen. Lee’s voice, promulgated through punchy story lines and chattily self-deprecating columns within each issue directed at readers, built a fun, self-aware image perfect for a maturing audience. As the industry competed with television, Lee and artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko reinvented comics by combining “simultaneously cynical and idealistic” perspectives with a strong humanism, spinning off the Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, and the X-Men while addressing social ills like racism. Fingeroth’s insider account is likely too long on Marvel’s business permutations, but this biography is a fittingly ebullient tribute to a man who never failed to add one more exclamation mark. This is a sure hit for comics fans of all camps. (Nov.)

From the Publisher

"[Fingeroth's] intimate yet balanced account, highlights Lee’s humanity, humor and even humility. But it doesn’t ignore how his canny self-promotion at times shortchanged his collaborators and constrained his own choices." —Wall Street Journal

"Across a lifetime of creativity, collaboration and endless hustle, Stan Lee saw possibilities no else could imagine and made them real. And if you want to understand how Lee and Marvel did it, Danny Fingeroth's new book A Marvelous Life is the place to start. As a lifelong fan of Spider-Man, The X-Men, Star-Lord and the rest, it was delightful introduction to a guy I'd never met but felt I'd known my whole life." —Adam Frank, NPR

"Enthusiastic...a fittingly ebullient tribute to a man who never failed to add one more exclamation mark. This is a sure hit for comics fans of all camps." —Publishers Weekly

"Detail-packed....Fans of comics culture will enjoy Fingeroth's tribute to his legendary boss." —Kirkus Reviews

"Lee remains a pivotal figure in the superhero genre that's come to dominate popular culture, and Fingeroth, a comics veteran who worked closely with Lee, gives evenhanded treatment to his accomplishments and foibles." —Booklist

"A high-demand biography for fans of Lee and Marvel comics." —Library Journal

"A fascinating peek behind the curtain at Lee’s legendary bullpen. Comics fans will appreciate the inside lane knowledge of Kirby and Ditko’s feuds with Lee and the epiphanies of their collaborations." —Forward

"His life’s work, as it turned out, was serious enough, and Fingeroth honours it with a book that is as much an affectionate biography of a business as it is of the man who made it."
Sunday Times (UK)

"A must-read for anyone who wants to learn more about one of comics' greatest and most polarizing figures." —SYFY WIRE

"Drawing information from Lee's own archives, firsthand experience, others who knew the most famous comic book creator who ever lived, and many more sources, Fingeroth strives to be both factual and fair to all parties, concerned throughout this complicated and controversial life history. This gripping and entertaining read offers an account not only of one man but also of Marvel Comics itself, along with the lives impacted along the way." —Psychology Today

"This one might be the comic-lovers go-to gift for the 2019 season. Danny Fingeroth takes readers on a deep dive into Stan’s life, stuffing this book with balanced analysis and long-lost stories. It’s a page turner and there’s something for everyone inside." —Ed Catto, Pop Culture Squad

"There’s more about Stan Lee in this roller coaster of a book than I thought I'd ever want to know. But I couldn’t stop reading it. Danny Fingeroth gives us, page after page, rapid and cogent insights into the Marvel world, the comics universe, and Stan Lee as innovator, ring master, high-stakes gambler, con man, and an indefatigable charmer. And visionary, as well Stan would want to take the book apart, and put it together again." —Jules Feiffer (assisted Will Eisner on The Spirit, and authored The Great Comic Book Heroes)

"There have been several bios of Stan, including ones attributed to himself, but Danny's is the best so far! I think this will become the standard source about Stan's life." —Peter Sanderson, comics scholar and historian

"Fingeroth seems to cover everything with extensive research, interviews, his personal relationship with Stan and the archives at the University of Wyoming. It’s just a great look at Stan Lee and for comic book fans, a great behind the scenes look at how they were developed and made.” —Red Carpet Crash

"Lieber’s origin story is as good as any of the characters he would go on to create, and Danny Fingeroth’s new biography, A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story Of Stan Lee, tells it well." —AV Club

“Danny understands Stan's special talent of blending together the diverse creations of his myriad collaborators into a coherent universe with a single voice which made each of us feel it had been created for us alone. I'm glad Stan's bio was written and he was the one to write it.” —Scott Edelman, award-winning comics and science fiction writer and editor

"Danny Fingeroth has written an essential book for anyone interested in the popular culture that surrounds us. More than just his critical role in the creation of many comics for Marvel, but the films that dominate the theaters are impossible to imagine without Stan Lee." —James Danky, University of Wisconsin-Madison (School of Journalism and Mass Communication); Co-author of Underground Classics (The Transformation of Comics into Comix)

"It’s wonderful—even-handed, affectionate but not hagiographic, and genuinely insightful." —Professor Ben Saunders, Director of Comics Studies, University of Oregon

Kirkus Reviews

Pow! Zam! If it's connected to comic superheroes in the last half-century, Stan Lee almost certainly had something to do with it.

Stanley Martin Lieber (1922-2018) was no superhero. He was litigious, scrappy, and inclined to take sole credit for the work of many hands. However, writes former Marvel Comics editor and writer Fingeroth (The Rough Guide to Graphic Novels, 2008, etc.), Lee had an uncanny handle on pop culture and a sense of what comic-book fans wanted. "Was Stan Lee at the right place at the right time—or did he make his time and place the rights ones?" The answer one derives from the author's longish, detail-packed account is, both. Another conclusion is that the comics business is no laughing matter. As Fingeroth writes, one editor in a comics mill when Lee's career was just taking off routinely rejected freelance pieces but then had them redone by his favored circle, and some artists and writers who should be better known, such as the long-suffering Jack Kirby, were eclipsed by people like—well, Stan Lee. One result, Fingeroth suggests, was the comix revolution of the 1960s, when creators took more financial risks but kept more of the proceeds as well as the rights to their own creations: "No one owned Mr. Natural but his creator, Robert Crumb. Mister Miracle—who no one ever denied was created by Jack Kirby—was owned by DC Comics." Lee read the zeitgeist correctly when he sensed that the superheroes who populated Marvel Comics were right for Hollywood, making the transition from televised cartoon series to A-list films. Fingeroth also credits Lee, in between lawsuits, for helping popularize the various comics conventions that have become staples of nerd culture. "From what you know of Stan Lee," he remarked when asked if Lee still enjoyed attending the conferences in his later years, "do you think he'd rather die at home, alone, in his sleep, or being adored by five thousand people in a convention auditorium?"

Fans of comics culture will enjoy Fingeroth's tribute to his legendary boss.

Library Journal


Fingeroth (Superman on the Couch) chronicles the eight-decade career of comics legend Stan Lee (1922–2018). Born Stanley Lieber, Lee became editor at Timely Comics, later renamed Marvel, at age 18 through family connections to publisher Martin Goodman. Lee's complex relationships with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko are at this biography's core. In the 1960s, they collaborated to create enduring pop culture icons, including Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four. Lee portrayed these superheroes as characters struggling through their own failures and flaws. He also built a relationship with Marvel's readership through his Marvel Bullpen Bulletin. Stepping away from writing and editing in the 1980s and 1990s, Lee sought to bring Marvel properties to Hollywood, with limited success. Legal issues and controversy followed Lee as Kirby and Ditko sought credit and compensation for their cocreations. Continuing to work into his 90s, making cameo appearances in Marvel movies, which turned him into a cultural icon, Lee fought hard against comics censorship in the 1950s. The work further explores Marvel's bankruptcy in the 1990s and other industry issues. VERDICT A high-demand biography for fans of Lee and Marvel comics.—Chris Wilkes, Tazewell Cty. P.L., VA

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250133908
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/05/2019
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 471,057
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt


JFK, the Beatles ... and Stan Lee

Stan Lee ... helped revolutionize and update the American comic book industry in the 1960s in the way that Elvis and the Beatles revolutionized the music industry and transformed an entire culture.



NOVEMBER 13, 2018

We can never allow this nation to be dictated to by ... Doctor Doom! ... We must move forward and proceed with great vigor! And now, gentlemen, if you'll excuse me, it's Caroline's bedtime!




In May 1963, Stan Lee proclaimed to the world that it was "the Marvel Age of Comics."

Indeed, the covers of most of the Marvel comics that came out that month announced that fact in big, bold blurbs:


It turned out to be more than clever hype. Lee and his creative collaborators were in the midst of creating that very "Marvel Age" — or, as you may know it, the Sixties.

1963 was perhaps the most innovative year of Lee's life. With creative partners Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Larry Lieber (Lee's brother), Don Heck, and a few others, Lee was reinventing comics, coming up with characters who would change pop culture. That year alone saw the flowering of Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, the Avengers, and the X-Men, as well as the ongoing excitement from the Fantastic Four, whom Lee and Kirby had unleashed in '61.

Youthful and energetic at forty, despite his receding hairline, Lee did whatever it took to come up with comics like no one had ever seen. At its giddiest, this included jumping on desks and striking poses to impress on his artists the kind of extreme action and power he wanted the stories to possess. Besides simply demonstrating poses, though, the jumping and shouting and gesturing was his way of conveying excitement to the artists — and (ideally) sparking that same excitement in them!

But for all his enthusiasm, even Lee couldn't know that Spider-Man would become the poster child for every kid who ever felt like he didn't belong — just as the X-Men would make every alienated adolescent feel like there was a family of freaks he or she could fit into. He didn't know that pot-smoking hipsters would look at Ditko's weird Dr. Strange stories and immediately assume that the people making these stories were likewise high on something. (And this when R. Crumb was still drawing birthday cards for a living!)

All Stan Lee thought he was doing was running — and writing much of — a line of superhero comic books that seemed to be catching on with kids, teens, and — this was something new — college students. He'd been trying to catch a somewhat older audience — he'd even put out a comic called Amazing Adult Fantasy, whose slogan was, "The magazine that respects your intelligence" — and indications were that he might actually be succeeding.

Lee was famous as a high-energy smart aleck who liked to have fun with his staff. Problem was, though, that severe cutbacks in 1957 had left him without much of a staff to have fun with. So, with little other outlet, that playfulness — in what he felt was his last-ditch attempt to stay in comics altogether — had started coming out in his whole approach to how he told stories and spoke to his readers, including proclaiming an "age" for his line of titles.

That zany approach, combined with his own serious storytelling skills and those of the artists he worked with, was touching a nerve. Kids that loved the irreverent, if sometimes over-their-heads, humor of Steve Allen and Jonathan Winters and Ernie Kovacs seemed to find Lee's approach to comics novel and appealing. Sales were up — and so was attention being paid by kids to the comics. Lee could tell that from the letters that were pouring onto his desk and from the steady stream of preadolescents trying to sneak into Marvel's offices to meet him and the imaginary "bullpen" of artists he had convinced them were just waiting there to shake their hands.

Even so, it would still be a couple of years before people like directors Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais would show up at Marvel to meet Lee; before San Francisco rock stars in town on tour would drop by to say hello; before Esquire magazine would devote significant space to Marvel's comics and their fans; and certainly before a Princeton English major would anoint Marvel Comics as "the Twentieth Century mythology and you [Lee] as this generation's Homer." It would even be a good year before colleges would start inviting him as a guest speaker.

Lee knew he was impacting the kid-conversation in drugstores and school cafeterias. But a pair of momentous events led him to realize that what he was doing was not merely responding to the times but was starting to have an impact on them, as well, taking a place in the cultural conversation.

Lee had been through enough booms and busts in comics to not put all his eggs in one basket. Always looking for side-gigs — or even a total exit from the low-rent world of comic books — whether doing freelance advertising work or pitching syndicated newspaper strips, he also did writing and editing when he could for Martin Goodman's non-comics magazines. These were published by Goodman's Magazine Management Company, of which Marvel was a part. (Besides being his boss, Goodman was also Lee's cousin by marriage, which would prove, over the years, to be a mixed blessing.)

And so, for Magazine Management, Lee was producing a humor publication called You Don't Say. The magazine consisted of photos of celebrities of the day, including politicians, for which he would write funny dialogue balloons. It was easy and enjoyable work that generated extra income. Beyond that, Lee believed that the level of humor he put into the magazine might even allow it to compete with the revered New Yorker magazine! And even more: he felt You Don't Say had the potential to become an important magazine that would enable him to ditch comics for a more stable field, one appropriate for an adult.

The first two issues sold well. For the third issue's cover, Lee used a photo of then-president John F. Kennedy (who had actually done unbilled cameos in a few Marvel comics). The universally recognized figure was behind a podium with huge versions of the presidential seal both on the podium and on the wall behind him. Lee's gag for this redundant image was to have JFK saying, "Allow me to introduce myself."

Lee recalled:

While the magazine was at the press, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

There was no way we could allow that issue to go on sale. Every copy was destroyed. I was so sick at heart that I couldn't even consider continuing with You Don't Say.

(It seems that at least a few copies were shipped from the printer, since there are, from time to time, copies for sale online.)

Lee's recently hired "gal Friday," Flo Steinberg, noted the bonding effect the national tragedy had. As she recalled:

The people over at Magazine Management would make fun of us [the comic book people] ... The only time the different departments ever really came together was when we heard that President Kennedy had been killed. Everybody sort of dropped everything and came together to listen to the radio reports.

The entire nation was stunned by the November 22 Kennedy assassination. Marvel comics had embodied much of the same playful, optimistic sensibility that people associated with the youthful Kennedy administration. (Like JFK, Lee and Kirby were part of the World War II generation. Kirby was born the same year — 1917 — as Kennedy.)

Would anyone have been offended had the issue of You Don't Say been widely distributed? In the wake of the assassination, there were so many magazines with Kennedy on the cover, it's hard to imagine this one would have generated much negative attention.

More important was Lee's sense of himself and his work as being important enough that the magazine needed to be held back from the public. Even if the world outside of a hip, in-the-know audience — and numerous ten-year-olds — didn't yet realize that what he was doing was significant — well, he did. (And in the '40s and '50s, material he worked on did draw media attention. Why would it not now?) Before too long, the world would, indeed, come to agree with him about how important Marvel's comics were.

As the country struggled to process and understand the murder of its president, Lee, like entertainers everywhere, kept going, making his deadlines, putting out comics, building momentum for Marvel.

During that same period, there was another significant middle-aged cultural figure who, on a larger playing field, had to deal with the same challenges: Ed Sullivan. Sullivan was the influential host of a popular TV variety show that bore his name. Like Lee, he had to figure out how to entertain the American public in the wake of a national trauma.

Sullivan had recently been to England, where he had witnessed firsthand the phenomenon called "Beatlemania." The Beatles weren't just an extremely popular rock band; they inspired a level of seeming hysteria, especially in their female teen fans, that was unprecedented. Seeing that the Liverpool-spawned musicians were also starting to become popular in the United States, Sullivan booked them for three consecutive early '64 episodes of his New York — based Sunday night show. While experts like pop music guru Dick Clark thought the band wasn't very significant, Sullivan's instincts told him something else.

By the time of their February 9 live debut on Sullivan, the Beatles had become hugely popular in the United States, as well as in Britain, and by the time the show was over, they were even bigger. Watching the group on their first Sullivan performance became a cultural touchstone. As with the JFK assassination, baby boomers would ask when meeting each other, "Where were you?" when the group first stepped onto Sullivan's stage.

Stan Lee's solution to the challenge of how to respond in print to the Kennedy assassination had been to just keep on making comic books. No direct mention was made in the comics of the murder. Perhaps he felt there was nothing appropriate he could say. (In a few years, his attitude toward publicly commenting on current events would change dramatically.) But he was certainly noticing what was going on in the culture as a whole — including the Beatles phenomenon. In the letters page of Fantastic Four #31, which was on the stands in July '64, David Grace, a reader from Liverpool, wrote:

By the way, did you know that America had two Fantastic Fours for thirteen days? ... [the second was] the Beatles! They dominate the [music] scene as your comics dominate the comic scene.

To which Lee replied:

Thanks, Dave! Although we're not quite sure whether your letter should have been sent to us — or the Beatles!

And in Strange Tales #130, on sale later in '64, Lee, with artists Bob Powell and Chic Stone, presented a story with the same title as the Beatles' first American album, "Meet the Beatles." The story — starring the FF's Thing and Human Torch — involved a subplot where the heroes and their girlfriends had tickets for a Beatles concert, but, due to hero duties, the teammates had to miss the show. The mop-tops did make a couple of cameo appearances in the story, so at least the readers got to "meet" the Beatles.

Like Ed Sullivan, Stan Lee knew that the Beatles were important to the cultural moment, even if he didn't fully understand why — and even as he was busy producing comics that were themselves important to the moment. Unlike the Beatles, Lee didn't have (not yet, anyway) a live audience that would show up in concert halls to cheer his work. In a manner similar to that of the Beatles, though, with their fans and fan clubs, Lee succeeded in making Marvel's readers feel, simultaneously, part of a mass movement and of a secret community of like-minded aficionados. This was no mean feat.

Like Sullivan, Lee was doing what we'd now call curating the culture, giving his audience what they didn't know they wanted until his comics gave it to them. As comics writer Dennis O'Neil has said of Lee in the '60s, "There were about seven years where Stan didn't make a single mistake. He just really was on an incredible roll, and everything worked for him." Given the eventual phenomenal success of the characters and the company he was so instrumental in creating, it's fair to say that Lee was ahead of his time, even if he didn't fully realize it back in the early '60s.

It would be a number of years before Stan Lee would meet — and talk business with — a couple of Beatles (although they were reportedly Marvel fans). But he would. And, in time, he would even hobnob with presidents. In the meantime, he was helping shape the culture, one superhero adventure at a time, one letter column response at a time, one hyperbolic cover blurb at a time.

With his artist-collaborators, he was creating Marvel's stories. On his own, he was using those stories — and the personas he grafted onto himself and the artists — to create the Marvel Age. (To a reader who complained that calling the era the Marvel Age was presumptuous, since there were other companies in the business, Lee replied, "Okay, so let them make up their own age! It's a free country!")

In retrospect, it was plain that, among those figures shaping the times, Stan Lee and Marvel Comics — which from almost their beginnings were synonymous — were on the road to becoming important cultural players. While Kennedy and the Beatles played out their lives and careers on much larger platforms than Lee was then doing, the influence the comics he was producing would end up having on the cultural conversation then, and to the present day, is undeniable.

So, was Stan Lee at the right place at the right time — or did he make his time and place the right ones?

Well, if you've read this far, then you're no doubt curious about how Lee came to be the pivotal figure that he was. To figure that out, then — in the finest tradition of superhero comics and movies — it's time for us to go into flashbacks and uncover ...

... the secret origin of Stan Lee!


The Dress Cutter's Son

[My father] was ... was not lucky.... He couldn't find a job. He would be sitting home reading the want ads. I felt so sorry for him.


Nine-year-old Stanley Martin Lieber sat transfixed in his seat in the opulent upper Manhattan movie palace, the only light coming from the silvery screen upon which a dreamworld was projected.

Bigger than life, charismatic movie star Warren William, playing a powerful prosecutor in the 1932 Warner Bros. melodrama The Mouthpiece, seemed to be staring right at young Stanley — staring through him, perhaps — as he summed up his case against an accused killer:

The eminent attorney for the defense has made the point that that this case is based upon a chain of circumstantial evidence. That is true.

But the evidence is a strong chain, one that cannot be broken — a chain that has wrapped itself around this murderer like an avenging python — and delivered him into the hands of the law!

Entranced by this bravura performance, Stanley decided that, when he grew up, he would become a lawyer. Or an actor. Or both.

One way or another, he wanted to, like Warren William, reach out to people, to make them think — and feel!

It made no sense that Stan Lee's family lived at 777 West End Avenue when he was born.

But they did.

The building, at the corner of West 98th Street, was built in 1910, as West End Avenue was becoming a coveted address among the rising Jewish middle class in New York. High-rise luxury buildings like 777 were appearing, replacing the smaller tenements that had lined the avenue.

Jack Lieber was born in 1886 (any siblings he might have had are unknown), and his wife, Celia Solomon Lieber, the third of six siblings, was born in either 1892 or 1894. Both were Romanian- Jewish immigrants who had arrived in New York in the early years of the twentieth century and met in the city. By most accounts, the couple didn't have much money, although Jack seemed to have somewhat regular work as a dress cutter until the middle of the decade.

When Lee was born — as Stanley Martin Lieber — on December 28, 1922, his parents, Jack and Celia, shouldn't have been able to afford to live at 777. The neighborhood, off the IRT subway line, was ideally located for Jack Lieber's work in the garment center, which encompassed much of Manhattan's West Thirties around Seventh Avenue. However, Jack didn't make much money as a garment worker and was chronically unemployed starting around 1926. The apartment was small and certainly not glamorous. Lee slept in the living room and found it in general depressing that his family always lived in rear-facing apartments, his only view a brick wall.


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Copyright © 2019 Daniel Fingeroth.
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