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, Tom Spurgeon

Paperback(Revised ed.)

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Based on interviews with Stan Lee and dozens of his colleagues and contemporaries, as well as extensive archival research, this book provides a professional history, an appreciation, and a critical exploration of the face of Marvel Comics. Recognized as a dazzling writer, a skilled editor, a relentless self-promoter, a credit hog, and a huckster, Stan Lee rose from his humble beginnings to ride the wave of the 1940s comic books boom and witness the current motion picture madness and comic industry woes. Included is a complete examination of the rise of Marvel Comics, Lee’s work in the years of postwar prosperity, and his efforts in the 1960s to revitalize the medium after it had grown stale.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781556525414
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/28/2004
Edition description: Revised ed.
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,254,539
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.77(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Jordan Raphael has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Globe and Mail. He lives in Los Angeles. Tom Spurgeon edited The Comics Journal and has written for Seattle's The Stranger. His syndicated newspaper comic strip, Wildwood, appeared in more than 12 million homes daily. He lives in Silver City, New Mexico.

Read an Excerpt

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

By Jordan Raphael, Tom Spurgeon

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2003 Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-292-1



All superheroes require a secret origin. That's the first rule of the long-underwear league. Whether your powers are of the pyrotechnic variety or you merely possess superstrength, you need a story that explains how you came to acquire your awesome gifts and why you're using them to battle crime instead of, say, exploiting them for profit. In his long career as a comics writer, Stan Lee has dashed off hundreds of origin stories. To the Hulk, he gave a gamma-ray bomb, to Spider-Man, a murdered uncle. Daredevil gained supernatural senses from a radioactive spill, and the Silver Surfer sacrificed himself to save his planet. The only secret origin Stan Lee has had trouble keeping straight is his own. He readily admits that he has a bad memory. It's no surprise, then, that in personal interviews, in media profiles, and even in his autobiography, many of the details of his life vary. Some are shaded by the passage of time, possibly embellished to fit a neater version of the past. Others are unverifiable, with no public records or living witnesses to back them up. Yet somewhere in this hazy morass of recollection is the true story of how Stanley Lieber became Stan Lee.

Stanley Martin Lieber was born on December 28, 1922, over a decade before the dawn of the American comic book. He would miss out on the medium's formative years but arrive in time to help steer it through puberty. Like many of the second-generation immigrant kids who grew up to form comics' pioneering vanguard, including his future collaborator Jack Kirby, Stanley's early life was marked by grinding poverty.

His parents, Jack and Celia Lieber, were Jewish-Romanian immigrants who lived in New York City, near the corner of 98th Street and West End Avenue. Jack Lieber worked as a dress cutter in the city's garment district until the Great Depression left him jobless. Celia tended the home. To save money, the Liebers moved to a tiny apartment in the Bronx, an ethnically diverse borough with a large Jewish population. Stanley slept in the living room. Much to his dismay, the new Lieber household stared onto the side of another building, making it impossible to see the neighborhood kids at play. "My dream was to one day be rich enough to have an apartment that faced the street," he recalls.

When Stanley was eight years old, his brother, Larry, was born. Because of their age gap, the Lieber boys weren't very close, but later in life they would work together on comic books and the "Spider -Man" newspaper comic strip. Money was scarce in the Lieber home, and the family often accepted financial help from Celia's sisters, who were better off. Stanley's parents quarreled constantly. Jack was intelligent, but difficult and demanding, recalls Jean Goodman, a close relative. "He was exacting with his boys — brush your teeth a certain way, wash your tongue, and so on." Celia, on the other hand, was warm and nurturing to the point of self-sacrifice. "The demanding father and the persecuted mother, that made the atmosphere difficult," Goodman says.

Stanley sought refuge in pulp novels and the books of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Mark Twain. He frequented the movies as often as he could afford the 25¢ admission, wrapping himself in the celluloid adventures of Charlie Chan, Roy Rogers, Errol Flynn, and other swashbucklers of the day. He took particular interest in the works of William Shakespeare, which he started reading before the age of ten. "I didn't understand a lot of it in those days," he later recalled, "but I loved the words. I loved the rhythms of the words." His passion for Shakespeare would resurface in his 1960s work at Marvel Comics, from the ponderous philosophical pronouncements of the Silver Surfer to the exaggerated Elizabethan dialogue of the Mighty Thor.

Stanley also read newspaper comic strips, although not with the dedicated interest of someone who hoped to one day write them. Among his favorites were George Herriman's surrealist comic drama "Krazy Kat" and Jimmy Hatlo's quirky one-panel feature "They'll Do It Every Time." He was a voracious reader of books, magazines, pulps, cereal boxes — whatever he could lay his hands on. Comic strips were just something else to read. One of his early role models was animator Walt Disney. "I admired him so when I was a kid," Lee says. "I probably created many more characters, but he created an empire. I'm not an empire creator."

Sunday night at the Lieber home was family night. For dinner, Celia would serve hot dogs and beans, and on the rare occasions when money was flowing, a helping of sauerkraut. The family gathered around the radio set to listen to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, comedians Fred Allen and Jack Benny, and other stars of the early broadcast era. "All the chairs were arranged in a semicircle facing the radio, and we would sit and watch the radio as if it were a television set," Lee told an interviewer on National Public Radio.

The Liebers were Jewish, and so were most of their neighbors and friends. At Jack's insistence, Stanley had a bar mitzvah when he turned thirteen. ("There were about two people in the temple at the time," he quips. "We were very poor.") But Judaism didn't leave much of an impression on Stanley, and it faded from his life when he reached adulthood. "I never believed in religion. I don't mean the Jewish religion — I mean in religion," he says. "To me, faith is the opposite of intelligence, because faith means believing something blindly. I don't know why God — if there is a God — gave us these brains if we're going to believe things blindly."

Jack's chronic unemployment persisted through Stanley's teens. Demand for dress cutters was low, and Jack spent most of his time reading the want ads or trolling the city for jobs, trying to earn enough money to keep his family nourished and off the streets. "I always felt tremendous pity for him, because it must be a terrible feeling to be a man and to not be bringing in the money that's needed for your family," Lee said in the NPR interview. In high school, Stanley pitched in by taking on a number of part-time jobs. He delivered sandwiches to office workers and ushered at the Rivoli Theater on Broadway. His father's bleak resume taught him the importance of bringing home a regular paycheck. Throughout most of his career as a writer and editor, Lee would hold staff positions, steering clear of the freelance arrangements that were common in the comics industry.

Lee is fond of telling the story of how he became interested in writing. As he related in his autobiography and in countless interviews, the pivotal event was an essay competition for high schoolers sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune. Begun in the spring semester of 1936, the Biggest News of the Week contest invited students to write, in 250 words or fewer, what they considered to be the most significant news development of the week. The top seven entries each week were awarded cash prizes. When he was fifteen years old, Lee recounted, he entered the contest three weeks in a row. He won first prize, which paid $20, all three times. His domination of the competitive field, which included thousands of kids, prompted an editor at the paper to contact Stanley to ask him to please give other aspiring scribes a chance. Sensing talent in the skinny teenager, the editor then advised him to consider professional writing as a career. With such wise counsel offered from on high to one so lowly as he, how could young Stanley refuse his newfound destiny? He never looked back.

It's a nice story, gilded with classic themes — the archetypal father figure, a wide-eyed youngling who finally recognizes his burgeoning talents. But it's also false. At best, it's vastly distorted. Stan Lee never won the New York Herald Tribune's Biggest News of the Week contest. An exhaustive search of the paper's archives turned up no first prizes for Stanley Lieber, only a seventh-place finish on May 7, 1938, for which he netted $2.50. The following week, Stanley didn't place. But, on May 21, his essay won an honorable mention, one of 100 such awards handed out that week. He snagged a second honorable mention a week later, and then disappeared from the standings.

While winning seventh prize in a contest with thousands of entries is undoubtedly a praiseworthy achievement, that distinction added to two honorable mentions hardly seems likely to have attracted the attention and advisement of a busy newspaper editor. Perhaps, in his misty memory, Lee has confused the editor with a teacher or some other authority figure. And maybe, after so many decades, a seventh-place finish and a pair of near-misses have acquired the nostalgic sheen of three first prizes. Or maybe his imagined teenage glory provided the convenient details he needed to polish the tale of his secret origin. Lee may not be an intentional liar, but he has been known to massage the truth on occasion. Not that most people seem to mind. His enthusiastic amiability usually gets him off with some good-natured chiding — "Oh, that's just Stan." After all, Lee is a storyteller, and his account of the Herald Tribune essay contest certainly made for a good story, even if it's untrue.

The story continues with a few novice writing gigs. Stanley's first stop was a news service, where he compiled advance obituaries of famous people in anticipation of their demise. He quit that job, he says, because it was too depressing. He also wrote publicity material for a Jewish hospital in Denver. At one point, he joined a local company of the WPA Federal Theater, the national public-works project founded to provide jobs for unemployed theater professionals. After working on a few plays, he left to seek more profitable climes. But that experience instilled in him a love of acting, and in later years he would return to performing of sorts on the college lecture circuit and in Hollywood cameos.

Stanley attended DeWitt Clinton High School, an overcrowded Bronx institution that housed 10,000 students from all parts of the city: Irish kids, Italian kids, Jewish kids — even some African-American kids — many of them children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. His schoolmates included future author James Baldwin and eventual TV and film writer Sidney "Paddy" Chayefsky. The all-boys school had previously graduated two other New York Jews destined for comic-book stardom — Batman cocreators Bob Kane (class of 1934) and Bill Finger (class of 1932).

Stanley was active in extracurricular activities, joining the law society, the chess club, the Ping-Pong club, the French club, and the public-speaking club. In his yearbook entry, Stanley M. Lieber, nicknamed "Gabby," wrote that his life's ambition was to "Reach the Top — and STAY There," with the parting quote, "Join the navy, so the world can see me!" Bob Wendlinger, a high-school friend, remembers Stanley as a good-looking, extroverted "charmer" who was clearly destined for great things. "You always knew that he was going to be successful. It was a given," says Wendlinger, a retired writer.

The school published a student literary magazine called the Magpie. Every semester, a group of artistic-minded students holed up in their office in an area of the school known as "the tower" to pull together a collection of poems, articles, short stories, drawings, and photographs. "Stan Lieber" was listed as a member of the Magpie's business staff in its June 1939 edition. He apparently never wrote anything for the magazine, serving instead as a publicity director. But while he may not have made a literary mark during his time at the Magpie, he did make history of a different sort. One day, he arrived at the magazine's office to find a ladder leading up to the room's high ceiling. The ladder had been placed there by a painter, who was gone for lunch. Seizing the opportunity for mischief, Stanley scrambled to the top and inscribed four fateful words on the ceiling — "Stan Lee is God." That was the first known use of his famous pseudonym. Recently, Lee admitted that he can't remember exactly when he invented the pen name "Stan Lee," but it was certainly his preferred alias by the time he started writing comics a few years later.

In 1939 Stanley graduated high school. Because he had to help support his family, he couldn't attend college — a fact that he views now with some regret. "I think I would have enjoyed going to college," he says. "Like you see in the movies — living on campus, having beer parties, getting laid every night. It would have been nice." At the time, though, he accepted the reality of his situation with the resigned practicality required by those economically depressed times. Later, he would sign up for night school at the City College of New York in order to spend time with a girl he was dating. "I don't remember what I studied or what course I took, but I enrolled just so I could be with her," Lee recalls. When they broke up six months later, he quit.

The last port of call on his voyage of miserable yet character-building jobs was a trouser manufacturer. Stanley ran errands for salesmen on the shop floor, frantically jumping to attention every time someone yelled "Boy!" The work was difficult and humiliating, and when the company fired him after a few weeks, it was almost a relief.

Now Stan Lee's secret origin nears its climax. Stanley Martin Lieber, seventeen years old and unemployed, is adrift. He harbors soft-boiled notions of being a writer, but he doesn't know how to make that happen. Then Robbie Solomon, his mother's brother, has an idea. Timely Publications, the publishing company where Solomon works, might have an opening. It so happens that Timely is owned by Martin Goodman, another relative.

On a morning in late 1940, Stanley hikes over to the Timely offices in the McGraw-Hill Building on West 42nd Street, a thirty-three-story skyscraper layered with swatches of blue-green terra cotta. Timely, it turns out, publishes comic books, including a hot new title called Captain America Comics. Stanley is familiar with comic strips, which are a popular feature of New York City newspapers, but these comic books, vulgar and boisterous, are strange. They lack the cleverness and visual elegance of their crisply drawn forebears.

The firm's editor, Joe Simon, who is tall and slim and has a booming voice, interviews Stanley and shows him around. Joe introduces him to the art director, a short, compact man named Jack Kirby. Sales for Timely's comics are soaring, and Simon and Kirby's workload has increased proportionately. They need an assistant, a gofer, someone to fetch sandwiches or to erase stray pencil marks on finished artwork — and maybe, down the road, to do a little writing. Stanley accepts.

The job pays eight dollars a week. It isn't much of a job, but it's a job.

It's a start.



The comic-book industry that Stanley Lieber joined in late 1940 was young, formless, and chaotic — the ideal place for a teenager looking for some easy writing experience and, perhaps, to make a mark. Like most lively arts, the American comic book began as a hybrid of previous cultural forms. The early comic books, with their simple illustrated storylines and garish, titillating cover art, borrowed heavily from the form, content, and economics of at least two older commercialized creative endeavors: newspaper comic strips and pulp magazines.

Comic strips had been creeping into the American consciousness since the 1895 debut of Richard F. Outcault's "The Yellow Kid" in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. Outcault's character — a bald, obnoxious slum kid whose immense popularity earned him a slot in the paper's Sunday color supplement — was the original cartoon-licensing franchise. Eighty years before "Garfield" became a billion-dollar merchandising behemoth, the Kid appeared in plays and his image adorned key chains and collectible cards. The Yellow Kid's success inspired dozens of strips, among them Rudolph Dirks's "The Katzenjammer Kids," James Swinnerton's "Little Jimmy," and Winsor McCay's "Little Nemo in Slumberland." And later, "Boob McNutt," "Barney Google," and "Toonerville Folks" — oddly titled features rendered in stark black and white on weekdays and in glorious full color in the weekend editions.


Excerpted from Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book by Jordan Raphael, Tom Spurgeon. Copyright © 2003 Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction and Acknowledgments,
1 Stanley Lieber,
2 Martin's Cousin-in-Law,
3 Stan Lee, Playwright,
4 Bring on the Bad Guy,
5 The Biggest Comic-Book Company in North America,
6 Jolly Jack and Sturdy Steve,
7 The Escapist,
8 The World's Greatest Comic Magazine,
9 Secret Origins,
10 What Marvel Did,
11 Live and on Campus,
12 Stan Lee, Editor,
13 Moving on Up,
14 Friends of New Marvel,
15 Building the Brand,
16 Stan Lee, Author,
17 Stan in Hollywood,
18 The Evil Empire,
19 Step Right Up!,
20 In Stan's Image,
21 Millionaire on Paper,
22 Stan the Man,
23 Ever Upward,
Source Notes,

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Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Filled with info and facts about the great stan lee the leader of marvel comics and who some people incorrectly think of as the creator of such characters as spider man the fantastic four and countless others when in faxt he was the cocreator.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Spider man spider man spins a web..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not what I thought it would be. I wanted something that was about the creative process that birthed the Marvel Universe. This book was more about Stan as Marvel's frontman and left a lot of unanswered questions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ya right it stinks (p.s. i hadnt read this book.) Lol