I’ve had a problem with the recent biographies I’ve read. They have left me feeling a depressed. I understand that we’re all just people, and no one is perfect.
But, after reading Zoglin’s Bob Hope Biography, I was really bummed out by Hope’s infidelity, and the disastrous results it had on the lives of some his girlfriends. Jay Jones’s insights into the life of Dr. Seuss in Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination, were fascinating, especially when viewing his creative output through the lens of entrepreneurism. But again, I had a sourness left in my mouth as I learned about the ending of Geisel’s first marriage. Florent Silloray’s Frank Capa: A Graphic Biography left me confused about the paths taken by a man with such a great creative talent.
So, you can understand how I was I was especially worried as I jumped into Danny Fingeroth’s A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee, fearful this biography too might be a downer.
The stakes were, in fact, high for this book. Sometimes it seems like there are two extremes for comics (or Marvel) fans. There are those that hold Stan Lee in the highest regard for his incredible creations. On the other hand, there are those that hold him in great contempt as a privileged, boastful promoter who ended up wealthy while so many of his collaborators were not able to benefit from their creativity and hard work.
Earlier this year, I read and reviewed Two Morrow’s Kirby & Lee Stuf’ Said . It’s a thoughtful analysis of the careers of the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, as well as many other Marvel creators. For an authentic, deep dive, historian and publisher John Morrow chronologically showcased the creators’ own quotes to create a complicated tapestry that speaks for itself. At the end of the day, all the Marvel creators seemed to have feet of clay.
And that’s why it’s all the more amazing that I’m able to report how much I enjoyed Danny Fingeroth’s new Stan Lee bio. Somehow, Fingeroth is able to paint a balanced picture of Stan’s life. He celebrates the good parts and showcases the less-than-good parts. Fingeroth, who enjoyed a friendship with Lee, does it all in a way that seems fair, thorough and nuanced.
Like Morrow, Fingeroth points out differing creation stories told by Lee and Kirby. And to his credit, Fingeroth also respectfully peppers this bio with the insights and reflections of other comic historians, like Mark Evanier, Sean Howe and Tom Spurgeon.
And just when I thought I had read too much about the early days of Marvel, I found Fingeroth was able to position it all in a new and thoughtful context. I was really struck by the way he laid out everything else that was going on when the Marvel Age begun. For example, he focused on the tepid superhero launch of Dr. Druid, as a sort of prelude to the birth of Marvel-as-we-know-it. And he makes the case that “the bullpen” (as we would come to know it) was doing better work, in those early days, on titles other than Fantastic Four.
Fingeroth has packed so much fascinating information into this book. I learned about the novel that Stan’s wife Joan wrote (it sold very well). I learned about Stan’s friendship with Ken Bald. I learned about Stan Lee’s entrepreneurial ventures. I learned about the final meetings and reconciliations, after a fashion, between Stan and Steve Ditko.
And Danny Fingeroth, as a biographer, has an energetic, compelling style that really makes you want to jump into the next chapter. It’s a page turner to be sure, and the only caveat I’d have is to not read it too quickly. A Marvelous Life is one of those books with so much presented that you really need to allow time to soak it all in.
As you’ve guessed by now, I consider the The Amazing Story of Stan Lee to be a real treat. Hats off to Danny Fingeroth. I’m already thinking of ways to incorporate this into my comic-convention class I teach at Ithaca College. I just wish there were books like this assigned to me when I was student.