A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #32:-
EXCELSIOR! THE AMAZING LIFE OF STAN LEE
Stan Lee & George Mair
Boxtree hb, 247pp, £18.99
Anyone who’s read a comic over the last twenty-five years owes a debt of gratitude to Stan Lee who, as head honcho at Marvel Comics back in the 60s, pretty much turned the medium on its head and made it fit for adult consumption, in the process giving us such unforgettable characters as Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men and the Silver Surfer. Among many other innovations Lee placed his stories in the real world, instead of some made-up burg like Metropolis or Gotham City, but his masterstroke was to realise that his heroes could be just as interesting in their everyday lives. Until that moment the only reason for someone like Superman to have a secret identity was so that he could live with the constant threat of exposure by Lois Lane. Lee changed all that, making the secret identity as much a part of who his characters were as what they got up to while in the spandex. Spider-Man could go one on one with any super powered foe, but as Peter Parker he had all the problems and anxieties of any normal teenager. This fusion of super heroics and soap opera proved a winning formula, giving readers, young and old alike, a way to identify with their heroes.
The release of Excelsior! has no doubt been timed to capitalise on the big screen debut of Lee’s most famous creation. The book itself has a slightly unusual format. George Mair provides the objective background material to Lee’s life, the facts and nothing but the facts, who did what to whom and when, leaving Lee to fill in the details, the real skimmy as it were, by way of personal reminiscence and anecdote, which he does in his own ebullient and inimitable style. The result is an eminently readable biography, one which should be of interest to anyone who cares about comics. Lee is a born raconteur and his accounts of his early life when he had to hustle for every cent and of the glory days of the Marvel Bullpen make fascinating reading. He provides valuable insight into the creation of some of popular culture’s greatest icons, and his down to earth thoughts on such matters as censorship, the Wertham Seduction of the Innocent fiasco, and reasons for the industry’s recent decline are certainly worth listening to. Never afraid to blow his own trumpet, Lee is also not above setting a few matters straight, though he does so in the nicest possible way, as when gently pulling the rug out from under Steve Ditko’s claim to have co-created Spider-Man. Though not bitter, there’s no doubt Lee feels he got a raw deal from certain people in the industry.
The book does disappoint in some respects. There is no insider information about the making of the Spider-Man movie; Lee might have created the character, but the Hollywood suits seem to kept him well away from the project. And, while we get a lot of talk about big projects in the pipeline and wheeler dealing, there’s no concealing the fact that creatively Lee doesn’t seem to have done anything of much significance over the last twenty or so years. The book deals with past glory rather than present prestige. And I could have done with more illustrations too. Excelsior! is not cheap and a few grubby black and white snapshots from the family album printed on cheap paper does not provide value for money.