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Spinner of Tales and Weaver of Webs

EXCELSIOR! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee By Stan Lee and George Mair Fireside Books: 255 pp., $14 paper * COMIC WARS How Two Tycoons Battled Over the Marvel Comics Empire--And Both Lost By Dan Raviv Broadway Books: 320 pp., $24.95

April 28, 2002|MARC FLORES | Marc Flores is the author of the forthcoming "Tales to Astonish: Two Men, Fifty Superheros and the Transformation of American Pop Culture."

Stanley Martin Lieber was a nonconformist who dreamed of writing the Great American Novel but settled for comic books that paid the rent and were signed "Stan Lee." Although many of his peers simplified their language and themes for young readers, Lee, a voracious reader of H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Shakespeare and the Bible, turned his comic book stories into modern-day equivalents of English morality plays, Greek tragedies and simple melodramas.

With epic simplicity and an innate sense of justice, Lee maintained the conventions of the superhero genre--bad guys receiving their comeuppance in a mere 22 pages, heroes wearing gym shorts over their pants--but Lee's world was a little more complex. Victories were pyrrhic, characters died and the next tragedy was always on its way.

With Spider-Man, arguably the most inspired comic creation since Superman, Lee turned the concept of the superhero inside out. Spider-Man was neurotic, skeptical and constantly struggling with his own insecurities (whether he enjoyed his powers too much, whether he really was the menace described in newspaper editorials). He lost more battles than he won and occasionally, tragically, failed to save the lives of those closest to him.

It was a formula--Spidey trading insults and punches with such middle-aged super villains as the Vulture, Dr. Octopus, the Green Goblin and Electro--that was phenomenally successful and its history is colorfully laid out in Lee and George Mair's "Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee," "Excelsior!" being his column's trademark signoff. Mixing anecdote with description, the authors tells us how Lee helped introduce Marvel Comic's most enduring properties. They shares stories of Lee's early days at the comic book giant; his stint in the military during World War II; the death of his infant daughter, Jan; and his battles with censors. It is a life as full of grit, determination and triumph as the adventures of his most illustrious creation, which hits the big screen this week.

Superman and Batman have had their day, and now it's Spider-Man's turn. With the promotional push well underway--soundtrack music included in videos on MTV, commercials airing regularly, the web-covered character's face on boxes for breakfast cereals--longtime fans and filmgoers will finally have a chance to see director Sam Raimi's extraordinary computer-generated graphic footage of the web-slinging, high-marketed hero.

From the beginning, Spider-Man had proved to be Marvel's most film-friendly property. Shortly after opening its doors in 1939, Marvel Comics began a quick roller coaster ride in the capricious world of comic book publishing. After enjoying quick success with heroes like Captain America and Human Torch and with stories tied to World War II, the company found itself on the brink in the 1950s, when interest in superheroes waned and a congressional subcommittee sought to censor the sensationalized multi-paneled comic book world. The company survived by publishing everything from westerns to romance and sci-fi monster comics. Sales were modest and Marvel survived by publishing reprints of old material, in titles distributed by chief rival DC Comics.

Such a hardscrabble life was not entirely alien to Lee. Particularly moving, however, are his descriptions in "Excelsior!" of his parents' attempts to keep the family afloat during the Great Depression. "They must have loved each other when they were married, but my earliest recollections were of the two of them arguing, quarreling incessantly," Lee writes. "Almost always it was over money, or the lack of it. I realized at an early age how the specter of poverty, the never-ending worry about not having enough money to buy groceries or to pay the rent, could cast a cloud over a marriage. I'll always regret the fact that, by the time I was earning enough money to make things easier for them, it was too late."

In 1961, however, Marvel publisher Martin Goodman asked his cousin-in-law, Marvel editor Lee, to create a knockoff of DC's best-selling Justice League of America, a consortium that united DC's top-selling characters. Lee and Marvel artist Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four and began a historic collaboration that resulted in the creation of what Lee called "the Marvel Universe." By 1966, Hollywood came calling.

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