I had the chance to chat author Bob Batchelor about his love for Marvel and his upcoming book, Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel. He shared the surprising place you can find Stan Lee’s archive as well as what he thought about the new Spider-Man movie. I would like to thank him again for chatting with me about his really interesting research and comic books.
Could you describe your book for our readers?
“The book is a full scale biography of Stan Lee. It’s the first adult trade biography of Lee that focuses just on his life and his great accomplishments beginning with his parents coming to the United States and continuing until early 2017. The book focuses somewhat on the heyday of Marvel superheroes, it does cover his entire life in quite a bit of detail.”
Could you describe the research method you used for the book?
“I purposely wanted this to be a research based biography, meaning I wanted to be thorough in terms of the archival research that I employed. When I was thinking about the biography I thought too often with interview based biographies, the people, their memories fade, they miss think their way through history. Stan Lee still has a lot of power and influence in the industry so rather than do an interview based biography I wanted to do an archival based biography because Stan Lee, fortunately for comic book lovers and comic book researchers, has an extensive archive at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. I spent quite a bit of time in the archives there uncovering all kinds of material. I also visited the Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State, where I found quite a bit of interesting information. Ferreted out sources at other institutions where comic book resources can sometimes be found. Then read hundreds if not a thousand old Marvel comic books dating back to as far as I could get my hands on that Lee might have either worked on, edited, or had some hand in publishing.”
In the introduction of your book you mentioned that there was an interesting story for why these documents were in Wyoming, could you share what that interesting story is?
“Stan Lee’s archives of all places are at University of Wyoming in the American Heritage Center, which is a fantastic repository and museum in Laramie, Wyoming. Stan Lee has no connection to Wyoming or the University of Wyoming, as a matter of fact I don’t even think he’s been to the archive since he donated his papers. Though he has a notoriously bad memory and when I asked him if he had ever been to Laramie he couldn’t really remember if he had been or not. The University of Wyoming had a very aggressive director of the American Heritage Center and he decided to scour pop culture and ask these famous people for their papers. He was able to convince Lee and several others to donate their papers because they were going to make this great popular culture museum there in Wyoming. He kept badgering Lee for a number of years, and this being before Lee or anyone else knew how important the characters were going to be, he decided to leave his papers. When Lee transitioned from writer and then moved to Los Angeles it seems to me that he boxed up his whole office and had it put on a truck to Laramie, Wyoming. There’s quite a bit of miscellaneous stuff in there and odd things that one might find. Over the years every so often Marvel or Lee will box some things up and send them out. So pretty interesting how native New Yorker and New Yorker/Hollywood resident Stan Lee gets to the middle of nowhere in Laramie, Wyoming.”
During your research did you find anything that sort of surprised you?
“I found a lot of personal material that I won’t go into a lot of detail on. I found things like receipts for Stan’s wife shoe shopping spree when they were visiting London. I found many, many documents with the Social Security numbers of friends and family members. It was quite a load of interesting things. Perhaps the most interesting thing, I didn’t have unlimited time in Laramie so I didn’t get a chance to explore these enough, for most of his career, if not all of it, Stan Lee has carried a very small spiral bound notebook. I would say it’s probably about 2 inches by 3 inches. It’s a really small notebook, I’m not sure where he even finds these anymore. All day long he takes notes in this little notebook, it’s like a ‘To Do’ list and idea list all in one. In the archive you pull out a file and these things just sort of fall out of everywhere. There are probably hundreds, thousands, littered throughout the boxes. It makes for very interesting notations. He has a very less candid scribble so often they’re difficult to read. I think it would be interesting if someone who was a Stan Lee nut were to go to Laramie just to look at those 2×3 notebooks to try and put together some kind of picture of the kind of things he was looking at over the years.”
“It was quite a trip out there and when you start standing in there the historian in me was like a kid in a candy shop. It’s very fun as a biographer to go back and look at these glimpses of a person’s life and in this case additional insight into Lee’s professional life. It really gave me a much fuller picture of all of his responsibilities. I think that today most people think that Stan Lee was just a writer and that he just wrote these characters and that was it, but the more time you spend, particularly in the Lee archives, you see that he was basically running every facet of the company through publication dates, through production dates, things like that. It gives a much fuller picture of his day to day life. He could be writing dialogue for a Spider-Man issue one minute and hand jotting a potential cover for a Marvel coloring book the next. Writing a speech 10 minutes later to looking over art designs in the next minute. He really had this broad functionality that I think most readers of the book will be surprised by. I really tried to emphasize that because it then provides that historical accuracy that is so important when there are so many controversial issues between comic book scholars about Lee and who he was and what he did.”
While you were working on the biography, did you find yourself personally relating to Stan Lee?
“I think I could relate in certain ways to Stan Lee. I would hazard to guess that most biographers love or hate their subjects when they start and as they go through the ups and downs, it really is like creating a relationship with this person and you don’t come out of it the same as when you went in. I could relate to some of the outsider feelings Lee had as a kid. I could relate to some of the discrimination he faced as a comic book writer versus a “serious writer” because I felt some of those things in my own career from being questioned by other writers and scholars for researching film or television as opposed to something they felt was “serious research.” Stan Lee is certainly a hard worker and I’ve built my career on hard work and diligence so I could relate to some of those things. He’s a fascinating guy. I think when most people read the biography they’ll be able to see themselves in some form or another. Lee really represents the story of the American Dream. I think his story is very American and very aspirational.”
Had you always planned to write a biography about Stan Lee?
“No, I had always been a Marvel fan and a huge comic book fan. I had actually taught myself to read so that I could read Marvel comic books. He is so ensconced in my geekdom, in my love of comics, my love of Marvel, I remember Stan Lee speaking at me from the soapbox columns as a kid. I devoured those comic books, but I had never thought to writer a biography of Stan Lee. I actually came to that idea with my editor at Rowman & Littlefield, Steven Ryan. When we were looking for big topics for my next book we kind of together came up with it. He proposed it, but once he did it felt like it had been staring me in the face my entire life and I had never thought of it. It was kind of putting our heads together. I like to cover book topics where the subjects that I’m writing about have touched as many lives as possible, have a massive cultural influence. As I was looking for potential biography subjects there aren’t many people probably in world history who have touched more lives in one way or another, through comics, writing, and film, than Stan Lee. So it was a fortuitous meeting of the minds and coming up with a great topic.”
You had mentioned earlier in the interview that you had spoken with Stan Lee. Did you have a set interview with him or did you speak with him at a convention?
“I met Stan Lee at the Cincinnati Comic Expo last fall. I went as a member of the press because I was doing some work and I was going to write some articles about comic book fandom. What I spent a lot of the day doing was interviewing Marvel fans about Lee and his influence and things like that. Luckily I was able to arrange a brief meeting with him, it was only going to be a couple minutes, but he congratulated me on asking him smart questions and not the silly questions he normally gets asked by journalists so it extended our time together. I only got about 10 or 12 minutes with him, but it was important for characterization for the book and the day. I did not want this book to be authorized in any way by Lee or his management team. I wanted to maintain a historical objectivity at the same time writing the book in a way that general readers, the kind of people that I was talking to that day, would relate to.”
Since you are a Marvel fan who are some of your favorite Marvel characters?
“Certainly Spider-Man is right up there near the top, if not the top. My main favorites though, if someone put a gun to my head, would be The Avengers. I was a huge Avengers fan growing up. There was something about the team and the fighting within the team and all the different superheroes working together that I really enjoyed. I was also a big fan of Nova, who was more of a minor character when I was growing up. Now he’s sort of a minor-ish character and has his own book now, but he didn’t always have his own book. I liked Iron Fist growing up quite a bit, though I hated the Netflix take on Iron Fist *laughs*. I’ve always been a huge Iron Man fan, probably more so now than I was then, because I think Robert Downey Jr. is so amazing in the role and has done such a good job of recreating it. My ultimate favorite Marvel topic, interest, anything, might surprise most of your readers. It’s this little known series called What If. There’ve been several runs of What If and what it did was reimagine what if this happened. It always happened in an alternate universe and that’s where The Watcher comes in. The Watcher is watching all of these different worlds and would tell these different stories. There are these amazing What If stories. What if Spider-Man had joined The Fantastic Four? What if Hulk and Submariner destroyed The Avengers? These various what ifs, they were really influential to me because when I was reading them I was pretty young. That alternative version of Marvel history and that taking of the established history and throwing it on its ear really excited me. That was really transformational for me. It actually planted the seed for me wanting to be a historian. It gave me a world view in which I could look at it from different perspectives. My favorite comic book of all time is What If #3 What if The Avengers had Never Been? Iron Man actually dies in the story and that just blew my mind. That was published in June 1977 so it was probably out in February, early ’77. I was 9 at that time and that really had a big impact on me as a budding thinker. I’ve probably read that What If issue 100 times.”
Have you seen the new Spider-Man movie and did you like it?
“I did see the new Spider-Man movie. I wanted to like it probably a lot more than I actually liked it. I’d say I probably give it a B+, A-. It’s well worth it. I was old enough at the time that I liked the first go around with Tobey Maguire, it just caught me. I dig the new Spider-Man, but honestly I’m not its demographic, *laughs*, even as an aging comic book guy. This is definitely a millennial focused film, which I completely understand. I really love Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man in this and Michael Keaton as The Vulture. So I find myself identifying with the older dudes, Michael Keaton’s older than me, Downey Jr. is a couple years older than me I think, I’m not really the demographic, but I still enjoyed it. I really liked Tom Holland I think he captured something that maybe through his athleticism or his dance and physicality, I’m not sure of his background in those subjects, but he kind of catches something about Spider-Man that is maybe better than the last two actors who have tried to fill the tights. That’s kind of my wrap up of the new film. *laughs*.”
I then mentioned that I appreciate discussing the Marvel movies with Marvel fans since my comic book knowledge is more DC focused which led into a conversation about Marvel in more detail.
“When I was growing up the schism or the iron wall between DC and Marvel wasn’t so fierce so I gravitated more toward Marvel characters for the exact reason that they were so popular. I was a poor kid in west Pennsylvania who could relate to superheroes who had real problems as Stan Lee intended. I read DC, I didn’t have much of a choice I read whatever I could get my hands on. I didn’t have to money to just go to the store the read whatever I wanted. I either had to make smart choices or be choosy about what I was able to buy. I read everything and I remember watching when I was really little the reruns of the Batman show, Adventures of Superman with George Reeves, I’m not Marvel-centric I’m comic book-centric.”
What are some of your other works that our readers can check out?
“I write about big popular culture, big American culture topics, so the book before Stan Lee was a history of Mad Men the television series. Prior to that I did a biography of The Great Gatsby. It’s how The Great Gatsby become the important and central text that we know it to be as well as the films and that kind of thing. I wrote a biography of John Updike, who is widely considered one of the great American writers of the 20th century. Even further back than that I wrote a short biography of Bob Dylan purposefully in a series to enable people who maybe are younger or not familiar with Bob Dylan that much, to read the book and get an understanding of him and his career and his consequences and his impact on society. Those are probably the most popular books that I’ve written. I’ve edited and written a couple dozen others ranging from reference books to anthologies, but those are the easiest and most interesting to contemporary readers.”
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