Cultural historian and biographer Bob Batchelor has written or edited over 24 books on popular culture and American literature, including subjects like John Updike, The Great Gatsby, and Mad Men. This Oxford, Ohio, native also teaches at Miami University and recent discussed Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel, the latest 260-page book, published by Rowman & Littlefield, he wrote that will release on September 15.
I (Tall Writer) was particularly interested in reading about how Stan Lee handled the initial success after so much hard work while respecting and crediting his collaborators, but discovered great insight into his past and quotes from other people in his life. It was a nice approach and creates a unique tension (e.g. “A victim of his own success, Lee felt the pressure to keep up the momentum.”). Most readers know about the success, but the journey to that success garners high interest, particularly insight quotes like the following that describe impact beyond pop culture:
“…We all have our hidden daydreams, daydreams in which we’re stronger, swifter, and braver than we really are—than we can ever hope to be. But, to Spider-Man, such dreams are reality.”
I appreciate the book’s “Spider-Man” journey, especially since Lee developed him after establishing a 20-year career at that point. How do you balance each side’s perspective throughout the development of “Spider-Man” and other Marvel entities?
What many people don’t know about Stan Lee’s career is that he was the heart and soul of Marvel the publishing company, not just a writer as we might think of it today, toiling away in solitude. In addition to decades of writing scripts for comic books across many genres, like cowboy stories, monster yarns, and teen romances, Lee served as Art Director, head editor, and editorial manager, while also keeping an eye on publication and production details. The totality of his many roles, including budgeting for freelance writers and artists, necessitated that he keep his freelancers active, while also engaging them differently than other comic book publishers.
As a result, Lee worked with his artists, like the incomparable Jack Kirby and wonderful Steve Ditko, to co-create and produce the characters we all know and love today. The process that Lee created out of necessity because he had to keep the company efficient and profitable came to be known as the “Marvel Method.” It gave the artists more freedom in creating stories, since traditionally they worked off a written script. The Marvel Method blurred the definition of “creator,” but when Lee, Ditko, and others were creating superheroes, no one thought that they would become such a central facet of contemporary American culture. The line in the sand between who did what has become important to comic book aficionados and historians, but back then, they were just trying to earn paychecks and make a living. So, if we want to fully understand Stan Lee and Marvel’s Silver Age successes, then we have to look at his myriad responsibilities in total.
What are some of your most memorable research discoveries on this book?
Popular culture is so much more prevalent in today’s culture almost to the point of chaos. People feel pop culture – for better or worse – much more, since it is always blasting away at us. We feel that we “know” celebrities like Lee, because we engage with them much more than ever before. For example, Lee has 2.71 million Twitter followers.
Given that Lee is a mythic figure to many Marvel fans, I think what I’ve done well in the biography is present a full portrait of Lee as a publishing professional, film and television executive, cultural icon, and family man. One gets the sense of Lee as all these things when examining his archive at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. Lee is so much more than the much-anticipated film cameos and the biography attempts to reveal his family background, sorrows, triumphs, and successes in a way that hasn’t been done before.
Marvel (and Stan Lee) have become so prolific…how do you offer fans different perspectives and new information that they have not seen…or do you just pick your a specific path/vision and keep to that? If so, what was it for this book (the subtitle implies his foundational work)?
Ironically, when I interviewed self-professed Marvel and Lee fans, what I realized is that most didn’t know much about him (and much of what they thought they knew wasn’t the whole story). From this research, I realized that my best bet would be to write a biography deeply steeped in archival research that provided an objective portrait that would give readers insight and analysis into Lee’s life and career. The research provided a deeply nuanced view of Lee’s life that I then conveyed to the reader. This commitment to the research and uncovering the man behind the myth is the driving force in the book.
In looking at a person’s life, especially one as long as Lee’s (he’ll turn 95 at the end of the year), context and historical analysis provides the depth necessary to create a compelling picture. So, for example, Lee grew up during the Great Depression and his family struggled mightily. I saw strains of this experience at play throughout his life that I then emphasized and discussed. As a cultural historian, my career is built around analyzing context and nuance, so that drive to uncover a person’s life within their times is at the heart of the narrative.
Please describe your process/methods in biographical writing on individuals (e.g. Stan Lee) as compared to specific entities/genres (e.g. ‘Mad Men’).
Regardless of the topic, storytelling is the foundational narrative idea. Trying to figure out what makes a fictional character like Don Draper or Jay Gatsby tick versus an actual person like Lee or Bob Dylan, I am putting the storytelling pieces together to drive toward a better understanding. One of my mentors, Phillip Sipiora, who teaches at the University of South Florida, is famous for saying that there aren’t really definitive answers, rather that the goal of the critic should be interrogation and analysis. I am not searching for the right answer, rather hoping to add to the body of knowledge by looking at a topic in a new or innovative way.
My process does not change significantly. I start by essentially creating mountains of information and begin writing immediately as I am doing the research. I continue digging and rewriting as new material emerges. Throughout the process, I reserve time to just think deeply about the subject. I find that meditative time is essential. The fact that most people can no longer stand quiet, reflective time is one of the great tragedies to emerge from the web. I create basic outlines to guide my writing and thinking and constantly edit and revise. When I coach writers, I urge them to find a process that works for them, and then to hone it over time. My process fuels my work and enables me to work efficiently.
How do you balance your professional work and academic work?
My central trait is unbridled intellectual curiosity. As a result, I don’t really adhere to many distinctions that people use to compartmentalize their lives. Everything I do seems to bleed into other areas, so my professional and academic careers aren’t distinct, with each fueling the other. For example, my commitment to understanding contemporary American culture has made me a better teacher, because my students will someday be creators of culture themselves, as well as people engaging with culture as citizens. I constantly see overlaps between culture and commerce, so that is central to my work as a strategic communications and marketing consultant or when I’m working with an organization that wants to use its own history as a communications tool. I guess the main thing is that I view myself as a writer and cultural historian and that worldview provides the fulcrum for everything else.
Please describe some of the most memorable experiences where you collaborated with other authors/editors.
My mentors and role models, like the great pop culture scholar Ray Browne and historian Lawrence S. Kaplan, instilled in me the notion that a person should pay it forward in terms of helping others get published. As a result, I tried to help in that area, and am proud of the hundreds of young writers and academics that I helped publish, many for the first time.
I have co-authored many books, because I like the way two people can grab hold of a subject and really interrogate it. The collaboration with Keith Booker on Mad Men was really a dream come true. I had worked with Keith on several projects; he is a prolific author and editor, as well as one of America’s finest literary theorists and critics. Our work on Mad Men was incredibly memorable because it was like a tutorial for me in great writing and thinking, and Keith is incredibly funny as well, as anyone who reads the “Opinionated Compendium” in the Mad Men book will attest.
My first collaboration was with Thomas Heinrich, a business historian at Baruch College, and one of my best friends. We wrote a cultural and business history of Kimberly-Clark and its iconic consumer products. The beauty of that effort centered on seeing how Tom tackled the story as a historian, employing multi-archival research and doggedly piecing together a story that had never been fully told. Tom is a historian’s historian and that work together really inspired me as I worked on solo efforts.
What are some of your future projects?
I like tackling projects and topics that have touched countless lives and been foundational in contemporary American culture, such as Mad Men, The Great Gatsby, Bob Dylan, and John Updike. Each of these, whether a product or producer of culture, is widely considered the best in its class, for example, many people view Updike as one of the best American writers of the twentieth century. I plan to continue to pursue biography and cultural history in this vein.
In the near term, I think I have some things to say about early twentieth century American literature and its significance. Many people think they know the story, but there are still ideas to uncover there that are important to us 100 years later. I am also interested in working more in both film and radio. I’ll never give up writing and editing, but I would like to pursue some documentary projects and possibly create a radio show or some other way to reach larger audiences. Despite our current political climate, I think people still yearn for smart content, and I would like to fill that need.
Thank you very much.