Marvel Comics legend – no, to hell with it, 20th century pop culture phenomenon – Stan ‘The Man’ Lee passed away in November 2018 just before his 96th birthday. His life and achievements have been well chronicled both before and after his passing and you’d be quite justified in asking what this new book by Adrian Mackinder could possibly bring to the table. Quite a lot, actually.
With its breezy, colourful, comic-book inspired cover, How Marvel Comics Changed the World is actually, as the title suggests, as much about the rise and fall and ultimate, world-conquering rebirth of Marvel as it is about the man who made it all happen back in the early 1960s when he re-invented and redefined the American comic book. Fascinating early chapters chronicle Stan’s birth and his formative years, growing up during the Depression and watching as his father struggled to find work to keep his family’s heads above water. At the age of just eighteen, Stan – or Stanley Martin Leiber as all true believers know him – found himself working in a lowly position at Timely Comics where he was quickly entrusted with churning out cheap, simplistic comic strips adventures for the original wartime Captain America. History records how this was the first step on a long and winding road that would eventually change the face of 21st century entertainment.
Mackinder’s book is an effortless page-turner. He covers the history of the comic industry and its various trials and tribulations, the early days of Stan’s involvement in the genre, the cultural upheavals that saw comics drift in and out of favour until they exploded into the public consciousness in the 1960s with a depth and insight belied by the book’s relatively spartan 170 pages. Virtually no stone is left unturned and some of the ugly stuff underneath is unearthed and discussed with a commendable objectivity. Stories of Stan’s ego and his relentless showmanship and self-promotion are legion and most comic fans will be aware of his rocky relationships with the equally influential artists Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. But so much of what occurred between these and other creatives is lost in the mists of time and any witnesses are also now long gone so all Mackinder can do is present the facts and the rumours and the speculation and allow the reader to make up their own mind.
Mackinder’s writing is as irresistibly enthusiastic and colourful as the book’s cover. The text is fast-paced, informative – if occasionally a little bit too conversational - but the book exudes a warmth not only towards its entire subject matter but also towards the reader who is often invited into the narrative being woven thanks to little asides and personalised observations and comments. The perfect companion piece to Danny Fingeroth’s more considered A Marvellous Life, How Marvel Comics Changed the World is the enthralling and exciting broad strokes story of an incredible if imperfect man working in an incredible if imperfect industry and how his work led to several massive cultural revolutions the likes of which we’ll surely never witness again.