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Stan Lee biographer Bob Batchelor discusses the man, the myth, the legend and other work

Bob Batchelor, Stan Lee, comics, marvel

Stan Lee, the genius behind the Marvel comic universe turned 95 on Dec. 28.  His life and career are the embodiment of the American Dream.  We can learn more about this icon by reading Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel from Rowman & Littlefield written by Bob Batchelor.

Batchelor is a true lover of pop culture and is a historian of the Marvel universe is the author of more than 25 books and has collaborated on many more projects.  He teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, is the author of more than 25 books, including Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel.

“Superman launched comic book superheroes, but Spider-Man made them human. This teenager from Queens was full of complexities and angst, just like the rest of us. But, he still abided by Stan Lee’s immortal line: With great power, there also must also come -- great responsibility,” said Batchelor.

Bob Batchelor spoke with Michelle Tompkins for TheCelebrityCafe.com about his teaching and life, as well as his thoughts on Stan Lee, how they met, what his impact has been on pop culture, the significance of Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel and more.

Biographer Bob Batchelor with Stan Lee [Photo from Bob Batchelor]
Michelle Tompkins:  Where are you from?

Bob Batchelor:  I grew up in Western Pennsylvania, in a small college town called Slippery Rock, which is about 45 minutes north of Pittsburgh. Slippery Rock is the home of Slippery Rock University. Many people nationwide know about the town from the odd name and college.

MT:  Where do you live now?

BB:  Currently, I live in another small college town – Oxford, Ohio. The town is the home of Miami University and is in the Cincinnati metro region near the Indiana border.

MT:  Please tell me about your educational background?

BB:  I left the rural town I grew up in for the bright lights of the University of Pittsburgh, in the gritty, urban Oakland section of town. I majored in History, Philosophy and Political Science. I earned a Master’s degree in History at Kent State University. Many years later, fulfilling a lifelong dream, I received a doctorate in English Literature from the University of South Florida.

MT:  Were you always interested in pop culture?

BB:  I am a Gen Xer through-and-through, so from that vantage point, I think that pop culture is at the core of most people in my generation. I grew up on Adam West Batman reruns, the Brady Bunch, Three’s Company, Hogan’s Heroes, Happy Days and the many TV shows that defined life for latchkey children.

I taught myself to read so that I could dive into Marvel comics. That desire to read really propelled me toward popular culture and history. Whether it meant reading biographies of sports heroes and U.S. presidents or Greek mythology, I read everything I could find.

MT:  Do you read comics? Do you have a preference between Marvel and DC?

BB:  While researching for the Stan Lee biography, I read thousands of comic books dating back to the late 1930s when Lee entered the field. I have been reading comic books and graphic novels for most of my life and continue to do so as much as I can. For about the last 15 years, I have been fortunate to live in communities with strong public libraries, so that really fueled my graphic novel interest and reading trade paperback collections from the larger publishers and smaller presses.

My comic book reading is primarily Marvel, which I prefer. I subscribe to the Marvel Unlimited database, so I still dip into old collections, especially re-reading the comic books I had as a kid in the 1970s. Marvel Unlimited features new comics too, about six months behind the current ones, so I read those as well. I’m not anti-DC by any means. I simply do not have enough time to read as many comics as I’d like, so I track toward Marvel most of the time.

MT:  Who are some of your favorite superheroes?

BB:  From the first time I ever read The Avengers, that team became my favorite. As a kid, I really loved the internal struggles the team faced, as well as the many evil villains they battled. Vision and the different version of Henry Pym always fascinated me. Of course, I could not get enough Spider-Man either. It seemed as if Spidey exploded onto popular culture in the 1970s as merchandising and animation became more influential, so I happily rode that wave.

Marvel launched an offbeat series in the late 1970s, called What If?, that reimagined the superhero storylines. They took place on alternative versions of the Marvel universe, so anything could happen, including iconic superheroes dying. This series had a transformative impact on the way I viewed history and storytelling. I realized that a story could have many viewpoints and interpretations and it more or less launched my interest in studying history as a profession.

MT:  What was the first book you published?

BB:  One of my mentors, Ray Browne, the famous popular culture scholar at Bowling Green State University, offered me a book contract long before I really deserved one to write a book about the mix of popular culture and history in the 1900-1910 era in the United States. That experience led to The 1900s, a book in the “American History Through Popular Culture” series from Greenwood Press. That experience launched a partnership with the publisher, which specializes in readable, strongly-researched (kind of quasi-academic and scholarly) books for libraries and general readers. I started editing books for Greenwood and its Praeger imprint while building my academic career.

MT:  How many books have you published?

BB:  I have written or edited around 30 books at this point. Some of them are multi-volume reference collections that I edited.

MT:  Where can people find them?

BB:  Many of the early books were written or edited for the academic or general library market, so they are readily available at libraries. Readers can also find all of them on Amazon. My more recent work, like the cultural history of Mad Men or the book I wrote about the enduring influence of The Great Gatsby, is at Amazon and other retailers.

MT:  Please tell me about your new Biography on Stan Lee?

BB:  Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel benefits from multi-archival research and deep engagement with contemporary American history. Basically, I wanted to write a biography that is based on archival research, but written for general fans and readers. Stan Lee explores Lee’s rise as a kind of fulfillment of the American dream, from near-poverty in Depression-era New York City to the comic book industry’s iconic visionary, a man who created (with talented artists) many of history’s most legendary characters.

 

Gatsby by Bob Batchelor

 

The biography explores how Lee capitalized on natural talent and hard work to become

the editor of Marvel Comics as a teenager. After toiling in the industry for decades, Lee threw caution to the wind and went for broke, co-creating the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, and others in a creative flurry that revolutionized comic books for generations of readers. Marvel superheroes became a central part of pop culture, from people who began collecting comics to the company’s innovative merchandising, from superhero action figures to the ever-present Spider-Man lunchbox.

Stan Lee examines many of Lee’s most beloved works, including the 1960s comics that transformed Marvel from a second-rate company to a legendary publisher. This book reveals the risks Lee took to bring the characters to life and Lee’s tireless efforts to make comic books and superheroes part of mainstream culture for more than fifty years. The biography not only reveals why Lee developed into such a central figure in American entertainment history, but explores the cultural significance of comic books and how the superhero genre reflects ideas central to the American experience.

MT:  What led you to want to learn more about Stan Lee?

BB:  I want to tell stories of iconic figures whose lives have influenced millions of people, so Stan Lee seemed a natural subject to explore in a full-scale biography. And, of course, I am a lifelong Marvel and Stan fan, so I felt I had some insight into his life at the outset.

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). 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 work 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.

MT:  Did you talk to him for the book?

BB:  I interviewed Lee, but did not base the book on interviews with him or people around him, because I wanted to write more of a historical biography that focused on the archival research and cultural history of his life. The biography is not authorized, meaning that I did not write it for Lee or ask his permission. I find that biographies of living figures are more interesting when they are unauthorized, since then the biographer has freer reign to explore all aspects of the subject’s life without potential conflict from the subject or family members who often want a whitewashed version of the person’s life. I’m sure someone will attempt an interview-based biography of Lee at some point, but that was not my goal.

MT:  Have you ever met him? If so how? And if so, is there a story?

BB:  I met Stan Lee at the Cincinnati Comic Expo a couple years ago. There is a story. Suzette Percival, my significant other, and I went to the event using press credentials because I planned to write several articles about what I observed.

Stan’s schedule, as you can imagine, was filled to the minute. The Comic Expo leadership arranged a meeting, but it had to be at the end of a marathon signing session for Lee’s fans. I thought we should probably leave, having observed Lee during the signing and watching how fans reacted to meeting him, but Suzette told me that I’d regret not staying. So, I interviewed fans and other attendees and we waited and waited and waited. Five hours later, we got a private meeting with Stan and his team. I talked to him for awhile, shaking with adrenaline the whole time. At the end, Stan leaned over and thanked me for asking him “intelligent questions.” It was a real highlight of my life. Suzette snapped the photo of Stan and I that is used for the author photo on the Stan Lee dust jacket.

MT:  Do you attend comic con events?

BB:  I don’t go to as many comic cons as I would like, but spoke on the Lee biography at the Cincinnati Comic Expo in September. My schedule is pretty packed, especially with research and writing, so I don’t have the time to hit many events. Plus, I’m a dad to Kassie, a 12-year old who keeps me busy and we’re usually with Suzette and her 13-year old daughter Sophia, so that makes for a full life.

MT:  What were some interesting thing you learned from him?

BB:  Stan’s story is the American Dream come true, so there are many lessons people can draw from his life, particularly about how the commitment to hard work and dedication to craft leads to good things.

The superheroes catching on in the 1960s is one thing, but the dedication and hard work really come to life when reading about his early challenges getting Hollywood interested in the 1980s. Given the immense popularity of Marvel films today, most readers will be shocked to learn the general disinterest toward superheroes only several decades ago. Lee’s commitment to the superheroes he co-created with amazing artists like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby finally paid off when Hollywood executives realized the potential and how audiences would respond.

MT:  Who would benefit from reading this book?

BB:  I wrote the book for readers interested in comic books and Stan Lee, but also people generally interested in biography and American culture and history. Really, anyone who wants to know more about how superheroes were created or how they became the lynchpin of our popular culture would enjoy Stan’s amazing story. I could see this book used in a college course on contemporary American history to really bring to life the post World War II world just as easily as a holiday present for a son-in-law who loves Marvel films. Many people who I’ve talked to at book festivals and author signing events buy the book for a gift to some member of their family who grew up reading comic books or is crazy for the superhero movies.

MT:  When will the book be available?

BB:  Stan Lee came out on September 15 and is widely available on Amazon and in bookstores and many comic book shops around the country.

MT:  What classes do you teach? And where have do you teach them?

BB:  I teach in the Media, Journalism & Film Department at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. My classes are in Strategic Communications, centered on teaching students about subjects like creating marketing communications campaigns and writing professionally for social media, public relations, and advertising work. I also teach an online class called “Theories of Celebrity Branding” that explores the centrality of celebrity culture and its consequences for people who work in marketing fields. All my classes mix theoretical implications with “real-world” application. I want my students to build or strengthen their critical and contextual thinking skills and work toward becoming professional-level writers.

Bob Batchelor

MT:  Which TV shows and movies do you follow now?

BB:  I am crazy about Vikings and Norway, so I watch Vikings and a mix of TV shows and documentary films about those topics. I’m really hoping that The Last Kingdom comes back for a couple more seasons. I watch some Scandinavian TV shows on Netflix when I can. Suzette and I are hardcore Anthony Bourdain fans, so his show is must-see for us. We also watch CBS Sunday Morning and 60 Minutes. Crazy though it may seem for a popular culture writer, I do not really have that much time to engage with mainstream popular culture these days. I am so busy reading and writing for whatever the next project focuses on that I can’t really commit to much TV. I will admit, though, that I like a range of TV from True Detective to Tosch.0, so when I’m just looking for entertainment and have the time, it runs a pretty wide gamut.

MT:  What do you like to do for fun?

BB:  Fun for me is traveling and exploring new things with Suzette, either alone or with our daughters. We love meeting creatives, like artists, chefs and others who are passionate about what they do. Suzette and I are friends with an amazing hot jazz band called The Hot Sardines, so a perfect day would be checking out a new city, its breweries and artisan areas, then going to see The Hot Sardines play, then enjoying a cocktail or two with frontwoman “Miz” Elizabeth and bandleader/pianist “Bibs” Palazzo.

MT:  How do you like fans to connect with you?

BB:  Fans can reach out on Facebook or Twitter (@cultpopculture) or email me through my website. I have a Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel Facebook page (@StanLeeManBehindMarvel) as well. I love to hear from fans!

MT:  What’s next for you?

BB:  The future is kind of unfolding for me in new directions. I have several projects in the works that dip into film, radio, and television, areas that I love and want to explore deeper. I plan to do more film work, as a historical resource or script consultant as well. My “pop culture expert” title lends itself well in this area.

My next book will be another big topic on a subject that has touched countless millions of lives. I can’t talk about it in specifics right now, but the idea is crystalizing. Finally, I put my past experience as a corporate marketing professional to work by engaging in a bit of consulting work, either helping organizations define, create, or build their brands or using their company history as a vehicle for future communications needs, like building exhibits or small museum spaces where people can learn more about them. I’m really excited for what the future holds, particularly in film and script work.

Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel
Rowman & Littlefield, Sept. 2017

Stan Lee, TheCelebrityCafe.com wishes you a happy 95th birthday and to learn more about him, read Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel by Bob Batchelor that you can find here.

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