The story of the man behind the Edwardian children's classic, The Wind in the Willows could be told in a number of different ways. On the one hand, it is the tale of an incredibly talented man, a huge success as both a freelance writer and in his day job at the Bank of England who not only, by all accounts, provided excellent company to everyone he encountered, be they old or young but who somehow never lost that sense of what it was like to be a child, enabling him, quite magically, in middle-age, to create one of the greatest children's books ever written. But, on the other hand, it is a very sad story indeed. It is the tale of a man who never recovered from the trauma of his mother's death during his childhood. This tragedy, coupled with the shock of his alcoholic father's decision to completely abandon his young family, arguably stunted Kenneth Grahame's development, leaving him permanently frozen in a juvenile state: sexually confused, unable to be a successful husband and a tragic failure as a father. Elizabeth Galvin's account of the life of the man who created Ratty, Moley, Badger and Toad of Toad Hall brings Grahame's world vividly to life. Published by: White Owl.
As far as the world of comics goes, Stan Lee was probably the most important person to have ever lived. Born to a Romanian-Jewish family in New York in 1922, young Stanley Lieber became involved in the world of comics early. An office boy in the 1930s, by the end of a frustrating 1950s, Lee came close to quitting the world of comics forever until his Newcastle-born British wife suggested he create a new crop of comic superheroes to challenge the near monopoly then enjoyed by Superman and Batman creators, D.C. In a remarkably short space of time, Lee created Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The X-Men and The Avengers essentially establishing Marvel as the incredibly profitable global media powerhouse that it remains to this day. Happy ever after?
Well, no. Partly because, as Adrian Mackinder explains, the extent to which Lee can really claim complete credit for creating all these amazing characters remains hotly disputed. This is not a hagiography and while Lee was careful to cultivate a loveable avuncular image amongst Marvel’s armies of ‘True Believers,’ Mackinder, though clearly a big fan himself, does not shy away from exploring the less desirable elements of Lee’s character.
In short, Mackinder not only does a commendable job of detailing the highs, lows, creative explosions, fallings out and film cameos which made up Lee’s almost 96 years on Earth but also does a commendable job of explaining the cultural context in which they occurred. In addition to Lee’s life, we also learn a lot not only about the history of Marvel comics, but also get much on how vaudeville declined in the teeth of competition from radio and cinema in the 1920s and 1930s and much of interest about ALL comic adaptations on TV and film over the decades, not just the Marvel ones. It is easy to forget, despite the renaissance in comic book based films in the 21st century,, just how many flops there also were (Daredevil, Elektra, Ghost Rider, to name but a few).
I must admit: I have sometimes written about the history of comics myself. But ultimately, I must put aside any feelings of professional jealousy and concede: Adrian Mackinder really has done an exceptional job here.
Book review: Stan Lee – How Marvel Changed The World, by Adrian Mackinder. Published by: Pen & Sword, White Owl.