George Remus, the former King of the Bootleggers, fought to prove that he was sane in February 1928, two months after a jury declared the murder of his wife Imogene “transitory maniacal insanity” and that he should go free.Read More
“Lee became Marvel madman, mouthpiece, and all-around maestro – the face of comic books for six decades. The man who wanted to pen the Great American Novel did so much more. Without question, Lee became one of the most important creative icons in contemporary American history.”
— Bob Batchelor, author, Stan Lee: The Man Behind MarvelRead More
Why did you feel that Stan Lee needed a full-scale biography?
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.
What would people find most surprising about Stan Lee’s career?
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, or 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.
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 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.
How does your biography add to our understanding of Stan Lee?
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.
What keeps you writing?
Regardless of the topic, storytelling is my foundation. 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. 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.
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.
You’ve written or edited 29 books, what’s next?
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.
After Stan Lee enlisted in November 1942, his basic training took place at Fort Monmouth, a large base in New Jersey that housed the Signal Corps. The Signal Corps played a significant military role. Research played a prominent role in the division and on the base. Several years earlier, researchers had developed radar there and the all-important handheld walkie-talkie. In the ensuing years, they would learn to bounce radio waves off the moon.[i]
At Fort Monmouth, Lee learned how to string communications lines and also repair them, which he thought would lead to active combat duty overseas. Army strategists realized that wars were often determined by infrastructure, so the Signal Corps played an important role in modern warfare keeping communications flowing. Even drawing in numerous talented, intelligent candidates, the Signal Corps could barely keep up with war demands, which led to additional training centers opening at Camp Crowder, Missouri, and on the West Coast at Camp Kohler, near Sacramento, California.
On base, Lee also performed the everyday tasks that all soldiers carried out, like patrolling the perimeter and watching for enemy ships or planes mounting a surprise attack during the cold New Jersey winter. Lee claimed that the frigid wind whipping off the Atlantic nearly froze him to the core.
The oceanfront duty ended, however, when Lee’s superior officers realized that he worked as a writer and comic book editor. They assigned him to the Training Film Division, coincidentally based in Astoria, Queens. He joined eight other artists, filmmakers, and writers to create a range of public relations pieces, propaganda tools, and information-sharing documents. His ability to write scripts earned him the transfer. Like countless military men, Lee played a supporting role. By mid-1943, the Corps’ consisted of 27,000 officers and 287,000 enlisted men, backed by another 50,000 civilians who worked alongside them.
The converted space that the Army purchased at 35th Avenue and 35th Street in Astoria housed the Signal Corps Photographic Center, the home of the official photographers and filmmakers to support the war effort. Col. Melvin E. Gillette commanded the unit, also his role at Fort Monmouth Film Production Laboratory before the Army bought the Queens facility in February 1942, some nine months before Lee enlisted. Under Gillette’s watchful eye, the old movie studio, originally built in 1919, underwent extensive renovation and updating, essentially having equipment that was the equivalent of any major film production company in Hollywood.
Gillette and Army officials realized that the military needed unprecedented numbers of training films and aids to prepare recruits from all over the country and with varying education levels. There would also be highly-sensitive and classified material that required full Army control over the film process, from scripting through filming and then later in storage. The facility opened in May 1942 and quickly became an operational headquarters for the entire film and photography effort supporting the war.
The Photographic Center at Astoria, Long Island, was a large, imposing building from the outside. A line of grand columns protected its front entrance, flanked by rows of tall, narrow windows. Inside the Army built the largest soundstage on the East Coast, enabling the filmmakers to recreate or model just about any type of military setting.
Lee found an avenue into the small group of scribes. “I wrote training films, I wrote film scripts, I did posters, I wrote instructional manuals,” Lee recalled. “I was one of the great teachers of our time!”[ii] The illustrious division included many famous or soon-to-be-famous individuals, from three-time Academy-award winning director Frank Capra and New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams to a children’s book writer and illustrator named Theodor Geisel. The world already knew Geisel by his famous penname “Dr. Seuss.”
Although Lee often jokes about his World War II service, even a passing examination of the work he and the other creative professionals performed for the nation reveals the significance of the division across multiple areas. According to the official history of the Signal Corps effort during World War II:
Even before Pearl Harbor the demand for training films was paralleling the growth of the armed forces. After war came the rate of demand rose faster than the rate of growth of the Army, because mass training of large numbers of men could be accomplished most effectively through the medium of films. For fiscal year 1942 the sum of $4,928,810 was appropriated for Army Pictorial Service, of which $1,784,894 was for motion picture production and $1,304,710 for motion picture distribution, chiefly of training films. More than four times that sum, $20,382,210, was appropriated for the next fiscal year, 1943, and half went for training films and for training of officer and enlisted personnel in photographic specialist courses.[iii]
The stories that must have floated around that room during downtime or breaks!
[i] During the time Lee was stationed at Fort Monmouth, Julius Rosenberg carried out a clandestine mission spying for Russia. He also recruited scientists and engineers from the base into the spy ring he led in New Jersey and funneled thousands of pages of top-secret documents to his Russian handlers. In 1953, Rosenberg and his wife Ethel were arrested, convicted, and executed.
[ii] Stan Lee, interview by Steven Mackenzie, “Stan Lee Interview: ‘The World Always Needs Heroes,’” The Big Issue, January 18, 2016, http://www.bigissue.com/features/interviews/6153/stan-lee-interview-the-world-always-needs-heroes.
[iii] Thompson, George Raynor, Dixie R. Harris, et al. The Signal Corps: The Test (December 1941 to July 1943). (Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1957), 419.
Joe Simon needed copy and he needed it fast!
The Timely Comics editorial director and his coworker and friend Jack Kirby were hard at work on the hit they had recently launched – the red, white, and blue hero Captain America. Readers loved the character and Simon and Kirby scrambled to meet the demand.
The Captain America duo brought in some freelancers to keep up. Then they threw some odd copy-filler stories to their young apprentice/office boy Stanley Lieber as a kind of test run to see if the kid had any talent. He had been asking to write and the short story would be his on-the-job audition.
The throwaway story that Simon and Kirby had the teenager write for Captain America Comics #3 (May 1941) was titled: “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge.” The story also launched Lieber’s new identity as “Stan Lee,” the pseudonym he adopted in hopes of saving his real name for the future novel he might write.
Given the publication schedule, the latest the teen could have written the story is around February 1941, but he probably wrote it earlier. The date is important, because it speaks to Lieber’s career development. If he joined the company in late 1939, just after Kirby and Simon and when they were hard at work in developing Captain America, then there probably wasn’t much writing for him to do. However, if the more likely time frame of late 1940 is accepted, then Lieber was put to work as a writer fairly quickly, probably because of the chaos Simon and Kirby faced in prepping issues of Captain America and their other early creations, as well as editing and overseeing the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner efforts.
Lee later acknowledged in his autobiography that the two-page story was just a fill-in so that the comic book could “qualify for the post office’s cheap magazine rate.” He also admitted, “Nobody ever took the time to read them, but I didn’t care. I had become a published author. I was a pro!” Simon appreciated the teen’s enthusiasm and his diligence in attacking the assignment.
An action shot of Captain America knocking a man silly accompanied Lieber’s first publication for Simon and Kirby. The story – essentially two pages of solid text – arrived sandwiched between a Captain America tale about a demonic killer on the loose in Hollywood and another featuring a giant Nazi strongman and another murderer who kills people when dressed up in a butterfly costume. “It gave me a feeling of grandeur,” Lee recalled at the 1975 San Diego Comic-Con.
While many readers may have overlooked the text at the time, its cadence and style is a rough version of the mix of bravado, high-spirited language, and witty wordplay that marked the young man’s writing later in his career.
Lou Haines, the story’s villain, is sufficiently evil, although we never do find out what he did to earn the “traitor” moniker. In typical Lee fashion, the villain snarls at Colonel Stevens, the base commander: “But let me warn you now, you ain’t seen the last of me! I’ll get even somehow. Mark my words, you’ll pay for this!”
In hand-to-hand combat with the evildoer, Captain America lands a crippling blow, just as the reader thinks the hero may be doomed. “No human being could have stood that blow,” the teen wrote. “Haines instantly relaxed his grip and sank to the floor – unconscious!” (Captain America Comics #3, p. 37) The next day when the colonel asked Steve Rogers if he heard anything the night before, Rogers claims that he slept through the hullabaloo. Stevens, Rogers, and sidekick Bucky shared in a hearty laugh.
The “Traitor” story certainly doesn’t exude Lee’s later confidence and knowing wink at the reader, but it clearly demonstrates his blossoming understanding of audience, style, and pace.
Both “Stan Lee” and a career were launched!
Stan Lee’s birthday on December 28 gave fans a reason to contemplate his place among the world’s most significant creative icons. It is easy to argue that the ideas Lee and his co-creators brought to life in Marvel superhero comic books are at the heart of contemporary storytelling.
Lee created a narrative foundation that has fueled pop culture for nearly six decades. While countless shelves have been filled with books about comic book history and those responsible for originating this uniquely American form of mass communication, there are still many reasons to examine Lee’s specific role.
Lee created a narrative foundation that has fueled pop culture for nearly six decades.
History and context are important in helping people comprehend their worlds. New comic book readers and ardent filmgoers who turn out in droves to see Marvel Universe films should grasp how these influences impact their worldviews.
Here are five reasons to love Stan Lee:
In the 1960s and 1970s, no matter the tiny hamlet, thriving city, or rural enclave, if a kid got their hands on a Marvel comic book, they knew that they had a friend in New York City named Stan Lee. Each month, like magic, Lee and the Mighty Marvel Bullpen put these colorful gifts into our hands (in my youth in the 1970s, showcasing the ever-present “Stan Lee Presents” banner), which enabled us to travel the galaxies along with Thor, Iron Man, the Avengers, and X-Men.
Crisscrossing the nation speaking at college campuses, sitting for interviews, and speaking to readers in the “Stan’s Soapbox” pages in the back of comic books, Lee paved the way for intense fandom. His work gave readers a way to engage with Marvel and rejoice in the joyful act of being a fan. Geek/nerd culture began with “Smilin’ Stan” and his Merry Marauding Bullpen nodding and winking at fans each issue. Lee’s commitment to building a fan base took fandom beyond capitalistic sales figures and consumerism to creating communities.
While many comic book experts and insiders worried about monthly sales figures and demographics, Lee understood that Marvel’s horde of superheroes could form the basis of a multimedia empire. Ironically, he talked about turning Marvel into the next Disney decades before Walt’s company gobbled up the superhero shop. Back then, Lee’s idea drew derision and people openly scoffed at such a notion.
Lee saw the pieces of a multimedia empire and relentlessly pursued this vision, almost singlehandedly pushing Marvel as a film and television company. Lee championed superhero films and television shows in the mid-1960s and through the 1970s when Hollywood producers couldn’t fathom someone like Spider-man, Thor, or Iron Man appealing to a mass audience. It took Star Wars and Christopher Reeves’s Superman to show Tinseltown what movies could be.
One of the most important aspects of creating comic books is that the process requires all-encompassing teamwork, from plot creation through distribution. While a great deal of work takes place alone, like an inker working page-by-page, much of the effort is coordinated and intricate.
At Marvel, really from the time Lee took over as editor as a teenager in 1941 until the boom in the early 1960s, he managed the artistic and production aspects of the company, simultaneously serving as art director, chief editor, and head writer. Much of the scholarly and critical commentary has centered on the controversy regarding Lee’s role as creator or co-creator of the iconic superheroes, but without similar focus or discussion about how he managed these other aspects. Artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were phenomenal talents, but in contrast to Lee, they focused on one part of the production process. Lee directed, managed, or supervised it all.
In the early 1960s, most people looked down on the comic book industry and the creative teams that produced comics. Suffering from bouts of frustration and despair, Lee couldn’t stomach working in comics any longer. He warred with the idea of chucking his more than 20-year career versus bringing home the steady paycheck that Marvel’s mediocrity delivered. “We’re writing nonsense…writing trash,” he told his wife Joan. I want to quit, he confided: “After all these years, I’m not getting anywhere. It’s a stupid business for a grownup to be in.”
Yet, when Marvel publisher Martin Goodman suggested he mimic DC and create a superhero team, Lee took a risk on a new kind of team, heroes who had their superpowers foisted on them and didn’t hide from their real human emotions. The Fantastic Four gave Lee the chance to explore a new type of hero and fans responded. Lee didn’t quit. The Marvel Universe was born.
1. Transforming Storytelling
Lee’s legacy is undeniable: he transformed storytelling by introducing generations of readers to flawed heroes who also dealt with life’s everyday challenges, in addition to the treats that could destroy humankind.
Generations of artists, writers, actors, and other creative types have been inspired, moved, or encouraged by the Marvel Universe he gave voice to and birthed. Lee did not invent the imperfect hero, one could argue that such heroes had been around since Homer’s time and even before, but Lee did deliver it – Johnny Appleseed style, a dime or so a pop – to a generation of readers hungry for something new.
The Fantastic Four transformed the kinds of stories comic books could tell. Spider-Man, however, brought the idea home to a global audience. Lee told an interviewer that he had two incredibly instinctive objectives: introduce a superhero “terribly realistic” and one “with whom the reader could relate.” While the nerd-to-hero storyline seems like it must have sprung from the earth fully formed, Lee gave readers a new way of looking at what it meant to be a hero and spun the notion of who might be heroic in a way that spoke to the rapidly expanding number of comic book buyers. Spider-Man’s popularity revealed the attraction to the idea of a tainted hero, but at the same time, the character hit the newsstands at the perfect time, ranging from the growing Baby Boomer generation to the optimism of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, this confluence of events resulting in a new age for comic books.
An excerpt from Mad Men: A Cultural History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) by M. Keith Booker and Bob Batchelor
"What you’re watching with Don is a representation, to me, of American society. He is steeped in sin, haunted by his past, raised by animals, and there is a chance to revolt. And he cannot stop himself.”
-- Matthew Weiner, 2014
Don Draper is a hero and villain. The things he worships – California, cars, self-worth, movies, lasting accomplishment – symbolize postwar America in an age when the nation’s power seemed unbounded. Draper, too, is a study in paradox, which essentially serves to make him even more profoundly American. In creating this character, Matthew Weiner forces viewers to reflect on Draper’s life and deeds (good and bad) by showing that aspects of him are in us all – a true everyman for the modern world.
The extremes are always just below the surface with Don. He can lose control in an instance. Draper is also capable of deep compassion. There are bouts of terrifying malevolence. Often, his contempt for the shackles of the corporate world and advertising business forces him to flee, as if one more moment at his desk or in a meeting will yank his soul into eternal damnation. Yet, at the same time, his zeal for what he calls, “the work” and the creative spark that wins him fame and fortune rarely wavers. These dualities create a character that exudes everything that is righteous and strong about the American Dream – a kind of Superman in a suit – but one that also typifies the nation’s ugliness. As a result, there is no easy way to answer this chapter’s title question. Instead, the judgment is pieced together by interrogating both the subtle nuance and audacious bluntness Draper embodies.
Similar to other outstanding fictional characters across film, literature, and television, Draper is timeless. He symbolizes our own era, even as he is meant to typify the chaotic 1960s. Yet, he is not simply a televised version of John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, Don Corleone, Bob Dylan, Sloan Wilson’s man in the gray flannel suit, Saul Bellow’s Augie March, or Batman. He is representative, but also unique, which is at least in part why audiences are so attracted to him, despite his reprehensible traits. Viewers can see “real life” in Don (traits of their family members and friends), but also those drawn out of the fictional world, from suave characters played by Cary Grant to the real or imagined John F. Kennedy.
Draper is a composite of ideas, actions, and impulses that audiences have proven to relish across American popular culture for decades. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, for example, Don is mysterious and has difficulty attuning his two lives after assuming a new identity. Physically, Draper projects the “leading man” looks and toughness of Hollywood stars, like real-life icons Clark Gable and Gregory Peck. In playing Don, Jon Hamm flashes the same tough/tender and realist/idealist persona that many of the golden age film actors emanated. The “tough, but sensitive” personality, combined with traditional male beauty, draws viewers to the Draper character, because we feel his quest, the unyielding existential angst. He is reaching for greatness, but lassoed to the here and now, essentially waging warfare between these competing proclivities.
As a character, Don Draper asks audiences to contemplate his fictional life with the impulses and ideas that power the contemporary world: what role does sexism play in modern society, how much alcohol is too much, how do we treat friends and family, how might we interpret our coworkers and bosses, can we outrun the past, is the future bright. There is no doubt that some viewers take pleasure in the bad boy side of Draper’s personality, particularly with booze, cars, women, and cigarettes. As the character both suffers and rejoices over seven seasons, people acquire the context to add value to their own ideas about life, the past, and avenues toward the future. The framework that Weiner created not only makes Draper an important character in television history, but also provides the show with lasting importance.
Rolling Stone is awesome and awful.
In the 1980s, growing up anywhere outside a major city meant limited -- or virtually zero -- access to things deemed cool. Rolling Stone provided a much-needed spiritual link to the world outside suburban or rural America, then dominated by cookie-cutter record stores and mainstream culture crafted in corporate boardrooms. Many small towns would not even allow MTV onto the ultra-conservative cable systems run by characters quite similar to John Lithgow in Footloose.
In a world of stifling conformity, Rolling Stone brought culture to the hinterlands in a big, oversized package. It served as a lifeline. The magazine not only covered popular culture, but actually defined culture in those pre-web days. Rolling Stone felt like contraband, passed around and through various high school cliques. That glimpse into the larger world seemed priceless.
Looking back, Rolling Stone provided culture-starved readers two things they could not get anywhere else: a portrait of artists as human beings, and because the covers and photographs were so good, the power of visual culture. We learned about R.E.M. and U2 via Rolling Stone and waited for the “Yearbook” and “Hot” issues to relish in the joys of the best photography we had ever seen.
In college, all these kids passing around Rolling Stone were tacking covers up on walls. Many images grew into iconic photos representing the age -- nearly naked Janet Jackson in black and white or the Nirvana album cover announcing a new sheriff in town about to wipe out hair metal and its inauthentic excesses.
Hating Rolling Stone is tough.
As an adult, reading Matt Taibbi on the Iraq War, its insider coverage of Great Recession wrongdoings, or historian Sean Wilentz’s celebrated takedown of President George H.W. Bush as the worst to ever hold the office provided new insight into the most important topics the nation faced. At the same time, though, these pieces and many more like them seemed to have little or no dent on the national conversation.
Back in all those small towns, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and conservative talk radio won the hearts and minds by railing against the kinds of things Rolling Stone seemed to embody. The magazine continued to preach to people already onboard with its agenda, its readers willingly surrendered the media battlefield to conservative forces. Rolling Stone did not rally people to stand up to the other side, which aggressively fought for the middle of the nation.
Losing relevance is one thing, but the many high-profile scandals takes Rolling Stone loathing to a different level. “A Rape on Campus,” published in November 2014 set off a nationwide uproar regarding sex crimes on college campuses, and sparked a much-needed dialogue. As a result, countless institutions set up new systems for reporting and dealing with these challenges. Yet, over the next several months, the story unraveled as The Washington Post and Charlottesville police determined that the gang rape never occurred. The hoax, which seems to have been an elaborate catfishing plot by the accuser, forced Rolling Stone to retract the story and apologize. The fabrication also set off a series of lawsuits that will keep the magazine in the news for all the wrong reasons for years to come.
Although lurching from 18 months of bad publicity, Rolling Stone again hit a nerve when it allowed actor/activist Sean Penn to secretly meet with and interview notorious fugitive/drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán. After a fierce gunfight, drug officials caught El Chapo prior to the long article running in Rolling Stone, but its seemingly empathetic tone thrust the magazine back into the negative spotlight.
The interview lit up social media, with heavy doses of mockery for Penn and the magazine, while journalists and journalism scholars debated the magazine’s willingness to run the piece and the ethical implications. The latter centered on Rolling Stone editors allowing El Chapo to approve the piece before publication, a violation of one of journalism’s most sacred tenets. Editor/publisher Jann Wenner seems to dismiss such criticism, despite the bad consequences he and the magazine he co-founded in 1967 faces.
Though not as nefarious as the big scandals, there is another reason to frown on the magazine’s influence on modern American journalism – the Rolling Stone-style profile. The RS “formula” is almost instantly recognizable: a mix of insider portrait/anecdote, gossip, astute observation, and snarky commentary. The pervasiveness of the too-cool-for-school voice is a stalwart of entertainment reporting. My reaction to the model is that it can be either a.) somewhat humorous, or b.) provoke an I-just-threw-up-a-little-in-my-mouth moment.
"The Rolling Stone-style profile. The RS “formula” is almost instantly recognizable: a mix of insider portrait/anecdote, gossip, astute observation, and snarky commentary. The pervasiveness of the too-cool-for-school voice is a stalwart of entertainment reporting."
Rolling Stone’s coverage of David Bowie following his recent death provides good examples of the RS formula. For example, Brian Hiatt’s “The Final Years,” begins with an on-the-scene portrait of Bowie seemingly experiencing his first major health crisis, the 2004 heart attack while on stage in Prague. This kind of breathless insider info, even covering the profile’s internal thinking (“he found himself struggling for breath”), is now routine in entertainment pieces. We see this in the almost mandatory description of where the reporter and interviewee met for lunch and what he or she ate and wore.
Mikal Gilmore’s profile of Bowie’s life and influence is even more formulaic, bouncing between solid criticism and too-smart-by-half interjections purposely designed to establish the writer’s superiority over the uncultured, unknowing reader. In discussing the singer’s The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Gilmore astutely explains it “was a strange, paranoid and philosophical album. Bowie was now working largely in electric rock & roll -- hard and dissonant, and not quite like anybody else’s.”
However, the RS formula necessitates that commercial success be downplayed at the expense of “artistic” work. Gilmore calls Bowie’s post-Let’s Dance (1983) global superstardom “a confusing creative trail” that resulted in “indifferent-sounding albums…that met with little esteem.” For Gilmore, the singer redeems himself after Black Tie White Noise (1993), which led to “a series of ambitious, occasionally brilliant, albums.”
The conundrum seemingly always on hand for Rolling Stone writers is how to tone down the thing that makes an entertainer popular, which is the reason they are being profiled, while also balancing the insider snapshots and snarky criticisms. Because the magazine gained wide popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, when many journalism professors studied or were working professionals, they have passed this formula down to two generations of writers. The result is a wildfire of mechanical pieces all within the Rolling Stone guise. Very little is gained or learned, because the formula demands little of the writer or subject. It’s not writing; it’s patchwork. Unfortunately, the formula is now at the center of all entertainment -- we see it in reality television and many mainstream films and novels. There is little to challenge the audience, because the formula is ubiquitous.
Rolling Stone stands at a crossroad for many readers. Is it possible to stay in love with a magazine that meant so much, but now seems to be slipping out of touch? For countless readers, Rolling Stone helped create and construct a worldview and provided something that at one time seemed exotic and exciting. Perhaps it is time to throw it out with the nostalgic bathwater.