'Amazing Fantastic Incredible': Marvel Comics impresario Stan Lee disappears in his own illustrated biography
January 3, 2016 12:00 AM
By Tom Scioli
Early on in “Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir,” Stan Lee addresses the obvious irony that the most famous creator to come from comics does not know how to draw. Mr. Lee tells us he actually can draw but lacks the confidence to share his drawings. If Stan Lee could let down his guard and put his carefully crafted public persona aside, he might be able to deliver an autobiography worth reading.
"AMAZING FANTASTIC INCREDIBLE: A MARVELOUS MEMOIR"
By Stan Lee and Peter David
Illustrated by Colleen Doran Touchstone / Simon and Schuster ($30).
Seventy-five years into his career, Mr. Lee is internationally known as the front man of Marvel Entertainment, with Hitchcockian cameos in the company's various superhero blockbusters. To the uninitiated, Mr. Lee edited and co-wrote with few exceptions the entire line of Marvel Comics in the 1960s, wrangling an inter-textual continuity among the various superheroes. Imbuing these stories with sitcom-style dialogue, Mr. Lee and his collaborators Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and many others created the blueprint for the way superheroes are handled in all media to this day.
This book, like everything Mr. Lee ever did, is a group effort. Peter David and Mr. Lee’s production company, POW! Entertainment, are listed as co-writers. Mr. David is a fan-favorite writer best known for his long run on “The Incredible Hulk.” Mr. David makes an appearance in the book as a young recipient of Marvel's self-descriptive No Prize, an empty envelope sent to precocious fan letter writers. Bearing the largest burden of the division of labor is artist Colleen Doran, celebrated creator of “A Distant Soil” and an Art Institute of Pittsburgh alumna. This could not have been a fun comic to draw and lacks the nuance and mastery of Ms. Doran’s other works such as her run on Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman.” This is a different type of assignment: 190 pages is a lot of real estate to fill on a vanity project in which no one, including the titular author, seems that emotionally invested. The art communicates Mr. Lee’s message clearly but with no elan. The drawings are hurried, utilizing every shortcut available, making the book very hard on the eyes. Like so many of the comics Mr. Lee oversaw, deadline seems to be king.
The world in this book is a lonely, sparsely populated landscape, framed as one of Mr. Lee’s numerous speaking engagements, but it quickly morphs into something resembling a vaudevillian adaptation of “Waiting for Godot,” consisting mainly of good-natured pitch meetings between Mr. Lee and Marvel Publisher Martin Goodman. Mr. Lee’s boss and uncle serves as a one-dimensional foil whose role is to express doubt over Mr. Lee’s brainstorms and breakthroughs. It’s a perfunctory telling of a life story, with none of the color or flavor of the various eras Mr. Lee has lived through. There’s a sameness to all the decades in this book's convoluted chronology. The 1970s look like the 1990s look like the 1940s. The stage show conceit is carried through all the way to the final curtain, where Mr. Lee and his inner child walk toward a Manhattan Valhalla to share a milkshake.
The book bears no sign of being written by a comic book insider, no insight into the Wertham congressional hearings of the 1950s that threatened the existence of comic books or other big moments in comics history that you couldn’t find in a Wikipedia entry. Mr. Lee could’ve written the definitive graphic novel depiction of comics history in its native language, the medium that made him famous.
Therein lies the problem. Mr. Lee has led an interesting life and he is an expert in the comics form. He was a part of the industry for almost its entire history. He could've created a great “graphic memoir.” What we get instead is a “graphic press release.” Comics have always resided somewhere between art form and commercial product, a legacy that is difficult to shake even this far into the form's evolution. This book reads as if it was concocted in a boardroom. “We need a Stan Lee autobio comic in time for Christmas!”
There’s no real through line to the narrative, just endless digressions, paper-thin anecdotes and name dropping, little more than a gallery of celebrities he’s met, such as Fabio, who gets a full splash page devoted to him. None of the people he meets come to life in any way, including Mr. Lee himself. It’s just witty things he’s said at cocktail parties. The various people who pass in and out of the narrative are little more than props in his life story. Life, for the cameo king, is just a series of cameos.
I did not enjoy my time spent with this shallow manufactured Stan Lee. In an alternate parallel universe where the author treated this book with honest intent, we might’ve gotten a sense of the real guy behind the sunglasses and mustache. We see hints, but “Smilin’ Stan” backs away from controversy and the genuine. Being glib and defensive is a debilitating limitation for an author.
Tom Scioli is a Pittsburgh-based cartoonist and creator of the “American Barbarian” series. He currently draws and co-writes the “Transformers vs. G.I. Joe” series.
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