Comics : Amazing Fantastic Incredible: Stan Lee, A Marvelous Memoir
This review was first published on: 22 Jan 2017.
This isn't the first biography of Stan Lee. It's not even his first auto-biography! (See: Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee). But it is the first full-length hard-back graphic novel auto-biography of Stan Lee!
That's right, folks! What better way to celebrate a comic book writer's life than with a comic book of his life?
Amazing Fantastic Incredible: Stan Lee, A Marvelous Memoir
Nov 2015 : SM Article
Find ISBN 9781501107726
Summary: Graphic Novel Autobiography of Stan Lee; Spider-Man Appears
Hardback with dust jacket, 7" x 11.7". With illustrations by Colleen Doran, and with writing assistance from the capable and careful Peter David, this book features a substantial 192 pages of full-color graphic art.
The story is presented by Stan in his relaxed fourth-wall-breaking style. It begins with his birth to a Romanian immigrant father and New York-born mother, and then spends the next 190 pages tripping between personal stories and work-related events, peppered with occasional moments of life philosophy – intertwined with a history of Marvel comics, and private introductions to the most famous of his comic-book creations.
Along the way, Stan pauses to reflect on many of his successes and failures, friendships and falling-outs.
Fear not if you already own a book about Stan – there's plenty of new material in here. Even for folks like me who have already read four or five of Stan's biographies, there's still at least a couple dozen new anecdotes about Stan's personal life. Like that time he was nearly arrested for stealing mail. Or how he met his wife by mistake, and the tumultuous events surrounding his hasty marriage.
There's less new insight when it comes to the details of Stan's working career. Yes, there's references to Marvel corporate changes (mostly accurate), and there's plenty of recollections of interactions with his co-workers. But the further we get from Stan's intimate personal life, the more I feel inclined to reach for my other reference books and cross-check sources. This is Stan's version of complex, distant events in the history of our favourite comics company. And indeed it's a very important version – but it's not the only interpretation.
This Memoir is a mix of three different elements, stirred together throughout, but still retaining their own identity as they arise in turn.
Firstly, considering the purely factual elements of Stan's life and career, this book seems entirely accurate – as far as it goes. But those seeking more details would be recommended instead to other longer, more thorough works such as Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades, Comic Wars, or even the blow-by-blow history of the Spider-Man Movie given in Superhero Confidential Volume 1.
The second aspect of this book is in how Stan (assisted by Peter David) presents his version of interactions with other key characters from the early days of Marvel. How did Stan get on with Martin Goodman? How did Stan the Editor treat his staff? Why did Stan and Ditko fall out? How and why did Stan's relationship with Kirby break down? Each of those (and more) is summarised in this memoir. And as each is presented, I felt that Stan was looking once and for all to negotiate an acceptable settlement on his accounts with those other great figures of his age.
Martin Goodman receives the most "square footage" in this regard, and many of the turning-point interactions between Stan and Martin are presented (in the manner that Stan would like to see them remembered). In these, Goodman is presented almost universally as a money-grabbing autocrat who never understood the comic book industry.
To be fair, that pretty much reconciles with everybody else's view of Goodman! See for example The Secret History of Marvel Comics and Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. And while Stan certainly paints Goodman in a negative light, it is done with a sense of restraint. It does occasionally show hints of bitterness, but the prevailing emotions are frustration and disappointment more than anything else.
The handling of Stan's other relationships with his fellow creators and employees is far more even-handed. Some references are just "shout-outs" to some of Stan's most fondly-remembered collaborators. But obviously the most important ones for seekers of historical insight are Stan's interactions with Kirby and Ditko.
So how do these two men get treated by Stan's Marvelous Memoir? Well, I would say Gently, Gracefully, Respectfully, and with hints of Sadness. Wisely, Stan doesn't try to explain the things that went wrong. He speaks highly of their skills, he expresses regret for failures of communication, and wishes that things could have been otherwise. This means there's no new gory details for those of us hoping to see old wounds re-opened. But equally, there's no attempt at scoring points. Stan offers history a chance to grant both sides a blameless, dignified truce. An old man is making peace.
And that just leaves the third element in the mix – the personal moments of insight which Stan grants us into his childhood, marriage, and a few intimate moments of satisfaction from his life as a celebrity. These are the things (happy and sad) that he most remembers as a boy from New York, as an awkward soldier, and as an unlikely star in a crazy modern world. And just like in his prose autobiography Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee, these are the most touching and insightful parts of this book.
Stan has a famously inaccurate memory, and we've all seen those rose-tinted glasses he wears. But for me, every one of the most personal insights in this book ring utterly "true", in the most important sense of the word.
This is Stan's version of his life, and that means he can tell it the way he wants to.
Sure, some awkward details have definitely been "glossed over". For example, when Simon and Kirby are evicted from Marvel (moonlighting at DC), there is no mention of the oft-rumoured angle that Stan may have been somewhat responsible for leaking the facts that lead their demise. (See The Secret History of Marvel Comics for more on that aspect of the story).
Equally, when Stan returns from his not-particularly-active duty in WWII and takes back his editor job from Vince Fago, he presents it as a "just a piece of good luck" and "a win-win scenario for all concerned". But other versions of the story have suggested that Stan engineered Vince's temporary role in a slightly more self-serving fashion.
And then there's no mention of "That time when Stan fired everybody." Nor of Stan's somewhat more unusual or awkward management practices.
But let's also be clear – this isn't a case of all-over white-washing either. Stan freely confesses to many of his failures. Not all of them! But then again, Stan "The Man" Lee has had a long life, and I'm impressed by just how much of it has been packed into this 192 pages.
All-in-All, this is a gracious and generous insight into one Amazing man's Amazing life.
Five Webs. Excelsior!
I feel a big shout out is due to Peter David. I suspect he acted as editor to Stan's raw input, and his role in producing such a vibrant, fair and human tale should not be under-estimated.