Amazing Fantastic Incredible by Stan Lee, Peter David and Colleen Doran (graphic novel review).

‘Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible (A Marvelous Memoir)’ is the life story of comicbook legend Stan Lee told in comicbook form, which was a good idea. As Stan can’t actually write anything by himself, he was assisted by Peter David and the beautiful full colour artwork is by Colleen Doran.

Most of the population know Stan Lee, not by name, as the funny old man who has a comedy cameo role in every Marvel film. Comic fans know him as the writer and editor who launched the Marvel Age of comics in 1961 with ‘The Fantastic Four’. Proper comic geeks query the ‘writer’ part of his fame and know him as the self-promoter who took credit for everything, albeit with a polite nod to his ‘co-creators’.

He was born Stanley Martin Leiber in New York on 28 December 1922. He grew up in the depression years and his father, a Romanian immigrant, worked as a dress cutter. When he worked that is for employment was not easy to find. It was not an easy childhood but Stan, to his credit, didn’t get bitter. Instead, he worked hard to pursue the American Dream.

Stan loved to read, a good foundation for a writing career, and his mother’s adoration gave him plenty of self-confidence. After a few false starts, he found a job in the new comicbook industry. Uncle Rob worked in publishing for Martin Goodman at Timely Comics and they were looking for an assistant to help Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, creators of Captain America and stars in the field.

Stan’s job was to make coffee, sharpen pencils, fetch sandwiches and rub out the pencil lines after a page had been inked. In those days, comicbooks had to include a text story to be respectable and his first writing job was a two page Captain America yarn: ‘Captain America Foils The Traitors Revenge’. He used the pen name ‘Stan Lee’ and continued to use it thereafter. I expect Kirby told him the plot.

When Simon and Kirby left Timely suddenly, for reasons unknown to Stan, he became the boss by default as the only man left. In fact, Simon and Kirby were sacked for moonlighting at National Periodicals/DC Comics and they were doing that because Martin Goodman had promised them a profit share on the vast proceeds from Captain America but actually fiddled the books so their share went to subsidise the rest of his empire. Promising people a share of the profits was a trick Goodman kept using.

Stan was drafted for World War II and spent it in the USA writing and drawing cartoon strips and posters for the army, instruction manuals and warnings about venereal disease. When the war ended he went back to Timely and resumed his work as editor. He met his model wife Joan and married her. However, he was dissatisfied with his job.

Being a comic book writer was not respectable in those days and Goodman’s instructions were to study whatever was trending at the time and bash out low grade imitations. The trends were mostly set by Simon and Kirby who originated romance comics and crime comics and were leaders in the field. Stan thought of resigning but was persuaded by Joan to do comics his way first and if it didn’t work and he was sacked, so what? He planned to leave anyway.

Goodman had been told by a DC golfing companion that the ‘Justice League Of America’ was selling like hotcakes and super-heroes, after a long hiatus, were popular again. He told Stan to come up with a copycat book. By this time, Jack Kirby was back at Timely, now Marvel Comics, churning out five or ten page monster stories to fill the pages of comics code approved horror books. Stan came up with the idea of ‘The Fantastic Four’, gave the script to Jack and the rest is history.

History is written by the winners. In explaining the ‘Marvel Method’ of producing comics, Stan twice gives the example of ‘The Battle Of The Baxter Building’ in Fantastic Four # 40. For this rightly revered classic, Stan gave Kirby the idea: Doctor Doom has taken over the FF’s HQ and they have to win it back. They’ve lost their powers and have only Daredevil to help them. ‘Jack would go away and come back later with great illustrations to which I’d add dialogue and captions.’

No. Jack didn’t just have to do ‘great illustrations’. Jack and other Marvel artists had to plot the story from Stan’s idea. Any writer knows that the gap between an idea and a finished plot is a large one. Stan skips lightly over this. In another story conference he told Jack, ‘Have them meet God.’ Kirby came back with the first Galactus epic, including the wholly new character of the Silver Surfer. Various other artists have gone public with their stories about Stan insisting they come up with a plot. Even Spider-Man artist John Romita, who likes Lee, described the perfunctory plots he was given. ‘Have them meet the Shocker.’ Romita spent car journeys with his kids discussing ideas for Spider-Man stories. Who ‘wrote’ them? Stan?

Mind you, he’s a great editor and a great scripter, one of the best ever. I remember laugh out loud funny dialogue in ‘The Fantastic Four’ back in the day, mostly from Ben Grimm. In all the books there was genuine emotion and high drama, largely created by the words on the page. But those words were based on the artists’ plot. Furthermore, the artists received no extra money for the extra work. They were paid the usual page rate for pictures and Stan kept the writer’s fee – all of it. To be fair, Stan has always given some credit to the artists but not as much as they were due and I doubt if it was much consolation to them when he waltzed away with his millions. Kirby’s heirs got millions, too, because when Disney bought Marvel they paid them off rather than go to court over who created the characters. That alone is an indicator of the truth.

It would be wrong to say that Stan’s fame and wealth is undeserved. He did a lot. He created many characters and made Marvel different with his informal, chatty style in the letters pages and Bullpen Bulletins, even in the captions on the comic pages. He was editor of the whole line for a long time and, in part, the so-called Marvel Method came about because he simply didn’t have time to write full scripts. Often, he worked at the office all day and did his scripting in the evening. He put in long hours. Several artists, John Romita, Gene Colan and John Buscema enjoyed working with him and liked the freedom they had with the Marvel Method as opposed to precise panel by panel definitions of what to draw. Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Gil Kane and a few others took a different view.

Notwithstanding these old criticisms, this is a book worth reading. Stan’s not inconsiderable ego bursts forth from every page but the pages are very pretty. Colleen Doran’s art looks lovely and there are several homages to Marvel Comics. Kirby and Ditko are both given splash pages as an acknowledgement of their contribution. Kirby appears surrounded by crackling energy much of the time and the panel where Stan meets his wife is a copy of the one where Peter Parker met Mary Jane Watson.

Stan’s early life is interesting and the creation of Marvel Comics, taken with a pinch of salt, is a good story. The later tale of corporate shenanigans and the failing comicbook industry is sad but, by then ,he had managed, after years of trying, to get movies made. Now the characters I grew up reading about in cheap kiddie comics are sprawled across the big screen in multi-million dollar epics and belong to everyone. I’m not sure I like it.

The Stan Lee story should be told in comicbook form and I’d recommend this. The Jack Kirby story should be done the same way. Any takers?

Eamonn Murphy

September 2018

(pub: Simon & Schuster, 2015. 192 page graphic novel hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-47115-259-7)

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