So a few months ago, Stan Lee, icon to many a folk who might find themselves reading these words, passed away at the age of 95. The celebrations of Stan Lee were many, and it was nice as a comic book fan to hear Stan Lee acknowledged over many different forms of media for his impact. I still have that thing inside that when I hear comic books recognized, I light up. Then, the reality sets in, and I think, oh man, I know more than this guy they’re interviewing (I’m looking at you, NPR’s 1A). Part of the reason why I felt more informed is because of this week’s first part: the review of Stan Lee’s graphic memoir: Amazing Fantastic Incredible Stan Lee.
The memoir, written by Stan Lee and Peter David, with art by Coleen Doran, spans the majority of Lee’s 95 years and originally saw publication in 2015. It touches on Stan in multiple facets of his life, including his own personal thoughts and feelings and insecurities. For as maligned as Stan Lee can sometimes be, it’s nice to hear his side of the story, even if it is via the help of Coleen Doran and Peter David. It seems only fitting, in a way, that this is how Stan’s story gets told. He’s an idea guy, who has always known how to surround himself with the best people to make the pictures (or even sometimes fill in the words, too).
The book touches on his relationship with his family throughout his life. It starts with Stan as a poor kid with a love of stories whose family could barely make ends meet. A majority of the story is framed around Stan’s relationship with the love of his life, Joan Boocock. Even up to the last pages of the memoir, he gushes about his trophy wife who would pass on shortly after publication. The book also talks about how proud Stan is about his daughter J.C., and it touches on some of Stan’s greatest losses, including his daughter Jan after only 3 days. It’s hard to believe someone as accomplished as Stan Lee still felt he let his mother down because he “only” became a writer instead of president. The personal parts really help to humanize Stan.
Of course the memoir dives into his professional life, which peaked my interest the most. He gets his start in comics apprenticing with Joe Simon and Jack Kirby on early Captain America comics. From there, it’s a series of incredible events that are great fun to see through Stan’s eyes. You have Stan Lee name-dropping Dr. Seuss and Frank Capra as he almost gets thrown out of the army. You get the Marvel Method description delivered from older Stan to young Stan. The challenging of the comics code with his anti-drug arc on Amazing Spider-man. You also get Stan being ashamed to work in comics, and the countless times he tried to write other things! You even get to see Stan’s perspective on many of the talented artists he worked with over the years, including glowing praise for both Joe Maneely (who passed away before the super-hero boom at Marvel) and Jack Kirby. The book offers one to two pages apiece about the origins of the Fantastic Four, Spider-man, Hulk, Thor, Ant Man, the X-Men and more. Stan gives his brother Larry Lieber the credit he feels Larry never got. He gives Steve Ditko the shout out he deserves. Stan even goes into the troubles he encountered with Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, too. He touches on the passing of the torch to John Romita on the art side and Roy Thomas on the editing side.
They show the Merry Marvel Marching Society and describe how its spirit lived on in FOOM magazine, and even touch on the little things like the No Prizes. The memoir does a really entertaining job of capturing the fun and silliness of Stan’s career but also touching on the sad or disheartening moments, too. I never got that feeling that Stan was trying to create the illusion that he did all the heavy lifting as some will try to characterize Stan as doing. Nor do I get the impression that Stan feels he is blameless in some of the blunders or shortfalls of how the industry was run. I do get the impression that Stan Lee was a person: capable of falling prey to mistakes just as well as he was adept at stumbling onto successes. He credits his collaborators and offers his insights throughout the story that make it such an entertaining and enlightening read. There are plenty of cameos (and Stan’s take on his own movie cameos!) that make this graphic memoir a satisfying experience.
The recognition of Stan Lee’s life and accomplishments was nice for a comic devotee whose ears always perk up when comics are mentioned outside of comic shops or Andy’s basement. It’s a similar feeling to when I was a kid, if I saw someone in a comic book t-shirt, they were instantly elevated to a potential friend. It didn’t matter if it was a Punisher shirt (a character I don’t particularly care for), if it was a comic shirt, that meant that person read comics like me. They were in the club. That alone was something special.
Today, comics are more ubiquitous. Target and Walmart have specific sections flooded with comic and pop culture clothes. Just because someone is wearing a Spider-man T-shirt, they might not know who Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, or John Romita are or why they matter. That’s ok, of course. The more people we pull under the tent, the better, I’ve always felt. If somebody picks up a Spidey shirt because they liked the latest cartoon, movie, or PS4 game, all the better. They might be inspired to pick up a comic at some point and dive a little deeper, and I’ll take that lotto ticket.
Then, there are folks like Bill Maher. Initially, following the death of Stan Lee, Maher stated on his HBO Real Time blog, “The guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk has died, and America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess,” Yikes. That’s dismissive. I’ll be honest in that this didn’t get much of a rise out of me, simply because I thought Maher was being a troll for the sake of being a troll. Was it classless and lowbrow? Sure. Plenty of media personalities make their bones by being classless and lowbrow, and usually they’re not worth the time it takes to respond.
Of course, many folks were feeling emotional, reacting emotionally, and ultimately feeding the troll. It’s not surprising. Especially with the interwebs, everybody gets to voice their opinion and comment on whatever offends them on any given day (much like I am now). Armie Hammer got himself into a bit of an internet kerfuffle for criticizing people who posted pictures of themselves with Stan Lee in order to make Stan’s death all about themselves. Eventually, though, he recanted, as he realized his comments were telling people how they should or should not grieve. It’s an honest mistake. Hammer reacted emotionally because he thought people were being gross just like the people who posted pictures of themselves with Stan (like me!) thought they were honoring their connection to the man. Don’t you tell me how to grieve, Lone Ranger! At least Hammer saw the error of his ways (we all make mistakes sometimes, especially when we react emotionally), and tried to make amends.
Unfortunately, some used Stan Lee’s death not to commemorate his works or his impact, but to get themselves in the limelight. Like I said, it’s how these folks like Maher get their name in the news. Normally Bill Maher is like a tree falling in the woods, not really making much of a sound or impact–that is until he says or does something foolish to get his name in the headlines again. Trolls gonna troll and all that. I was happy to look the other way. Maher doubled down on his quote in a way that finally got to me. In an interview with Larry King, Maher discussed the fallout. “Talk about making my point for me,” Maher said. “Yeah, I don’t know very much about Stan Lee and it certainly wasn’t a swipe at Stan Lee…I am agnostic on Stan Lee. I don’t read comic books. I didn’t even read them when I was a child. What I was saying is: A culture that thinks that comic books and comic book movies are profound meditations on the human condition is a dumb f—ing culture. And for people to, like, get mad at that just proves my point.” He rambled a bit more before continuing, “Now, I have nothing against comic books — I read them now and then when I was a kid and I was all out of Hardy Boys. But the assumption everyone had back then, both the adults and the kids, was that comics were for kids, and when you grew up you moved on to big-boy books without the pictures.”
This is where I feel bad for Bill Maher. Even though months later, he’s started trolling again just to get people to say his name out loud. I’m not mad at him, though, just so that is clear. Maher is part of the society that gives comic fans the chip on their shoulder sometimes, that leads companies to put tag lines of “Comics aren’t just for kids any more!” on their books, or causes journalists to start every comic story with “Biff! Bang! Kapow!”
They just don’t get it.
Comics are an art form, and a valuable one at that. Sure, they can be great for kids to read and to gain confidence with written and visual language. That’s not a bad thing in any way,shape, or form. The fact that comics can often be used to bridge the gap for struggling readers is a big deal. Superhero comics often explore those archetypes and myths that are integral to a society’s definition of itself. Think Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell and their emphasis on those archetypes and the roles they play. Comics are capable of exploring worlds both in simplistic styles for maximum relatability or complex forms unbeholden to budgets or reality or anything other than the creative potential of its makers. Comics can be informative, metaphorical, and insightful. Comics can be many things to many people, of all ages and ability levels, just like other artforms. I would encourage all hardcore comic fans to check out Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics for an intro into the artform and a clear discussion of how it works and what makes it different from novels or movies. Most importantly, comics are another art form that can possibly help inspire people, to lift them up or encourage them or help them when the path gets rough.
Stan Lee played a major role in the development and promotion of comics in the United States, and he deserves a place amongst the difference makers in modern culture like Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Elvis, or the Beatles. I would encourage folks that like Maher to go out and explore some works that might help them to gain a better appreciation of the art he chooses to denigrate because he doesn’t understand it. Failing that, at least show some respect for those of us that do. Some of us need comics so we don’t become emotionally shriveled old trolls, thankyouverymuch.
Taking the time to learn about Stan through his memoir Amazing Fantastic Incredible Stan Lee isn’t the worst place to stop along the way.
Final Grade: B+
With that said, I hope everyone has a good week!
Until next time,
I’ll be the guy standing on the shoulders of giants rambling on about how great they were!