Thursday, July 26, 2018

Review - Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir by Stan Lee, Peter David, and Colleen Doran

Short review: Stan Lee gives an over-the-top, incredibly enthusiastic, account of his life full of superlatives and exclamation points all told in graphic novel form. Excelsior!

It is Amazing!
Fantastic and Incredible!
Simply Marvelous!

Full review: Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible is Stan Lee's exuberantly hyperbolic graphic novel memoir in which he recounts the events of his life as he remembers them. I note at the outset that this isn't a biography, or even an autobiography, as it does not really seem to strive for complete accuracy. Lee has a known tendency to embellish the past, and an astute reader will note that at least some of the anecdotes related in this book are at odds with the recollections of other participants, and in some cases, at odds with documented history. One who was looking for a sober assessment of the life of Stan Lee and his career in and impact upon the comic book industry should probably look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you want a view into what more or less amounts to unadulterated Stan Lee enthusiasm, then this book will definitely suit your fancy.

Though the book more or less follows Lee's life chronologically from his birth as Stan Lieber to some time just short of 2015, the story is told as a flashback, with Lee bursting through the opening page in boisterous fashion to kick off the story with open arms and the question "How did it happen?" The scene then switches to Lee standing in front of a crowd ready to regale them with stories about his exploits before getting distracted by his own image on the giant jumbo-tron behind him whereupon he mentions that his wife has cut his hair for his entire adult life. This is an almost perfect metaphor for both Lee's storytelling skill and his almost oppressively omnipresent narcissism. The fact that he highlights this so early in the book, and with such self-awareness is what keeps Lee's intense self-promotion from being off-putting and makes it instead somewhat endearing.

The "it" in "How did it happen" is basically Lee's life, or more specifically, how did a poor kid from New York become a comic book writer and wind up as one of the most recognizable figures in that industry. The story itself isn't all that exciting - Lee grew up poor in the depression, got a job as a gopher in the comic books division of a small publishing company, was in the right place at the right time to move up and showed a flair for the kind of over-the-top evocative storytelling that the medium favored. Along the way he met a woman, got married, had a child, and kept making comic books for decades. What makes this book work as well as it does is that it takes this fairly bland story and wraps it in Lee's style of storytelling, punching up the mundane and lacing it with humorous anecdotes to make it exciting and interesting.

One of the keys to understanding this book is to note that it contains two mostly distinct but intertwined plot lines. The first, which shows up first, is the story of Lee's life, starting with his childhood making homemade milkshakes and devouring books and running through his service in the U.S. Army, his misadventures that led to his marriage to Joanie, and the other ordinary events that most lives are made of. The second is the story of Lee's professional career, kicking off with his first job working for Atlas through his glory years in the 1960s when he created and launched the lineup of Marvel characters that serve as the publisher's foundation to this day, to his repeated efforts to start and maintain a Marvel fan club, and on to his later projects including his ill-fated venture into internet commerce, and quirky titles like Stripperella. These stories are related insofar that they are all events in Lee's life, but for the most part they are otherwise disconnected with one another, resulting in a somewhat compartmentalized semi-episodic feel that pervades the book.

One of the odd things about the book is that the parts that are already pretty well-known, especially the the sort of person who would be interested in this book to begin with - the parts that recount Lee's work at Marvel, the creation of various titles for the company, the pages where he highlights the iconic figures he worked with such as Ditko and Kirby - are the parts that are interesting, whereas the parts that are not well-known - the details of Lee's early home life, his relationship with his wife, and other personal details - are somewhat less interesting, or at least they are only interesting because they are mundane stories that are told by Lee. This dynamic makes the book a bit weird to read. For example, it is somewhat interesting that Lee created the Fantastic Four as a crime-fighting family with interpersonal dynamics as a core element of the storytelling, and it is kind of cool to have a full page showing the cover of the first issue of the Fantastic Four title, but none of this is really much of a revelation to the intended audience for the book. On the other hand, it probably is news to a lot of people that Lee met his future wife Joanie when she answered the door as he was coming pick up her roommate for a blind date, but that isn't all that newsworthy a tidbit of information.

The whole book is wrapped in a kind of manic energy. In any other book this would hint of a desperate attempt to punch up a boring story, but here it just seems like a reflection of Lee's personality. Amidst all of the superlatives, the book contains numerous nice flourishes that long time fans are sure to appreciate, such as full page illustrations depicting some of the notable figures in comic book history, replicas of the covers of the first issues in which many of the most prominent Marvel characters appeared, and a reproduction of the anti-VD poster lee designed while he was in the Army. Through all of the unfettered exuberance, the most brilliant elements of the book are contained in the subtle touches such as a panel in which Lee explains how to be a better writer by paying attention while watching movies shows a scene from what appears to be Captain America: The Winter Soldier with Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans as Black Widow and Captain America. Or a sequence in which Lee explains to his younger self that the woman he daydreams about will be the woman he eventually marries that is punctuated by the older Lee tossing aside a copy of the issue of Action Comics in which Superman first appeared. Or the sequence in which Lee talks about, and grieves for, his daughter who died in infancy. These small moments elevate the book beyond being simply a steady stream of excited enthusiasm, and make it a memorable memoir.

Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible is ultimately kind of like Lee's favorite catch phrase "Excelsior!" - it is bombastic, enthusiastic, and delivered with an exclamation point, but beyond that it has about as much substance as one of Marvel's famous No-Prizes. Just like a No-Prize is nice to win but doesn't really provide much more than the nice feeling of having won it, this book is nice to read, but doesn't offer a whole lot more than the nice feeling of having read it. Anyone who picks up this volume looking to glean some insights into Lee's life is likely to come away feeling slightly disappointed. On the other hand, anyone who picks up this book hoping to experience just a little bit of what it is like to listen to Lee perform in front of an audience of appreciative ComicCon attendees is likely to get exactly what they were looking for. I'm not sure if this book can be really described as great, but it definitely can be described as ineffably Stan Lee, and that is probably all one can really ask from it.

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