Pigs, Bacon, and the Delicious Realization That History Is Written By the Winners.
Here's the thing about lying down with pigs. It's tempting because you think you might get bacon out of the deal, but when you finally get up all you really get is dirty. Case in point, Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir. At first blush you think, "All right, a sort of autobiography of Stan 'The Man' Lee but it's actually written by one of the best writers working in comics, Peter David... ooh and it's illustrated by one of the best artists in comics, Colleen Doran! This is Amazing! It's Fantastic! It's... hey wait a minute, my historical irony detector just went into overdrive."
So okay, the idea that Stan Lee's autobiography should be done in graphic novel form is absolutely spot on, and stunningly obvious all at the same time. However, by the same token, the intrinsic timing and length constraints inherent in the graphic novel format guarantees that this autobiography will be a bare bones sketch at best. And that's exactly what it is, it's an extremely well written, marvelously illustrated, brief outline of one of the most intensely interesting lives in comics.
But that's really okay. Stan The Man actually already wrote his autobiography in 2002 with the publication of Excelsior! It's a little threadbare as well, clocking in at a meager 256 pages, however, Stan does spend a good deal of page count heaping a huge and long overdue amount of praise and credit where credit is due on his fellow early Marvel creators. He does something similar here as well. Jack Kirby (complete with a stream of unending Kirby crackle roiling out of the end of his ever-present cigar.), Steve Ditko, Don Heck, John Romita, all of them get a fair amount of airplay in Stan's story, and yet...
When describing Steve Ditko's exit from Marvel Stan says, "I was never sure what bothered him but I could tell he was dissatisfied." "As I look back on that time, I feel that Steve may have felt somehow slighted." When describing Jack Kirby's exit from Marvel he says, "I suspected that there were people who were telling him that Marvel was taking advantage of him." See, it's disingenuous shit like this that makes me feel dirty for enjoying this book as much as I did.
For those of you that don't know, the big historical losers here are Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. Ditko most likely left Marvel over philosophical differences about what constitutes a hero. A staunch Ayn Randian, Ditko to this day holds the steadfast opinion that good is good and evil is evil. It's a black or white philosophy that leaves no room for the gray area that most Marvel heroes regularly play in. Prior to his exodus, he went through a slowly degenerating and very public relationship break with Stan Lee to the point where at the end they were no longer speaking to each other. The idea that Stan had no clue why Ditko left Marvel is, while possible for someone who couldn't give a shit about a man he collaborated with on a regular basis for years, is more likely a public whitewashing of what is probably a painful memory.
Jack Kirby is a wholly different ball of shame. While I doubt that Kirby created all of the initial Marvel heroes by himself, the fact that he certainly had a major hand in the birthing of the Marvel Universe is not at all in doubt. What is questionable, however, is how a man like Stan Lee who is by all accounts extremely smart, erudite, effusive, and curious, could have any question as to why Kirby left the company that routinely paid him shoddy wages, refused him proper credit, and couldn't be bothered to return his original art to him even when all the other Marvel artists were getting theirs returned. The idea that Stan would want us to believe that he had no idea what was going on with his long time collaborator and friend is insulting and more than a little asinine.
History is written by the winners, and Stan Lee certainly won. He negotiated millions of dollars out of a company that jealously guards what it considers its "intellectual property", and he has remained Marvel's premiere promoter for close to six decades. To carry my primary metaphor to its' logical conclusion, Stan Lee did a giant cannonball into the Marvel hog waller and came out squeaky clean with bacon... a lot of bacon.
Historical whitewashing aside, this book is still highly entertaining. Peter David is a master craftsman who naturally writes with humor and intelligence, two qualities that Stan excels at while speaking, so the dialogue feels exactly right like Uncle Stan is telling us a story. The other half of the creative team is Colleen Doran, an artist who can throw down nine panels of paint drying and still make it entertaining and beautiful. Amazing Fantastic Incredible is visually gorgeous, exceptionally well written, and for anyone who wants to pony up the $30 for this sweet little hardcover, part of the proceeds are donated to The Hero Initiative, which is a project that helps cartoonists in need. It's an extremely worthy charity and you can find out more about it here at www.heroinitiative.org .
One final piece of advice before I go take a Karen Silkwood shower and try to get the stench of the corporate Marvel waller off me. It's okay to read and enjoy a puff piece, especially one this well done. However, I do realize that I'm recommending a candy bar when you may be hungry for an actual meal. If that's the case, track down a copy of Marvel the Untold Story by the inestimable Sean Howe. It's a mind-blowingly well-researched accounting of the history of Marvel from its beginnings as Timely to present day. It's a five-star four-course meal for the mind that will entertain and educate anyone interested in the unvarnished history of Marvel Comics.