Amazing! Fantastic! Incredible!

Review of Stan Lee, Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir

The Australian, February 6, 2016

News of a film called something like Spider-Man 7: The Almost Unbelievably Prompt Return of Spider-Man, is likely to inspire you to do one of two things. You’ll either leap to the box office, cash in fist, raring for another round of scoundrel-thrashing. Or you’ll reach for the object closet to you and hurl it at the wall.

Oddly, I do both. I love superhero movies, with all their roister and elan. But sometimes, in the dark reaches of the night, I worry that all the sequels, prequels and reboots are a villain’s plot to make the characters run out of things to do. And then we’d be left with superhero mumblecore: whole trilogies of Iron Man swearing at a toaster, of Spider-Man making soup and blogging about ennui.

But we’re not there yet. Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy blended and refizzed the Marvel universe in ways both satisfying and entertaining. We need more franchises for the magnificent female characters, such as Black Widow and Scarlet Witch. And superhero movies continue to command huge box office takings.

The man responsible for most superheroes on your screens is 92-year-old Stan Lee. His CV is frankly ludicrous: co-creator of Spider-Man, the Avengers, Iron Man, Ant-Man, X-Men, Thor, Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Daredevil and Black Widow, to name a few. This year alone, three studio tent-pole films grossing over $2 billion were based on Lee’s creations. On TV, they appear in Daredevil, Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Studio slates promise more films about Lee’s heroes in the coming years: Doctor Strange, X-Men: Apocalypse, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel. Cate Blanchett is reportedly in talks to join Thor 3.

Lee is arguably the single greatest influence on contemporary pop culture, and so it’s timely to have his autobiography, Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir. Appropriately, it’s a rollicking comic book, with Lee as its hero.

Born Stanley Lieber, Lee grew up poor in the Depression, sharing a single bedroom apartment with his parents and brother. He escaped via books, something the memoir’s graphic form portrays well: panels of a young Stan reading burst into pictures of Sherlock Holmes, Poe’s raven, and Tarzan.

After writing obituaries and a brief stint in trouser manufacturing, Lee got an entry-level publishing job assisting Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, creators of Captain America. He soon graduated from getting sandwiches and erasing pencil lines to writing comics. And when Simon and Kirby left, Lee, then 19, was put in charge.

World War II interrupted his comic book career, but his army posting was fruitful. In the training film division, Lee worked alongside award-winning writer William Saroyan, Charles Addams (The Addams Family), Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life) and Theodor Geisel (or Dr Seuss). His first mass-distributed hit was a military poster for venereal disease.

He returned to comics after the war but was dissatisfied by having to write “superbeings with very little connection to real humanity”. Lee was about to quit when his publisher asked him to emulate the success of DC’s Justice League and create a team of superheroes.

With nothing to lose, Lee made his comics “the opposite of everyone else’s”.

He embraced realism, seeking an older audience with complex plots, naturalistic dialogue and flawed characters. The resulting team, the Fantastic Four, comprised unlikely heroes: a teenager, Johnny Storm (Human Torch); his sister Susan, in a medium where “almost nobody had siblings” (Invisible Woman); a cocky, thin scientist, Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic); and the rock-skinned Thing, Ben Grimm.

Lee continued to disrupt comics by making a Quasimodo/Jekyll-like monster a protagonist in the Hulk, and a villain’s power his intellect in Doctor Doom. Further, Lee rejected the gym-ripped superhero in Spider-Man: an orphaned “loser in the romance department” who suffered “allergy attacks while fighting villains”. Amazing Fantastic Incredible takes us into the creative process behind these and other characters, including the practicalities of how comics are drawn, lettered, inked, and coloured.

The book’s arc is Lee’s rise from poverty to stardom via his creations. It’s satisfying, then, to see him as the superhero of his own comic-book origin story: his inspiration splashed up in pictures that BOOM and KAPOW, his wealth depicted with bug-eyed AH-OOOO-GAHs!

As an autobiography, it’s thin. But as a comic, Amazing Fantastic Incredible is, well, amazing, fantastic, and incredible. The exuberant verve of the illustrations portrays Lee better than lines of text could. Although, if Stan’s really going to be a superhero character, we need six sequels and a TV spin-off. Just for authenticity. Someone call Hollywood.

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