It's only right that Stan Lee's memoirs arrive in comic book form. The 93-year-old ambassador/mascot of Marvel Comics has been in the funnybook business since 1939 – back when they still were called funnybooks. Back then, the medium was seen as silly at best, vile at worst. But today, comics, or graphic novels as some highfalutin folks call them, have attained a status of near respectability. People of all ages read and love them, and their characters generate billions of dollars via their appearances on TV and in films. Lee, along with other key figures, has been at the forefront of this evolution. And though he's interviewed almost daily, it's interesting to hear what he has to say about his career and all the changes he's seen.
Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir by Stan Lee, penned with the help of veteran comics writer Peter David and zippily illustrated by Colleen Doran, does a fine job of charting Lee's trajectory to the top of his field. We see how the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle seized Lee's early imagination, making him want to become a writer. And we observe him in his early years at Atlas Comics, the company that became Marvel, and how he, in collaboration with artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, helped create the Marvel Universe.
Lee is often criticized for stealing the spotlight and not giving due credit to Kirby, who co-created the Fantastic Four, Avengers, X-Men, Thor, Captain America and many others, and Steve Ditko, who co-created Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and more. Lee doesn't get into the nitty gritty here about who deserves credit for what. However, he does acknowledge Kirby and Ditko's crucial contributions via full-page, dynamic tributes, drawn by Doran to highlight the stylistic hallmarks of each of these artists. While more insight into the creative process behind the comics would've been nice, at least these vital collaborators get a good mention.
Lee, David and Doran make excellent use of graphic storytelling to move the story along. The book is framed as a speech Lee is giving at a comics convention and the visuals transport us through different phases of his career, from the early days of creating a new type of superhero – one with human flaws despite great powers – through his promotion to Marvel publisher and his move to Hollywood. The scene in which Lee first meets his wife, Joan, is imaginatively staged, paying visual tribute to the panel in the Spider-Man comics where Peter Parker first lays eyes on Mary Jane Watson. And a sequence that tells how Lee and his wife lost an infant daughter is told with great sensitivity and emotion – as dark shadows surround Stan as he shares the story.
Much as he does in his real-life appearances and interviews, Lee quickly brushes aside other tough topics, such as the financial and legal tribulations faced by Marvel and his own Stan Lee Media company in the 1990s. The panels devoted to those topics say, in essence, "the less said, the better." The tone of the book is mostly bright and optimistic. Lee celebrates his joy in being able to do what he loves, knowing that others love it, too. Anyone expecting something deeper from Lee, particularly in his own book, isn't being realistic. So, while it's not the most detailed or definitive look at Lee, it's his own version, told in the medium he helped transform.
– John Firehammer