When I first heard about I Am Stan: A Graphic Biography of the Legendary Stan Lee, I'll admit I was a little skeptical. Josie Riesman's fantastic book True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee just came out two years, and offered the an impressively comprehensive and nuanced depiction of the excelsior spokesman. How was anyone going to top that?
Then I saw that this new graphic novel biography was written and drawn by Tom Scioli, of whom I'm already a huge fan. So I decided to give it a shot — and I'm glad I did. There's something curious in a very "the medium is the message" sort of about depicting the life of the Stan Lee through the same format that he so famously popularized.
Or maybe "sold" is a better way to describe Lee's contribution to the field of comic book storytelling? Because, as I Am Stan clearly illustrates, Lee was a salesman first and foremost. Whereas Riesman was able to take an omniscient narrator approach to Lee's complicated life, Scioli drills down into the details by telling the story through scenes — a difference that easily sets the two biographies apart. That's not to say that I Am Stan is necessarily a dramatic page turner; most scenes only last about a panel or two, and Scioli is careful not to editorialize too much (or at least too obviously).
But its that simplicity that gives the book its power and resonance. I Am Stan takes an almost Bildungsroman approach to Lee's life—from his childhood spent a mother who adored him and a father who failed him, through the prime he hit in his 60s and 70s, to the tragic elder abuse that darkened his later days. We're not inside of Stan Lee's head here — or anyone else's, for that matter. Scioli is smart to include a bibliography of his research, so you know that every moment depicted in the panels came from at least some version of the story of Stan Lee's life that he or someone else had told at some point in time.
And Stan Lee was a helluva storyteller — both in the obvious ways, and in the making of his own legend. Scioli does a fantastic job of making Lee seem like a sympathetic protagonist, without ever glossing over his more questionable moments and regrettable qualities. As Scioli shows, Lee was always someone with great aspirations — someone who craved fame and fortune almost as much as he longed for the respect of the literary establishment. As much as Lee loved his comic books, there was an inescapable shadow of shame around them, too. As big as Marvel has become, Stan spent most of his life in a career that was laughed at and mocked by the Literati — and that had an impact on his pride.
At the same time, Lee was a company man. He didn't create Marvel Comics; he was brought into the pulp publishing industry through a family connection. As much as he loved the creative work he was doing, he also had administrative duties to attend to. He didn't own the company; there were people above him who made all kinds of greedy capitalist decisions. And Stan, so desperate for their approval, did some shitty things to the workers beneath him, including Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and even Lee's younger brother. Through simple cartooning and straight-forward, Scioli shows the uglier sides of Lee, too, though without making him a full-on villain either. After all, it's difficult to make a man understand a thing when his salary depends on his not understanding it. And Stan Lee's salary depended heavily on selling the character of Stan Lee. Some of those decisions may have haunted Lee later in his life — but he still had to find ways to rationalize them for himself, to justify his actions.
Because, as I Am Stan deftly illustrates, Stan Lee was not really a celebrity until the 90s. Before that, he was just a company man desperate for the rest of the world to recognize his genius and shower him with glory—even though much of that genius came from collaborations with other people who were under-credited (if at all) for their contributions to the legend of Stan.
The Stan Lee in the pages of this book, much like the Stan Lee of real life, was full of complications. And Scioli's storytelling really makes that resonate.