Stan Lee has long been known as the creator of Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, and Ant-Man. In his recently published memoir, Amazing Fantastic Incredible, Lee recalls his life and career, starting from his early childhood to the present day.
During the Depression, his dreams were fairly simple, like living in an apartment with a view other than a brick wall. He also reveals his father’s angry outbursts over the inability to find work. (Perhaps tellingly, his father is hardly mentioned otherwise.)
As a result, Lee went to work in his early teens until 1939, when he was hired by Joe Simon as assistant at Timely Comics. Soon after, he was assigned to write his first story, which opened the door for him to become a regular staff writer. Simon and his co-writer, Jack Kirby, then left Timely Comics in 1941, leaving Lee in charge.
During World War II, Lee joined the army in 1942. After a stint as a New Jersey shore guard, he was transferred to the Training Film Division where he wrote propaganda and morale films. He created a widely distributed poster encouraging soldiers to visit the prophylactics station to receive treatment for venereal disease. Lee jokes that he should have received a medal for the poster design as it was prominently placed all over Europe.
After his service, he met his wife Joan and, in 1950, they had their only child. He briefly touches on their second child, who died at three days, subsequent struggles with infertility, and failed attempts at adoption. The fact that these are mentioned so briefly leaves the impression that Lee wishes to keep his memoir light in tone.
He then skips to the 1960s when, after a decade of writing romances and westerns, he considered pursuing another line of work. He pressed on until 1971 when he was asked to write a comic with a strong anti-drug message.
He chose to create a story in which Peter Parker’s best friend Harry Osborne becomes hooked on pills. Due to the depiction of drug use, it was rejected by the Comics Code Authority (CCA), an organization whose seal was placed on comics to show approval of their moral message. Lee chose to defy the code and publish the comic anyway. It was so popular that soon a number of creators followed suit, marking the beginning of the end of the CCA.
In 1972, Lee began to veer away from regular writing and focused his energies on publishing. In the midst of this, Marvel Comics was born, and Lee has since become synonymous with it.
His memoir is unusual in that it is entirely in graphic novel format. In 192 pages, Lee reveals his life story, panel by panel, as if retelling the narrative to his younger self. It is clear from the simple conversational style that Lee applied the same standard of excellence and engaging storytelling to his memoir that he does in his comics.
The graphic format is fitting for recalling the life of a man whose identity is so intertwined with the comic industry. The narrative is quick and easy to follow, revealing a message as important as it is simplistic: Pursue your dreams even when everyone else tells you they’re foolish.
The perfunctory way he handles the death of his mother and subsequent conflict with his younger brother leaves the impression that either these are still too painful or that he is unwilling to reveal too much. This does not necessarily detract from the memoir, but it does leave an image of Stan Lee that is less personable.
Lee has spent his career holding to the ideal that heroes should first and foremost be regular people with believable voices, and comics should be a way to address and explore changes within society in a non-threatening manner that is relatable to both children and adults. While Lee does not entirely hold to this within his own memoir, his style is relaxed and conversational.
Readers familiar with Lee’s work will find the same straightforward approach to dialogue. The uninitiated may find the comic format somewhat unusual, but should still be able to enjoy the history of his career.
At the age of nearly 93, Stan Lee is still going strong, publishing comics that are recognizable to anyone born within the last 100 years. He has appeared in cameos in every Marvel movie produced, numerous graphic novels, and a great number of the Marvel children’s cartoons.
With nine Marvel movies set to be released between now and 2019, it is clear that Lee has created an indelible impact on the industry. In many respects, he is credited for the resurgence of superhero popularity. Even though they are all creations of Marvel’s rival company, DC, one need only look to the current television lineup, which includes Green Arrow, Flash, and Supergirl to believe this is true.
One might expect Lee’s memoir to be pompous, but he gives credit, time and again, to those who helped and influenced him. His memoir shows a man who has lived fully with seemingly little regret. ★ ★ ★ ½