Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir Graphic Novel Review

Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir by Stan Lee and Peter David, art by Colleen Doran. Touchstone Publishing, 2015. 

Thanks to the domination of Marvel's superheroes at the box office, Stan Lee has become a household name. More than that, thanks to his cameos in those movies, he's become a household face. The mustache, the salt and pepper hair, the dark glasses -- he's become an icon in his own right. And yet...most of us don't know much about him. Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir is his attempt to let us get to know him. The guy behind the masks. Lee guided Marvel Comics through a revolution of sorts in the 1960s, helping create Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the Hulk...along with updating older characters and making them relevant. Essentially he did this by making them human, by amplifying their angst, by making them whiners just like us. 

His memoir is (appropriately) in graphic novel format, allowing Lee to be the narrator of his own life story, with frequent breaks through the fourth wall (sometimes through the paper panels themselves) to address the reader. He's an observer of himself as a bookish kid growing up, of a young adult dating his soon-to-be wife, of his early collaborations, failures, and successes before becoming the Big Deal at Marvel. 
Lee's voice is unmistakable, with superlatives as subtle as a tsunami. That's part of his charm, somehow. Even though he's brash, he doesn't come across arrogant. He brags about the characters and the innovations he introduces, but isn't always the hero of his own story. He admits to some mistakes, and questions the fallout between him and Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby (co-creators of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, among others)...which comes across as disingenuous. But including those black marks at all is admirable. 

The book is an interesting look into the creative process of a guy who most kids know by name and by face, but don't know much about. That hook -- the movies they love and the heroes they believe in -- is enough to have them pick up the book The fast-paced race through the pages with both the words and the dynamic artwork is enough to keep them reading. 

In the classroom, I'd use Amazing Fantastic Incredible working with students on memoir projects. The idea of inserting themselves as an older, wiser narrator in their younger lives is a new one to me, and would be able to get them to more complex, more nuanced ideas than a straightforward retelling of childhood events. Lee makes these interjections and words to the reader (and sometimes his younger self) impossible to miss -- it's easy to use those pages as an example of how to do that in students' own writing. 

If students are interested in the origins of comic book characters, I always recommend Marc Tyler Nobleman's books Boys of Steel (about Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, creators of Superman) and Bill the Boy Wonder (about Bill Finger, the long-uncredited co-creator (but mostly, creator) of Batman). Both are great for elementary through high school, and get to the complicated topics of copyright and the rights of the artist versus a corporation while still being "about" superheroes.