But…do we really need one?
It has come to the attention of basically everyone that Stan Lee, the “Generalissimo” of Marvel, will be publishing a memoir. Of course, as befits one of the men who helped build Marvel–and the comics industry, in general–into what it is today, it will be a “graphic memoir,” using both words and pictures to tell the story of young Stanley Martin Leiber.
In a statement announcing the book deal, Lee said:
“As Marvel just celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary, I thought maybe it’s time for a look at my life in the one form it has never been depicted, as a comicbook…or if you prefer, a graphic memoir. It strikes me as a horrendous oversight that I haven’t done it before! If I didn’t know everything about my life already, I’d envy your voyage of discovery!”
Yep, that sounds exactly like something our old pal Stan would say. He isn’t known for being a wilting flower–more of a #humblebrag.
And perhaps Lee has a right to brag. Okay, if we’re going to err on the side of objectivity, yes, he can brag. He took a floundering magazine company and turned it into a comic book powerhouse, and at a time when most of the country was ready to torch any place that published those little books of awfulness (thanks, Dr. Wertham). And, as the decades passed, Lee wrote and edited numerous titles, as well as handling some of the business side of the company. He was undoubtedly an innovator, always looking for the next big expansion opportunity. He saw Marvel merchandise, Marvel movies, Marvel all the time, everywhere, reaching into the American home beyond the pulpy paper and bold ink the kids were bringing into the house from the newsstand.
He was also, how do I put this lightly? Kind of an asshole? In an effort to sell comics, he famously clashed with the likes of Steve Ditko (creator of Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (a legendary artist), all the while carrying on a one-man cheerleading campaign. In the picture of Marvel that Stan Lee painted, all was right in the bullpen and no one had a disparaging word to say against their old pal Stan. He lorded over all, directing every detail without every taking direction from those who may have–probably did have–a better grasp on what was really happening. Lee read the letters and wanted to give the people what they wanted. That doesn’t sound so bad, but it is when you consider he was basically telling creators they couldn’t do what they wanted because the kids wouldn’t like it.
Stan Lee was a man out of touch with his audience and his employees/collaborators. He was already a middle-aged man when the Fantastic Four took flight and the first time Captain America punched Hitler in the jaw, and he wrote the teenaged X-Men like 30-something preppies. He had a mind for business, and no one to tell him no. He was the face of Marvel, as far as he was concerned, and basically, everyone else could just go to hell.
So it doesn’t surprise me that Lee is writing a memoir, and it surprises me even less that he expects it to be something people absolutely want or need to read. Yes, admittedly, it’s on my TBR list, as I’m sure it’s on the lists of millions–billions?–of others comics fans. But this “voyage of discovery” will most likely be a bunch of half-truths and polished anecdotes, sure to present Lee in the best light. I’d go so far as to hazard a guess that anything Lee says in his memoir will have to be taken with a grain of salt.
If you read any interviews with Stan Lee, or any material on the man, you can easily see how highly he thinks of himself, and how easy it is for him to gloss over the men and women who helped get him where he is, and who helped build Marvel into the company it is today. In his own mind, I’m sure Lee walks on water and single-handedly created Marvel. But there were dozens of people in the early days who got Timely (the original magazine) up and running, and who then launched Marvel and it’s pantheon of heroes. There were assorted writers and artists who dreamt up a stable of bestsellers. As much as he’d like to think so, the world does not revolve around Stan Lee.
Now, none of this is meant to disparage the man, the myth, the legend, or the legacy. Stan Lee has done some incredible things for comics, and he was a visionary before his time. It’s also simply quite the feat that he’s been alive for nearly a century, and is still willing to give talks, lectures, and interviews (personally, I’m taking a free online class through the Smithsonian about the rise of superheroes and comics in pop culture, and Lee has featured in some of the videos, and his firsthand accounts are absolutely fascinating and invaluable to understanding the Golden Age). Mostly, I’d just like everyone to keep in mind that there are alternative stories to whatever Lee may put out, and no matter how much he shares, there will always be more to delve into.
I’d argue that the world doesn’t need Stan Lee’s graphic memoir, because author Sean Howe has already delved into Marvel’s history with all the verve and nerve there is, and he’s produced a volume that is both critical of and affectionate toward Marvel (and its Generalissimo). And while Howe’s book doesn’t go quite as in-depth into the upbringing of the creators and innovators as it does into the feuds, processes, and battles of the company, do any Marvel (or comics) fans really need to know that much about the creators? Whatever they chose to share about their creations and creative processes can be extremely helpful to aspiring writers, artists, or editors, and anyone who enjoys a good biography might take an interest in Lee’s book.
But if you’re more of a Marvel fan than simply a Stan supporter, you might prefer to check out Sean Howe’s Marvel: The Untold Story. Howe provides an honest look at the early days of Marvel, and spares no details–some of which I’m sure Lee won’t be quite so forthcoming with in his volume. We won’t know until it’s written and published, of course, but with my limited knowledge of Stan Lee, I’d assume he’d be the type to skim over the disagreements and focus on his personal struggle and the fame that finally came along.
There’s absolutely a reason why the Marvel story went untold for so long, and I doubt Stan will share anything that Sean Howe didn’t already uncover. Any stories Stan has to tell are sure to be cleaned up for posterity, which is absolutely his right. He’s sharing his life story with his fans, and he can present it in any medium and any light he chooses. But if you want the blood and guts, read Howe’s book.
(And then support me in my attempts to get a musical about the history of Marvel made because OH MY GOD, how cool would that be??)