14 Magnolia RoadThere’s been something of a golden age for graphic novel memoirs aimed at middle grade readers in the past few years with fantastic titles like Smile, Sisters, El Deafo, and The Dumbest Idea Ever being released (second dumbest idea ever: attempting to read The Dumbest Idea Ever while walking to the school cafeteria). Given this slate of hits, the readers I work with are more enthusiastic than one may imagine about picking up a graphic novel in the form of a memoir. And if it’s somebody they already knoweven better!

Stan Lee’s Amazing Fantastic Incredible is not just the story of how a Jewish boy from run-down Washington Heights rose out of the Great Depression to wealth and fame; it’s also the story of the ups and downs of the comic book industry, from World War II and the creation of Captain America to nearly present day. The narrative jumps back and forth between Stan giving a lecture about his life on a stage somewhere and his earlier memories.

Lee makes it clear that part of Marvel’s secret to commercial success was creating superheroes who have human foibles and developing natural dialogue for such supernatural situations. I appreciate how Lee is represented in the model of his superheroes: his tremendous strength is his unbridled enthusiasm, passion, and zest for new ideas. He is somewhat forthcoming about his weaknesses, which include a sort of self-indulgent cluelessness about others.

In one scene, for example, he asks his editorial team why Iron Man doesn’t have a nose. The team, presumably too afraid to second-guess him, scrambles to develop a last-minute storyline that might make sense for Iron Man to have a nose. A full year later, Lee wonders in front of his editorial team why Iron Man has a nose. His team insists he wanted a nose on Iron Man and even said so himself. “Oh, for crying outI meant that the helmet looked so tight on his face that I wondered how Tony Stark’s nose fit in there! I wanted the helmet a little bigger, that’s all!” he cries out.

Unfortunately, that real-life cluelessness translates into one of this book’s major weaknesses as well. While we hear tidbits about every beloved Marvel character, we don’t learn as much about the real people who played a role in Lee’s life. Artists like Jack Kirby, who co-created the Fantastic Four and X-Men with Lee, or even Stan’s brother, Larry Lieber are often referred to as “great artists” or “great guys,” but Lee tells us very little about what they were actually like. Even Hillary Clinton, in her three panel cameo, has more character than the people who helped Stan Lee’s rise to fame.

Colleen Doran’s art has both it’s good and bad points. There tends to be a lack of detail in many of the panels, with backgrounds frequently being nonexistent. Given that this is a memoir, I would have loved to have seen the artwork deeply rooted in time, space, and place: the corporate world of New York City in the 1960s and Los Angeles of the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, the use of blues and oranges for the backgrounds feels lazy more than anything else, as it distracts from the story. However, Doran does capture Stan Lee’s expressionsLee is always carrying a smile—mannerism, and energy perfectly. 

Readers who are fans of Marvel’s multitudinous properties may enjoy this short and well-paced work.

Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir
by Stan Lee and Peter David
Art by Colleen Doran
ISBN: 9781501107726
Touchstone, 2015

  • Amy Estersohn

    | She/Her Past Reviewer

    Amy Estersohn is a seventh grade English teacher at Hommocks Middle School in Larchmont, NY and the inheritor of a large classroom library. She has always been struck by the ability of graphic novels to convey a story that transcends written language alone. That story can be for developing readers, such as the time a five-year-old saw her reading Akira on the subway and snuggled next to her, insisting he “read” along, or it can be for proficient readers who want to explore a topic in more emotional depth, such as Don Brown’s depiction of a post-Katrina New Orleans in Drowned City. She holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from Columbia University’s Teachers College.

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