I Am Stan: A Graphic Biography of the Legendary Stan Lee by Tom Scioli

In the opening pages of Tom Scioli’s new graphic biography, I Am Stan, an elderly Stan Lee is signing autographs at an event. But the co-creator of Spider-Man, the X-Men, and other world-conquering I.P. is hesitant. “Stan Lee,” says the minder behind him. “S. T. A. N. L. E. E.” It’s a dark moment for Lee, a writer who helped bring so many brightly costumed heroes to print and a salesman who’s rarely silent over the course of the book.

Scioli, a Pittsburgh-based cartoonist and the author of Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics, another graphic biography, adapts his style to suit his subject. In his Kirby book, Scioli left his pencils uninked (a nod to Kirby, who was usually inked by others) and deployed a six-panel grid (a layout Kirby often used). In I Am Stan, Scioli stacks up page-wide horizontal panels, which give his word balloons plenty of room to expand. Lee, who helped usher in the modern era of Marvel Comics, is always talking—telling stories, soothing disgruntled artists, pitching schemes, and manufacturing myths.

Lee, a co-creator of some of Marvel’s best-known heroes and villains, in 1990.

When, after years of mixed success in the comics industry, Lee and Kirby hit their stride, Scioli’s panoramas fill with Kirby’s cigar smoke and, crucially, tail-less word balloons. “Monster hero,” “beauty and the beast,” “nuclear terror,” “mutation”—these and other unattributed phrases float around Lee and Kirby as they dream up the Incredible Hulk.

“I had to come up with a way of having these guys have these kind of conversations,” Scioli said in a recent interview. His wariness of putting words in mouths is well founded, for at the heart of the story of Marvel Comics lurks a radioactive question: Just who exactly created the spandexed heroes and heavies who dominate our summer blockbusters?

The answer remains murky, thanks in part to the so-called Marvel Method, the collaborative process Lee came to insist his writers and artists follow. In lieu of writing a script, the Marvel writer brainstorms a story with his penciller. Next, the penciller goes off and draws the comic, inventing details, even characters (while not getting any additional fee or credit for writing—a sticking point that will bring Lee into conflict with the great comic artist Wally Wood). Finally, the writer, inspired by the pictures, adds words. “You end up with an action-driven story with snappy dialogue that complements what’s going on visually,” Lee tells Roy Thomas, a writer he poaches from DC, Marvel’s main competitor. “You can’t argue with the results,” Thomas replies.

Lee developed the Marvel Method, a collaborative process between writer and artist that produced many memorable characters and storylines—as well as lawsuits.

The pages of I Am Stan in which Lee, Kirby, and a handful of others mint many of Marvel’s classic characters make up one of the most compelling depictions of messy, inspired collaboration I’ve ever read. At one point, Lee and Kirby talk out a story for the Fantastic Four. Free-floating word balloons—“sky on fire,” “world-eater,” “Galactus”—hover above Lee’s and Kirby’s silhouettes.

At the heart of the story of Marvel Comics lurks a radioactive question: Just who exactly created the spandexed heroes and heavies who dominate our summer blockbusters?

In the next panel, Kirby delivers the pages. “Here’s the Galactus story, Stanley. It’s a doozy.” Lee inspects the art. “Who’s the nut on the surfboard, Jack?” “Well, the way I see it,” says Kirby, “a guy as powerful as Galactus needs a herald. I call him ‘the surfer.’” Thus did Kirby, alone at his drawing board, conjure the Silver Surfer from the void, challenging Lee, as writer, to rise to the occasion. (“How do I come up with words to match this?,” Lee wonders.)

Elsewhere, Kirby presents Lee with his latest idea, Spider-Man, which Lee then passes to the artist Steve Ditko to play with—and which Lee will later campaign for, in the face of the publisher’s hostility. (“I don’t like it, Stanley. Spiders don’t sell.”) Scioli’s unstated thesis is clear: these billion-dollar properties did not spring from one man’s imagination.

Scioli stacks up page-wide horizontal panels, which give his word balloons plenty of room to expand.

At times, swelling word balloons press in on Lee from both sides, as if to suggest a fast talker buckling under the weight of his own words. Too much text is often a sign of failure in comics, a visual medium. But Scioli’s bursting (and charmingly hand-lettered) balloons remind us at every turn that Lee’s superpower was talk—a power he sometimes used for evil. When Kirby’s family sues for royalties, Lee gives a deposition in which he downplays his erstwhile collaborator’s role in the Galactus story.

But we see a frail, fallible human, too. A troubled Lee exits Kirby’s funeral early—and misses the moment when Kirby’s wife says, “Where’s Stan? Bring him up here. I want to give him a hug and let everybody know there are no hard feelings. Jack would want that.”

The last stretch of I Am Stan makes for tough reading. Here, the comics legend becomes a caricature of decline—clashing with his daughter, involving himself with dubious business partners, kibitzing with Larry King, and launching an ill-advised Web venture called Stan Lee Media.

Scioli never takes sides, though, and each of his pages works like a self-contained strip that reveals yet another dimension of his controversial subject. Ultimately, I Am Stan is a graphic masterpiece about a man who, like the best Marvel characters, was one part hero, one part monster.

Jason Guriel is the author of On Browsing and The Full-Moon Whaling Chronicles