The Shakespeare of Marvel comics: "Just as [Stan] Lee’s writing humanized superheroes in the 1960s, this book humanizes Lee"

Salon talks to Colleen Doran, who illustrated Stan Lee's "Amazing Fantastic Incredible" graphic memoir

Published November 19, 2015 11:59PM (EST)


If you’ve only heard of one comic book creator, it’s probably Stan Lee: the writer who co-created Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor, Daredevil, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and the vast majority of heroes, villains, and concepts currently taking over the world via Marvel’s TV and movies.

But it all started with comics. Appropriately, Lee himself is the subject of a new graphic novel memoir co-written by Lee and Peter David and illustrated by Colleen Doran: “Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir.” That title and the book itself are right in tune with Lee as the ultimate comics showman.

Whether you’ve been a Marvel fan since childhood (like me) or just getting on the train with Marvel’s string of consistently strong movies, you should appreciate the story of this unique writer, who not only created colorful characters but has met a bunch of them during his long life, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Batman co-creator Bob Kane, Fabio, and a doofus in a Green Goblin costume who went a little too method at the Carter White House. This book gives a tour of Lee’s unique life, which has been just as exciting as you would expect, but also full of the same disappointment, tragedy, and—movingly—romance as any regular person. Just as Lee’s writing humanized superheroes in the 1960s, this book humanizes Lee.

I interviewed illustrator Doran via email for insight into the project, including the scary challenge of doing justice to Lee’s great artistic collaborators and the scarier prospect of talking with Lee about condoms.

(This interview has been lightly edited for length.)

How did you get involved with this project?

I have known Peter David for many years and we've worked on a number of projects together at Marvel and for other publishers. Stan Lee was also one of the first creators I worked with when I got my start at Marvel Comics in the late 1980s. As a beginning creator, they gave me my training wheel assignment in the Special Projects Department where they produced public service comics and greeting cards, that sort of thing.

Stan was doing a lot of work for Special Projects back then, and I never forgot how well he treated me even though I was a complete nobody. It made a big impression on me. When Peter suggested I do the art on this book, I was thrilled Stan remembered me and my work. He's got his choice of any artist, so when my name came up and he said he wanted me, I was pretty stoked, as you may imagine.

That's like being asked to do stage design by Shakespeare himself. Calling Stan Lee the Shakespeare of comics might be an exaggeration. Or is it? How would you describe his impact and importance to the three people on Earth who might not know?

His impact and importance…it's hard to describe to anyone who doesn't remember a time when comics weren't popular, when they weren't acceptable forms of entertainment for decent people. Stan Lee is older than Action Comics #1, older than Superman. He's been around since before comic books, and he was making comics at a time when comics were not only considered junk, but they were considered dangerous. Congress had hearings about the impact of these stories on impressionable young minds.

Stan and his collaborators made comics cool. Comics had been neutered for decades, they'd been watered down so that there was nothing in them that might offend the Comics Code Authority. The modern superhero came from Marvel Comics: human beings with special abilities and real life problems. Spider-Man bullied at school, having money woes. All of that was new.

And as a creator, I remember when comics weren't respectable, when people would sneer at you for being a comic book artist. Stan was the guy who helped get creator's names on those books, gave the anonymous people who did all that labor an identity. And then he helped make that work enormously popular.

His impact on modern pop culture is inestimable. He may not be Shakespeare, but he's The Man.

One of Stan Lee's major contributions to comics was Marvel style: a process in which the writer offers a loose outline as opposed to a full script, with the artist co-plotting as well as illustrating. Many of Lee's classic comics with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were done this way. Have you ever worked Marvel style? If not, would you like to? And what made Marvel style conducive to creating so many landmark comics?

I've worked Marvel style before. With Peter David, as a matter of fact. But on this book, the work from Stan and Peter was full script.

I like working both ways, but I tend to prefer full script, because then I know exactly what the writer wants, and I work with some exacting writers, like Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. Alan Moore is well known for providing incredibly detailed scripts. It can be daunting to work on something that is so planned and technical. A writer like Alan Moore is an absolute genius, I don't want to let him down.

Whenever I work on a book, my first thought is, "What can I do for this writer?" He could have hired anybody, I have to give him a good reason to pick me. I have to knock his socks off. The writer is my king.

Marvel style is a very loose, unstructured way of working, but it is a much easier and faster process, and it's really great for action comics. If you're the kind of person who really loves fight scenes, Marvel style is for you. You get to go to town with action. You are the director of that movie. When working Marvel style, I may get no more than a page of copy for the better part of an entire comic, with only one sentence or so to set the stage for a page. And as the artist, that's a real treat, because I get to exercise my storytelling chops, and, perhaps, make art choices that are more about my strengths and what I like best to draw than what the writer would have come up with.

Much of the quality of the work depends on the deadlines; comics is a grind. And it was far more of a grind back in the day when Stan and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were cranking it. It's absolutely grueling. We produced the Stan bio in the same deadline conditions, and I haven't worked like that in years. 100 hours a week, easy. It was something else. If I'm working on a story for Gaiman or Alan Moore, I might spend 3-4 days on a single page, but you don't get that time on a regular comic schedule, you are churning out the work, publishable finished illustrations every single day. The deadline is an integral part of the medium, as much of a tool that forms the work as the pencil or paper.

I don't think people realize just how good these classic comic artists were. They see this old-fashioned art, but the talent behind it is amazing. It's one thing to sit there and spend days making a comic page, it's another to make these dynamic pages day after day after day, sometimes churning out 2-3 pages of finished art every day without fail, month after month.

You don't have time to second guess yourself, and they threw so much stuff at the wall. A lot of the old comics were pretty awful, but what was good is going to outlast the pyramids. The synergy that went on in that claustrophobic little environment hasn't been seen since. It was amazing.

One of my favorite parts of the book is your loving portal of Stan's greatest collaborator, Jack Kirby, complete with the famous Kirby crackle wafting from the famous Kirby cigar. I've been a bit obsessed with Kirby lately, reading issues of Jack Kirby Collector, writing about his monsters, and enjoying his influence on the wild "Transformers vs. G.I. Joe" series. As you know, there's a lot of controversy about who created what regarding Stan and Jack, which the bio doesn't get into specifically, although I think an appropriate reverence is paid to the King throughout. How did you approach illustrating perhaps the greatest comic book illustrator? Was it intimidating, pure fun, or...?

Well, it's pretty intimidating, as you may imagine. But also a lot of fun. It's not fun or challenging to draw something that's easy, and I didn't take this book on because it was easy, I took it because I knew it would be something different, and difficult. Not only working at Kirby speed, but having to reference the styles of many classic creators. I had to work in styles which are alien to me. I have enormous respect for the artists who came before me. The script called for portraits of the great comics creators, but I tried to go a step further than that, and if I'd had more pages and more time, there'd be a damned shrine in the book.

There's always going to be controversy over the Stan/Jack legacy, and it is hard to get through to people who don't really get how comics works that the artist is always the co-author of a comic. I don't think anyone doubts that in comics, but the general public simply doesn't grok that an enormous part of the story comes from the artist. It's frustrating to comics artists that when books get cited on bestseller lists, or win awards, the artist's name is usually left off. When books are discussed they often don't even credit the artist in articles where the art is shown. I once had an agent, who wanted me to adapt the work of a very famous writer, call me a "hired hand". If that hadn't happened over the phone, I'd have probably launched myself at her across the table.

Anyone with a reasonable degree of discernment can see that Kirby was an idea powerhouse. The Kirby/Lee collaboration is the definition of synergy. The right combination of creators makes for greater work than they may have done alone. You often have situations where there is a great writer or a great artist, but not often you get that kind of crackling energy with both. That's pure magic.

I love how the comic is framed like one of Stan's talks at comic conventions — I was lucky enough to see one of these back in April in Chicago at C2E2. He really is the ultimate showman, isn't he? Your art captures his outgoing personality, which has been a huge part of his success. But I also appreciated the quiet and sad moments. I never knew the Lees had lost a daughter. I also found his account of growing up poor very moving. And the story of Stan and Joan's romance and marriage is just beautiful. What part of his story did you find most enjoyable to illustrate? Most difficult?

I think it was Peter's idea to frame the book that way, and it really worked.

As for my favorite thing about drawing the book, there were a lot of really fun things, and the part about Joe Maneely really got to me in particular. You can tell Stan is still deeply upset about his friend after all these years, truly loves Maneely's work. I didn't know that much about him. Stan's right, the guy was a major talent and it's a shame he died so young. I don't think most comic book fans realize who Maneely is.

The funniest part for me was the scene where Stan had to create an Army poster to teach soldiers about condoms. The term they used for the place you got your condoms was Pro Station. I had absolutely no idea what that was, and I remember calling up Peter and asking. And Peter didn't really know what to say. Then he told me, "Stan wants you to call and talk to him about this." But I didn't want to seem like a total buffoon before talking to Stan, so I did a bit more digging on the internet and that's when I found out what Pro Station really was. It wasn't entirely clear in the script. I got kind of embarrassed and didn't want to call Stan and talk to him about condoms. I mean, that would be like calling up my grandpa. I just couldn't stop laughing.

Now I realized I missed a golden opportunity to talk to Stan about something pretty hilarious, but I just sort of chickened out and announced, "No, no, it's OK! I got it! I can draw this scene!"

By Mark Peters

Mark Peters is a freelance writer from Chicago. He writes jokes on Twitter and is a columnist for Visual Thesaurus and McSweeney's. He is the author of "Bullshit: A Lexicon."

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