The thing about fiction is that the best of it follows a predictable structure of ups and downs, with a clearly defined end point. We expect stories to have protagonists and conflicts, and we have an idea of how many minutes or pages we have before these conflicts are resolved. In real life, things don’t work that way. There are no protagonists but there are more conflicts than we care to know about. Most of us don’t know when the end is coming. We all know that life isn’t fair, and the only satisfactions we get are the ones that we choose for ourselves.
So while it’s normally good to have a biography with an even-handed account, Tom Scioli’s apparent dedication to impartiality turns out to be my biggest gripe with his book I Am Stan: A Graphic Biography of the Legendary Stan Lee. It appears to be an unbiased collection of anecdotes, but it has all the structure of a narrative and expects to be read like one. This left me searching for a story that wasn’t actually there, and wanting for some more insights into the controversies around the most famous name in superhero comics.
Tom Scioli’s author’s bio describes his comicking as having a “singular” art style, with “kinetic layouts and imaginative writing.” I haven’t read Mr. Scioli’s other works, but even a glance at his website suggests that I Am Stan is not his finest outing. Clearly, the cover illustration alone demonstrates that he is capable of a much more weighty, solid, sturdy style; this doesn’t translate into the interior panels themselves. Characters are drawn in a simple style, so I don’t expect a lot of detail. At times, though, it appears as if the thumbnails for the book were used as the final art, which — and this is speaking as someone who is currently drawing thumbnails for his next comics story — isn’t a great look. Luminaries like Jack Kirby and Joe Simon are just distinguishable enough from each other that you can recognize them, though this gets more difficult throughout the book as Lee meets more and more people. Honestly, a little bit of caricature would’ve helped here.
Most of the book’s script and lettering are fine; the book typically features a digestible number of words per bubble, making the dialogue seem like a conversation between two real people. Unfortunately, the storytelling sags tremendously when it quotes dialogue from interviews and roundtable discussions. At points like these, the bubbles turn into walls of text that overwhelm and sometimes obscure the tiny pieces of artwork that can still fit in the panel. This is unfortunate, as the dialogue itself is interesting; it’s just presented in an unappealing way.
As far as pacing goes, the book starts with a speedy recap of Lee’s childhood. This segment, which lasts for about 12 pages, covers a lot of ground economically; it’s clear that young Lee was interested in anything and everything, though whether this is out of curiosity or necessity is left up to the reader. The story slows down once Lee makes it into the publishing world. All the trappings of a narrative are still there: recurring characters, repeated panel layouts, and running gags. Slowly, though, the book loses steam. While it still feels like there’s a story being told, it begins to feel more like a disjointed memoir as public events and personal vignettes start intertwining, sometimes with no fanfare. One page tells a story about how Lee treated his co-creators at Marvel, and the very next page will be about his hairpiece and deviated septum.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with vignettes like these, except that there are no breaks in the story to indicate where one vignette ends and one begins. While it’d make the book seem more like an anthology, tagging some stories with a title or chapter number would’ve led to a more user-friendly experience.
Speaking of tagging things, various industry legends and media personalities make their appearance, though they are often introduced diegetically by their first names. Major players are named in full (eventually), but unless you’re already familiar with DC/Marvel history, you would have a hard time figuring out who Neal (Adams) or Carmine (Infantino) was.
I like to think I know a little bit more about Stan Lee than a non-comics fan, but I basically went into this book cold. I know that Lee had his share of disputes, and on these issues, Scioli commendably takes an even-handed approach. Lee is generally presented as a hero, but there are plenty of instances that touch on his ego and forgetfulness.
On a few other occasions, the narrative itself feels cold: the deaths of Lee’s parents are each covered in two to three panels, but the death of Lee’s longtime wife Joan – who appears in the book more than his parents do – is also only given two panels of a five-panel page. The remaining three panels recount Lee’s appearance at Disney’s D23 event. It took me some light research afterwards to find out that the D23 event was a mere ten days after Joan Lee’s death. Whether or not Scioli was critical of Lee for this move is unclear, which leads me back to my main critique of I Am Stan.
Truthful Lee or Hyperbo-Lee?
My problem with I Am Stan is that its apparent insistence on avoiding bias means that few of the events actually feel important. For example, one of the few Stan Lee stories I’d heard before reading the book was about how he met his wife Joan: Lee claimed that throughout his life, with whatever ability he had, he would repeatedly draw an ideal female figure he considered to be his “dream woman.” The story changes depending on who you ask – some accounts say a friend told Stan the drawings resembled an acquaintance and set up the two to meet at a party; others say Stan answered the door at said party and found Joan there – but it essentially ends with an awestruck Stan asking Joan out on a date.
This event is depicted in I Am Stan, but with no sense of importance; Stan simply meets Joan and says that he’d been “drawing her all his life.” This assertion is all we get: we aren’t treated to any real or imagined view of Lee’s drawings. Scioli seems to be trying to be impartial, but in doing so the work comes off as impersonal. Injecting some drama (which would be biased) might’ve given more insight into Lee’s character and reputation.
Ultimately, I wish I could recommend I Am Stan as Scioli has clearly taken pains to present an objective view of Lee. Objectivity, however, doesn’t always make for a compelling read. Including more content from friends, family, and coworkers, and combining it with a more rigidly defined structure might have made this book really shine.
Everyone knows Stan Lee: His work at the creative helm of Marvel Comics resulted in the creation of many of the superheroes we know and love today, including Spider-Man, Iron Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and more. During his decades-long career at Marvel, Lee turned the comic book publisher into a cultural juggernaut that shaped and defined the burgeoning industry. In I Am Stan, critically acclaimed artist Tom Scioli reveals the man behind the comics and cameos using the same medium Stan Lee revolutionized.
—Promotional text for I Am Stan: A Graphic Biography of the Legendary Stan Lee by Tom Scioli.
Published by Penguin Random House, 2023.