Rated | Alphabetical
Stan Lee, George Mair
Simon & Schuster, 2002
Just Imagine: Stan Lee Creating the DC Universe
Stan Lee; Joe Kubert, Jim Lee, John Buscema, Dave
Gibbons and others
Stan "The Man" Lee, the avuncular chairman emeritus and longstanding
figurehead of Marvel Comics, deserves a lot of credit, good and ill, for
shaping the comics industry as we know it today. But the painful truth,
one that most people, from filmmaker and comics fan-turned-writer Kevin
Smith on down, are hesitant to admit, has to be told: Lee's best work is
behind him. Judging from his recent comics-scripting work, far
Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. As of this writing, Lee's
coming up on his 80th birthday, and he is, after all, the creator (or
co-creator, but more about that later) of some of the most recognizable
names in modern pop culture: Spider-Man. The Incredible Hulk. Daredevil.
The Fantastic Four. The X-Men. Even that woefully incomplete roster
signals a significant accomplishment for a single creator in any medium.
His contributions to the zeitgeist are substantial, far-reaching and, as
the many recent movies, either already made or currently in production,
based on Marvel characters, make clear, still very much a vital part of
the entertainment landscape. But let's face it: Lee's creative peak, the
fertile era during which he created the aforementioned characters (and
many others besides) was in the early 1960s, half his lifetime ago. And --
as his "bio-autography" Excelsior! tells it -- many, many years
into his career as a comic book writer and editor.
Which brings us to
Just Imagine: Stan Lee Creating the DC Universe. For the
uninitiated, a little backstory: A few years back, after being let go from
his exclusive arrangement with Marvel, Lee was approached by Michael Uslan,
a motion picture executive and friend of Stan's, with an intriguing
concept: What if Lee could do a series of books imagining what it would
have looked like had Lee spun his magic for Marvel's Distinguished
Competition -- DC Comics, home of Superman, Batman, et all -- instead of
Marvel? Long story short: The result is the
Just Imagine series, in which Lee and a roster of some of
comics' most popular artists reimagine classic DC characters.
If anyone, anywhere has ever harbored any doubts that the Stan Lee of
1963 and the Stan Lee of today are very different men, they'd need look no
Just Imagine Book One -- which collects Lee's first four forays
into his own DC Universe -- to dispel those doubts once and for all. The
sad fact is that from beginning to end,
Just Imagine Book One is absolutely painful to read. His plots
are herky-jerky and ill-paced, his scripts awkward and ham-fisted, his
characters clumsy caricatures with embarrassing names like Handz Horgum
and Gundar Gorrok.
Lee's take on Batman (sketchily drawn by comics legend Joe
Kubert) involves a good-hearted kid named Wayne Williams, who's framed by
the aforementioned Horgum, a neighborhood gangster/thug, and sent to
prison. Upon his release, he's a completely different man, smarter,
stronger and nursing a serious grudge. In a move that shamelessly lifts
from the origins of both the DC Batman and Lee's own Spider-Man, Williams
decides to win a pile of cash in the wrestling ring after a bat flies into
his seedy room, giving him inspiration for his costume. Eventually, of
course, Williams tracks down Handz and inadvertently kills him, tragically
alienating him from the woman he loves -- Nita, Handz's put-upon
girlfriend. The story unfolds at an interminable pace, which compounds the
indignity of irredeemably hokey dialogue and formulaic plotting.
Likewise, Lee's Superman (also drawn in a broad, flat style by
the revered John Buscema) is an excruciating exercise, about an alien cop
who chases the criminal who killed his wife to a rocket the fiend -- the
aforementioned Gorrok -- is appropriating as a means of escape. The rocket
ends up on Earth, of course, and Squadman Salden sets about preparing to
hunt his enemy down. (Incredibly, Salden also shows off his skills in an
exhibitionist public forum -- this time, a circus.) The one intriguing
twist here is Lee's Lois Lane, a power-hungry publicist/manager who sees
"Superman" as her ticket to the big time.
Lee's takes on Wonder Woman (drawn by fan-favorite Jim Lee) and
Green Lantern (exquisitely rendered by the talented Dave Gibbons,
of Watchmen fame) fare slightly better, but are also undone by
stilted characterization, meandering plotlines and unwieldy dialogue.
Worse, Lee's manipulative, behind-the-scenes villain, a shrouded
evangelist/cult leader known as the Reverend Darrk, proves so laughable
you hope against hope he's written that way on purpose, in a post-modern,
ironic kind of way. But no such luck.
Just Imagine aside, Lee proves he's still capable of engaging
writing with Excelsior!, a folksy autobiography co-written by
celebrity biographer George Mair (The Judds, Barry Diller, Rosie
O'Donnell). But if Excelsior! -- named for the catch phrase Lee
made famous in his addictive Stan's Soapbox column in Marvel's
heyday -- proves an easier read than his fiction work, it nonetheless
comes with its own lapses. For one, Lee claims early on that he initially
resisted the idea of an autobiography, citing his busy schedule, before
settling on an arrangement by which Mair would do the research and Lee
would pop in now and then to provide color commentary. This statement is
puzzling, since the book proceeds immediately in the complete opposite
direction: Lee, ever the spotlight hog, immediately dives into the details
of his life at great length, and Mair occasionally interjects a sentence
or two of background; he literally appears in maybe 5% of the book, tops.
Once one gets over that hump, however, Excelsior! is an
entertaining and inviting read, written in a casual, slightly
conspiratorial style not very different from the "Gee whiz, true
believers!" shtick of his columns and cartoon voice-work. Lee shows he's
still got a deft hand at storytelling, especially in an early chapter that
humorously recounts his time as an army "playwright" during World War II,
a classification also given to Frank Capra and Charles Addams, among a
handful of others. "Of course, I eventually made my mark in the world,"
Lee writes with trademark wit, "though I've no idea what happened to poor
Capra and (William) Saroyan and the others."
But it takes the book far too long to get to the part most readers
doubtless will buy the book for -- Lee's account of creating the comics
that would make him, and Marvel, famous. His account of his long employ at
Timely (which later became Marvel), run by a cousin of Lee's named Martin
Goodman, is certainly intriguing, and it's interesting to note how many
times Lee paints himself as a burned-out hack, considering quitting due to
his frustration at not having the chance to write stories the way he'd
really like to -- stories that show superheroes as ordinary people
with everyday human foibles and concerns, by Golly!
Lee's genial everyman approach occasionally cracks, especially in
passive-aggressive passages wherein he disputes the claims of famed
artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko that they were "co-creators" on the
books they worked on: Lee magnanimously "concedes" that, while he alone
created characters like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, the end
results certainly owe some measure of their success to the great work the
artists did. While the absolute truth regarding these disputes may never
be known, Lee does himself no favors with his defensive, back-handed
approach to them here. Likewise, even though he's most likely telling the
truth, Lee seems all too eager to paint himself as a complete victim and
dupe in the matter of Stan Lee Media, his Internet entertainment venture,
which falls apart when Lee's friend and partner Peter Paul, under
investigation by the SEC, the FBI and the Justice Department for financial
"irregularities," flees the country.
Those relatively minor faults aside, however, Excelsior! remains
a warm, often fascinating memoir, propelled by Lee's affable and
self-effacing manner. A pleasant and diverting memoir, it serves as proof
that the good-natured Lee still shows some talent and even (at his age)
promise as a writer. Just not necessarily a comic book writer, it seems,
as the good-idea-gone-wrong
Just Imagine sadly suggests.
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