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Excelsior!

Stan Lee, George Mair

Simon & Schuster, 2002

Rating: 3.4

   

Just Imagine: Stan Lee Creating the DC Universe

Stan Lee; Joe Kubert, Jim Lee, John Buscema, Dave Gibbons and others

DC, 2002

Rating: 1.7

Posted: August 30, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

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 behind.

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 further than 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.

The heartbreaking 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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 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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