Mar­vels aplenty with comic-book cre­ator

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James McNa­mara, like Pro­fes­sor X, at­tended Pem­broke Col­lege, Ox­ford.

News of a film called some­thing like Spi­der-Man 7: The Al­most Un­be­liev­ably Prompt Re­turn of Spi­der-Man, is likely to in­spire you to do one of two things. You’ll ei­ther leap to the box of­fice, cash in fist, rar­ing for an­other round of scoundrel-thrash­ing. Or you’ll reach for the ob­ject closet to you and hurl it at the wall.

Oddly, I do both. I love su­per­hero movies, with all their rois­ter and elan. But some­times, in the dark reaches of the night, I worry that all the se­quels, pre­quels and re­boots are a vil­lain’s plot to make the char­ac­ters run out of things to do. And then we’d be left with su­per­hero mum­blecore: whole trilo­gies of Iron Man swear­ing at a toaster, of Spi­der-Man mak­ing soup and blog­ging about en­nui.

But we’re not there yet. Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy blended and re­fizzed the Marvel uni­verse in ways both sat­is­fy­ing and en­ter­tain­ing. We need more fran­chises for the mag­nif­i­cent fe­male char­ac­ters, such as Black Widow and Scar­let Witch. And su­per­hero movies con­tinue to com­mand huge box of­fice tak­ings.

The man re­spon­si­ble for most su­per­heroes on your screens is 92-year-old Stan Lee. His CV is frankly lu­di­crous: co-cre­ator of Spi­der-Man, the Avengers, Iron Man, Ant-Man, X-Men, Thor, Fan­tas­tic Four, the Hulk, Dare­devil and Black Widow, to name a few. This year alone, three stu­dio tent-pole films gross­ing over $2 bil­lion were based on Lee’s cre­ations. On TV, they ap­pear in Dare­devil, Agent Carter and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Stu­dio slates prom­ise more films about Lee’s he­roes in the com­ing years: Doc­tor Strange, X-Men: Apoc­a­lypse, Black Pan­ther, Avengers: In­fin­ity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Cap­tain Marvel. Cate Blanchett is re­port­edly in talks to join Thor 3.

Lee is ar­guably the sin­gle great­est in­flu­ence on con­tem­po­rary pop cul­ture, and so it’s timely to have his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Amaz­ing Fan­tas­tic In­cred­i­ble: A Mar­velous Mem­oir. Ap­pro­pri­ately, it’s a rol­lick­ing comic book, with Lee as its hero.

Born Stan­ley Lieber, Lee grew up poor in the De­pres­sion, shar­ing a sin­gle bed­room apart­ment with his par­ents and brother. He es­caped via books, some­thing the mem­oir’s graphic form por­trays well: pan­els of a young Stan read­ing burst into pic­tures of Sher­lock Holmes, Poe’s raven, and Tarzan.

Af­ter writ­ing obituaries and a brief stint in trouser man­u­fac­tur­ing, Lee got an en­try-level pub­lish­ing job as­sist­ing Joe Si­mon and Jack Kirby, cre­ators of Cap­tain Amer­ica. He soon grad­u­ated from get­ting sand­wiches and eras­ing pen­cil lines to writ­ing comics. And when Si­mon and Kirby left, Lee, then 19, was put in charge.

World War II in­ter­rupted his comic book ca­reer, but his army post­ing was fruit­ful. In the train­ing film divi­sion, Lee worked along­side award-win­ning writer Wil­liam Saroyan, Charles Ad­dams ( The Ad­dams Fam­ily), Frank Capra ( It’s a Won­der­ful Life) and Theodor Geisel (or Dr Seuss). His first mass-dis­trib­uted hit was a mil­i­tary poster for vene­real dis­ease.

He re­turned to comics af­ter the war but was dis­sat­is­fied by hav­ing to write “su­per­be­ings with very lit­tle con­nec­tion to real hu­man­ity”. Lee was about to quit when his pub­lisher asked him to em­u­late the suc­cess of DC’s Jus­tice League and cre­ate a team of su­per­heroes. With noth­ing to lose, Lee made his comics “the op­po­site of ev­ery­one else’s”.

He em­braced re­al­ism, seek­ing an older au­di­ence with com­plex plots, nat­u­ral­is­tic di­a­logue and flawed char­ac­ters. The re­sult­ing team, the Fan­tas­tic Four, com­prised un­likely he­roes: a teenager, Johnny Storm (Hu­man Torch); his sis­ter Su­san, in a medium where “al­most no­body had sib­lings” (In­vis­i­ble Woman); a cocky, thin sci­en­tist, Reed Richards (Mister Fan­tas­tic); and the rock-skinned Thing, Ben Grimm.

Lee con­tin­ued to dis­rupt comics by mak­ing a Quasi­modo/Jekyll-like mon­ster a pro­tag­o­nist in the Hulk, and a vil­lain’s power his in­tel­lect in Doc­tor Doom. Fur­ther, Lee re­jected the gym­ripped su­per­hero in Spi­der-Man: an or­phaned “loser in the ro­mance depart­ment” who suf­fered “al­lergy at­tacks while fight­ing vil­lains”.

Amaz­ing Fan­tas­tic In­cred­i­ble takes us into the cre­ative process be­hind th­ese and other char­ac­ters, in­clud­ing the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of how comics are drawn, let­tered, inked, and coloured.

The book’s arc is Lee’s rise from poverty to star­dom via his cre­ations. It’s sat­is­fy­ing, then, to see him as the su­per­hero of his own comic-book ori­gin story: his in­spi­ra­tion splashed up in pic­tures that BOOM and KAPOW, his wealth de­picted with bug-eyed AH-OOOO-GAHs! As an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, it’s thin. But as a comic,

Amaz­ing Fan­tas­tic In­cred­i­ble is, well, amaz­ing, fan­tas­tic, and in­cred­i­ble. The ex­u­ber­ant verve of the il­lus­tra­tions por­trays Lee bet­ter than lines of text could. Al­though, if Stan’s re­ally go­ing to be a su­per­hero char­ac­ter, we need six se­quels and a TV spin-off. Just for au­then­tic­ity. Some­one call Hol­ly­wood.

Stan Lee, the man re­spon­si­ble for most of the su­per­heroes on our screens

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