The new graphic novel “Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir” tells the story of Stan Lee, who needs no introduction. The book, co-written by Lee and Peter David, drawn by Colleen Doran, and published by Touchstone, offers a unique look at the life story of one of comics’ greatest legends.
David is, of course, best known for his long runs comics as “The Incredible Hulk,” “X-Factor,” “Aquaman,” “Supergirl,” in addition to numerous novels, film and television projects. Doran’s long-running series “A Distant Soil,” coupled with collaborations with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and others, has built the artist a loyal fan following. With input from Lee, the two have crafted a cartoony, lighthearted biography which ranges from recreating famous comic book scenes to depicting the famous creator’s childhood in New York to interpreting the real-world genesis of iconic characters like Spider-Man and Ant-Man.
CBR News: What was the first Marvel comic you read?
Peter David: Funny you should ask. The very first comic I read was “Fantastic Four Annual #3,” the wedding of Reed and Sue.Â I was visiting my cousin, and he had it. I’d never read any Marvel Comics before. What was impressive was that I was able to follow the entire story, even though it had every main character in the Marvel Universe in that issue and I was completely unfamiliar with them.
Colleen Doran: I remember very well, because it was the first comic I ever read. I have said in interviews that I didn’t start reading comics until I was 12 years old, but I actually read a small number of them before that. I just couldn’t be a fan because we could not afford comics, and I had little access to them for most of my childhood.
The first comic I ever read was “Chamber of Chills” #1, featuring Gerry Conway’s adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s short story “Delusion for a Dragon Slayer.” I was trying to hide out under the bleachers at school, and someone had discarded a few crumpled up comics under there. I grabbed them and read them all. The story completely flummoxed me. I didn’t really understand it as a little girl. I guess I was about 6 years old. It was way over my head. I was haunted by it and kept the comic for years, until we moved out of town and my parents threw out what few comics I had.
Years later, I was amazed to encounter the story in a book collection of Harlan’s work, and a bit disappointed when he kind of bit my head off when I mentioned enjoying the comic when we were both convention guests years later. Kids don’t really understand why authors don’t like adaptations of their work. Of course, I now get the story, too, and think it’s absolutely brilliant, one of the best things Harlan has ever written. And I never dreamed I’d grow up to tweet with Gerry Conway.
My parents didn’t mean to throw out my comics, and, of course, were very kind about getting me comics later when they realized I liked them.
When did you first realize who Stan Lee was?
David: That issue, as a matter of fact. Stan and Jack showed up at the end and were refused entry to the wedding. That’s why I loved Stan’s cameo in the second “Fantastic Four” movie, where he showed up at the wedding and was once again refused admittance.
Doran: His name was all over the comics. I got a big box of Marvel Comics to read when I was sick at age 12, and became a comics fan in earnest at that time. I didn’t really understand the roles of the different creators, and had no real idea what an editor did. I sort of assumed they just checked the spelling or something.
Ironically, I was a much bigger DC Comics fan than a Marvel fan at first. I thought the Marvel superheroes were too dark. I had enough dark in real life, I didn’t want it in my comics. But for some reason, I liked the horror comics anyway. I tended to hang on to those and horror was popular for awhile when I was a kid.
How did you end up working on this book?
David: An agent I’d met some time ago, Susan Crawford, thought that I’d be the ideal person to write it.
Doran: Peter and I have worked together before, not just in comics but at book publishers. Stan and Peter were looking for an artist, and it had to be someone with the chops to manage the job, which would also mean managing an art team, and be someone Stan liked. I’m sure no one realizes it, but I worked with Stan way back in my early days at Marvel in the Special Projects Department doing greeting card art and that sort of thing. I remember being very happy there. It was not only a great training ground, but everyone was super-nice, and I was amazed that Stan just gave me his phone number and was completely open if I had a question. He treated me like a real pro, which was unusual back in the day, because some people didn’t treat girl artists very well. Stan was 100% pro and no-nonsense. He gave very good advice. I was struck by how solid he was. It was a great experience, I never forgot it.
That I would grow up to draw Stan’s autobio years later is something I never would have dreamed of in a million years. They were actually looking for someone who could work super-fast, but also in a fairly cartoony style — which I’m not really known for, but apparently, I pulled it off.
I’m sure Stan doesn’t realize or even remember this, but Marvel treated me exceptionally well when I first started out. I doubt I’d be in comics today if it weren’t for Marvel Comics. I had a bad experience with a client back in the day, and they actually went to Marvel to threaten Mike Hobson if Marvel hired me. And Hobson and Archie Goodwin just told them to screw off, and Marvel hired me anyway. They not only paid me a good, competitive page rate, but gave me good jobs, and editor Bob Harras even wrote a letter of recommendation to a loan company when I wanted to buy a house.
And I’m sure these dudes barely remember this stuff, but to be treated so well when I was a complete nobody is something that has always stuck with me. That wasn’t always the case when I was starting out. I’ve never forgotten that they were very good to me when I was a kid. It made a huge impression on me. I’m sure Stan doesn’t remember a thing, but I sure do.
What was the process of working on the book like? How did you collaborate with each other and with Stan?
David: I did a good deal of research, initially.Â I reread Stan’s autobiography, “Excelsior,” and found every interview I could about him — and that was a lot of interviews. Then, I was out in LA and sat down with him for a multi-hour interview to flesh out details that I had garnered, plus additional stuff that I didn’t know.Â I also consulted an assistant of his, Max Anderson, who provided me more details and some photographs that we actually used in the book. After I turned in the script, Stan then went over it, rewriting sections to make it sound even more like his voice.
Doran: I didn’t have anything to do with the writing at all. In fact, the script was dead solid from day one. I rarely had a question. Peter did the primary work, adapting Stan’s prose and breaking everything down into a very clear script, and Stan came back and made his own changes. You can tell who did what because the type is in different color.
Peter is a comic artist’s dream, because he is 100% on top of his game, and he does a lot of the research. Often, when you get a script, there’s no help from the writer in terms of visual reference, but Peter is always considerate. He saved me many hours of tedious research time, and since I tend to wander on the Internet, that’s always for the best.
Since we were working with a book publisher and not a comics publisher, we had to do a lot of our own trafficking and management. I did the hiring, and my assistant Allan Harvey did the major bulk of the technical work. He was invaluable. The deadline was super-tight — we just had to work like dogs, pulling 100 hour weeks. Not kidding — I broke the Kirby barrier there! It was rough.
Anyway, I did layouts, often very rough, ran them by the editor and the writers, they got lettered, I went to ink, then it went to color. As I said, most trafficking was done at our end, which was for the best, but that added a lot of production time to our end as well. It was something.
You’ve each worked a lot of comics over the years. Was there anything different or unique about this project?
Doran: Well, sure. They’re all different. For one thing, the Stan Lee book is fairly cartoony and comedic, which I really don’t have a reputation for. I usually get hired to do stuff that’s rather melancholy. I mean, my most recent work is with Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman — that’s not exactly a hoot. And if they were giving out Eisners for Land Speed Records, we’d win it. Tightest deadline I ever worked, and in a style I’m not really familiar with.
It was actually a lot of fun to draw this way, I wouldn’t mind giving it another go. I’d like to spend more time developing the art style. It’s selling like crazy; I think it’s funny this may become my best known work, since it’s nothing like my normal work.
David: When I write comics, my main audience is typically me. I write the stories that I want to tell to entertain myself. Plus, I keep the needs and interests of the readers in my mind.Â In this case, I was writing for an audience of one: Stan.Â If he liked what I wrote, I was totally satisfied.Â So far we’ve been getting very good reviews, and that’s nice as far as it goes, but really, the only thing that mattered was Stan’s approval.
How easy was it writing in Lee’s voice throughout the book?
David: Very.Â I’ve done it before, going all the way back to 1987 when I wrote the wedding vows Stan read at Shea Stadium in a PR stunt where he married Spider-Man and Mary Jane.
It’s an odd book in some ways. Because Lee is involved, there are things he doesn’t want to talk about, like the death of his second daughter and its aftermath, and some of his artist collaborators who left Marvel over the years. But while it’s a celebration of Lee and his work, it’s not completely uncritical. How do you balance all of this in writing the book?
David: I didn’t want to just leave out things that were unpleasant to discuss. Everyone has bumps and bruises along the way, and Stan’s are certainly higher profile than most. At the same time, I didn’t want to sling dirt, and God knows Stan didn’t want to, either. It was basically a case of mentioning those things that were difficult to acknowledge that they happened, and then keep moving.
That won’t satisfy everyone, I suppose.Â There are still people who declare that Stan screwed over this guy, or claimed credit that he shouldn’t have or whatever. But the bottom line is that this is his story, and I just tried to tell it the best I could while remaining sensitive to everyone’s POV.
Do you have a favorite Stan Lee comic or character?
David: Probably The Hulk. I wrote him for 12 years so he’s still rattling around in my head.
Doran: My favorite Stan Lee creations were probably the characters in the “Thor” books, I had a major crush on Balder when I was a girl. I can’t really remember any particular story that stands out, because that whole era in comics, it’s more a general vibe than a pinpoint in time for me. I actually enjoy those old comics more now than I did when I was a kid. I really liked the Stan Lee-John Romita Sr. run on “Spider-Man,” I loved Romita Sr.’s art, and I grew up thinking New York must be a pretty amazing place from reading those comics. I got that nice hardcover Marvel put out of Romita’s art; it’s super-fun.
You’re always working on many things, so I have to ask, what else are you working on right now?
David: “Spider-Man 2099,”Â “Stephen King’s Dark Tower,” and various novels.
Doran: Well, “Big Nemo” is finished, though Alan Moore did make some lovely noises about perhaps doing more with it. I’d sacrifice something that breathes to work with Alan Moore again. “Big Nemo” is a very interesting comic experiment which anyone can see for free on the Electricomics app, now on the iPad. I absolutely loved it, but it was a technical challenge that brought me to tears, it was so hard to do. I was thinking, Oh no, I have Peter Principled myself out of this gig. I am too stupid to work with Alan Moore. But I eventually sussed it out. It’s just the most intimidating thing in the world to work in Winsor McCay’s art style over an Alan Moore script. I mean, shoot me.
I am also painting a graphic novel for Neil Gaiman over at Dark Horse. It is far and away my very best art. We’ve sneak peeked it on Twitter a few times. It’s taking forever to finish, but it should be done over the next couple of weeks. I’m just doing some color work right now. No editor wants to hear the artist chucked all the color and started over, but I did this summer. It was a mercy killing, it looks better now.
“A Distant Soil” is on back burner for a few more weeks. I only have 8 issues left, but Image doesn’t want to solicit anything until I have three issues in the can. It’s a really hard book to write and draw, and the pressure to finish is unbelievable. But I’m in a good place to work on it again.
I’ve done some covers for “Walking Dead” and Marvel’s “SHIELD,” and I’m in talks for two major projects with a favorite writer. I’m finally getting to where I can work on something at Top Cow we’ve been delaying for awhile. I also have an issue of “Justice League 3001” coming out in a couple of weeks — issue #6. I filled in for the amazing Howard Porter. What a fun book that was to draw! I was whining that almost no one lets me draw superheroes, I wish more people would offer me some — they are crack. I love ’em!
You never know, things fall through, so even though I have plenty on my plate, I keep my options open. I work with a lot of top writers and they can be available one minute and not avail be for the next six months, and you’re standing there with a hole in your schedule. You just never know. I try to stay flexible.
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