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New graphic bio tracks the life of Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee

I Am Stan book
Tom Scioli
Ten Speed Graphic
Artwork from "I Am Stan" depicting Stan Lee's career as a public speaker.

Stan Lee was the most famous Marvel Comics character never seen in a cape or tights.

That the late writer, editor and showman was nearly as much a creation as one of Marvel’s superheroes is one takeaway from “I Am Stan,” a new graphic biography by acclaimed Pittsburgh comics artists Tom Scioli.

The book follows Lee from his Manhattan childhood through his late-1930s entry into comics and his success in the 1960s to the realization of his long-time dream of seeing Marvel characters like Spider-Man and the Hulk swarm the big screen. Not to mention the dozens of cameos in those films that endeared Lee to a new generation of fans.

Lee, who died in 2018, was for many the embodiment of Marvel. But as Scioli makes clear, the reality was more complicated.

Company man

Scioli is well-qualified to write and draw Lee’s graphic bio. His long career in indie comics (with fan favorites like “Gødland” and “American Barbarian”) was followed by an assignment from Marvel to do a book-length Fantastic Four reboot. In 2020, Scioli published “Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics,” a graphic bio of the iconic artist whose career heavily intertwined with Lee’s.

Cover of I Am Stan book
Ten Speed Graphic

In the 1940s, as Scioli emphasizes, Lee was “the youngest editor in comics.” He wrote everything from romance to science fiction titles, and survived the industry’s ups and downs until he really hit pay dirt.

In the span of a few years in the 1960s, working with artists like Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee co-created a roster of flawed, quirky and downright misfit heroes whom Hollywood has made better known than they were six decades ago, from the Fantastic Four and Thor to Iron Man, the Scarlet Witch, Doctor Strange and Black Panther.

Lee set a fresh, irreverent tone in these comics, with a singular voice. “He was just about solely responsible for the dialogue, for this sort of dripping narration and the purple prose,” said Scioli.

But Lee didn’t draw, and critics say he claimed more credit for many of those characters than he deserved.

Scioli said such disputes — some of which ended up in court — were largely the result of Marvel’s business model.

“Stan was a lifelong employee of Marvel Comics where the people he collaborated with were freelancers,” said Scioli. “And so it was just sort of better for the company, better for him to sort of downplay the contributions of those other people and play up the contributions of somebody who was working in-house and where you could more clearly establish a work for hire basis than if you started giving more credit, too, to the other guys who were doing this stuff at home with their own pencils, their own paper.”

Origin story

Tom Scioli
Gregory Neiser
Ten Speed Graphic
Tom Scioli wrote and drew "I Am Stan."

But in “I Am Stan,” what’s just as intriguing is Lee’s self-reinvention as a sort of ringmaster for a fictional, behind-the-scenes world where the comics were made. Lee often addressed his young readers (they were mostly young in those days) from the pages of the magazines, suggesting the creative team was one big, happy family. And “I Am Stan” depicts his rise as an in-demand speaker on the college lecture circuit.

“The role that he settled into at Marvel as sort of like a spokesperson,” Scioli said. “Nobody was asking him to do that.”

That fit Lee’s personality as something of a frustrated actor — something Scioli emphasizes with numerous scenes depicting Lee fussing over his hair (and toupee) and beard and mustache, not forgetting his changes in fashion and eyewear.

“He really did enjoy attention,” Scioli said. “He enjoyed, you know, I guess you could call it love. He enjoyed putting a smile on somebody's face and would almost like bend over backwards to get that. And then in the rare times when he didn't get that reaction, he'd, you know, get very frustrated.”

Drawing conclusions

By design, “I Am Stan,” with its soft lines and muted colors, does not resemble a Marvel comic. It doesn’t read like a classic comic, either: Rather than following Lee’s editorial insistence on “smooth continuity,” its narrative jumps rapidly through time and space.

“When you're telling the story of Stan Lee, I don't think the Stan Lee style is the way to do it,” said Scioli. “But what [the book] does have is a lot of zippy dialogue and that was sort of, you know, one aspect of Stan that I felt was really appropriate to his life story.”

Lee took the spotlight in a new way starting in the early 2000s, with a string of cameos in virtually every Marvel movie that continued (if briefly) even after his death. But Scioli emphasizes those humorous turns were really the valedictory lap of a project that Lee began decades earlier, with efforts to put Marvel’s heroes onscreen.

That was a driving force for him,” said Scioli.

Early successes included “The Incredible Hulk,” a live-action TV series that ran on CBS for five seasons starting in 1977.

Many have noted how CGI enabled the X-Men and Spider-Man movies of the early 2000s that presaged the boom in superhero films that continues to this day. But Scioli said Lee’s struggles to create what became known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe were largely legal.

“The characters had been tied up in various deals over the years, and he just would spend a lot of time in Hollywood waiting rooms and, you know, kind of get nowhere with it," he said. "And it wasn't until a lot of those legal entanglements were untangled with a lot of money and a lot of expense in the late ’90s and early 2000s that this thing that he had envisioned finally became a reality.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: