No one is as beloved by the world at large, yet so polarizing within the field of comics, as Stan Lee. At once the avuncular face of the Marvel age of comics, recognizable across the world for his cameos in every Marvel movie ever made, and the Mephistophelian company man who has hogged a disproportionate share of credit for over 50 years, it is unlikely that any new revelation at this late date will untangle the thorny puzzle of his decidedly mixed legacy. Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir (Touchstone), produced by Peter David and Colleen Doran, certainly offers few surprises to anyone versed in the outline of Lee’s life.
Lee was born in 1922 and came of age during the Great Depression. His formative memories are of seeing his father struggle for work during the ’30s, and his own feelings of helplessness at being too young to help support his family. He got his first full-time job in 1939 when his uncle hooked him up with a position at his cousin’s husband’s publishing outfit—or more specifically, the comic book division of said outfit. He started as an office boy in the Simon & Kirby studio during the period when S&K was working for Timely producing Captain America. But when S&K left in 1940, Lee’s cousin’s husband—a man named Martin Goodman—placed Lee in charge of the comics department. It was the only job he would hold for the rest of his life, outside of a brief stint in the Army.
It’s Goodman who Lee pinpoints as the major conflict of his professional career—not Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. Lee is constantly stymied by Goodman’s dismissiveness. When Lee unexpectedly turns the comics division into a moneymaker, Goodman avows that the main reason the books sold was the snappy titles. When Goodman leaves the company he promises Lee a pile of stock options—only to later renege on the offer, even though the warrants turned out to be worthless.
Lee’s conflicts with Kirby and Ditko are covered in the vaguest terms. He says of Ditko, “I was never sure what bothered him.” Likewise, about Kirby, he deflects blame by saying that, “I suspected that there were people who were telling him that Marvel was taking advantage of him.” But this makes sense in the context of a book in which Lee also swears ignorance over the reasons Simon & Kirby left Timely in 1940. It’s a fact that S&K left Timely over money. Lee has surely had enough time over the years to figure this out. When he states, in reference to Ditko, that “I started calling all the artists who did a first issue with me my co-creators,” it’s hard not to shudder at his chutzpah: even after all these years, the act of crediting co-creators is still phrased as less an acknowledgment of fact than a gesture of noblesse oblige. But at least it makes sense when he devotes a full page to his friendship with Batman “creator” Bob Kane.
David and Doran do a good job massaging the events of Lee’s long and discursive life story into a salable package. It’s probably not their fault that Lee spends as much time detailing his wife’s career as a romance novelist as Kirby’s departure from Marvel. Perhaps this is aimed at a younger audience, but it would be a tragedy for anyone to come to Lee’s version of events without some prior insight regarding the well-documented differences between fact and wishful thinking in Lee’s notoriously selective memory. [Tim O’Neil]
Rendered in a chiaroscuro interplay of black and white by Francisco Solano López, The Eternaut (Fantagraphics) is considered one of the most important works of Latin American literature. Written by Héctor Germán Oesterheld, who would later be disappeared by the Argentine government, The Eternaut is the story of Juan Salvo and his struggle with a series of extraterrestrial encounters that leave him unstuck in time. If that set up sounds episodic, that’s because it is. The series was originally published as a weekly comic strip, and the constraints of that format show. It’s stop-start, and the plot is constantly being recapped. The staccato pacing and the repetition can get annoying, but the series wasn’t designed to be consumed in a single sitting, so it’s difficult to hold that demerit against it.
As regards the more important things, however, The Eternaut is a particularly compelling work, and it occupies an interesting point in Latin American literature. While Latin American literature is mostly associated with magical realism—Borges, Márquez, that sort of thing—Oesterheld’s writing is less fantastical and more pulp-inflected. In much the same way that Tarantino spins poetry from trash cinema, Oesterheld constructs a political allegory out of sci-fi serials and adventure novels. The work, though its pace may bow and lag at points, is largely successful in this attempt. The politics, which may fly completely over the heads of readers unfamiliar with 20th century Argentine politics, are never overt, but a patina of despair coats the work. This despair threatens, at points, to drown The Eternaut, but in the same mode as Octavia Butler’s Parable Of The Sower, its apocalyptic lens facilitates its argument that anything can be overcome by unity, by refusing to accept oppression; it is, at the end of the day, a paean to the human spirit.
Without Francisco Solano López, however, it’s likely that The Eternaut wouldn’t have had the impact it had. Oesterheld doesn’t make the common mistake of overwriting his comics, but they are dripping with ideas. The idea of an alien race—referred to as “Them” in the series—who enslaves aliens who then enslave other aliens is a compelling exploration of the extremities of hierarchy and asymmetric power dynamics. But it takes López to fill these ideas with bizarre physiology—aliens called “Hands” are troll-like creatures with thirty fingers—and a deeply moving pathos. Juan Salvo could have easily become the generic everyman that Oesterheld explicitly wanted him to be, but López’ complex and illustrative aesthetic (surprisingly so, considering the period in which the work was produced) fills that abstract vessel with blood and bones. Under López’ pen, Juan Salvo is subjectified, and the innumerable moments of Salvo looking on in awe or despair are only compelling because Salvo is a character—not an idea. And that’s where the power of The Eternaut lies. [Shea Hennum]
Until relatively recently, “fantasy comic” was nearly synonymous with the likes of Red Sonja and Conan, with no room for something new at large publishers. And while Red Sonja and Dynamite’s other fantasy titles have been enjoying a run of well-deserved attention after a revamp, Image has thrown its hat into the ring with a slew of new books in the past year that show just how innovative fantasy comics can be. From Under Mountains #2 (Image) is one of those titles.
Marian Churchland, who contributes to the story and does the exceptional cover art for From Under Mountains, is probably most recognizable as the artist for 8House: Arclight, the first arc in Brandon Graham’s epic fantasy series. In fact, you’d be forgiven for assuming that 8House and From Under Mountains are part of the same series: Graham himself has contributed double page spreads to each of the issues of From Under Mountains, and Churchland’s singular style ties them together visually. On the other hand, while 8House explores non-binary genders and their roles, one of the primary plots of From Under Mountains directly involves strict gender norms and the limitations they place.
Working with Churchland on the story and writing the script is Claire Gibson. Neither Churchland nor Gibson, nor their artist and collaborator Sloane Leong, have many credits to their name from large publishers. Each has an online presence, and Leong in particular a portfolio of webcomic and independently published work that’s wide and varied in scope and theme. But there’s an impression of industry outsiders coming together to make this team, with Image’s fantasy master craftsman, Brandon Graham, to help guide them when needed.
The story centers around a remote stronghold, the characters and struggles familiar to anyone who’s read books by Tamora Pierce or Mercedes Lackey, and similarly compelling as those authors’ works. There is a young noble woman trapped by her gender and her father’s expectations, a fallen hero with nothing left to lose, outsiders with shady motivations, and a charming criminal, caught in the middle of machinations beyond their control. The majority of the characters are explicitly people of color, with the region’s traditions and religion vague enough to not immediately have identifiable inspirations.
It’s a strong, interesting story, with a clear vision and central theme that’s just well trod enough to be comforting. But, with the glut of other fantasy books that Image is putting out right now, many of them with more recognizable names, From Under Mountains runs the risk of being lost in the shuffle, particularly because of any confusion about its relationship to 8House and Brandon Graham. Leong’s colors, panel composition, and backgrounds are particularly strong; she’s one of only a handful of comic artists to accurately and convincingly draw horses. But there are some pages that feel sparse, panels that seem rushed compared to others, and it means there are a few awkward beats that interrupt the flow of the issue. From Under Mountains is up against some stiff competition, and a strong, interesting story may not be enough to make it stand out from the crowd. [Caitlin Rosberg]
Early in Jane Mai’s new sketchbook/diary See You Next Tuesday (Koyama), she shares a story about someone calling her a cunt on the internet, and how she responded by making T-shirts that read “cunt is such an ugly word, I’m so pretty though.” The anecdote puts the book’s title in a fresh context, one that shows Mai’s commitment to putting a positive spin on the negative, particularly when it comes to how she’s treated as a woman. That T-shirt became a bestseller, so her message is clearly resonating with other women tired of being attacked because of their gender, but her proud declaration of beauty disguises her ongoing struggle with self-worth.
With a stronger emphasis on humor than Mai’s previous releases for Koyama, See You Next Tuesday is an often laugh-out-loud funny collection of comics, illustrations, and short text pieces that spotlights the cartoonist’s sharp timing, simple but expressive linework, and dark, occasionally crass sense of humor. One of the best examples of all three elements is a strip at the start of the book detailing a regular occurrence in Mai’s life: weeping on the toilet. From a fixed side-view perspective, Mai breaks down the process into four steps, establishing a recognizable pattern with the first two (pee and TP) that she breaks with the tragic third (cry) and then wraps up hilariously with the delusional fourth, in which she tearfully looks up from the toilet paper and says, “I’m fine.”
Mai’s battle with depression is a recurring thread, but she keeps the balance tilted toward the comedy. There are a lot of strips about penises and bodily functions, and toilets are basically recurring characters. The longest story in the book is “Literal Poop Nightmare,” a harrowing account of Mai and her ex-boyfriend frantically unclogging a toilet at 5 a.m., depicted in a way that accentuates both the horror and humor of the situation. This focus on comedy creates a stronger contrast when Mai does present deeper material involving her depression and identity issues, intensifying the dramatic impact of those entries.
In See You Next Tuesday, Mai offers a multi-faceted self-portrait. She loves herself because she recognizes how essential that is to her well being, but she also dislikes her body, a sentiment she outlines in the book’s most powerful strip, “Confident.” She expresses that her ideal form would be an insect and that she hates having a vagina, believing that the most perfect thing would be to have a blank body. These are complex feelings, and they’re even more complicated considering Mai is presenting an exaggerated version of herself on the page, so she’s filtering these emotions through a heightened perspective. There’s significant substance underneath the silliness of See You Next Tuesday, and when the book ends with Mai proclaiming, “I feel okay today,” it reads like a major victory for the artist. [Oliver Sava]
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