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Stan Lee's How to Draw Comics
Stan Lee
Watson-Guptill, 224 pages

Stan Lee's How to Draw Comics
Stan Lee
Stan Lee was in 1922. He's an American comic book writer, editor, actor, producer, publisher, television personality, and the former president and chairman of Marvel Comics. In collaboration with several artists, most notably Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, he co-created Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor, and many other fictional characters, introducing complex, naturalistic characters and a thoroughly shared universe into superhero comic books. In addition, he headed the first major successful challenge to the industry's censorship organization, the Comics Code Authority, and forced it to reform its policies. Lee subsequently led the expansion of Marvel Comics from a small division of a publishing house to a large multimedia corporation. He was inducted into the comic book industry's Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1995.

Past Feature Reviews
A review by D. Douglas Fratz

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Stan Lee's How to Draw Comics is an updated version of the ground-breaking 1978 book How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way by comics writer Stan Lee and artist John Buscema, although much of the material is new. It includes work by 60s/70s artists such as Jack Kirby, John Romita, Sr., Neal Adams and Gil Kane, along with much more recent work by artists apparently associated with "contributing writer" Dave Campiti. Both volumes seek to demonstrate how to draw comic books in the super-hero and related genres.

I was a comic book reader in the 60s and 70s, discovering Marvel Comics as a teenager around 1963-1965, and becoming involved in comics fandom in 1967. By 1970, when I went off to college to become a scientist, I had read and collected every Marvel super-hero comic, along with perhaps 500 others from the 50s and 60s. But Stan Lee's Marvel Comics super-heroes -- especially Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Avengers and X-Men -- were a seminal influence on my youth. By 1978, when Marvel Way was published, I was no longer reading comics, no longer involved in comics fandom (having moved to science fiction fandom), and had sold almost all of my comics over a four-year period to support my lifestyle as an underpaid scientist.

I have nevertheless in recent years re-read the entire 1960s Marvel Comics continuity as resurrected in the Marvel Masterworks hardcover volumes, and was surprised that the stories still held up after all these decades. Especially when compared to most of the other comics of the time. (I have also similarly re-read the EC Comics from the early 50s, and found them even better than I remembered, if that is possible.) Stan Lee was clearly an innovative genius. I have only met the man twice -- once as a teenager too shy to talk to him and then in very recent years in a serendipitous brief meeting in the Baltimore airport -- but he has had an impact on my life as much as any other writer.

So I entered into reading this book with some expectations that this would be the ultimate how-to book on comics. In some ways it is, but it curiously remains focused (as did the 1978 version) on drawing comics, and virtually not at all on writing them, by either the "Marvel Way" or more traditional movie-script method.

The volume opens with a preface and introduction that reads like a more mature version of Lee's Marvel Bull-Pen pieces from the 60s, before providing a very cursory history of modern comic books from the 30s to date, primarily focusing on the Golden Age (late 30s to early 50s) and Silver Age (late 50s to early 70s) of super-hero comics. It is an adequate summary, but I could not help but notice that the captions for the artwork had a few annoying mistakes, such as one describing Batman as "bursting onto the scene in 1940" (in a caption to the cover of Detective Comics No. 27 clearly dated May 1939) and another describing The Silver Surfer (1978) as the "first graphic novel" (ignoring Gil Kane's fine His Name is... Savage (1968) and Blackmark (1971) among others). (Lee in the main text more correctly characterizes The Silver Surfer as "one of the first.")

The meat of the book begins with a review of the "Tools of the Trade," which in 1978 focused solely on artist tools, but in 2010 focuses on the computers, scanners, printers and software that now are the tools used for modern comics. (This was an eye-opener for me; I was very familiar with how comic art was produced in the 60s, but did not realize the degree to which comic art is now produced digitally.) Most of the book provides an outline on how to render form and perspective, and create the panel continuity required for graphic storytelling. The book continues with inking, lettering, and coloring techniques, and concludes with basic advice on how to go about seeking assignments with your portfolio.

What is not included anywhere in this book is any advice on how to create effective characterization, plotting, world-building and themes in writing comic books, what styles of writing are most effective. Perhaps Stan Lee is too close to the subject, and too intuitive as a writer of graphic stories, to tackle this subject. This is unfortunate, as I find that the history of the graphic story is replete with excellent art, with excellent writing being far more difficult to find. The characteristics of stories that make great comic books are not exactly the same as for the prose fiction forms, and not even the same as cinematic forms. Perhaps some of the better writers in the field will one day try to write a book on "How to Write Graphic Stories."

In the meantime, Stan Lee's book appears to be a good basic manual for budding comics artists, and it is of interest to any comics fan who wants to know how comic art is created.

Copyright © 2012 D. Douglas Fratz

D. Douglas Fratz has more than forty years experience as editor and publisher of literary review magazines in the science fiction and fantasy field, and author of commentary and critiques on science fiction and fantasy literature and media.


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