Comics : Stan Lee's How to Write Comics

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Industry Books

This review was first published on: Dec 2015.


Y'all know who Stan Lee is. When Stanley Lieber was seventeen years old, a relative of his named Martin Goodman hired young Stanley to help around the office at Timely Comics. Before long, Stan was the the editor, coordinator, manager, and chief comic book writer at the company that eventually became Marvel Comics.

For a period of twenty years or so, Stan was the most prolific writer at Marvel. Under Stan's guidance, Marvel became the most successful comic book company in the world, and the characters that Stan co-created (along with hugely talented artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) have become some of the most valuable intellectual properties on the planet.

So somebody figured Stan knew enough about writing comics to write a book about writing comics.

In Detail...

Stan Lee's How to Write Comics
Oct 2011 : SM Article
Find ISBN 9780823000845
Summary: Spider-Man Appears
Publisher:  Watson-Guptill Publications
Writer:  Bob Greenberger, Stan Lee
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The book is 8.5" x 10.5" (in the paperback version), with 224 full-color pages. It appears to have been funded by Dynamite! Comics, and is co-written by Bob Greenberger – himself a keen industry figure, with a reputable list of comic books and tie-in novels to his name.

The chapters take a leisurely stroll through the many different aspects of comic book writing. A history of comics is given, with a summary of the major genres. The book outlines Stan's career, then discusses writing "tools", before talking about the three-act structure, sub-plots, and characters. As you might hope, much of the advice and information is specific to comic books – the importance of continuity, how to break into the industry, different physical formats, how to work with comic book editors and time-frames, how to coordinate with artists, colorists and letterers.

A significant chapter of the book is dedicated to the "Marvel Method" – the famous Marvel in-house writing technique by which the writer outlines his ideas, gives them to the artist, then writes dialogue to match whatever comes back. The invention of this approach is generally attributed to Stan, and is one of his many other legacies gifted to the industry, along perhaps with his bombastic style, and soapbox communications with his fans.

The book is large, and while Stan was always a prolific (and famously wordy) writer for comics, he has never been known for extensive prose writing. So it's not surprising perhaps that flicking through, I would estimate only one quarter of the book is text content. There are many, many illustrations and comic book covers liberally inserted. More than half of the artwork is taken from Dynamite! comic books, although many of the key Marvel comic book covers are also included.

While the book is mostly written in the first person from Stan's point of view, I can't help but imagine that co-writer Bob Greenberger was extensively involved in the writing, based on Stan's guidance. Stan's over-the-top style is gently toned back, although undeniably present.

Finally, to augment Stan's very specific view of the world, most of the topics also feature additional advice from other notable comic book writers, artists, editors and such like. Gathered from interviews, or sometimes from earlier published articles, these add-on items add a nice "extra dimension". Given that most of them are far more recent than Stan's industry experiences, they also help make the book more relevant in a rapidly changing publishing and commercial environment.

In General...

So, as one of the world's most enthusiastic Spider-Man collectors, do I think that Stan Lee is the greatest comic book writer in the world?

Perhaps you recall John Lennon's response when asked if Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world? He reportedly replied – "He's not even the best drummer in the Beatles."

Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, and Malcolm Lowry were great writers. Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore and Frank Millar were great comic book writers. In the strict, artistic sense, I personally don't think that Stan was ever a truly "great" writer. But he was indubitably one of the most important ones in the comic book field.

Stan was intelligent, perceptive, and determined. By dint of hard (and smart) work, he was a key figure (one of the few remaining) in the right place at the right time to lead the 1960's resurgence of super-heroes inspired by the atomic age and the cold war. He had developed the knack of getting the best out of the artists he worked with, and his quirky brand of off-beat yet sincere pseudo-intelligentsia appealed to a growing high-school and college audience who had a bit more spare change in their pockets than their parents probably did.

In comparison with many of his contemporaries, he was creative and experimental in his approach. His merry band of early 60's super-heroes were innovative and refreshing, and featured some truly thought-provoking ideas. In retrospect, his dialogue carries its years heavily. But in its time, it was refreshing and "adult" enough to take an entire company from the brink of collapse.

So despite the passage of time and my reservations on the "purist" aspects of his writing style, I could never deny that Stan has the inalienable right (perhaps even the obligation) to share with us his thoughts on writing comics.

Overall Rating...

But what about this book? Is it any good?

Well, it's definitely better than I expected. I personally don't reckon Stan has produced much of value since late in the 70's, other than his somewhat unreliable autobiography. But this collection of recollections, suggestions, and industry advice is perfectly sound. I suspect that co-writer Greenberger can take much of the credit for the overall structure and compilation of the various contributions.

But like most of these "how to" books, the information level is pitched low in order to keep the book "Accessible to a wide audience". The result is that for anybody who is serious about the comic book industry, the vast majority of the ideas and advice contained within these covers is pretty damn obvious. If you need to read a book to understand basic industry terms like "RetCon" and "Graphic Novel", then you're probably not quite ready to post your script off to Joe Quesada just yet.

In addition, for a book about "writing", the sheer number of illustration pages featuring sexy vampire comic book covers seems rather hard to justify.

But anyhow, it could be worse. There's a wide range of topics covered at a good introductory level. And buried among the obvious stuff, there are some valuable little nuggets that might just help some budding writer to make their breakthrough one day.

Three and a Half Webs.


This book complements quite well with the preceding Stan Lee's How to Draw Comics.

Yes, both books contain a brief history of comics, for which there is naturally some overlap. Both also tackle the topics of "Layout", "Pencilling", "Coloring" and "Lettering". Equally, there are several illustrations and comic book covers that appear in both works.

But even when they do overlap, the individual books deserve credit for working hard to maintain their particular "writer" vs. "artist" view of the world.