From Go-Bots to the Fantastic Four, Tom Scioli is well-known for his unique contributions to the world of comics. Back in 2020, Scioli released a moving graphic biography of Jack Kirby, the king of comics. Scioli’s adoration of Kirby is not a secret: much of Kirby’s kinetic style can be found in Scioli’s work. Scioli not only possesses an impressive understanding of comic book history, but he has an innate gift for intimate storytelling on a grand scale. This sensitivity and erudition is on full display in his latest work, I Am Stan Lee: A Graphic Biography of the Legendary Stan Lee (Ten Speed Press), a masterful biocomic that recounts the triumphs and travails of the comics’ most recognizable ambassador.

In these pages, Scioli depicts the Stan Lee known to the world: avuncular, a bit of a cad, and spinner of tales. But readers also see the darker side: the exploitation of Lee’s image and dignity, business failures, and familial struggles. In the canon of graphic biography, I Am Stan Lee will certainly become a future classic. I had the opportunity to chat with Scioli about the new book, Stan’s presence in the comics world, and how comic fans old and new alike can reconcile the Stan Lee of legend with Stan Lee the man.

AJ FROST: Hi Tom. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. Your new book I Am Stan Lee delves into the life of Stan Lee, perhaps the most recognizable name in all of comics history. What inspired you to take on this book and explore the life of such an iconic figure, not just of comics, but global pop culture?

CREDIT: I Am Stan: A Graphic Biography of the Legendary Stan Lee, by Tom Scioli; published by Ten Speed Graphic, 2023

TOM SCIOLI: It was a natural next step after doing a book about Jack Kirby, but I was resistant to diving headlong into a Stan Lee book at first. At a certain point, the thing that made me really want to tell Stan’s story was how much my own understanding of Stan changed through my life. I had completely different views of him at every stage of my life and his last days turned all of it on its head.

Tom Scioli. Photo by Gregory Neiser

FROST: You open the book with a widely reported story about the elder abuse that Stan supposedly faced by his business managers. Why did you open the book this way? What was your thinking about beginning the book with Stan at his most vulnerable state?

SCIOLI: It was a powerful moment that rocked me to the core the first time I saw it. It completely changed my understanding of the story of Stan Lee’s life. I couldn’t get it out of my head. For me there was no other way to start this book.

FROST: Stan Lee’s contributions to the comic book industry are obviously vast. How did you approach the task of capturing his over-the-top personality—in his essence and work—in this book? There must have been much you had to omit.

SCIOLI: Stan lived a long and active life. This book is jam packed, but it’s dizzying thinking about all the things you have to leave out when you’re telling a story that covers close to 100 years of history. Stan was such a showman, such a raconteur, that pretty early on I realized if I just set up a stage for Stan to put on The Stan Lee show, and let him do his thing, he’d be a lot of fun to watch, from his youth all the way up to his final days. He deliberately made himself into a cartoon character and that’s extremely helpful when you’re making a cartoon book of someone’s life.

CREDIT: I Am Stan: A Graphic Biography of the Legendary Stan Lee, by Tom Scioli; published by Ten Speed Graphic, 2023

FROST: Stan was a fervent advocate for the legitimization of comic books as a literary and cultural medium. Could you explain a bit how your book contextualizes his advocacy and elucidates the broader socio-cultural implications of comic book storytelling?

SCIOLI: I’d always assumed his comics advocacy was just a role he sort of fell into, but the deeper I dug, the more I learned that this was a deliberate move on his part. He wanted to be a spokesman for Marvel and by extension for comics themselves. He clearly saw the importance of that, and how it would be genuinely helpful to the company and to himself. I think he was extremely effective in this role. He really shines as he’s extolling the virtues of comics. It’s also interesting to see some of his shortcomings in that area. I think he sidestepped and minimized a lot of valid criticisms of superhero comics in particular, the violence, the might-makes-right ethos that’s  inherent even in a seemingly more enlightened book like The Silver Surfer.

FROST: Stan Lee’s collaborations with artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko have become industry legend. What was your thinking about depicting these—and other—creative partnerships found throughout Stan’s life? And speaking of Kirby, how did the process for writing this new book contrast with your previous graphic biography of Jack Kirby.

SCIOLI: Working on Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics was great preparation for doing I Am Stan. Stan is an important part of Kirby’s story, so I had built a pretty strong foundation going into this book. It’s a delicate balancing act depicting these collaborations. Most of what we’re talking about took place behind closed doors. Occasionally there’d be a third party witness, like Roy Thomas being there when Stan asked Jack, “who’s this nut on the surfboard?” In most of those moments, we don’t know for sure who came up with which bit. We all have our guesses. I gave it a lot of careful consideration. Ditko provided an interesting perspective on things. It’s a big puzzle putting it all together. I went into the Jack Kirby book already an expert on Jack Kirby. When I went into the Stan book, I knew a lot about Stan, but I had a lot of learning to do. There were big sections of Stan’s life and career that I had to study up on, the 1940s and 50s and Stan’s life in the 21st century beyond the cameos.

FROST: As I alluded to earlier, Stan’s life had its share of triumphs, tribulations, and controversies, including protracted legal battles. In what manner does your book artfully navigate the intricate tapestry of his life while upholding a brisk narrative?

SCIOLI: Like Stan, I felt like I had to keep moving, keep all these narrative plates spinning. It fit the rhythm of a Madison Avenue editor working in comics publishing. Stan was a restless, fast-moving, fast-talking guy. I wanted to make this book the embodiment of Stan and his energy. It’s not so much a book about Stan. This book is Stan. The ups and downs are all part of a life. Stan was viewed as a big success story, an enviable figure, but as we all know, in any life there’s going to be a lot of tragedy.

FROST: As a fellow comic creator, how do you think your perspective and experiences influence your portrayal of Stan Lee in your book, and what unique insights do you bring to the story of his life and legacy?

SCIOLI: It occurred to me that Stan and I, despite our massive age difference, are contemporaries. My earliest comics and his latest comics shared rack space. I even “auditioned” to be an artist for one of his “Stan Lee Presents” comics. We both had different perspectives and experiences in the comics industry, but as some things have changed, some things are still the same in comics. I’ve been at it for a while at this point, so I could identify with some of his frustrations and how after you’ve spent a lot of years in comics, you start to develop a sixth sense where you’re able to make these creative decisions intuitively. There’s a sweet spot where experience starts to pay off. I also understand the realpolitik that drove a lot of Stan’s decisions. You’re operating under crazy constant deadlines and you have to make a lot of important decisions quickly.

FROST: I feel that most comics readers/creators/admirers of a certain age have their own Stan story. Do you have one that you could share?

SCIOLI: I met Stan once at HeroesCon waiting for the hotel elevator. He was exactly as you’d expect. Warm, funny, affable. He was light on his feet and seemed full of energy. I was surprised, since it was the end of the convention day and I was completely exhausted but there he was, Smilin’ Stan all the way.

FROST: What’s next for you? Do you have an idea of what your next project will be?

SCIOLI: I have a dark superhero called Witchman that I’m working on. I’m also coloring The Myth of 8-Opus, my first comic which was originally published in black and white. I also have an unannounced work-for-hire comic that’s coming out in late 2024 that I can’t talk about right now.

I Am Stan: A Graphic Biography of the Legendary Stan Lee, by Tom Scioli and published by Ten Speed Graphic is on sale now