I love Stan Lee.
Stan "The Man" founded the Marvel Universe. Early Marvels helped me learn to read. I knew the meaning of "invulnerable" when I was 7. Marvel was the hippest place to be, full of smart-mouthed heroes and imperious villains. Marvel Comics from Stan's heyday are wonderfully, bombastically fun.
Stan's persona drove the whole company. He seemed just as comic-booky as any of his characters. He's awesome as the melodramatic narrator of Marvel cartoons, and as himself in "Mallrats."
But I just didn't dig Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating the DC Universe. I offer this suggestion that you not buy the trades. But for fun, don't tell anyone else not to, so when they do, you can make fun of them.
The idea of the thing is good. Stan had been under a lifetime exclusive contract to Marvel until they had that little bout with utter financial ruin. So Stan was free to do his own thing, and producer Michael Uslan (the first four Bat-movies and a couple of the animated ones), contacted him. Stan would write and create his own spins on DC's major characters.
In Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee, Stan writes, "it was an assignment no writer in comics could ever turn down." Stan himself calls this a "fun exercise."
Stan Lee is an icon with one of the greatest imaginations in popular culture. In theory, it'd be interesting to see what he'd do in his competition's sandbox.
Now, I'm all about the straight-ahead, unironic superhero stuff. But these stories don't feel like a kid in a candy store. They feel like a guy in an office at midnight with a deadline, swearing at the blank computer screen. Stan has done excellent work. But this series doesn't remind me of it. Nor does it seem like the Return of the King of Comics. Sure, his heyday was 30 to 40 years ago. I don't think he's lost "it." I just think he didn't use it.
First, the good parts:
The art is top of the line. Shazam, Wonder Woman, and Flash are my favorites. I imagine many of the artists were totally excited about working with Stan. There are legends Joe Kubert and John Buscema (doing what I think is his last published work), and more recent big comics guys Dave Gibbons, Jim Lee, John Byrne, Adam Hughes, Kevin Maguire, Gary Frank, Scott McDaniel, Chris Bachalo, and John Cassaday.
To Stan's credit, he avoids cheap stunts that one might expect. He doesn't recycle the original characters' origins; the biggest similarities are Superman is from another planet and Flash runs fast. He doesn't wink at us with references to Marvel or himself.
Some of the individual issues are OK, like Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and Shazam. But some are pretty lame, like Robin and Sandman.
Now, the bad parts:
He leaves all that to Michael Uslan, who writes backup stories. Uslan's shorts feature supporting characters drawn by another past and present who's who, including John Severin, Sergio Aragones, Gene Colan, Richard Corben, Ramona Fradon, and Mike Allred.
Uslan's stories are dorky, punny and in-jokey to the extreme. Uslan doesn't nudge. He kicks in the face. Stan's Catwoman's best friend is DINAH, who owns a BLACK CANARY. In the Shazam story, a kid's last name is MARVEL. He gets a medal, making him a CAPTAIN. The stories scream "THESE ARE ALL DC CHARACTERS! DON'T YOU GET IT?! HUH? ISN'T THAT CLEVER?"
But back to Stan.
In Superman's issue, he's a by-the-book alien cop. When Superman reappears six issues later in the JLA issue, he agrees to fight a bad guy by telling Lois Lane, "Awright . . . anything to stop yer yappin'." Now he's an alien from Brooklyn.
In the Sandman issue, Sandman meets a magic dreamworld lady. She's there to teach him about his powers and such. Instead he tries to put his manly stuff on her. He says, "When I put the kibosh on this dream lord of yours, I expect to find you here waiting for me." If you ladies like Neil Gaiman's Sandman, you'll love the one who insists that you put out!
There's some big-time slap-assed editing in the last issue. A character betrays the good guys, swearing her allegiance to badness and all that is wrong. Then she vanishes from the rest of the big fight. And never appears again.
Until the splash page at the end when the heroes stand in a dramatic group pose. She stands right next to them. With no explanation. Is she thinking "Maybe if I don't say anything, they'll forget about me declaring my loyalty to the lord of the underworld."
A couple of things that always make me twitch are here. Characters here, who are in comic books, say "This is just like a comic book!" And there's frequent, maudlin mention that the world's real real heroes are police and firefighters. How about let me read my superhero comics instead of reminding me that the real world is important and superhero comics are not. I just paid you money.