Review: Stan Lee’s How to Draw Superheroes has some smart ideas -- but where are the real super-heroes?

A book review article by: Shawn Hill, Paul Brian McCoy

Shawn: I was interested in this because I remember pouring over and learning from How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. That had greats like Buscema and Kirby using their original art as examples of how to get that dynamic Marvel Silver Age look. Of course, it’s not the Silver Age anymore, and it’s not just the Marvel Way. Somehow, the more generic (if much more swipe-heavy and verbally wide-ranging) approach dilutes some of the immediacy of that earlier effort. Instead, we get chapter divisions focusing on the range of stock character types, from heroes and heroines to monsters, villains, and robots. Sadly, we are shown only how to create knock-off examples such as Dark Hood, Cheex and Lady Locke, rather than how to draw the real stars these nobodies emulate.

My favorite of these instructive efforts is Chapter 6: "Brutes and Vixens." It’s the closest to coming right out with what comics are all about, political correctness be damned. And the real stars included make a strong case for how these stereotypes continue to thrive in superhero comics.

Stan Lee's How to Draw Superheroes

Paul: I also learned everything I know about drawing from How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way! I poured over that book like the bible when I was young and had dreams of being a comic book artist. It was a book that really made you feel like your were learning something - however little it might have actually translated into - about drawing comics. And that’s kind of what I was expecting here, but as Chapter 2: "Heroes" makes explicit, this is not that book. That book is Stan Lee’s How to Draw Comics.

How to Draw Superheroes is a different beast entirely.

This is a book about designing superheroes, plain and simple, and Lee provides a great deal of insight into his own personal beliefs on this front. As such, I don’t know just how beneficial the book would be for new creators. It does provide a fair amount of background on heroic characters from mythology through the pulps into the comics. But as you say, Shawn, the generic approach to character definition really limits the book's possibilities. And when it comes time to actually talk about drawing superheroes, the book really drops the ball.

Stan Lee's How to Draw Superheroes

Shawn: Yes, I find it ironic than in a book dedicated to superhero creation, the vast majority of the instructive art included is so characterless and second rate. There are myriad swipes of good, professional art from stars, but these are lifted out of published comics with little context. For the educational demonstrations, the art is barely serviceable. It’s anonymous in style and not clearly credited. It resembles the tryout material they used to fob off on C-level titles like Legion of Super-Heroes or some other backwater training grounds where new artists could learn on the job. Unlike the original book we love, which basically was like “let’s watch John Buscema make the magic happen!”

Instead, we get unfortunate disconnects like the section in the “Brutes and Vixens” chapter where “Stan” tells us how a compelling villainess isn’t just about big boobs and a tight costume, right beside a quotidian drawing of exactly that. This is how we’re supposed to learn? That’s at the least confusing.

On the other hand, the chapter includes several nice classic cover shots of ultimate bad girl Vampirella, demonstrating exactly what the text is going for, but outshining the book’s generic villainesses easily.

Stan Lee's How to Draw Superheroes

Paul: So true. It makes me wonder just why they decided to make it a How-to-Draw book when they clearly weren't committed to that aspect of the project. It looks like the other How-to book covers the basics of page and panel construction along with sequential storytelling basics, so that might be the book to own in this series.

I think this book would have been much more beneficial if they had just gone all-in and made it a book about the philosophy and aesthetics behind conceptualizing and crafting superheroes. Lee definitely has solid ideas and the experience, even if it seems dated at times. I mean, regardless of where you fall on the Lee/Kirby/Ditko/etc. argument, I don't think his influence can be denied when it comes to character creation, especially as the solo works of those collaborators - and Lee himself - demonstrate.

But it’s a two-way street. Without a talented artist to take these ideas and provide effective visualizations, nothing is ever going to make it to the page. The way this book is set up, we don't really see the creative process that is involved with comic book design work beyond just throwing some ideas out there for someone else to interpret. One example of each concept – whether they're sidekicks, super-pets, vehicles, etc. – really does oversimplify the process and makes creating an effective superhero, and the world around them, a helluva lot easier than it really is.

Stan Lee's How to Draw Superheroes

Shawn: Agreed. The pictures of established, valuable characters like Vampirella (for “vixen”) and the Thing (for “brute”) are so much more powerful than the wan newbies provided. I don’t disagree really with the chapter organization or the themes that Stan, with his decades of experience, bring up. I especially like some of the background and history on the whole concept of the Hero that sets the tone for the beginning of the book. By including William Campbell and pulp progenitors and enduring movie icons all in the mix, each influence on superhero comics takes a believable place in the story being unfolded. The points made about the connections between heroes and villains, the need for a supporting cast, the way characters evolve and become more three-dimensional, are well-taken. It’s just too bad about the commissioned art.

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