MONICA by Daniel Clowes graphic novel review

Monica. By Daniel Clowes. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2023. 106pp, $30.

Guest review by Paul Buhle

This has been quite a year for determinedly offbeat comic artist Dan Clowes. An interview in the New Yorker followed by a strong review beginning on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, not to mention an NPR interview, nailed down the point: Clowes has hit the big time.

Is this as far as “alt-comics,” somewhere beyond the comic strip and the comic book, can go in becoming “mainstream”? It’s a good question, first raised properly by the reception of the comic art of R. Crumb, then of Art Spiegelman (whose looming presence remains above the scenery somehow), of Alison Bechdel, Joe Sacco and others. The work of Ben Katchor, who is now designing comic-like images for Paris Metro lines stretching into the villages of the countryside, might remind us that in France, comics can be art. Back in the US and despite the rising prestige (and commercial success) of some artists, their work remains….comic art! If, admittedly, viewed very differently from the comic art of old: fewer readers but more prestige, as cynics would say.

Clowes, part of the alternative comics that followed the collapse of the 1960s-70s underground comix, saw Ghost World, his creation, become the basis for a film about teenage angst, with himself as one of the scriptwriters. It was a first for comic scriptwriters, even if comic characters themselves had appeared in dozens of older Hollywood films, with several series of low-production films dedicated to the sagas of Blondie, Joe Palooka and even Captain Marvel (a kids’ serial).

These three series actually happened to have been scripted by Lefties who would go on the blacklist (except for the Captain Marvel series, whose writer became an affable Friendly Witness testifying against his former comrades), and lose their careers. The films themselves, now totally obscure,  even have a curious, populistic social content, leaving one to wonder. What gives? Never mind. These ancient memories of comics adaptations are also buried beneath the tons of animated films from comics, seen especially at holiday times on television or via DVDs.

We are reminded, in an astute Comics Quarterly essay on Monica, that real-life artist Clowes was abandoned by his mother, and that “loneliness” is a continuing theme with a continuing expression in his aesthetics and a basis in personal life. Monica, the fictional subject of the comic is, to put it mildly, a troubled person. But Clowes is not telling anything so straightforward as autobiography. We experience the novel through her wavering consciousness, sometimes beyond her consciousness, which may be the most helpful of all hints.

“Foxhole,” the first of eight semi-discrete and separate chapters or episodes, goes back to the Vietnam War. A disillusioned GI from a poor background reflects on his disillusionment to his battlefield/jungle setting mate, who is from America’s wealthy classes, while they wait to kill or be killed. The trauma in these three pages is not going away. Indeed, the sense of apocalypse described is revisited, precisely, on the final panel of the book.

Other reviewers seem to run away from this particular as anything like central to the plot, and it makes sense. What we see through most of Monica is the results of the 1960s social breakdowns, the impossibility of a thriving counterculture measured in the broken homes and broken lives, crazed cults and children confused or, rather, disoriented for life. Cynical commentators have always viewed this human tragedy as a loss of traditional morals, socially enforced wage slavery, the dangers of drugs, etc. Clowes knows better, although he will not say so.

Our embittered GI returning, he thinks, to a quiet and happy life, is not. He’s the  fiancee  of our protagonist’s mother, but never her husband. His foxhole mate, a serious painter who has returned to the US first, turns out to be the actual biological father, or perhaps not. Monica’s mother Penny,  a counterculture burnout, stumbles along through life, although she actually launches a business that, much later, her daughter can revive and expand successfully, something that brings no pleasure. The book’s sometime narrator, a friend to Penny, relates and reflects on  a not-so-unusual confused single mom experience.  And Monica emerges,  episode after episode, not only damaged but keenly aware of being damaged. She a modern person, a modern woman, who does not accept fatalism, although to do so might have been a better strategy.

In the following vignette, the seemingly more fortunate one of the two GIs returns to his hometown, years later, and quickly realizes that crucial matters including his extended family and their small capitalist empire, have totally fallen apart. In this odd little world, Monica-the-comic becomes a perfectly recreated EC-comic horror story from the early 1950s, updated and upgraded artistically. And then the drugstore supernaturalism ends or perhaps drifts around, looking for a spot to land.

Monica the protagonist reemerges, alone in the world. Reviewers have found something special and intriguing, or at least narratively clear, in her listening to a radio left behind in a family cabin. The radio broadcasts, unbelievably but believably to her, feature the voice of her dead grandfather and allow her to have unsatisfied conversations with him. Although years dead, he is still an anti-Semite.

A few more vignettes and more than twenty years pass. Monica becomes a successful entrepreneur, but success only exposes the emptiness of her life. Her last-gasp effort finds her in a remote cult that manages to somehow be utterly boring, one more sixties offshoot full of conspiracy theories and compulsory collectivity. Successfully tracking down her mother is a total downer, as we might have expected.

That we find ourselves back in EC horror comics at the end is either the fulfillment of the prologue, one Vietnam vet to another predicting utter horror, or it is a general commentary about the average American life in the twenty first century. The consumer society drags on. Dreams of something different are apparently worse than confused. And we face the cosmos, on the cover of the book, searching for a meaning that is not there (on the back cover, more EC, but leaning toward the famed sci-fi series that borrowed heavily from Ray Bradbury.

The Vietnam War explanation to the book’s mysteries, to the mysteries in Daniel Clowes’s mind. Extraordinary crimes were done in our collective name, and someone must be punished. Then again, as The Comics Journal suggests, the aesthetics, such as the darker tinting of pages treating trauma,  may work just as well.

Paul Buhle is an editor of more than twenty non-fiction, historical comics.

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Anatomy of a Painting: Big Girl in Woods by Henry Chamberlain

Gaining a foothold on a new work.


Getting Closer to What You Want.

Here are a couple of process samples of a painting I’m working on. The idea is of a lone figure running away. She is a looming figure. The landscape is desolate and foreboding. Will she make it to her destination? Ideas come to us when we least expect it. I love the figure in all its aspects. Whenever possible, I will draw from life. I’ve been a model too and having that experience, I think, helps to elevate the work. After a certain point, you have developed so much muscle memory of drawing that you often will simply draw from memory and that results in some of the most spontaneous and authentic work.

With that in mind, I’m always open to commissions and have work for sale, either originals or prints. Just contact me for details. You can contact me here. And you can see some more of what I do here. I’m still considering what to sell and what not to sell. This project I’m showing you now will eventually be turned into a print. I will be busy next year, and the following years, with more comics and art conventions in the works. I will definitely be selling comics as well as prints at these events, etc. It just seemed a good time to post something about this activity and get the ball rolling some more. I continue to write, draw comics and make paintings!

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GIRL JUICE by Benji Nate comics review

Girl Juice. by Benji Nate. Drawn & Quarterly. 2023. 176 pp. $24.

Benji Nate has a wicked sense of humor and is easily one of the best cartoonists today in what is basically a gag comic strip format. Nate has a very loose and lively drawing style which compliments all the fun mayhem. It seems like an easy enough recipe to follow: young housemates figuring out life. And that’s just the beginning. It has to be more than just funny characters in funny situations–but not too much more. Girl Juice works at the highest and wackiest level: the combo of simplicity and silliness is sublime.

Let’s just say that Nate really owns this comic strip, loves and nurtures these characters, and let’s them come to life. It’s a group of four young women and anything can happen. Bunny is, by default and her aggressive personality, sort of the leader even though she appears to offer the least. Bunny doesn’t hold down a job or offer much moral support but she has a certain charm. Nana holds some sway over the group as the thoughtful one although she would prefer to remain in the margins and pursue her cartooning. Sadie and Tallulah are a couple and most likely will someday marry and move to the suburbs. For now, life is a party, if Bunny has anything to do with it.

All in all, I love the uninhibited spontaneity to this comic. Nate makes it feel like it all comes together so effortlessly. And, to some degree, I think it does but you have to have so many factors in place before you get there. So, it’s more of a yes and no when you come down to it. Yes, it can be relatively easy but, no, it actually does take time and care to do this right. From what I understand, Nate enjoys writing, drawing comics and painting in equal measure and I totally relate. Each is inextricably linked to process. So, there are imperfections along the way but, as a whole, the gestural and expressive quality that results is priceless.

Anyway, Nate has a massive fan base who already know how great, and funny, these comics are but, if you are new, then I highly recommend that you check them out. This book collects the latest set of stories. Let’s take a quick look at the camping story. As often happens, Bunny takes the lead, letting her impulsive libido take control. It was supposed to be a girls-night-out glamping but that takes a turn when boys are involved. Bunny’s radar gets the best of her and she’s determined to hook up with one of the guys at the very next campsite. In lesser hands, this scenario would have only gone so far. In this case, Nate has Bunny lost in the woods because of her lust. The other girls, in their attempt to find Bunny, are lost too and furious. Sadie’s comments say it all: “If I die because of Bunny, I swear I’m gonna kill her!” Ah, that’s how it’s done. Comedy gold. Girl Juice is 110% unforgettably hilarious.

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VICTORY PARADE by Leela Corman graphic novel review

Victory Parade. by Leela Corman. Schocken. 2024 (Pre-order) 177 pp. hardcover. $29.

Leela Corman is a force of nature within the comics community and so it is no surprise that her latest book is quite impressive. We go back to Brooklyn, New York, 1943. Corman takes the reader back in time with her comics that are immersed in the ethos of New Objectivity, an art movement begun in the 1920s in response to the more popular German Expressionism (and ending in 1933 with the Nazi party in power) which brought to the fore such artists as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grosz. This is art stripped of idealism, concerned with gritty reality, and known for an “expressive” and often cartoon-like quality, a sensibility in tune with many contemporary artist-cartoonists. This particular influence is exemplified in the work of Leela Corman. It is from this darker, beyond world-weary, palette that Corman presents a set of misfits trapped within the gears of a giant meat grinder, caught somewhere between a near death in Brooklyn and a sure death in a concentration camp. Even when the Allies win the war, no one feels like celebrating. In a sense, Corman’s work functions more as painting than a narrative as it is essentially a powerful device with which to evoke this overwhelming despair. There are stories to be told here too, for sure, but I’m just saying that much of this graphic novel’s power comes from its unflinching stare into the abyss.

Don’t expect conventional storytelling here, especially any familiar and reassuring resolution. This is a masterwork by Corman and it is confidently laid out as such. Characters come and go, in precise order. They may not acknowledge how purposeful their steps are and yet seem to know what they must ultimately do with the limited time and resources they have. Rose is going to pursue her affair, while her abusive husband is away at war and even after he’s back. Ruth, the Jew who has found a home with Rose, is going to focus her aggression on a new career as a lady wrestler even if it means she has to be branded as a Kraut monster. And Eleanor, Rose’s daughter, must try to cope amid the dysfunction. Darkness upon darkness. Despair upon despair. And yet beautifully rendered as art and nuanced observation.

If you want to pin this down a bit, you can say that this is graphic novel framed within a family: Rose, the matriarch who works as a riveter; Ruth, who explicitly functions as the Other; and Eleanor who provides the trope of the child’s point of view. And then you have to let in the supernatural because much of this book is about the never-ending conflict between the living and the dead. The dead are always present, either attempting to understand events that led them to the other side or welcoming a constant stream of new arrivals. Death is never too far away. Death turns out to be as real and relevant as anything passing for alive. It is an artist-writer-cartoonist of the caliber of Leela Corman who can conjure upon the stage all of these dancing skeletons and turn it into compelling art.

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Comics by Henry Chamberlain: Obscure Comedy, The Chevy Chase Show and the Big Risk

Our hero, the “contrarian librarian,” Clemens Samuel, is prone to take an offbeat position. In this case, he has a soft spot for the critically-savaged The Chevy Chase Show, which lasted on Fox for the shortest duration of a major talk show, a mere 29 episodes (September 7 – October 15, 1993). One could argue that this was just a blink of an eye and that Chase needed to have had robust network support and far more time. It’s not like Chase hadn’t proven himself on numerous fronts, including many guest host appearances on The Tonight Show. Looking back on it (and you can literally look back on every episode on YouTube!) the show was definitely guided by some highly irreverent vision. And that, my friends, is the Chevy Chase style of comedy: cavalier and devil-may-care. With enough time, who knows if the general thinking, both in creating and experiencing the show, would have evolved. That said, apparently there are a good number of outright haters of the show, if you believe every kooky peanut gallery comment you read. Rabid hatred is not exactly reliable. The appreciation of humor, like art, is very subjective. Ultimately, the professional media consensus is that this show gave every indication that it was going to continue to be something of a loose cannon and would likely never lift off in any conventional sense, establish a stable brand and make a lot of money. So many factors go into a winning show. Who would have thought Dean Martin would have gotten away with his shtick and yet he did. He probably negotiated a much better contract too. Of course, Chevy Chase is not losing any sleep over this and rightfully so! Chase took a big risk doing his show the way he did and that’s about it.





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Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History book review

C.L.R. James’s Touissaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. Adapted by Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee. New York: Verso Books, 2023. 272pp, $24.95.

Guest review by Paul Buhle

This is quite a comic! A very intense treatment of the uprising in Haiti that paralleled and deeply involved the French Revolution and yet was treated for centuries as a mere sidebar to world events. Readers will need to think hard, even now, about the reasons why.

But your reviewer gets ahead of the story. This is the graphic adaptation of a play performed on the British stage with Paul Robeson, the phenomenal actor (also and otherwise mainly singer), during the mid-1930s. The author of the play, C.L.R. James, had emigrated from his native Trinidad to Britain in 1931, earned a living as a top-notch cricket reporter, but found himself immersed simultaneously in anti-colonial movements and in the Trotskyist corner of the political Left.

According to contemporary stage critics, the play came across too talky for the drama that it represented, perhaps inevitably: it could have required a cast of thousands. Then again, the subject had hardly surfaced by that time.  James’s The Black Jacobins (1938), a parallel to W.E.B.  Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935), arose out of his research on the French Revoluition, then grew and grew. It was a story that had hardly been told at all. And if the book received respectable reviews, it fairly disappeared until reappearing as a textbook on campus campuses in the early 1960s. This was “Black History” written like a novel, one of the great successes of the time, definitely parallel to the reprinted editions of Black Reconstruction, one of the later editions introduced by none other than C.L.R. James.

Nic Watts and Sakina  Karimjee fill the pages with dramatic dialogues (as well as monologues) that draw directly upon the play, and on many pages do not require a dense background. Here and there, we see a remarkable landscape or a vivid crowd scene, but speaking largely moves the story along. Neither the colonizers nor the colonized can be described as unified in their ideas and their actions. On the contrary, events play out with internal agreements astonishingly almost as volatile as between whites, blacks and mulattoes.

James, who also happened to be one of the very first non-white novelists of the English-speaking West Indies, never again had the time, energy or will to write a drama, nor did Robeson (who later captured the stage with his Othello) have the opportunity to play the great black revolutionary hero again. It was a one-time collaboration of giants, after all, but the artists have, in their way, captured both the sense of the play and its deepest meaning. Here, all the contempt of whites for their suppose “inferiors,” against the background of a French Revolution that supposedly broke down all the barriers of inequality. There, the rage of slaves who, contrary to stereotype, did not “go wild” but found their own way, choosing Toussaint as he chose them and following him to the death with a tolerance for suffering that seemed to whites unbelieveable.

Independent Haiti will, of course, be betrayed, by the U.S. among other world powers, isolated and punished for having the nerve to demonstrate the right and capacity for freedom from slavery. The persecution has not ended even now.

But at least the story has been told.

Enough said! Get the book!

Paul Buhle is the authorized biographer of C.L.R. James and editor of more than twenty non-fiction, historical comics.


Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, Paul Buhle

SO BUTTONS (#13) by Jonathan Baylis Kickstarter

Jonathan Baylis (Kickstarter alert) has been brewing a special blend collection of comics for over 10 years now. These are stories about himself drawn by other cartoonists, in the spirit of what Harvey Pekar famously did with R. Crumb and other leading cartoonists. Anyone could follow this model. It’s just a matter of having the will and determination to pursue it.

So Buttons, the ongoing anthology led by Baylis, has got its mojo going at full steam and is a beloved fixture of the indie comics community. If you are new to it, then this is the perfect time to jump aboard! In the latest issue, Number 13, Baylis focuses on a film theme and employs some of his favorite cartoonists along with some of the old crew of cartoonists who worked for the grand ole man himself, Harvey Pekar. It’s a lot of very geeky fun. Support the Kickstarter campaign (ends Nov 16)  to help to make Issue 13 available for everyone to enjoy.

I encourage you to check out the Kickstarter campaign and let Jonathan provide the final pitch to you! I find Jonathan to be a very bright and enthusiastic person who, no doubt, has lived a full life with many, many years still ahead of insight and adventure. Once you get a peek or two, you are likely to be hooked.

This is from the Kickstarter promo:

This issue is subtitled: Film School with Pekar’s Pals and Mine

If you don’t know, Harvey Pekar was a guy who wrote auto-bio comics and hired different artists to interpret his stories. I follow that model.

So… the inspiration for that subtitle is this.  Last year, I met Joe Zabel, a longtime collaborator of Harvey Pekar’s. I showed him my work and he agreed to do a story with me. And then he introduced me to Gary Dumm, and even longer collabber with Pekar. HE agreed to do a story. And then he introduced me to other co-conspirators Michael T. Gilbert and Brian Bram (not seen since American Splendor #2, 1977)!

So… Wrung art by Brian Bram

So this issue is a split between Harvey’s pals and my pals, and probably because of all the staying inside at home I did during the pandemic, it is a HEAVILY film-referenced issue. Before I wanted to call this series “So…”, I wanted to call it “Film School” and this is the closest this book has been executed to that initial idea.

My Collaborators include:

· Karl Christian Krumpholz on the cover

· Tony Wolf doing some Swampy magic

· Joe Zabel on a Sundance premiere

· Bernie Mireault on 28 Days Later


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Hurricane Nancy Art: Buyer Beware!

Art by Hurricane Nancy. Color by Henry Chamberlain.

Welcome to another look into the world of Hurricane Nancy. In this edition, Nancy asks the question: “We the people believe we can buy our way out of anything. Who’s kidding who???”

Be sure to visit Hurricane Nancy here!


Filed under Art, Comics, Hurricane Nancy

Old Man on Campus by James Burns comics review

Old Man on Campus. James Burns. Burns Comics. 2023. 51 pp.

I’ve been a longtime admirer of the comics work by James Burns. I fondly recall his book, A Life Half-Forgotten. Here is my review. Burns often delivers a fun mix of the curmudgeon and sly humorist that I find very appealing and I believe you will too. In this new graphic memoir, Burns stumbles upon the fact that, through a special program, residents of the state of Georgia over the age of 62 are eligible for free college tuition. Burns, being from Georgia and not someone to pass up on a good deal, jumps at the chance to be Joe Cool in School again–but this time he vows to do it better as an older and wiser student. What could go wrong, right?

An old geezer goes back to college.

Well, the good news here is that nothing goes terribly wrong, although there are a number of painful/awkward moments as Burns powers through a rather protracted “old man returning to school” adjustment period. It seems for quite a long time that all young eyes are on him, passing judgment and ready to ridicule him. And perhaps not everyone was as hospitable as they could have been. But, most likely, the lack of connection is simply universal. Burns is ready to admit that the college scene today, with everyone plugged into their phones, isn’t exactly warm and inviting.

Finding one’s way in a brave new world of college today.

All in all, Burns appears to be a good guy just trying to get along and enjoy college at this point in his life. And it’s not like he’s not open to new trends. In more than one instance, he is fine with embracing the zeitgeist and invoking a sensitivity to his own “white male privilege,” perhaps a little more than necessary but I suppose it’s the thought that counts. I’m just not so sure that he needs to feel apologetic that, as a big strong young man, he wasn’t quite so vulnerable to being taken advantage of as a hitchhiker in his youth. Anyway, Burns appears to be, by the end of this story, on the right path. This is a very engaging look at one man’s initial struggles to fit in. Ultimately, Burns acts as a guide in this story about his new college life. He might be old but he’s young at heart or he’s simply managed to find his way and he can get on with his college experience.

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Danny Fingeroth Interview: Stan Lee and Jack Ruby

When we think about pop culture matters, and we seem to do this nonstop, how often do we bring together Marvel Comics superstar Stan Lee and infamous killer Jack Ruby? No, this is not a trick question. Having given careful study to the last two books by Danny Fingeroth, one on Stan Lee and the most recent on Jack Ruby, I make my own connections. Read my review of the Ruby book here. As is my want, I do my best to dig deep and I believe we ended up with a lively and informative interview. My many thanks to Danny Fingeroth for being so gracious and willing to go with the flow. For those who are perhaps new or unfamiliar with comics, Danny Fingeroth is known for his work as an executive editor and writer at Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, Avengers, Dazzler). He is also known for being a cultural historian. His books include Superman on the Couch, Stan Lee: A Marvelous Life, and his latest title, Jack Ruby: The Many Faces of Oswald’s Assassin, published by Chicago Review Press.

Stan Lee. Jack Ruby. Of course, there’s no direct connection and yet the two share this: both men were Jewish; both men were raised in troubled households. both men were Americans and patriotic in their own way; both men created larger-than-life personas; and both men grabbed the world’s attention. Each had their own set of strengths and weaknesses. One succumbed to his failings. And the other blossomed from his talents and skills. There is no intersection where the two had anything to do with each other beyond sharing the same colossal stage of notoriety. Both became pop culture icons: one could bring a smile to your face while the other was a grotesque figure that managed to both repel and intrigue.

Panel from Darkhawk, Marvel Comics, (1991-1995).

I posed some questions to Danny Fingeroth specifically on the Jack Ruby pop culture phenomena as well as the fact that here he was with a book on Ruby and a book on Lee. I invited him to connect any dots. And, as the saying goes, we were off to the races. The conversation inevitably focused in on Stan Lee, as well as it should. My goal was to find a middle ground, a way to balance both Lee and Ruby, which  Fingeroth, an excellent raconteur as well as an excellent listener, tuned into right away. We cover a lot here and our conversation demonstrates we could have gone on talking. Maybe we’ll just need to revisit topics and bring in new ones for next time. For now, I even managed to include some discussion on Fingeroth’s writing run on Darkhawk, a fan favorite from the ’90s (relaunched in 2021).

Jack Kirby illustrates Jack Ruby! From the pages of Esquire, May 1967.

I will leave you here with one of the most fascinating collisions of pop culture energy that I have come across. This is from the May 1967 issue of Esquire magazine. Jack Ruby had passed away earlier that year and so the gloves were off and the time was right to examine, through the surreal lens of comics, some of Ruby’s activities shortly after the Kennedy assassination based upon the Warren Commission Report. The kicker here is that this comic was illustrated by none other than the King of Comics himself, Jack Kirby! As Stan Lee would say, “Enough said!”

I certainly hope you enjoy the video podcast, just one click below. These things don’t make themselves. It’s a lot of behind-the-scenes hard work, a true labor of love. As always, your loyal viewership, LIKES and occasional COMMENTS are very welcome and appreciated. That said, I find all the material here quite compelling to say the least. As Fingeroth himself is ready to point out, the magnitude of these subjects, namely Stan Lee and the Marvel Universe and the tangled web of conspiracy theories behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy add up to stimulus overload! We take these colossal subjects one step at a time in order to make some sense out of them. And that is why, dear friends, books like the ones by Danny Fingeroth are essential reading. For me, as a storyteller and a journalist, this interview was quite a treat.

Lastly, I asked Danny if there was anything else he’d like to add for now. And he asked if I’d share with you JewCE, the Jewish Comics Experience, in New York City, November 11th and 12th, 2023.  It is a wonderful opportunity for everyone to get one more comic-con fix before the end of the year. You can see an impressive lineup of talent, including none other than comics legends Frank Miller, Trina Robbins, and Jules Feiffer, just to name a few.

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Filed under American History, Comics, Interviews, John F. Kennedy, Marvel Comics, Spider-Man, Stan Lee