TRUE BELIEVER: THE RISE AND FALL OF STAN LEE
By Abraham Riesman
Publisher : Crown (February 16, 2021)
Language : English
Hardcover : 416 pages
ISBN-10 : 0593135717
ISBN-13 : 978-0593135716
“Let your motto then always be 'Excelsior', for by living up to it there is no such word as fail.”
― P T Barnum, The Art of Money Getting
"What was [Stan] like?" . . . It depends on who you talk to at what moment."
— Larry Lieber
“. . . I know my father's creativity versus Mr. Lee's creativity, and Mr. Lee was an excellent marketer, he was an excellent manager, excellent self-promoter. I honestly don't believe he had any creative ability."
— Neal Kirby (son of Jack Kirby)
Abraham Riesman, the author of TRUE BELIEVER: THE RISE AND FALL OF STAN LEE, sidebars his writing to inform us readers of both the mission and the difficulties of being a biographer. The mission being one that sifts through the faulty memories, missing evidence, and tries to slice through it all with an Occam’s razor to find the truth—and in lieu of truth, at least some semblance of a reasonable viewpoint. I don’t know if Riesman has been to law school, but he makes sure to drive this point home to the reader: There is no more unreliable source for a biographer than the subject of the biography himself. This is reminiscent of one of the first things mentioned in both Trial Practice and Professional Ethics classes in law school: Your client will lie to you.
This seems counterintuitive, but it is a truism. The client has a vested interest in telling their lawyer whatever they think will help their case and avoiding those facts that might hurt their case. Likewise, when people talk about themselves, the stories they tell tend to morph to fit the audience they are being told to and how the storyteller wants the listeners to think about him or her. Psychologically, this can make the job of an objective biographer quite difficult. Autobiographies can never be objective, because the authors are writing about themselves; likewise the usual celebrity biography that springs forth with the cooperation of the celebrity. These can be well-written and entertaining, but they are basically just opening statements in a case that cannot be challenged or rebutted. It is a narrative crafted by someone who has a vested interest in controlling what is said and how it is said.
I am someone who was born about 5 years into the Marvel Age of comics, which is recognized as starting in 1961 with the publication of FANTASTIC FOUR #1 by writer/editor Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. So, my childhood on into adulthood was one that tracked along with the ups and downs of Marvel Comics and was aware of Stan Lee many years before I ever took note of who Jack Kirby or (fellow artist and co-creator of Spider-Man) Steve Ditko were. I would wager that I first came to know who Kirby and Ditko were because of repeatedly checking out from the local library a 1974 paperback collection from Fireside Books called ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS that reprinted the first appearances of Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor, Hulk, and Doctor Strange. Stan Lee was credited as the author and he wrote introductions to the stories in his well-established hyperbolic purple prose. And as was Stan’s pattern over the years, he told the stories of what inspired the characters’ creations, took pretty much all the credit for their conception, then heaped much praise on Kirby and Ditko for bringing his concepts to life on the printed page. And this is the narrative that most people who aware of Stan Lee and Marvel Comics know. Then there are those who, like myself, have always enjoyed a higher level of curiosity about the inner workings of the business and, so, enjoy seeking out and reading a lot of these “inside baseball” type of books and articles about comics history. We are the ones who will go into a book like this with a pretty good knowledge of the many conflicting stories and claims about the creator credits Gordian Knot at Marvel Comics. Even with a pretty thorough collection of information in my own head from decades of exposure to this stuff, I encountered new facts and new information to add to the complicated image of Stan “The Man” Lee.
Riesman’s book does a professional job weaving together a comprehensive narrative that spans chronologically from Stan’s grandparents through to Stan’s own death and beyond. He provides no less than 30 pages of extensive citations and notes at the end of the book, which is not anything I’ve yet seen in a Stan bio, and there’ve been plenty. This is a key distinction for Reisman’s book that also helps absolve it of baseless assertions that the author has an “anti-Stan” agenda or is a “hit piece.”
There are certainly quite a bit of difficult and dark aspects to the book, but the author makes it very clear that he includes these with personal trepidation. That is, he is not going to avoid including these things simply because he doesn’t like them or because a reader might see Stan painted in a negative light. He lets the reader choose how to weigh the (cited) evidence he is presenting. The writing is engaging precisely because Riesman infuses his narrative with personal feeling and acknowledgment of his own discomfort. As such, he reflects the same feelings that many readers might have. By doing so, he makes it okay by affirming those feelings but also not backing off simply because it gets uncomfortable.
To me, the most fascinating voice in the book is from Stan’s younger brother, Larry Lieber, who offers up a lot in both what he says but also in what he intentionally avoids saying. The picture I came away with from this book was a humanized Stan Lee. This is not at all the Stan that Stan himself would want us to know, but it is probably the closest we will get to the true Stan.
What becomes clear by tracking along with Stan chronologically through the years is that we begin to see a very clear picture, at least to me, of a competent writer who was a good editor but was Barnum level bullshit pedaler with a severe inferiority complex masked by an over-confident and gregarious character he presented to the world. He was a man who wanted to be famous but was never talented enough to get out of the low-rent world of the comic book business, so he made himself the most famous comic book guy in the world to see where that could take him. You see this throughout the book, that even while working in comics and presenting the face of Stan “The Man” to readers, he was incessantly trying side hustles to get himself the hell out of there. Were it not for the expensive habits of his wife and daughter, he very well may have stepped out and tried something else. Unfortunately, so many of his choices (and life is nothing but cumulative choices) were driven by the need to keep his wife and daughter in the expensive lifestyle that had grown accustomed to.
Part of the incongruity in Stan as a human being is that fame and fortune were such massive driving forces in his life choices but at the same time, he was someone who would give you the shirt off his back if he liked you and you needed it. At the same time, he treated his own family (except his wife and daughter) like detached acquaintances at best. Larry seems the most sad about this in that Stan would toss Larry work here and there, but in his own sunset years, Larry seems not very grateful and more resentful that his older brother kind of kept him on a meager fishing line professionally over the years and now Larry recognizes that he lost so many opportunities because of that. And now, in his 80s, he lives alone and is writing his own stories for himself.
Stan and his wife, Joan, lived a public lifestyle of excess and she was especially known in their circles for drinking too much and then embarrassing herself and Stan by her drunken behavior. Stan was devoted to her but that inferiority complex in him probably contributed to his submissive support for her outlandish activities and spending. Had they lived in more of a moderate sense, they could have gone into a retirement quite rich and comfortable. Instead, he had to keep working on into his nineties just to keep up with his wife’s needs until her death, and his daughter JC’s even more absurd demands afterwards.
The vast success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially after Disney purchased Marvel for 4 billion dollars, was a two-edged sword for Stan. It was the realization of the hype he had been spinning about Marvel since the beginning coming true finally, but beyond his funny little cameos on-screen, he had signed away the profit margins he could have had for a yearly stipend instead. Moreso, he had to bristle a little knowing that back in the ‘90s when Marvel was in bankruptcy, he passed up a chance to actually purchase the company which would have finally made Marvel truly his. Sure, he put on his well-practiced smile for the red carpets, but by all accounts, he never even bothered to watch the actual movies. He liked the attention, but he had little to no interest in the characters or the movies themselves. But that sort of fact doesn’t fit the narrative that people want to read about.
Watching the “Rise” of Stan in this book is so fascinating because of reading those years and seeing it in my head alongside my own experience as a child reading the comics and what my perception was. I’m not sure how someone who did not have my own life experience will feel reading those sections, but it’s a bit like reading the diary of someone you thought you knew and discovering that their self-perception and life was nothing like you realized. So much of Stan’s “Rise” was reliant upon artists and writers with much more skill and creativity than Stan himself possessed. But one thing he did possess was the power to spot talent and to hitch his creative wagon to their horse. He also benefited from a natural but well-practiced charisma that served him well while putting his extraverted personality out into public speaking engagements around the country. He was laying the foundation for a particular persona and self-serving narrative that exists to this day. And the book does not present this as particularly malicious or intentionally harmful. This is Stan being Stan and charging through life without introspection and with blinders on so that he doesn’t necessarily see how his words or behavior might be construed (or misconstrued) by others. Stan was incapable of declining credit (there’s that pesky low self-esteem again) and found it difficult even when pressed about it, to acknowledge the other artists as even CO-creators. The one time he gave Ditko co-creator credit for Spider-Man, he could not help himself from saying it in such a way that Ditko could tell he didn’t really believe it. When pressed, Stan said “I have always considered Steve Ditko to be Spider-Man's co-creator.” Of course, Ditko was quick to point out that Stan still did not say Steve Ditko was factually Spider-Man’s creator but that he had always “considered” him to be. The use of that weasel word was enough for Ditko to dismiss it. And this is indicative of Stan throughout his life. He may not be the world’s best writer, but he would give Clarence Darrow a run for his money in choosing his words very carefully when he is speaking on the record.
There are two elements of the book that are going to be particularly polarizing to many readers. The first is the inclusion of the crazy stories about Stan’s daughter JC, and the second is the conflict with Jack Kirby over who created the characters in those early days of Marvel.
The thing about including the stories about JC is that they are absolutely necessary to any objective biography that deals with the final decade or so of Stan’s life. That last 10 to 15 years of Stan’s life is a minefield of fraud, mismanagement, theft, and abuse. Where Stan’s “Rise” is a fascinating view into how he somehow succeeded in the 80s and onward at making himself the patron god of a business that he had no real involvement in or use for other than as a propellant for his rocket to Hollywood fame and fortune. Stan’s “Fall” is a heartbreaking tale of somebody desperate enough to involve himself with shady and criminal types in scheme after scheme defrauding investors and consumers for years and years. It is a tale of a man who is tired and broken and taken advantage of by those same people, then others, and always his daughter who allegedly was both physically and verbally abusive to him as she would swing from one bipolar episode to another. Stan is even on the record near the end of his life incapable of even confidently saying that his own daughter loves him. If that makes you sick to your stomach to hear, it should. Stan was a human being and by the end of his life, he had been drained of every last drop of life by a circle of vampires, including his own daughter who took him to court to get the controlled trust Stan set up for her broken up so that when he died she could get everything and not have to go through a third-party trustee. Riesman makes very sure that anything he says about JC has sources cited, even if the source is not publicly available (such as the private audio recordings of the two of them that were shared with the author). In any objective biography, the relationship with JC is a necessary component of understanding Stan, so she and their relationship is absolutely essential to this work.
The conflict with Jack Kirby, that in and of itself, is a subject worthy of a book. And there have been those as well. In comics fandom circles, there are those who take the position that Jack created everything, those who say Stan created everything, and then there are those who say it was something in the middle. Riesman says that none of those are very helpful to a biographer. A biographer is not comfortable speculating that it must be something in the middle simply because he can’t make the case one way or the other. It is a question that can never truly be answered precisely because at the time those original comics were being cranked out by a hack writer and his stable of fast-drawing freelance artists, they were considered throw-away children’s entertainment. Nobody was keeping records of meetings or notes about plots and very few, if any, scripts. There’s not even a lot of the art around because it was not seen as valuable. They stored the pages away in warehouses where, over the years, much of it was destroyed by water, fire, rodents, or stolen by the occasional employee. It was not until the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that Marvel finally got around to cataloging and returning what art they still had to the artists from the ‘60s. It is notable that Ditko, according to first-hand reports from people who visited Ditko in his office after that, used those returned Spider-Man pages as cutting boards for himself. As horrifying as that sounds, it does indicate the mindset of the ‘60s work-for-hire freelancer. The art was done for that month’s paycheck and never thought about again. There was no after-market for the art yet.
Riesman does a good job of giving the reader Jack’s side of the story and Stan’s side of the story. (Sidebar: If anyone wants an exhaustive resource for Jack and Stan’s own words on the topic, I recommend the ‘STUF SAID oral history book from TwoMorrows publishing.) He does interject as the author to point out how unhelpful both men’s memories are on this topic. Both Jack and Stan could contradict themselves in the same breath while telling us their “absolute truth” about who did what. But there are indicators that help present a bit of the picture that lets us know that Jack maybe contributed a bit more than Stan wanted to admit, but also that Stan contributed a bit more than Jack wanted to admit. The most obvious indicator is that once Jack left Marvel to write and draw his own comics at DC, back at Marvel, and other publishers, his own writing style is demonstrably distinct from Stan’s and even his own pacing and plotting is notably different. Jack’s FOURTH WORLD books, or THE DEMON, or OMAC; for example, do not track with the types of plots and storytelling that we were used to seeing on, say, FANTASTIC FOUR for 100 issues in collaboration with Stan. Likewise, Stan fairly quickly transitioned out of writing and onto the editing only side after Jack bolted for DC. It’s not like Stan only collaborated with Jack up till then, but from the way Riesman tells it, it does appear like Stan had become quite reliant upon Jack even if it was just to bounce ideas off of him—or get some. Jack bolted sometime in 1970. Stan stopped writing by 1972 and his creative output after that was particularly telling—especially his unyielding commitment to try and make putting funny word balloons onto photos into something people want or his penchant, when riffing creatively, of going into rather racy and sexually immature directions. In the end, we are left with a writer who was not particularly creative but had a knack for exuberant and outlandish self-promotion and an artist who was very creative but was very uncomfortable tooting his own horn. Together they tapped into a magical synergy that formed the foundation for a new way of telling stories within the constraints of corporate owned properties and without which the multi-billion dollar Disney/Marvel monster would not exist.
If your only experience with Stan Lee is his public persona, then this book should be eye-opening. This is not a book that presents Stan as a bad person. It presents Stan as full person. Someone who could be funny and charming and gregarious (sometimes to a fault) but also someone who could be moody, spiteful, mean, duplicitous, and selfish. Much like you and I, he was complicated, and Riesman has written a fairly definitive biography of Stan Lee that will stand the test of time.
Also, before I wrap this review, I want to say that this book should be made into a movie promptly by the writer and director behind the Oscar nominated THE BIG SHORT, Adam McKay. And they should hire Sam Rockwell to play Stan.
That’s my free Hollywood advice.