The Comics of Jack Kirby: Call for Papers

Announcing a brand-new scholarly book project!

The Comics of Jack Kirby: Critical Perspectives on a Legendary Artist

Edited by Craig Fischer, Charles Hatfield, and Susan Kirtley

Under contract to be published in the University Press of Mississippi’s series Critical Approaches to Comics Artists, edited by David M. Ball

CALL FOR PROPOSALS

More than a quarter-century after his death, Jack Kirby (1917-1994) remains one of the most talked-about creators in the annals of the American comic book. Best known as the archetypal superhero artist and visual architect of the Marvel Universe, Kirby in fact went much further, creating diverse other comic books for many publishers as well as working in animation and comic strips and on sundry projects. An imaginative dynamo, he set a standard for the whole comic book industry. By now, Kirby studies is a thriving fan phenomenon: the source of unending books, articles, and commentary across social media. Despite this, Kirby has received little academic attention. This interdisciplinary collection of essays seeks to change that, and to expand the discussion of Kirby’s work beyond the familiar pathways of biography and homage.

Recent work in comics studies has questioned what gets valued in academia, and why. Inspired by that trend, this project aims to give Kirby’s work the critical study it so richly warrants. We seek to include a diversity of voices and approaches, and to move past the contentious claims to credit or ownership and anxieties about status that have preoccupied Kirby studies to date.

We recognize Kirby as both collaborator and distinctive author: a creator who wrote as well as drew stories throughout his long career. We take it as given that he did not simply illustrate but envisioned, designed, plotted, and often scripted work for Marvel and many other publishers. Kirby’s distinctive style and concerns are manifest across his entire body of work, from his early takes on familiar genres in the 1930s, through his romance, kid gang, superhero, and other comics of the 1940s and early 1950s, to his foundational work as writer, storyteller, designer, and house stylist for Marvel in the 1960s, to the auteurism of his late comics. We invite studies of Kirby as collaborator or sole author, as influence and idea.

We seek argument-driven, historically and theoretically informed work on topics such as, though not limited to: 

  • Kirby and romance (one of the most popular genres in comic book history)
  • Kirby’s other genres: war, westerns, science fiction, crime, humor, superheroes, etc.
  • Gender and/or sexuality in Kirby’s work; Gender Studies and queer theory perspectives on Kirby
  • Race and ethnicity in Kirby’s work; perspectives from ethnic studies and critical race theory
  • Childhood or youth in Kirby’s work
  • Kirby vis-à-vis disability studies
  • Kirby vis-à-vis critical animal studies
  • Teaching Kirby: pedagogical perspectives
  • Other works of art in dialogue with Kirby (adaptation, homage, critique, or challenge)
  • Kirby and Kirbyism on screen
  • Posthumanism, transhumanism, and machine life in Kirby
  • Soldiers, super-soldiers, and militarism in Kirby
  • Religion or spirituality in Kirby
  • Simon & Kirby: the partnership, the shop, the brand
  • Collaborative processes across Kirby’s career
  • Kirby in newspapers: his neglected comic strip and panel-cartoon work
  • Aesthetic and formal dimensions of Kirby’s graphic storytelling
  • Kirby’s way with words, i.e., prose style, narrative voice, dialogue
  • Kirby as collagist
  • Kirby in the art gallery or museum
  • Kirby and/in cosplay or fan art
  • Anti-fans of Kirby: the social, ideological, or aesthetic logics behind aversion to his work
  • Kirby as meme; Kirby as character

We prefer contributions that engage with social and historical contexts and attend to visual and aesthetic as well as narrative and thematic dimensions. Proposals for work in alternate formats (beyond that of the academic essay) are welcomed. Again, we aim to include diverse voices and perspectives.

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES

Interested authors should submit an abstract (500-1000 words) and a biography of no more than 200 words to kirbystudies@gmail.com by February 11, 2022. Please note that submission of an abstract or paper does not guarantee publication. All applicants will be notified by April 8, 2022. Completed chapters of 6,000-8,000 words will be due by October 14, 2022, with the goal of publishing the volume by late 2023. The editors will pursue funding to bring contributors together for a Kirby studies symposium (virtual or in-person).

All of the Marvels: Douglas Wolk’s Marvel Story

You may have heard about Douglas Wolk’s new book, All of the Marvels: A Journey to the Ends of the Biggest Story Ever Told. Frankly, it’s a stunt: what if one reader actually read all of the comic books that make up the Marvel Comics universe, that is, the 27,000-plus comic books published since 1961 that together add up to Marvel’s superhero world? What discoveries or patterns might be gleaned by reading and taking stock of so much stuff? Academics these days might call this approach (after Franco Moretti) distant as opposed to close reading: an overview or sweeping interpretation of a massive set of texts rather than the minutely attentive reading of a small set—essentially, a macroscopic rather than microscopic approach. The thing is, “distant reading” is usually understood to be a matter of machine reading and computational methods (it’s a term much used in the digital humanities). Douglas Wolk is not a machine or array of machines, but one splendidly quirky, human reader. All of the Marvels may sound intimidatingly geeky, but it’s a loving, very personal project—a barnstorming exegetical feat fueled by sheer gushing enthusiasm. Even Marvel’s unloveliest excesses, its long dull stretches and occasionally mortifying missteps, cannot quench that feeling. The stunt turns out to be a delight.

Honestly, when I saw the PR for this book, I got skeptical. Billing Marvel’s piecemeal continuity as “the longest continuous, self-contained work of fiction ever created” begs a lot of questions. To make one story out of Marvel’s corporate patchwork, the stuff of serial comics by an ever-shifting crowd of artists, writers, and editors for hire, spread out over decades, seems either too optimistic or a surrender to hype. Cynically, I can’t help but see Marvel’s “story” as an ever-expanding incoherence, driven by unending opportunism, impersonal editorial mandates, relentless deadlines, and the sort of artistic interchangeability that work for hire demands. My internal argument would go something like this: There is no singular creative intelligence or cohesive collaborative team, nor even a distinct series of deliberate teams, behind the sprawl of Marvel, and the supposed continuity between comics published in the 1960s and comics published now is simply a commercial requirement of the superhero genre, a matter of desperately imposing shape where there is none. Believing in Marvel’s “continuity” amounts to willfully ignoring its publishing history, indulging in a kind of kayfabe that tries to wave away the incoherence even though we all ought to know better. There’s no big story here, I would say, only an accumulation of disparate comics united by branding.

BUT. One of the wise things about Wolk’s book is that he acknowledges all this. He knows that the continuity he can read into the Marvel story “wasn’t molded intentionally, for the most part” (331), that it came about through reckless improvisation prodded by commercial imperatives. He knows that “Marvel” isn’t one thing. Reading Marvel as one story is a creative act, and Wolk does it his way, according to his interests and pleasures. He encourages his readers to do the same, to “stray from the path,” follow their own curiosity, and indulge their tastes (21). Wolk himself, being a great conversationalist, does a fine job of evangelizing for his tastes, but less in terms of what is “important” and more in terms of what’s cool. All of the Marvels is a record of aesthetic delectation. For Wolk, “Marvel” becomes an idiosyncratic reading practice that does not, thank goodness, require a plodding chronological march through sixty years of comics starting in 1961. Marvel is a pond to swim in. Whether to wade in the shallows or plunge into the deep end, or whether to dogpaddle or swim strict laps, is up to you. Acknowledging the discontinuity of Marvel Comics, but still building his own continuity out of it, Wolk remains interesting on his own terms from first to last. He is a remarkably affable and unstrict guide, cheerfully acknowledging Marvel’s shapelessness even as he imposes shape on it. Good for him.

Opening splash to The Uncanny X-Men #141 (Marvel, Jan. 1981), by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Terry Austin, Tom Orzechowski, and Glynis Wein.

All of the Marvels is refreshingly free of worry about the ever-controversial business of assigning credit for the “creation” of Marvel characters—instead, Wolk assumes creation to be an ongoing, massively collaborative process that can belong to no single person or single team. If that sounds like an ethical dodge, it isn’t—the book generously supplies creator credits, and Wolk delights in the distinctiveness of individual artists and writers. From the outset you can tell that, as he puts it, creators are at least as important as characters (34). All of the Marvels is not a paean to Marvel the company (after all, “a corporation can never love you back,” 328) but a way of remembering thousands of moments of pleasure provided by specific comics created by specific groups of people. In fact, Wolk spends a considerable amount of time on certain scriptwriters—not just Stan Lee, but Chris Claremont and Jonathan Hickman—and cartoonists, chief among them Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, whom he regularly credits with plotting and character creation or co-creation as well as splendid narrative art. Though the book’s perspective is, obviously, not auteurist, Wolk knows and loves creators, and regards the various Marvel stories as personal work (even as he admits their market-driven and often formulaic nature). Reconciling a creator-focused vision with a sweeping overview of the Marvel Universe is quite a feat—and Wolk pulls it off.

Simply put, All of the Marvels is a wonder. I envy Wolk’s genuinely charming voice and ability to hopscotch around the Marvel Universe so freely. He covers light years in a single bound. There is a lot of bounding around in the book, which makes its clarity and focus all the more impressive. Because Wolk is such a friendly narrator to hang with, and so emphatically underscores the importance of inclusivity and shared fun, he makes the crazy tangles of Marvel feel like diverting mental puzzles and invitations to sociability, rather than migraines. More than anything, I’m thankful for the way he makes this admittedly uptight auteurist and originalist—that’s me, honestly, a reader who has tended to bemoan rather than celebrate the endless rewriting of the Marvel Universe—see the virtues and pleasures of its continual revision.

Granted, there are times when Wolk doesn’t convince me, as when he works hard to find the good in prolonged and gimmicky storylines like Dark Reign or The Superior Spider-Man. His readings tend to be very optimistic: for example, he reads the history of Spider-Man as one of distinct “cycles,” each with a windup and a payoff, whereas I tend to read it merely as a history of repetitive imitation and diminishing returns. I found myself wanting to argue with Wolk at times—but I think that’s part of the pleasure he has to offer. He surely knows that readers, even the most enthusiastic readers, will pick arguments with him. Though All of the Marvels is a determinedly bright and optimistic book, it’s not pollyannish or blind. Wolk starts from the recognition that a great many Marvel comics are bad, and acknowledges that “there is cruelty and unfairness to creative geniuses stamped into every page” (27). He is able to find pleasure in the big patterns and the long haul, yet at the same time invites debate on a thousand points—indeed, the book practically begs for trash-talking, clubby exchanges with fellow fans. Criticism and debate, after all, are inevitable (and pleasurable) aspects of fandom. I don’t think Wolk would have it any other way.

Wolk can occasionally be quite critical. He despises the Punisher (“a wish-fulfillment figure for bloodthirsty creeps”), dislikes the original Secret Wars of 1984 (“superhero comics’ peak intersection of rapacity and artlessness”), and joins the chorus of those lamenting 1990s Marvel for opportunism and crassness (“increasingly incoherent exploits of wasp-waisted babes and muscle-bound men”). Yet he goes for a reparative reading whenever he can. Sometimes he notes troubling tendencies that he doesn’t bother to criticize, as when, for example, he cheerfully acknowledges the “nihilistic” (his word) ethos of Hickman et al.’s Secret Wars of 2015-2016 (I gotta admit, he does make me want to go read all of it). I wish he’d dig in more at moments like that. Also, he does some sleight of hand here and there, brandishing his artistic license, as it were, to keep the book focused: Notably, he personifies the Marvel story as a character with agency and a life of its own, as if it were a person living through interesting times. For example, regarding the nineties, he says, “the story has been looking back on itself—sometimes nostalgically, sometimes critically—and by 2004, it’s trying to shake off its repetitions” (347). This way, Marvel becomes a character that takes its knocks but keeps picking itself up and getting back in the race. This is a good strategy for making every fall a fortunate fall—perhaps that’s a little too convenient?

Double-page spread from Master of Kung Fu #116 (Marvel, Sept. 1982), by Doug Moench, Gene Day, Christie Scheele, and Janice Chiang.

But, thanks to Wolk, I can now read or reread Marvel comics with greater enjoyment, even in cases where I think they’re rigged or derivative. That is, I take a new pleasure in the sense of belonging and possibility that All of the Marvels so happily promotes. There are gems scattered throughout the book, from the brief interchapter on pop musicians appearing in Marvel comics, to the ambivalent yet loving chapter on, of all things, Master of Kung Fu, to the beautiful final chapter about passing along his love of Marvel to his young son. A real highlight for me is the interchapter “March 1965,” which is another instance of the kind of up-close cultural history Wolk does so well in his book James Brown’s Live at the Apollo (with its focus on just a few days in October 1962). Every reader will have their own set of highlights, I expect.

No lie—this book is a tonic. Speaking personally, I owe Wolk a lot: This past year, living under lockdown, in the shadow of COVID, and knowing that Wolk’s book would be coming out in late 2021, I did what I had never done before—I got my money’s worth out of the Marvel Unlimited service by reading back and forth between the 1960s and the 21st century. That is, I started on the longest sustained binge-reading of Marvel Comics I’ve ever done (outside of research). This had the effect of naturalizing, for me, digital tablet reading of comic books—a bridge I’d been hoping to cross for years. Armed with the idea that I would get something out of Wolk’s book, and the thought that I might eventually design and teach a new Marvel-themed course, I got over my resistance to screen-reading Marvel comics. As a result, I’ve read some good comics and quite a few lousy comics, plus reread a few old faves, and put them all into new contexts. The arrival of All of the Marvels has made this process, well, not complete (never complete!), but even more enjoyable. Wolk’s tome, this insanely ambitious tour guide, suggests diverse new entryways into, and so many different possibilities for teaching, whatever it is that Marvel has become and keeps on becoming.

So, wow. Do yourself a favor and read this book, if you haven’t already!

PS. I took in part of the book through the audiobook version, read by Wolk himself. It’s a delightful commuting companion. 🙂

104 Covers for Kirby’s 104th

Jack Kirby in his home studio, at work on an issue of KAMANDI, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sept. 1972. Photo by and (c) David Folkman.

JACK KIRBY (b. Jacob Kurtzberg, 1917-1994) would have been 104 years old tomorrow, August 28.

If you’re visiting this site, you probably don’t need to be persuaded that Kirby was one of twentieth-century America’s most influential artists and storytellers and continues to inspire new work in comics and across media. I’ll simply note that the Marvel Universe of comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe alike testify to Kirby’s impact (and that Eternals, Chloe Zao’s film adaptation of his mid-1970s comic, is slated for release in a couple of months). FYI, Comic-Con International celebrated Kirby’s centennial in 2017 with a special tribute section in its annual souvenir book, and you can still access that for free in PDF at:

https://www.comic-con.org/sites/default/files/forms/cci2017_kirby100section.pdf

This PDF makes for a fine primer on Kirby. I’m proud to have contributed an essay to it (and must once again thank CCI and Gary Sassaman for that!).

As I often say, I don’t expect ever to be “done” thinking and writing about Kirby. For this year’s Kirby Day, I’d like to alert my readers to a great event that the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center is putting on tomorrow, Saturday, August 28, from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. NYC time (EDT): a walking tour of New York’s Lower East Side, including Kirby’s birthplace and boyhood home. According to the Museum’s website,

The tour will be livestreamed to our usual venues on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Twitch, with Kirby-centric video clips streamed out while we are walking.

See https://kirbymuseum.org/blog/2021/08/23/for-jack-kirbys-104th-a-lower-east-side-walking-tour/ for details.

Note that the Museum’s YouTube channel can be accessed at https://youtube.com/c/JackKirbyMuseum and that its Twitter handle is @JackKirbyMuseum (Museum organizers Rand Hoppe and Tom Kraft always take pains to reach out via multiple platforms).

For my own pleasure, and to remind myself of the scope of Jack Kirby’s work on this, his 104th birthday, I’ve selected 104 comic book covers penciled by Kirby between 1941 and 1983. See the slideshow below! These are covers that can confidently be attributed to Kirby as designer or co-designer and principal artist and that stand out to me because they’re dramatic, compositionally dynamic, vividly colored, weird, revealing, alarming, and/or funny. Some of them may even be, dare I say, cringey or dated in ways that make us sit up and take notice, but all of them are delightful or strange and are burned into my brain.

Note that I sourced these images through the aptly named Grand Comics Database (comics.org), which is, no exaggeration, a godsend, one of my constant go-to places for comics info. Please consider supporting the GCD by donating either funds or your own hard work! (BTW, the GCD lists more than 1600 original, not reprinted, comic book covers penciled by Kirby.)

Finally, following the example of Kirby’s granddaughter Jillian, why not take the occasion of Kirby’s birthday to donate to The Hero Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to helping comics creators in need? They do really important, needful work, and I can’t think of a more fitting way to signal one’s gratitude for Jack’s glorious, life-enhancing art.

PS. It should take just over five minutes for the slideshow to play through on autoplay. I recommend switching to full screen if you can to see bigger images!

RIP Steve Sherman (1949-2021)

I was sorry to learn that Steve Sherman — puppeteer, writer, artist, designer, and all-around creator — died last week on June 24. He was 72 years old. My deepest condolences to his loved ones, colleagues, and admirers.

Steve Sherman had a long and interesting career in film and television, on stage, and in comic books, including stints working for Filmation, Sid & Marty Krofft, Hanna-Barbera, and toy design firm Fred Adickes Associates. In the mid 1980s, he and fellow puppeteer Greg Williams cofounded Puppet Studio, a partnership that lasted for decades and included work for theme parks, cruise ships, and pop music tours as well as television (for example, ABC Weekend Specials, Beakman’s World, and Pee-wee’s Playhouse) and movies (such as Mighty Joe Young and the first two Men in Black films). Together Sherman and Williams worked with, among others, Jim Henson’s Muppets and legendary makeup artist Rick Baker, and in the mid-80s they created characters and stories for Mattel.

Steve Sherman (photo from IMDb).

Me, I came to know Steve Sherman through comic books. Specifically, I learned his name through reading Jack Kirby’s comics for publisher DC in the early to mid 1970s. I saw Sherman’s byline a lot in the letter columns of comics like Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth and OMAC. I would also see another name, Mark Evanier, in some of those comics. What I didn’t quite realize was that Sherman and Evanier were Kirby’s two assistants, having been hired out of comic book fandom to help Jack with production and editorial duties on his DC books. They were also good friends. Evanier and Sherman had met in the late 60s through the Los Angeles Comic Book Club (which Evanier presided over), then worked together at the ill-fated Marvelmania (c. 1969-1970). Kirby, who did some work for Marvelmania, hired the two at about the time he was launching his grand Fourth World project for DC and envisioning a larger production outfit that could include other writers and artists under his editorship (a vision that never came to pass).

Text articles and letter columns by Sherman and Evanier began appearing with the second issues of Kirby’s titles Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle, which went on sale in February and March of 1971. Sherman would have been twenty-one then (and Evanier just going on nineteen). Essentially, Sherman and Evanier had a ringside seat for the creation of one of the most exciting projects in American mainstream comic books of that era.

Evanier and Sherman have described their work for Kirby as minimal, since Kirby did all his own writing and drawing and held the editorial reins of most of his DC titles. But they were key parts of a team and community that afforded Kirby greater creative freedom than he had enjoyed for many years. Sherman supplied Kirby with the premise of Kamandi #29 (May 1975) and co-created the character Kobra with him. In the late 70s, Sherman and Kirby also collaborated on two treatments for SF movies that went unfilmed but later resulted in Kirby’s independent comic book projects for Pacific Comics, Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers (1981-1984) and Silver Star (1983-1984). Both Sherman and Evanier became good friends of Jack Kirby’s family and important figures in his career story.

I believe I met Steve Sherman at more than one Kirby-themed convention event organized by Mark Evanier. I know that together Evanier, Sherman, Paul S. Levine, and I did the Kirby tribute panel at WonderCon in 2016, which I greatly enjoyed. Steve was gracious, unassuming, and friendly. Getting to talk to him then was a gift. I wish I had known him better.

Mark Evanier has a fine tribute to Steve up on his blog. Also, Mark and Steve got together for a video chat last summer that you can watch on YouTube; it’s a lovely stroll down memory lane, and a treasure trove for anyone who wants to know more about L.A. fandom in the 1960s or Kirby’s amazing early-70s period.

RIP Steve.

True Believer Tells an Ugly, Necessary Story

Abraham Riesman’s True Believer is not the first serious book-length biography of Stan Lee—that ship sailed long ago. It is not even the first Lee bio to be published since his death in 2018. For the sake of contrast, I would recommend reading it alongside others, such as A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee (2019), an affectionate account by veteran Marvel writer and editor Danny Fingeroth that nicely captures Lee’s New York milieu. Or Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book by Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon (2003), a more distanced take—the first Lee bio, as far as I know, to draw upon the Stan Lee Papers at the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center (as does Riesman).

That said, Riesman does give an unusually meaty, substantial version of Lee’s life, one shaped by primary research. Moreover, True Believer has drawn an unprecedented level of mainstream media attention, with reviews everywhere (the most useful of which, for my money, has been Stephanie Burt’s in The New Yorker). Perhaps the book has garnered attention because it has been promoted as an unauthorized, demythologizing, warts-and-all bio written by a known journalist, as opposed to an insider treatment for comics fans (though Riesman has plenty of fan cred as well). Or perhaps, after more than a decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and attendant hype, the time is simply ripe for an idol-toppling alternate take. In any case, True Believer is the first widely publicized mainstream book about Lee that is willing to say, to a broad audience, what thousands of fans and a great many fan publications have already said among themselves: that the distance between Stan Lee’s beloved public persona and his actual career story is vast—and that Lee himself did much to widen that gap, to mystify or obscure the real story.

That conversation has not exactly been a hushed whisper among comics devotees and scholars. Within fandom, Lee’s spotty memories, opportunism, and hucksterism have been talking points for a long time. However, True Believer has amped up the conversation and brought it into the mainstream (see for example Roz Kaveney at TLS, Glen David Gold at The Washington Post, Rob Salkowitz at Forbes, and Jillian Steinhauer at The New Republic). Common to many of the reviews is a troubled tone and a reluctant iconoclasm. Perhaps that’s why True Believer feels like a watershed.

Riesman comes closest among the published biographies to characterizing Stan Lee the way I see him now: as a jobber who did not love comics, did not quite understand the appeal of them, chafed at a demeaning and (in the early days) usually anonymous job, tried to get the hell out, and then, in the 1960s, got spectacularly lucky. Getting lucky meant, crucially, working with cartoonists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and writing the anchoring text for a bunch of lovely, artist-driven comics that fizzed and crackled with a certain weirdness and soulfulness. Getting lucky also meant presiding over and tightening up, editorially, the aggregate story-world built out of those comics, and then, just as crucially, venturing out into the world, out of his anonymity and into the limelight at last, to promote it.

From the mid-sixties on, Lee did all this in an eager, hyped-up voice, with a generous ladling of razzmatazz: salesmanship, but of a particularly ebullient and hilarious kind. He was good at it. That persona, at first confined to the printed page, got out and became “Stan Lee” to the rest of the world. In the meantime, the daily grind of comic book production continued. An astute editor, Lee knew how to seize opportunity and how to impose shape on a bunch of disparate stuff. Fueled by Kirby and other artists, he helped turn Martin Goodman’s vestigial early-1960s lineup of comic books into something to be reckoned with. Some of the comics sang, sharp, smart, and lovely. Lee, though, ached to move up and out. When he became Marvel’s publisher, he did a feckless and frankly disastrous job as the man upstairs (as Sean Howe’s 2012 book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story reveals). Then he went Hollywood, and then pitched and pushed his way from comic book front man to executive producer to geek culture icon.

Lee at Marvel, as I understand him, was by turns both a good and a bad boss: one remembered by some for a warmth and enthusiasm that were unusual among comic book editors, but by others for self-dealing and calculation. For some years, he presided shrewdly over a line of comic books that seemed blessed. During that time, Lee came to life as a writer, leaving behind what he considered hackdom for a zingier, more flavorful and engaged style. He was sometimes a charming and, from the late sixties onward, always a mannered wordsmith (I enjoy the moments when his ironic patter sells the stories, as opposed to the moments of overkill when it spoils things). He was the voice of Marvel, bantering, ingratiating, and self-aware. Of course, he was a consummate shill, but on some level he seemed to believe in the Marvel ethos, so forcefully did he promote it. Later, he became a bored and bewildered executive—and then a Hollywood parvenu, someone whom the grown fans in the movie industry loved to meet but would not take seriously until the whole Marvel business was, practically speaking, out of his hands.

That’s the outline of my own mental picture, and Riesman delivers something like it, albeit with a fair serving of ominous foreshadowing that frames Lee’s bio as the stuff of grand tragedy: an assimilationist American dream (of which Lee was a true believer) that ended in fibbing, grasping, and, finally, twilit years of exploitation, crooked business, and embarrassment. “His is a tale of triumph,” we’re told, but also “one of overreach and agony.” Riesman signposts his themes with a vengeance: if Lee rose, onward and upward, “so, too, did he fall” (14). This account of Lee doesn’t surprise me, but True Believer fills the outline with disconcerting charges and insinuations: hints of anxious assimilationism, rejection of family and heritage, alleged uncaring treatment of brother and collaborator Larry Lieber, frustrated careerism, and grandstanding, dishonest selling of the Stan Lee brand, often abetted by various showbiz sharks. The sum of all this is damning.

Sadly, True Believer doesn’t bring a lot of new primary evidence to the part of Lee’s story that interests me most: the creation of Marvel Comics and the Marvel Universe in the 1960s. That is a well chewed-over yet thinly documented period, its processes distressingly hard to prove, and has inspired various speculative and reconstructive efforts (like my own too-tentative account in Hand of Fire, or John Morrow’s methodical and diplomatic Stuf’ Said, or, most recently, Michael Hill’s avowedly partisan According to Jack Kirby). The most revealing passages in True Believer come before the 1960s, particularly in Lee’s long restive 1950s, and after, in Lee’s Hollywood period and dismaying final years. By contrast, Riesman’s treatment of the Marvel sixties, the peak of Lee’s career in comics, has a sort of overfamiliar quality.

However, as Riesman wades through the epistemological swamp that is the creation of Marvel, he goes one better than most mainstream biographers in questioning the nature of Lee’s role. True Believer does more than simply admit that Marvel’s characters of the sixties were designed by artists such as Kirby and Ditko who did much of the heavy lifting. Riesman, in fact, floats the idea that Lee may have had little to do with creating most of the characters, that his “co-creator” role may have been greatly exaggerated or simply made up: “It’s very possible, maybe even probable, that the characters and plots Stan was famous for all sprang from the brain and pen of Kirby… How far did this deception go?” (13). To be clear, Riesman does not argue this claim decisively; despite various proofs of Lee’s mendacity and revisionism, he chooses not to interpret the evidence definitively one way or the other. Rather, he asserts the unknowability of the absolute truth—that is, he adopts epistemological skepticism. Wisely, he resists the impulse to say that “the truth lies somewhere in the middle,” that Lee’s and Kirby’s contrasting accounts of Marvel can be reconciled simply by splitting the difference. “We should not ignore the possibility,” he says, “that one of them was lying and the other telling the truth” (112-113). Based on Riesman’s account, it seems clear who the liar would be, yet Riesman stops short of nailing this claim down. While he is willing to entertain the thought that Lee may not have brainstormed the major Marvel characters, he does not press the point. The result is a kind of nagging irresolution in the text, but at least an honesty about the limits of what Riesman has been able to confirm.

If other biographers have acknowledged the slipperiness of this issue, Riesman is unusual in his willingness not to give Lee the benefit of the doubt. Granted, he is likewise critical of what he sees as Jack Kirby’s misstatements (e.g., page 96) and duly factors in evidence that may seem to affirm Lee’s active collaboration with artists. Yet the accumulated weight of the text suggests that Riesman finds Lee untrustworthy: Stan Lee’s story, he says, “is where objective truth goes to die” (12). He is careful not repeat as fact things that can be gleaned only from Lee’s accounts. To that extent, yes, True Believer performs its promised demythologizing work; Riesman casts doubt on many of Lee’s oft-told tales. However, Riesman is too cagey to counter Lee’s revisionism with a confidently asserted counter-truth. (Is this perhaps an implicit recognition that there were not two but multiple conflicting stories over time, as Lee and Kirby adjusted their tellings, sometimes contradicting themselves as well as each other? Riesman does not delve into this possibility.)

Riesman’s guarded arguments may disappoint those hoping for a more ringing clarity, especially those reading True Believer to discern more about Kirby. Against the backdrop of other Lee biographies, however, he appears positively bold. On certain matters, he renders judgment firmly. One of his concerns is Lee’s aloofness from Judaism and Jewishness, despite the book opening with an account of the Leibovici/Liber and Solomon families (Stan’s parents’ families) fleeing privation and antisemitic persecution in Romania circa 1901-1906. Riesman’s “overture” and first chapter gather up details regarding Lee’s Ashkenazi roots, and would seem to link True Believer to the burgeoning literature on the Jewish roots of the US comic book industry (there is a touch of Michael Chabon’s Kavalier & Clay about this). Yet the book acknowledges that Lee, after becoming “Lee,” after moving out and making a life and family of his own, remained at arm’s length from Jewish culture and community. I detect disappointment here, a sense that Lee’s self-fashioning entailed kicking his family history to the curb. We are told that the grownup Stan “would walk away from Judaism and the institutions of Jewish life—even, it can be argued, from Jewishness as a concept…” (21). Riesman’s Lee, “allergic” to religion and hounded by memories of poverty and ostracism, seems determined to escape from his origins—every part of his origins (34). Perhaps this underlies Riesman’s emphasis on Lee’s alleged heartlessness toward his father and brother. Perhaps it informs his depiction of Lee’s constant desperate striving for something more than salaryman status. Suffice to say that True Believer portrays Lee as an assimilated arriviste anxious to keep his background at bay. True “belief” in the American dream, for Riesman, equates to self-denial.

Clearly, Riesman regards Lee as a bullshit artist (that’s a technical term: see Harry Frankfurt). He seems puzzled by the why of Lee’s BS, and he repeats a point that others have made: that Lee sold short his actual achievements by insisting that he had done even more (14). That is, Lee’s overcompensatory claims to have “created” the Marvel Universe deny his real accomplishments as an editor and scriptwriter. To have done those jobs well within the comic book business was not enough, perhaps—after all, comic books were a marginalized and despised medium. So, maybe nothing less than having redefined the medium would satisfy. If Lee could not readily escape the comics business (as he often dreamed of doing), he could insist that he had changed it fundamentally. He could use the comics, in the end, as a passport to a bigger kind of showbiz, and thus become the mythic figurehead of something that was, of course, built by others (the Marvel Cinematic Universe). Behind all that, behind Lee the legend, lay a wordsmith and editor of some skill—one who could telegraph an excitement about comic books that he didn’t really feel. If that was bullshit, it did a wonderful job of making fans feel less dorky and put-upon, and helped usher in the ascendancy of geek culture in our time.

Readers’ reviews on Amazon (hardly a scientific sampling, I know) show that Riesman has touched a nerve. For a book like True Believer, angry, one-star reviews might be a kind of validation. Me, I’d say that True Believer is must reading for devotees of comic books and comics culture. I don’t say that lightly: it is essential, and will cited from here on out. Yet it is occasionally frustrating too. As Riesman labors to turn Lee’s life into a book with shape, to draw out and underscore themes, the editorializing comes down hard and heavy, as if he is determined to find in Lee a sobering lesson. He leans hard into the artistically negligible (though dismally compelling and tabloid-worthy) string of business disasters and false promises that was Lee’s final twenty years—a bleak last lap, notwithstanding Lee’s popular cameos in so many movies and TV shows. This final act turns the book gossipy and acrid (e.g., “There are few people who will speak on the record about what was going on in this period, but when one of them does, it’s always shocking,” 310-311).  Perhaps Riesman thought this last arc would impart some tragic grandeur, or perhaps including it was simply a matter of due diligence. If the book’s homestretch aims to be the last act in a great tragedy, all karmic comeuppance and vultures coming home to roost, to me it reads simply as a string of pitiful incidents, each one sadder than the previous. At this point the text does become journalistically vivid, less secondhand, more dramatic, as Riesman himself becomes a character alongside various barrel-bottom showbiz types, shady entrepreneurs, and private detectives. Yet this final arc is unavoidably tawdry, a litany of depressing facts and speculations: securities fraud, sexual misconduct, elder abuse, secret surveillance recordings, backbiting assistants—so much scuttlebutt and slime.

Stylistically, Riesman works hard to derive poetry from all this. The strain shows: “Though the fluorescents shone brightly in the convention hall, the shadows stretched long” (301). The Stan Lee of the book’s final third wavers between a credulous, vulnerable old man—a poor judge of character amidst a pack of parasitic nobodies—and a disingenuous dodger who let terrible things happen on his watch and in his name. Riesman’s inner “twelve-year-old geek” (315) seems appalled but fascinated. It seems Lee mesmerizes him precisely to the extent that he disappoints. Some of Riesman’s speculative touches may come across as tendentious, some of the downfalls too fated. On the other hand, Lee’s life really is one hell of a story—the adage about truth outpacing fiction applies—and reassessments like these are, at the risk of cliché, overdue.

To his credit, Riesman knows that Lee’s story was really many other people’s story too, and he shows an appreciation for cartoonists as creators and storytellers. He duly acknowledges Kirby’s central role at Marvel in the sixties, and Steve Ditko’s as well. Hence, True Believer helps to undermine the logocentric myth of Marvel’s creation, thank goodness. It has opened the door a touch wider, and let more light through. More broadly, Riesman understands the queasy status of the mid-20th century comic book business and the lengths to which Stan Lee had to go to renegotiate his own status and remake himself as a cultural impresario: no longer a jobber, a functionary, an employee, but a legend. Why does it surprise so many people that this turns out to be an ugly story?

Thanks to Craig Fischer and Ben Saunders for their feedback and editorial help!

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