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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One thought on “True Believer Tells an Ugly, Necessary Story

  1. Ken Bastard says:

    I’ll check this book out. Stan seems to wanted more for himself, and got it, but didn’t realize it when he had it.

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