Category Archives: Stan Lee

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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RIP Stan Lee (1922-2018)

A sad day. Numerous sources have confirmed the passing, this morning, of legendary Marvel Comics writer, editor, and publisher Stan Lee (b. Stanley Martin Lieber, 1922-2018). My condolences to his loved ones and friends, and to his colleagues and fans, who were legion.

It appears that TMZ.com and The Hollywood Reporter were among the first to break the news publicly; other sources, for example the Associated PressNew York TimesLos Angeles Times, and CNN, have followed suit.

Stan Lee in the US Army, c. 1942-45

Stan Lee served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1942 to 1945. Website DoDLive (www.dodlive.mil) identifies this image as simply a “U.S. Army photo.”

Lee was 95 years old. Anyone who has been following coverage of his life over roughly the past year, since the death of his beloved wife Joan Lee in July 2017, probably knows how tumultuous his final days were, marked by rumors of frailty, vulnerability, and domestic chaos. Recent images of Lee on the convention circuit have sometimes been disconcerting, as the almost mythically peppy, seemingly indefatigable Lee finally began showing signs of age and dependency. Until very recently, Lee played the part of a Pop icon with gusto, getting out in the world, engaging his fans, and burnishing his legend.

Speaking personally, I had somewhat expected Lee’s passing, as the last few months have been filled with nerve-wracking, if sometimes contradictory, reports about his status. Yet I was surprised at how shocked, and saddened, I was to hear of his death today. The news brought tears to my eyes, and I am hard pressed to say why.

I have been critical of Lee, both in my book Hand of Fire and especially since his testimony in the Marvel v. Kirby legal case. I have also been critical of his hagiographers, those who tend to describe Lee as a real-life “superhero.” When I see the usual inaccurate coverage of Lee’s career, creative work, and relationships with other creators who worked under his editorship – and I have seen that sort of glancing, thinly researched coverage this very day – I confess I seethe with frustration. What Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon say at the start of their 2003 book Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book (which I consider the best single book about Lee) still applies:

Stan Lee is one of the most important figures in American popular culture. He is also one of the least understood. […]

Here is the truth about Stan Lee: he didn’t create Spider-Man or any of Marvel’s most famous characters. He cocreated them. The distinction matters, because in that distinction lies the essence of his considerable accomplishments. (ix)

This seemingly simple yet crucial caveat is still routinely swept aside when reporters reach for superlatives to put Lee’s work into context. Just what is meant by “cocreated” is something I tried to wrestle with, too tentatively perhaps, in Hand of Fire – and that is indeed a question that continues to bear upon Lee’s reputation, one that has implications for the breadth and nature of his accomplishments.

Hand of Fire seeks to split the difference between praising Lee as Marvel’s editorial architect and criticizing him for his untrustworthy, often self-aggrandizing accounts of how Marvel actually worked in its 1960s heyday. Here’s a key passage:

Of course “Stan Lee” has long served various author-functions for fans, not least the conferral of a single tone or attitude on what is, really, a shapeless amassing of decades’ worth of inconsistent, heterogeneous work. But though Lee was Marvel’s impresario and publicist par excellence in the sixties and early seventies, and though at first he contributed to the comics’ content as a scripter, polishing if not steering the work of various narrative artists, he did not solely create any enduring Marvel properties. Nor did he, in fact, serve as scenarist for many of the most celebrated Marvel comics of the mid to late sixties. By the same token, Kirby – though he provided the conceptual material, the character designs, the unmistakable graphic style, the pacing, and, eventually, the plotting and overall direction of the Marvel books with which he was linked – did not solely author any of the seminal Marvels of the period. His work was constrained and subliminally altered at the editorial level, with text that reshaped and at times redirected his plots. Furthermore, Lee’s vitalizing influence saturated Marvel and determined its editorial ethos. Kirby worked harder, but, commercially, Lee made things happen. (94-95)

This passage, which has been quoted and talked about, is one that I’m proud of, for its preciseness, its refusal to take things too simply, and its distance from the angry, intemperate things I would have said had I written Hand of Fire at a younger age. Yet during the Marvel v. Kirby case, and even since, I have not been able to convince myself that an “angry, intemperate” response was wholly uncalled-for. I tried to write the book more or less dispassionately, but since then I’ve often been passionately angry about Lee’s continued prevarications when it comes to the question of who did what at Marvel back in the sixties. It has been easy to blame Lee, or rather, hard not to blame him. He has been, after all, a Grand Old Man of American comic books (as Raphael and Spurgeon put it), a totemic figure, and one with the power to shape the way people view history. I wish he had been more forthcoming.

Some readers have told me that Hand of Fire goes too easy on Lee, or on the official Marvel history, that Lee did not contribute substantially to the comics’ content – or if he did so, then only negatively – and that he emphatically did not “steer” the work of Jack Kirby. I remain unsure of quite how to tell the story, but am convinced that Lee added considerable pizzazz, spirit, and warmth to those comics; his voice mattered. Of course I’m equally convinced of what the above says about Kirby: that Kirby provided the concepts, designs, storytelling, pacing, style, and eventually, though perhaps to some degree even at the outset, the plots of the Marvel comics he drew. The same is emphatically true of the work that the late Steve Ditko did under Lee’s editorship. The record is murky, but we do know that Lee expected Marvel’s artists to plot and to make fine decisions about pacing and storytelling, and we do know that stalwart artists Kirby and Ditko had proven their ability to create comics stories from scratch again and again prior to the Marvel explosion. Obviously, they didn’t need Lee in order to make comics – though they did need Lee to create Marvel Comics. What Lee himself had to say about the working arrangement at Marvel shifted over the years, from (sometimes) frank acknowledgment of the artists’ contributions to (sometimes) insistence that he himself had provided what was most important about the characters. In any case, the “Marvel method” of production has permanently clouded the question of who did what, who inspired what, and to what extent Lee and his artists truly worked together.

Back cover to Stan Lee's "Secrets Behind the Comics" (1947).

The back cover to Stan Lee’s 1947 book, “Secrets Behind the Comics.” As reproduced in “The Secret History of Marvel Comics,” by Blake Bell and Dr. Michael J. Vassallo (2013), page 156.

I’ve worried over these things, and felt these conflicted feelings, for quite a while, and will surely continue to feel them. Anyone paying close attention to Kirby’s career story must think about the gap between the official history (even the history adopted by Marvel in the wake of the Marvel v. Kirby settlement) and what must really have happened among the disparate talents and personalities that made possible the massively multi-authored vast narrative that is Marvel. Anyone who has delved deeply into Kirby’s story must also be have a version of Stan Lee’s story on their mind, even if that version is, like mine, conflicted.

When I was a kid, though, ah, Stan Lee’s name was one to conjure with, and his voice became as familiar as my own. I read more comics than I can count that started with this claim:Stan Lee presents

Lee’s name became part of a reading ritual; he was the figurehead of figureheads, a magic character. And to this day I have a feeling for the idea of “Stan Lee” that no amount of research has been able to quell. I was reminded of that this morning, and the feeling, oddly, hurt. Having spent the last few days pawing through some too-long-neglected boxes of comic books and reliving some of my long-ago days as a fan and collector, I may have been too-perfectly primed to be shocked by the news of his passing. News of his death sent me into a fog.

Words like charlatan and huckster cling to Lee, and comparisons to carnival barkers, or even P.T. Barnum, are never far away when Lee is the topic of talk. I understand why; frankly, those words are deserved. Lee knew this well, but he wasn’t simply a shill. A shill would have had his hour, but then faded, and fast. Lee, though, was something else. He combined the larger-than-life qualities of a Marvel hero with the affability of a beloved neighborhood character and the approachability of an old friend. Sometimes when I think of Lee, I think of his seeming mendacity and conveniently porous memory. I’ve had that version of Lee in my head for nearly thirty years and counting. But sometimes when I think of Lee, I think of being a kid with a comic book in front of him, with a whole great big world spreading out before him, and I feel, still, a certain awe and gratitude at the whole crazy business.

RIP Stan Lee. I cannot imagine my life as a reader and thinker, nor my coming of age as a comics scholar and critic, without him. As editor-impresario, Lee brought the work of Kirby and a gaggle of other disparate artists to market under one colorful banner, and in so doing enriched my life and the whole American comic book field. I don’t know if I can call Lee one of my cultural heroes – I suppose Hand of Fire tells the story of my loss of faith – but at one time he surely was, and I cannot but thank him for that. Working in tandem with other singular talents, Lee helped transform the comic book, and though his greatest period as a writer-editor spanned just a decade – only a fraction of his long career – what he helped bring to the newsstands in those days, the heady days of Kirby and of Ditko, and of the dawning Marvel Universe, was stupendous.

PS. Among the several obituaries I’ve read today, I would recommend  Jonathan Kandell and Andy Webster’s careful one for the New York Times, and Michael Dean’s excellent one at The Comics Journal. (I don’t agree with Dean’s assessment of Lee’s skill as a writer, versus Kirby’s, but it’s a lovely, insightful piece, with a ringing conclusion.)

Stan Lee at Stan Lee Day, 2016

Oct. 7, 2016: Lee enjoys “Stan Lee Day” in NYC, at Madison Square Garden (Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images, obtained from the Los Angeles Times).

PPS. I just rediscovered this odd, ambivalent poem I wrote about Stan Lee years ago. I think it captures both my gratitude and my ambivalence. ‘Nuff said.