Recent Reading: True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee by Abraham Riesman

I wouldn't normally have picked up this biography. For one thing, I read hardly any nonfiction, and for another, I don't actually have that much interest in Stan Lee. For as much as I've written and thought about the MCU, my interest in most of its characters and stories started with the movies. And for all that I found Lee's cameos in those movies, and his red carpet appearances, charming, I also couldn't help but feel suspicious towards the displays of reverence towards him. Did this guy actually make an important contribution to 20th century culture, I wondered, or was he just the last man standing when something he was connected to started making a ton of money? The fact that True Believer is Hugo-nominated, and that Riesman and I are twitter friends, is what spurred me to pick up the book. Which was fortunate, because this biography not only goes a long way towards answering my question, the portrait it paints of Lee is absolutely fascinating. He comes off as a sort of cross between Mad Men's Don Draper and The Dropout's Elizabeth Holmes, whose story would make a gangbusters grifter miniseries.

After setting the stage by discussing both Lee's family history (those who follow Riesman on twitter may remember her glee at being able to start a biography of a comics honcho with a depiction of a 19th century Romanian pogrom), and the development of comics (and superhero comics in particular) as a medium and genre, True Believer gets into Lee's claim to fame. The slightly-less-than-a-decade in the 1960s in which Marvel Comics, under his editorship, introduced such characters as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk, Black Panther, Thor, and many others whose names are now cultural touchstones. Even I, with my puddle-deep knowledge of comics history, was aware of the controversy surrounding this period. The fact that Lee, despite taking sole author credit for Marvel's output during this period, and presenting himself for decades afterwards as the inventor of the Marvel universe, was in fact handing off ideas to his artists and letting them do the work of plotting and storytelling. More importantly, the fact that some of those artists—in particular, Jack Kirby—insisted that even the idea work was theirs, and that they were the true creators of characters like Spider-Man.

Although most reviews of True Believer emphasize this dispute, to my mind the chapter that discusses it is actually the book's weakest. Not because it's badly told—like the rest of the book, it is meticulously-researched and -sourced, and scrupulously fair-minded in its presentation of the evidence—but because in telling it well, Riesman makes you wonder about the value of telling it at all. There's only so many times you can read that, on the matter of assigning credit for the creation of a certain character or storyline, Lee said one thing, Jack Kirby said another, sometimes a third person said something else, they all changed their stories multiple times over the course of decades, and there's absolutely no physical evidence that could help settle the matter, before you start to wonder what the point of a biography even was. Happily, settling the authorship question is far from being Riesman's topic with this book. The creation of the Marvel universe is, on the contrary, only the launching point to her actual focus, the way that Lee, upon finding himself at the forefront of a cultural juggernaut, quickly set about using it to turn himself into a public figure, and eventually, a brand.

As Riesman describes him, Lee had some undeniable skills, chiefly as a marketer. Whether or not he created the characters that captured a generation's imagination, he was the one who figured out how to boost sales by engaging that audience, through fan clubs, personal engagement with readers, and the creation of a shared universe and team-ups that remain a cornerstone of the MCU's success to this day. He was also, by most accounts, a skilled organizer, editor, and bullpen leader, and his gift for dialogue was apparently indisputable—though personally, most of the lines Riesman quotes sound pretty cheesy in 2022. One can easily imagine him parlaying these skills into a successful, albeit unheralded, career in advertising or marketing. Instead, he became a celebrity, marketing himself as a guru with a unique finger on the pulse of the tumultuous 60s, the inventor of a new mythology for a new age.

It's hard to entirely fault Lee for grabbing onto this opportunity for self-promotion, given the exploitative realities of the comics business, which left so many of the workhorses of what was fast becoming a million-dollar industry struggling to make ends meet. But Riesman also describes multiple instances in which Lee turned a blind eye to the exploitation of his underlings, or went along with management in hindering their efforts to secure labor rights. For a man who sold heroism, he seems to have been remarkably conflict-averse, preferring to go along with whatever the strongest person (or sometimes the last person) who spoke to him wanted. The coiner (or at least popularizer) of the phrase "with great power, comes great responsibility" didn't seem to feel much responsibility towards those he had power over.

What truly fascinated me about True Believer, however, was its discussion of the years after Lee left his editorial position at Marvel for more of a figurehead role. Moving to LA, he first set about trying to sell Marvel properties for development in film or TV (it is hilarious to read about Hollywood executives responding to such overtures with, at best, polite disdain). But eventually, he started selling Stan Lee, starting multiple companies whose proposed business model was that Lee would work his magic again, coming up with new story ideas that would capture a generation the way Spider-Man and the X-Men once did. With a few exceptions—perhaps most notably, the R-rated, Pamela Anderson-starring cartoon Stripperella—none of these ventures came to anything.

The question I kept asking while reading these chapters—and which Riesman only partially answers—was why so many people were eager to give Lee their time and money. Again and again, you see major players throwing serious money at a man who hasn't had a hit in decades, who repeatedly fails to bring projects to fruition, whose sensibility is stuck in the 60s, and who seems genuinely disinterested in the comics medium except as a means for his own aggrandizement. (This, by the way, is why I incline to the Kirby faction in the authorship question; to paraphrase Aaron Sorkin, if Stan Lee was the inventor of the Marvel universe, he'd be the inventor of the Marvel universe.) Reading these chapters felt a bit like watching the NFT craze, with people convincing themselves that merely by becoming attached to something buzzy, they are guaranteed to make money. Another similarity is that the people who shepherded Lee's various ventures grow increasingly shady, engaging in escalating financial crimes under the guise of developing the genius's vision.

True Believer shifts fully into true crime mode in these chapters, with my eyebrows rising evermore into my forehead as I read about the shenanigans Lee's partners carried out in order to pump up stock prices and make it seem that a new media empire was just around the corner. One thing these chapters establish is the difference between Lee, a bullshitter and, ultimately, a hack, and actual con-men. Though there, as well, one has to remember Lee's tendency to avoid conflict and go with the flow. At some point, refusing to ask questions about what your business partners are doing because the result flatters your ego and lines your pocket becomes indistinguishable from complicity. The impression one ultimately forms is of a man who wanted fame and fortune but wasn't interested in working for them, and who ended up attaching himself to anyone who promised that they would come, simply as a consequence of being Stan Lee.

The book, and Lee's life, end on a tragic note, as after the death of his wife he falls prey to an array of unscrupulous grifters vying for control of his finances. The descriptions of abuse and exploitation are hard to read, even as you're forced to consider that this was, perhaps, an inevitable outcome for a man who surrounded himself with the kind of people willing to swallow and amplify his bullshit. That twist of cruel poetic justice is among the many things that convince me that Lee's life is ripe for adaptation into an antihero drama—though this may prove difficult to pull off, as one of the many foolish business decisions Lee was persuaded to make involved selling away his life and likeness rights, which are now only one bone of contention in a legal battle between several companies that will probably draw on for years. The goal for all of these companies is, presumably, to perpetuate the Stan Lee brand long past the actual man's death, but True Believer presents us with a person, however flawed and tragic. We'd all be better off if that became the dominant narrative.

Comments

Chris said…
"For a man who sold heroism, he seems to have been remarkably conflict-averse, preferring to go along with whatever the strongest person (or sometimes the last person) who spoke to him wanted. The coiner (or at least popularizer) of the phrase "with great power, comes great responsibility" didn't seem to feel much responsibility towards those he had power over."

Is J. Jonah Jameson low-key based on Stan Lee? I ask because parts of this review reminded me of him. I don't have an exhaustive knowledge of Spidey canon, but in the books I've read he's usually portrayed as having solid values in the abstract (labor rights and civil rights advocate, among other things), and having often used his newspaper to do good things for society, but is also exploitative as hell of his employees (Peter Parker), prone to irrational grudges that can derail his better instincts (Spider-Man), and kind of an all-around asshole. In other words, the kind of outlet into which overworked under-recognized Marvel writers might pour their annoyance at a self-promoting and unappreciative boss.
Jack Elving said…
To Chris:

Lee *liked* to associate himself with J. Jonah Jameson but that was very likely out of a sense of self-aggrandizement. It's not clear if the idea for Jameson came from Steve Ditko rather than Stan Lee for one thing.

Jameson's defining quality is that he didn't care if you liked him, or you thought he was an a--hole, or any such things. He was suspicious of popularity and populism and didn't covet those qualities himself. Whereas Stan Lee was very much a populist who wanted to be liked.

The one example of a character directly based on the real Stan Lee is Jack Kirby's famous spoof Funky Flashman in Mr. Miracleman, an earnest avuncular sounding guy with pretentious affectations. A bald guy who wears a toupee (just like Lee in the early 1970s) who pretends to be a generation younger than he is. That was Kirby's critical view of how fame altered Stan Lee's personality from a mousy middle-aged bald executive (which is how he appeared during his collaboration with Ditko and Lee) to a jive-talking college lecturer who put on airs of being an intellectual.

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