New biography pulls back the scam behind the myth
No entertainment entity has dominated the past decade more than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for years the acknowledged mastermind behind each superhero was Stan “the Man” Lee. But as a new biography points out, the most lasting character to come out of Lee’s efforts might have been “Stan Lee” himself.
‘True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee,’ by Abraham Riesman, peels back the curtain and reveals that Lee, born Stanley Lieber in 1922, spent the better part of his near century on this planet screwing over the real creative voices behind characters like the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, enhancing his legend at the expense of those who did the real work. What’s more, his final years weren’t all that rosy, despite his numerous Marvel movie cameos; Riesman paints a damning portrait of the supposed “caretakers” around Lee in his final days, including his possibly bipolar daughter and a mysterious curator of celebrity images who didn’t have Lee’s best interest at heart.
The accusations that Lee was not, indeed, the sole author of the fabulous stories in the many Marvel comics that he edited are not new. But Riesman doggedly pursues the facts behind the creations of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man to show that Lee at least had help from Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko respectively. It’s more than likely that both Kirby and Ditko could have claimed sole authorship of the flagship brands. Riesman concedes that Lee, the first-generation son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, was a born salesman, and that his tenure at Marvel ultimately built the comics title from the lowly exploitation “Timely Comics” that he joined as a teenager in 1940 into the world-conquering force that it became as Marvel.
Riesman goes through the many ups and downs of Lee’s professional and personal life, starting with his alienation from his father and his nepotistic rise to the editorship of Timely Comics just as the United States was entering World War II (his cousin Martin Goodman ran the company at the time). Lee’s personal undoing would seem to be his wife Joan and only daughter JC, both of whom spent money almost as soon as Stan made it throughout the decades. Shady business dealings after Lee left Marvel to start Stan Lee Media and POW! Entertainment doesn’t do much to enhance Lee’s reputation, and the degree to which he was culpable in both enterprises’ failures is a subject for heated debate.
An interesting side character who helped Lee with SLM, Peter Paul, seems to have walked out of a cheap spy novel with all his ludicrous claims about working for the CIA, but he definitely screwed over investors. Lee’s relationship with his only brother, Larry, was strained, with the elder Stan often leaving Larry to fend for himself financially even as he gave him work at Marvel. And finally, with the battle over who got to take care of Lee in his final days, it seems that no one involved had the man himself in mind, only his presumed fortune.
Stan Lee bears more than a passing resemblance to another creature of the 1920’s, Jay Gatsby; both were young men who renamed themselves while striving or a wider society to accept them (in Lee’s case, by trying to leave comics behind to publish bizarre “funny captions” for existing photos, an obsession that he returned to often during his career), but who were never able to escape their self-created prisons.
Gatsby got a bullet to the back of the head in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. Lee got lawsuits from Ditko and the estate of Kirby over authorship of his most celebrated creations, and allegedly suffered elder abuse at the hands of his own daughter in his twilight years. It’s hard not to feel sad for Lee when you finish Riesman’s book, because even if he was the son of a bitch that many who worked for Marvel came to see him as, Lee didn’t deserve to have his life end under such terrible circumstances.
With the MCU and television projects bringing in billions for Disney and Marvel, it’s easy to forget that one man certainly served as the face of comics for well over half a century. Whether he actually created any of the characters for which he’s known, or just took credit (and there’s no doubt which side of the debate Riesman, and in turn this reviewer, takes), Stan Lee was ultimately the man most responsible for getting Marvel into the public consciousness. His life was a Greek tragedy, a man undone by hubris and betrayed by family at his most vulnerable. It’s perhaps fitting that his most famous catchphrase was “Excelsior” (Greek for “ever upward”). Like Icarus, Stan Lee flew too close to the sun, and the wings he flew with were rightfully the property of others.
Crown (February 16, 2021)