Stan Lee’s most famous character was Stan Lee himself. His most powerful idea was not Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk or one of the many characters from the Marvel Comics comics he co-created, but a public figure that was instrumental in shaping the History of the comic books industry.
Crucial node in Lee’s career is the dispute regarding the authorship of some of his most famous characters, such as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, attributed now to Lee, now to the artists of the books, or to both of them, to varying degrees. In the 1960s, Marvel Comics employed a way of working later known as the “Marvel method” which involved the artist developing a brief synopsis provided by the screenwriter (sometimes just a vague indication such as “Doctor Doom steals Silver Surfer’s table”), who then returned to add the dialogues. The “Marvel method” made the assignment of credits smoky because the artists were only credited for their drawings, when in fact they were also responsible for the story.
Following Lee’s death in 2018, journalist Abraham Riesman, who, among other things, wrote a long profile on Stan Lee for Vulture magazine in 2016, has written Lee’s definitive biography. The book, True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, tells the life of Lee starting from the whereabouts of his parents, Romanian Jews who emigrated to America, passing through the golden years of Marvel Comics, his transition from writer to image man of the publisher, disputes and quarrels, ending with the tumultuous last years of his life. More than a century of storytelling that mixes personal stories and comic book history.
We had the opportunity to talk with Riesman about the work of research and writing, and the complex figure of Lee, who in this biography is shown through previously unknown aspects of his personality.
To me the book was a very unexpected read, a haunting one, because it’s full of miserable characters and tragic stories.
There’s a lot of interesting people who are maybe off beaten path or not like the rest of the world and that’s what often makes them worthy of writing about, they are people who don’t fit in the box. There are a lot of characters in Stan Lee’s life, including Stan Lee himself, who do have tragic or upsetting or disturbing life stories. That was a challenge, because you have to write and be respectful but you also want to be honest and, in the case of some of these people, being honest means saying stuff that can be upsetting to read.
I tried my best to approach every person in the book with empathy, even if I didn’t necessarily want to praise what they were doing or what they were saying. In order to write a good account of human lives you have to have empathy for the fact that we are all human, we are all flawed, we all do things that maybe we are not proud of.
Were you inspired by any biographers in particular?
I don’t actually read that many biographies. Oftentimes a biography can read like an encyclopedia, where it’s just «This happens and then this happens» and the reading experience is not very interesting or revealing. Sometimes you can have a whole biography of someone and get less real important information about who they were or why they’re important that you might get in a short profile.
I wasn’t thinking about it so much in terms of models of biography, although there was one that I thought of, a little bit, one that I read when I was beginning my research, just by coincidence, and therefore stuck in my head: the biography of Benjamin Netanyahu written by the journalist Anshel Pfeffer. It was a fascinating biography for a number of reasons. One thing that really inspired me to think about was: how do I make this story about something other than just Stan Lee? How do I make this story a story about the comic book industry, about human nature, about Hollywood, whatever.
Pfeffer did a great job: his argument was that the story of Netanyahu is the story of Israel, his life has overlapped with that story so much that in order to understand him you have to understand Israel and vice versa. And so that was how I felt about approaching the entertainment industry with my book. Stan’s life is interesting in and of itself but what’s gonna make this a worthwhile piece of writing is if I can understand and then convey larger truths that Stan Lee’s life reveals about the world around him and the ways he affected that world.
In the book there’s a quote from Gerry Conway where he says that Stan Lee was «a good guy, but not a great guy». I can’t really explain why, but it’s one of those passages that renders the figure of Stan Lee as a tragic one.
I think what he was trying to say was: there were limitations on his goodness. There were things that he didn’t do that would be good for him to do and there were things he did do that would be good he hadn’t done. And that was a sentiment I heard from a lot of people: “Stan was a friend, a mentor, supportive. But I get that Stan had a lot of failings.”
There’s a quote that was in the profile I wrote in 2016 about Stan where Colleen Doran, who drew his graphic memoir, said: «It’s one of those things where you sit down and you say, ‘You gotta be forgiving of your parents». And that was her assessment of Stan. He did a lot of stuff she found unsavory but at the same time he’s like a parent for her and for the whole comic book industry. I think that was a sentiment pretty common among the people within the business that knew the way Stan conducted himself in the comic book industry.
Once you get into the larger entertainment industry a lot of people have no idea how the comics industry works and, certainly, when it comes to Stan and the so-called Marvel Method, the average person in Hollywood has no clue about that whole issue. So, you have Stan getting sold to the world for decades and decades as this great writer when in reality he was not the main writer on these comics. There’s a lot of misconception about who he was in the entertainment world broadly.
Maybe it’s because I live in a bubble where everybody knows Stan Lee’s story, but I’ve seen you have received a lot of messages of hate from readers that, without even having read the book, believed your book just wanted to defame Lee. Is it just because you’re revealing them a truth they don’t want to hear?
A lot of people are very very enthusiastic about Stan Lee and feel a lot of emotional attachment to him. Oftentimes that enthusiasm comes from a genuine place, but is based on very little information about Stan. So my hope with this book is that people will respond to it not by saying «I love Stan, this book hates Stan therefore I hate this book» because the book doesn’t hate Stan.
I’m not trying to tear Stan down because I dislike him or anything. I’m trying to present a balanced portrait, and I tried to put in as much as was necessary to accentuate the things he did accomplish. We live in a culture where people tend to be all or nothing about the things they love or hate. People wanna just build up these gods and devils for themselves so they can have an understanding of the world that fits with that. It’s a natural human tendency.
How did you deal with the most important parts of Stan’s professional life – the creation of characters like Spider-Man or The Fantastic Four – which have non documentation whatsoever about their genesis?
If there’s one big message of the book that I was trying to convey is: unfortunately, in this life, you have to sit with ambiguity. And sometimes this ambiguity is moral – like we were saying, is somebody a good person or a bad person? – but that can also be factual ambiguity, like in the case of the Marvel characters.
I don’t foresee, ever, us finding out exactly who created those Marvel characters, who deserves credit for what and exactly how that was balanced. Neither Stan nor Jack Kirby ever said «Oh, I wish we could find those notes that I took the day I came up with this idea, if we could only find that then it would prove my case». Neither of them has ever said there was anything that really proves their case other than that Fantastic Four memo that was turned up after the fact. But as I say in the book that’s a really dubious document, because it’s unclear when it was written in the process.
There was no documentation, no recordings, and people have really searched for that stuff, there have been very high profile legal cases and a lot of comics journalism over the decades and people have tried to find the answer to that question. When I was approaching that my feeling was that I would present as much information as seems relevant to that question but also with the caveat of saying to the reader that I don’t know for sure and you have to not know for sure as well.
The irony is that we have an abundance of documents about creations that nobody cares about.
Although even there it gets tricky, because, as I tried to convey with the story of Stripperella, for example, sometimes something that was credited with “Stan Lee’s insert name here,” he really didn’t have much to do with that and there you actually have documented, easy evidence saying he didn’t do it, but nobody cares about those things so nobody bothered trying to point that out. But I thought that was important.
The story of Stripperella is exemplary: he had a vague idea of a title and Pamela Anderson playing a stripper who also fights bad guys, but beyond than that there was nothing to the proposal until other people were brought on board to hash out what it was. And that was true for a lot of Stan’s projects later in life, where it was very clear who was coming up with the ideas, not necessarily Stan. He was always involved to some extent or other.
According to people who I’ve spoken with – Mark Waid is the example I use in the book – he was pretty hands off until he wasn’t. In the case of the superhero line at Boom! that Stan provided the concepts for, Stan vetoed one of the issues until it was changed because he didn’t feel comfortable putting his name on it.
When did you discover, as a reader of comic books, that Stan wasn’t necessarily the main creative force behind his characters?
I’m not sure. It happened in trickles. I remember when I was young, being in my local comics shop, and hearing some kind of intimation that maybe Stan Lee wasn’t such a great guy, but I don’t remember it being that specific, and maybe I was just too young to understand.
I think the first time that really started to crystallize just how much the popular version was not the version that was accurate was probably reading Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, which is a wonderful book that was one of the things that inspired me to start writing about comics professionally and looking into it as an object of study. It’s funny, I remember reading it and not being completely surprised so I must have had some degree of knowledge. I do remember going «Ohhh, I didn’t get just how big the difference is between ‘this guy was definitely the writer of these things’ and the reality of the Marvel Method, which was much more hard to pin down».
I remember clearly seeing the Jonathan Ross’ documentary, In Search of Steve Ditko, and being taken aback by that revealing interview with Lee.
The Jonathan Ross documentary was a landmark, and I think it was a big step for comics scholarship because it presented in a very exciting, accessible, and digestible way a set of questions that are actually very complicated not just in terms of answering them but even understanding what the question is.
The Marvel Method was really weird and, more importantly, it was never the same twice — there were different levels of contribution. That documentary was huge. My hope with this book that I wrote is that we can advance comics scholarship a little more. These are massively consequential questions related to a multi billion dollar industry, and comics journalism and comics history are still outsider things. There’s no money or institutional support and that’s too bad.
I’m looking forward to reading the Douglas Wolk book where he reads every Marvel comic and I hope the market starts to reward those kinds of works. I don’t wanna point fingers but there are a lot of bad things happening in the comic book industry that goes unreported on.
What was the most surprising discovery you made during the research process?
For me the most interesting stuff, maybe this is just me and my personal interests, was learning about Stan’s family and his Jewish background. I’m Jewish and I think a lot about Jewish history and Jewish art. There was virtually no knowledge about his origin and his Jewish background, and what was out there was misunderstood, so I was lucky to have resources like databases that a generation ago would have been much harder to have access to. But I also hired a professional genealogist, Meryl Schumaker, who helped me a lot.
When it came to upbringing and family, talking to Larry Lieber was very important. I walked away with my breath taken away when I heard the story about how their dad would write these letters to Stan telling him he wasn’t doing enough for the Jewish community. And that was something that really disappointed his dad. Stan was so removed from Jewishness and the Jewish religion that it’s frustrating sometimes to see writers claiming his art as Jewish art.
I guess people want him to fit within the overall mold of Jewishness of the comic book industry in general.
In his memoir, he spoke about not being able to adopt a child because he was in a mixed marriage. There is a line in which he says «She’s Episcopalian and my parents were Jewish». He had the opportunity of saying «I’m Jewish» and very specifically does not take this opportunity. Stan was a Jewish guy who, to a great extent, didn’t want to be thought of as Jewish, and I did not expect to find that. The comic book industry was a Jewish industry, that’s unavoidable. But that doesn’t mean that the finished product was inherently Jewish.
You were also able to dive into the almost 200 boxes of the “Stan Lee Papers”, an archive of personal items donated by Stan and his wife to the American Heritage Center of the University of Wyoming. Was it helpful in any way?
It was. The thing that really surprised me was the amount of home movies that were in there, especially in the Eighties, but also in the Fifties. In those two periods they filmed a lot. And, for whatever reason, they donated that to the archive. They are extremely revealing about the family dynamics and their personal lives. I was shocked that they donated those VHS tapes.
If I were setting up an archive for myself, I’m not sure I would do that. I don’t know why they did that, but one theory I have is: Stan wanted there someday to be a more complete picture of him put out there that was not just his professional story. There’s too many personal things in that archive for me to think there wasn’t some degree of deliberate choosing to have personal information be part of the historical record. It may have been just accidental, but it’s entirely possible that was very deliberate.
One of the most memorable characters of the book – for the wrong reasons – is Stan Lee’s daughter, JC, who didn’t want to speak with you about his father’s life.
I was really surprised to hear the kind of things people would say about her, on the record, with their names attached. They didn’t feel any trepidation about telling me very flat out what they thought of JC, and it was very negative. Kevin Smith [writer and director of Clerks] told me she’s “the worst fucking human being in the world.” I had to work around her rather than deal with her directly, for the most part.
It’s a book that unrolls itself, in a way. Like you said in the book: Stan Lee’s story is where objective truth goes to die. How did you deal with that?
I felt there were times I had to be direct with the reader, because sometimes the information only made sense in context, and I also wanted to be open about what I could or could not answer with certainty to some questions. It builds a trust between the reader and the writer a lot better if you are open and honest. I guess the overarching message of the book is: there are no superheroes, we’re all human beings that make mistakes. You have to live with ambiguity.