By all accounts, Stan Lee was a great comic book creator if not the greatest and most famous of all. But was he or was he not? As author Abraham Riesman’s first book tells us, the truth is actually far from reality.
Born Stanley Martin Lieber to Romanian-born Jewish immigrants, Lee didn’t have much of a relationship with his family especially after the passing of his mother. He has a somewhat estranged relationship with his father and worse, a distanced one with his only sibling, Larry. As an older sibling and one that command a pretty hefty salary and post, he didn’t pay much attention to his brother who is also working as an artist at that time.
Riesman spent the first few chapters of his book talking about Lee’s family history, his early days in education and his subsequent desire to join the army and putting in charge of Timely comics after being discharged, all the while looking for a way out of comic books. Stan always believed there’s more to his career. Typical biography stuff but bear with it.
And indeed, with the arrival of artists liked Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee finally hit the jackpot with the creation of Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and of course, Spider-man. Long-time comic book fans will know the controversies surrounding the feud between the three men which have been brewing for decades. (For the record, Kirby has passed away back in 1994 and Ditko in 2018). Riesman did a wonderful job delving into interview archives and came with a detailed picture describing about the Marvel Method (in which the writer gave an outline to an artiste before adding in dialogue) and how Lee probably tossed a few lines of story ideas while Kirby and Ditko subsequently took over the entire storyline and artwork.
Without Kirby and Ditko by his side, Lee’s creative juice seems to dry up by the 80’s. Despite his best attempts to venture into Hollywood including nearly nabbing James Cameron for Spider-man, nothing works in the end except laughingly Pamela Anderson’s Stripperella. Riesman frequently paints Stan Lee as a man who knows how to sell rather than say, writes or creates. He is the guy who takes away the credits from the artists but there are some who claimed he is one way or another, a good serviceable boss who creates a creative atmosphere in the Marvel bullpen. According to his bodyguard, he was not even a fan of the Marvel movies and surprisingly comics. The only thing he craved was to have a longer cameo in the MCU flicks. More lines, more screen time.
But the poor man who died at the age of 95 in 2018 probably spent his dying days in hell given his trust in the wrong people and his only daughter, JC as Riesman himself was shown video clips of a screaming Lee by his shady business partner. There are allegations of sexual harassment, collapsing business ventures in Stan Lee Media and POW! Sordid details that the always friendly, approachable Stan Lee persona never convey in media.
Abraham Riesman’s True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee is a rousing read that debunks the true nature of the renowned comic book creator. Given Lee’s constant habit of spinning and contradicting his wondrous tales, there might not be any more real truth uncovered in the near future. For some, his cameos in the MCU will be missed and there are some who are keen to find out more behind the man who acted as Marvel’s unofficial mascot, this is the book to start with.
Review by Linus Tee
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