• Dan Newland

True Believer

The Great Debate is a weekly column examining new and classic books about the creators, craft, and history of comics. If you know of upcoming books you would like to see reviewed, please let us know in the comments!


Author: Abraham Riesman

Publisher: Crown

Publication Year: 2021

Pages: 394

Riesman, Abraham. True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee. New York: Crown, 2021.

WHAT IS IT?

True Believer is an unflinching and often painful look at the life and times (and crimes?) of Marvel’s legendary Stan Lee.


The inside of the book jacket bills this as the “definitive” biography of Stan Lee, but this book is far more likely to incite debates than settle them. Reitman’s work here is overtly revisionist and contentious. At its core, True Believer is akin to an issue of Marvel’s What If? in that it posits a question and then builds an entire reality around that idea:


What If…Stan Lee Lied About Everything?!



WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Author Abraham Riesman uses the Stan Lee Papers collection at the University of Wyoming and numerous interviews with Lee’s friends and family to create a biography that peels away Lee’s ebullient and sometimes goofy public persona. Behind that mask, Riesman portrays Lee as a deeply flawed and unfulfilled man. Moreover, he posits that most of Lee’s most heralded accomplishments involved him improperly taking credit for the work of others, and that his Marvel legacy is built on myths and lies.


This is a solidly written and researched book, but it seems unnecessarily cold, is a bit tawdry, and is desperate to stir controversy. I am uncomfortable with True Believer as a historian, and I imagine that for many longtime comic fans it will be akin to reading a Woodward and Bernstein expose that accuses their favorite uncle of being a liar, a fake, and maybe even a racist.


WHAT WORKS?

  • Riesman is an excellent writer, and this book is an extremely quick and engaging read. True Believer mixes investigative journalism and interviews and puts together a strong case for Riesman’s contention that “Stan Lee’s story is where objective truth goes to die.”

  • Riesman begins with an excellent, if perhaps overlong, genealogy of Lee’s family, resulting in Lee himself not entering the narrative until page 25 of his own life story! Riesman does not waste these pages, though. Throughout the book, he shows how Lee’s choices and opportunities were tightly bound to his upbringing and family history.

  • Riesman also does a really nice job of showing how Lee initially developed a rapport with fans by adopting an outsized persona in letter columns and later became the booming voice and smiling face of Marvel’s TV and movie empire. He contrasts Lee’s public and personal life regularly, eventually concluding that the greatest fictional character Stan Lee ever actually created was his own “Stan Lee” public persona.

  • The sections on Stan Lee Media and POW are brilliantly written and, within them, Riesman displays the investigative skills of an IRS auditor. He shows how the shell game worked and makes it easy to understand why these companies eventually fell apart. This is also one area where Riesman absolutely has the receipts to back up his claims. Lee either knew and looked the other way, or just kept his eyes averted to keep from knowing. In either case, the facts reflect poorly on him.

  • The portrayal of Stan’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his brother Larry is effective and heartbreaking. True Believer is at its best when it is examining Lee’s relationships with friends, coworkers, and family. Riesman is sympathetic in discussing Lee’s affection for his wife and clearsighted in showing how difficult the relationship between him and his daughter could be.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK?

  • My primary critique of True Believer is this: to the extent that a good biography should also be good history, I think this book misses the mark. When talking about the controversy over who created the Fantastic Four, Riesman himself notes that history is difficult. Where he makes his mistake, I believe, is revealed in his summary of the dispute over the creation of the Fantastic Four:

  • Faced with a momentous event that no one alive can definitively speak to, and admittedly possessing no conclusive evidence either way, Riesman makes a fateful choice. Rather than "split the baby," he decides to give full custody to Kirby. True Believer then spends significant time presenting evidence that bolsters Kirby’s claims that he was the sole creative force behind Marvel Comics' most iconic heroes. It is very possible that things did happen as Kirby and Riesman state. Steve Ditko had similar complaints with Spider-Man. There is no doubt that both Kirby and Ditko deserved far more credit than they originally received, and a significant part of that is Stan Lee’s fault. That said, Riesman neglects or glosses over some pro-Lee evidence, and he ends up contending that Lee likely had almost nothing to do with key books such as early Fantastic Four and Spider-Man comics. Believing Kirby means accepting that Lee lied, and that he continued lying throughout his life to prop up that fiction. And if he lied about something as important as the origins of the Marvel universe, then Riesman reasons that perhaps Lee lied about other things. Or everything. This line of thought, for better or worse, then colors the rest of the book and, at least for me, this undermined many of Riesman’s arguments.

  • Perhaps the unkindest cut came when Riesman refused to even acknowledge one of Lee’s most significant (and heretofore unchallenged) contributions to American culture. Regarding the famed Spider-Man quote “with great power comes great responsibility” Riesman states that others (including Churchill and FDR) had said something similar in the past, but he admits that those past quotes were slightly different and presents no evidence that Lee swiped from these sources. Even so, he is unable to come to terms with the prospect that perhaps Lee actually did write something that was noteworthy. At the end of his analysis of the topic, Riesman grudgingly admits Lee may indeed have come up with the line, but then his cynicism forces him to add “Or maybe he ripped somebody off.” (Riesman, 123)


WHY SHOULD I READ IT?

If you are looking for a well-researched and comprehensive look at Stan Lee’s private life, with a particular focus on his later years, Riesman has you covered. He has done a lot of research on Lee’s time in California, including the Stan Lee Media debacle and Lee’s troubled home life in his final years. If you are looking for a book about the early years of Marvel, though, this is a mixed bag, and there probably are better options, some of which are listed below in this week’s expanded “What do I Read Next” section.


Who it’s for: True Believer is a great option for fans of mythbusting who are willing to accept a bit of speculative history. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes information here about Stan Lee’s life and his inner circle, and much of the analysis is very compelling. My suspicion is that a lot of people will really enjoy this book, and a lot of people will hate it.


WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • For another recent biography of Lee (from 2019): A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee by Danny Fingeroth

  • To read Lee’s story in graphic novel form: Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir by Lee with Peter David and Colleen Doran

  • For an older Lee memoir that helped create some of the myths Riesman is deconstructing: Excelsior!: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee by Lee and George Mair

  • For more on Jack Kirby: Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics by Tom Scioli

  • For more on Steve Ditko: Mysterious Travelers: Steve Ditko and the Search for a New Liberal Identity by Zack Kruse (check back next month for our review)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Abraham Riesman is a journalist and essayist who has written for numerous national magazines and newspapers. There is a photo in the book of Riesman meeting Stan Lee at a convention when he was a kid and his next book is tentatively titled Ringmaster: The Life and Times of Vince McMahon. You can find him on Twitter @abrahamjoseph or on the web at abrahamriesman.com.


HOW DO I BUY IT?

If you can, find a local independent bookstore, and buy there!

Next Week: R. Crumb by David Stephen Calonne

The copyright for image(s) used in this review are likely owned by either the publisher of the book, the writer(s) and/or artist(s) who produced the book. It is believed that the use of this image(s) qualifies as fair use under the United States copyright law. The image is used in a limited fashion in an educational manner to illustrate the points of the author and not for the purpose of entertainment or substituting the original work. It is believed the use of this image has had no impact on the market value of the original work.


This book is © 2021 Abraham Riesman. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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