The Marvelous Mr. Lee

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Stan Lee

True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee

by Abraham Riesman

Crown, 335 pages, $28

Reviewed by Dan Raviv


I had the joy—definitely a joy—of chatting several times with Stan Lee, the unabashedly self-promoting co-creator of Marvel Comics superheroes. He was a great conversationalist, even if his favorite topics were his own successes and plans. I was sad to hear of his death in November 2018, just short of age 96; then even sadder to learn that his final years were marred by bitter fights involving his only child and a coterie of caretakers and managers who tried to cash in on his fame. 

Lee—who was born Stanley Lieber but always downplayed his Jewishness—was himself a hero to millions of comic book fans around the world because, as Marvel’s editor-in-chief for decades, he presided over the birth of characters ranging from Spider-Man to Black Panther. These characters accompanied a legion of American men (many more men than women) from childhood right past middle age as sources of inspiration. Readers, and now movie fans, could relate to the everyday frustrations of folks with superpowers, as Marvel’s “universe” had a lot more quotidian frustrations and family dramas than their rivals at DC Comics, with their Superman and Batman. 

Fans cheered at Lee’s brief cameo appearances in more than 40 Marvel films, and Lee was always smiling and optimistic when interviewed about his projects and how he enjoyed being an icon of pop culture.

Yet reality is seldom so sunny. The indignities of old age, intermeshed with litigation and elder abuse allegations, dominate the last 20 percent of Abraham Riesman’s 335-page biography of Lee. The latter part of his life can be as confusing as it is depressing, but Riesman has done a good job of summarizing many conflicting versions of events in a way that makes for dramatic reading if one is patient and wants the details.

Most of the book is a pleasure to read, filled with fascinating characters—both fictional and real—at Marvel Comics, from the first issue in 1939 through Stan Lee’s growth into a superstar in this particular niche of entertainment, a move from New York to Hollywood that led to very few successes, a fading role in the 1990s, and then the acquisition of Marvel by new Israeli-American owners who ignored his artistic advice.

To adapt a famous phrase from Spider-Man, with great thoroughness comes great responsibility. Riesman is impressively thorough in portraying Lee’s life as a colorful journey. He begins in an unexpected way: in Romania, the birthplace of Lee’s parents, who migrated to New York in 1901 and 1906 before they met and married. Riesman hired researchers to unearth details of a pogrom in Romania and concludes that Stan Lee’s father—Iancu Urn Liber, known later in America as Jack Lieber—“saw the Jews of his city assaulted and learned he would never be at home in his homeland.” That theory is used to support Riesman’s contention that Stan (born in 1922) would be guided by a desire to “escape: from his economic class, from obscurity, even from his own family.”

The biographer persuaded Lee’s reclusive younger brother, Larry Lieber, to speak at length about the rocky relationship he had with his stellar sibling. Stan could be warm, though, and got Larry a gig that lasted until 2018 when he was 86 years old—drawing the Spider-Man comic strip syndicated in newspapers around the world, still credited to “Lee and Lieber” in the last panel each day, even after others were hired to write the stories and pencil the action. 

We learn that their father was unhappy in 1947 when Stan married a British model named Joan, who would be the love of his life, and then was livid when their baby was baptized as a Christian. Jack Lieber sent letters (from one Manhattan neighborhood to another) that told his son he should “be more Jewish” and “observe the holidays.”  

“To him,” Riesman writes, “Stan was just an apostate ex-Jew who had been nothing but a disappointment.” The biographer had a chance, near the end of Lee’s life, to ask him how he was influenced by being a Jew from New York. In the reply, though, Lee identified only as a lifelong New Yorker—even after he had moved to Los Angeles, hoping to turn his comic book characters into movie and TV stars.

Readers familiar with the darker side of the Marvel publishing and cinematic empire may know that there are endless arguments over who deserves credit for creating Spider-Man, Iron-Man, the X-Men, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk and other characters that turned out to be worth billions of dollars. Riesman, though not concealing that he liked Lee, is skeptical of the comic book auteur’s claim that he created all of them—and we have a well-curated selection of evidence that Marvel artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko deserved a lot more credit than they received before they died, in 1994 and 2018 respectively. It seems that Lee often did little more than suggest some storylines to the men who drew the pictures, yet it was self-labeled “Stan the Man” who grabbed all the acclaim.  

The overall impression left by this highly readable biography is that Lee was one of the most adroit BS artists of the past century, although also certainly blessed with talent and a powerful determination to be rich and famous. He did make a lot of money and attracted millions of fans he called “true believers,” but he also made quite a few enemies—including, by the end, his own daughter, described in this book as spoiled, entitled and ungrateful.

Prodded, nursed and exploited in his final months, Lee is described by friends who saw him as just plain “tired” and ready to leave the reality of this world. He could take satisfaction, and probably did, that his creations are still huge hits—whether in the Avengers movies, in inside-joke winking TV references such as “WandaVision” or in good old-fashioned comic books. He used “Excelsior!” as his personal slogan, to declare that fantasy and entertainment would forever rise upward to greater glory. Stan Lee wrote that Latin word, right next to his signature, on one of my Marvel comics.

Dan Raviv is the author of Comic Wars: Marvel’s Battle for Survival, as well as books on Israeli espionage and U.S.-Israel relations.

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