Smash Pages Q&A: Abraham Riesman on ‘True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee’

The author and journalist discusses his new book on the life and career of longtime Marvel editor and publisher Stan Lee.

True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee is, I would argue, the best book written about the longtime Marvel editor and publisher Stan Lee. It is a thoroughly researched look at Lee’s life, his family history, his business dealings at Marvel and afterwards.

Lee’s defenders have been attacking or dismissing the book since before its publication, because it dents the myth of Stan Lee that he and others built. Unfortunately much of the conversation around the book has been around whether Lee is given too little credit for Marvel’s success in the 1960s instead of seriously addressing a lot of the issues that author Abraham Riesman uncovers and writes about at length.

Abraham Riesman is a journalist best known for his work at New York Magazine’s Vulture. He’s written extensively about the comics industry over the years, but in this book, Riesman writes a story of assimilation, of the fantasy of success and the brutality reality of it, of corporate criminality. Lee was beloved by many; he is a complicated figure at best.

This is a biography of Stan Lee and a family history. You also look at how Marvel worked, so it required a lot of business journalism. Going into it, were you thinking that the book would require a lot of approaches?

Going into it, I knew that if you live to be nearly a century old and have as much impact in as many different sectors as Stan did, there’s going to be a lot of different kinds of stories you’re going to have to tell. As you say, there’s business journalism in there. There’s genealogy. There’s Jewish history. To a certain degree, creative analysis. I’m lucky because I’ve had a varied career in journalism. I’ve not just written about the comic book industry. I did my best trying to bring those skills when I was approaching different parts of Stan’s story. I hope I pulled it off, but that was on my mind.

People have written that Lee had a complicated relationship with his father Jack Lieber, but getting into the family history as you did, not to reduce him to a stereotype, but Lee’s story is the story of a child of immigrants who wants to assimilate and be “American.”

In a lot of ways, yeah. He was born into a very open and serious Jewish household. They were not religiously observant, but the Liebers were not attempting to erase all Jewishness from their identity. A lot of Jewish immigrant families did, but the Liebers did not.

Stanley, who grew up to be Stan Lee, had no interest in that. He had no interest in being a part of the Jewish community, in Jewish tradition or Jewish identity. That’s not an indictment. Everybody is free to have whatever relationship with their ethnicity and religion that they want, but it was very disappointing to Stan’s father, who was born in Eastern Romania, had been around horrific anti-semitism there. He had come to the U.S. and remained fiercely proud of being Jewish. He was a Zionist, went to synagogue, and he was very disappointed when Stan married outside of the religion. He married an Episcopalian Englishwoman. According to Larry [Lieber] and others, that really infuriated Jack. Then it got even worse when three years later Stan and Joan had their first child and had her baptized. Stan’s brother Larry described the act of telling Jack as an act of cruelty.

That distance from the Jewish community I think is something that I think you have to look at if you’re going to understand Stan’s relationship with his father – and you have to look at his relationship with his father to understand Stan. Beyond those facts of why it was interesting, I just personally find that stuff interesting. Jewish stories and stories of people who assimilate or don’t are inherently fascinating to me, but you’re right. He assimilated. He did not want anything to do with being a Jew. And that’s a very American story. It’s something worth noting.

Stan Lee believed in the American dream. And that’s what he chased.

It’s certainly what he espoused. Maybe he didn’t use the words “American Dream,” but the message of Stan Lee the character was always “work hard and stay true to yourself, and you’ll succeed.” Once you start digging into Stan’s success and what he did with that success, it’s more a story about American reality. I know I’m repeating myself. I say this in the book, but I say it for a reason – this is how success really works in America. It’s not a country where if you just work hard and stay true to yourself you’re going to make it. Those things are nice, but often what gets you ahead is less savory tactics and oftentimes the good guys finish last. Again, it’s a very American story.

It is believed by a lot of people that Stan Lee was comics’ greatest editor. But Stan was never satisfied with that title. He always wanted to be more than that.

Yeah, he did not want to be known as comics’ greatest editor or comics’ greatest salesman. You can argue that he was both of those, but that was not what he sold himself as. He sold himself, though he didn’t always use these words, but the gist was that he was a great writer and a great ideas man. Both those things are dubious claims. His talent at editing and selling are not in doubt. He was unimpeachably good at that. But when it comes to writing and coming up with original ideas, it’s a lot more ambiguous. Unfortunately for the clarity of Stan’s legacy, that was the stuff he chose to emphasize. 

The idea he had of going to Hollywood and becoming a producer, that was in a lot of ways what he had been doing at Marvel.

He had this period in the ’60s where he was really firing on all cylinders in terms of his fame. It was upward and upward and upward. Excelsior translates from Latin as “Ever upward” and that was the trajectory Stan was on throughout the ’60s.

Then he hits the ’70s and things get more complicated. He tries to ascend even beyond comics and into Hollywood and into other projects, magazines. That didn’t work out for him, but it never stopped him trying. He kept pushing well past the point where people in the pitch rooms felt super comfortable about what he was saying, because he reached a point where he was really behind the times.

I talked with Kurt Busiek, and he told that story about working on Excelsior Comics, this ’90s comics project at Marvel that Stan was working on. I believe the way he phrased it was, Stan’s ideas were updated to about 1986 but the comics are being worked on in 1995. He was not up on what was going on in comics, much less in Hollywood. His reputation suffered for that. He became more of a punchline among certain people than the creative god he’d been treated as before.

At the end of his life, when he was famous for his cameos in the movies and had acclaim from the culture at large in a way he hadn’t before, creatively Stan was doing nothing. He never could have made those films happen. And he couldn’t get anything else made.

Yeah. You can’t help but wonder what if he had chosen different angles in the entertainment world. He was good friends with Lloyd Kaufman, who runs Troma, the famous B-movie house. Stan did cameos in a bunch of Troma movies, and they were working on schlocky ideas here and there. I can’t help but wonder, would Stan have been happier if he had embraced doing something like that? Because he was really good at coming up with sometimes hilariously not great ideas, but if you’re in a realm  like Troma, hilarious not quite great ideas can be a strength. You can turn that into something funny and exciting and beautiful. But he was really trying to make much more serious or at least earnest stuff.

The final few decades of his life, other than the cameos, is failure after failure. Either things that don’t get off the ground at all or things like Stan Lee Media that do get off the ground and are a complete disaster in the end. More often than not, it was stuff that just didn’t materialize. POW Entertainment would send out this endless stream of announcements about deals they were cutting or products they were going to put out, and a huge portion of the time, none of it materialized. Stan was frustrated by that. I’ve heard audio of him near the end of his life really railing against POW and how could they not have put together a hit movie yet. 

For most of his life, Stan was very much a company man.

He stood by Marvel for the most part. Obviously there were moments of conflict, but other than this strange 2002-2005 lawsuit, for the most part he stuck with Marvel. He was in practically every Marvel movie. That was advantageous to him, but also, he didn’t like rocking the boat all that much. He saw that as a valuable relationship to have so he maintained it.

That was good for Marvel and Disney because as long as he was the guy credited with being the co-creator or even the initial editor of these ideas, there was a firmer claim on them for Marvel. He was on staff at Marvel back in the ’60s. Although he was writing on a freelance basis, he was still on staff, whereas Jack Kirby and all the artists were freelancers. If Kirby’s claim to have created the characters is true – or let’s say, if his claim had been accepted as the narrative – it would be a lot more difficult for Marvel and Disney because they would have to claim ownership of something that was made by a freelancer who didn’t particularly like Marvel. So Marvel and Disney had an interest in sticking by Stan. And vice versa.

He was a company man, but he was also always chasing after money.

He wanted money and he wanted fame. Who among us doesn’t? Part of the problem was he had a wife and a daughter, and it’s awkward to talk about because you don’t want to sound like a misogynist, but based on what many other people and Stan himself – and to a certain extent the wife and daughter themselves say – they had very expensive habits. Stan, by his own admission, did things well into his 90s like convention appearances, signings, so on and so forth, in no small part because he needed liquid cash to keep his household running. He was very old and very tired and having medical problems, but he kept doing conventions because he needed the money.

For the later chapters you talked with a lot of people, and I think we can include Stan, who had, let’s say, a flexible relationship with the truth?

Yeah. It was tough to try and sort through stuff.

For all the questions of who created what back in the 1960s, that’s nothing compared to trying to sort through the last two decades of Stan’s business and personal life.

You are hitting the nail on the head. People ask me a lot about the creative controversies and who created what. There I can pretty much say, “We’re never really going to know.” It’s much dicier with the more recent stuff.

We’re closer to that so there probably are answers out there, but you have to deal with a lot of characters who – without naming names – are not going to tell you the whole truth. Or at least who have a deep agenda when it comes to presenting a certain narrative. That was a very challenging and frustrating part of the book. You’ll see in the finished product that I hedge on a lot because I wasn’t there and these are very high stakes questions. There are questions about elder abuse and theft, and that’s tough to sort through in a way that feels careful, fact-based, and is not making wild claims. Sorting through the truth and lies of the last 20 years of Stan’s life, but especially the last year and a half of his life, was a real challenge.

I hope I pulled it off to some degree. There are still questions that are unanswered.

You have that one interview from earlier when Stan had a different answer about how Marvel worked, which was fascinating. I’m sure you have ideas about many things that happened, but you didn’t put it in because you couldn’t prove it. 

I have theories, but they’re theories. I didn’t want to put in this book anything that I couldn’t back up. With the full knowledge that facts are elusive things and one can never really know the truth. I did not want to put in a whole lot of opinionating. 

Larry Lieber really stood out and became this tragic center of the book — or spine of the book. Whatever metaphor we want to use. He’s one of those comics creators I think a lot of us know, but not really.

Larry was never as famous as the other members of the Marvel stable from that era. By his own admission, he was not a creative powerhouse. But he had a role in a lot of things.

I like to point out that he’s the guy who came up with the name Tony Stark. He came up with this name that is now a word known around the entire planet. Larry Lieber, who lives in a studio apartment on the Upper East Side that he’s lived in since 1968. He has virtually no fame, is not a wealthy man, had a difficult relationship with his brother. He came up with the name Tony Stark, and that should mean something. But we live in this world where the comics industry is so terrible for the creative laborers that he does not get recognition, he does not get a lot of money. It’s sad. 

Talking to Larry for the long periods I got to talk to him was a completely fascinating and revelatory process. He kept saying the magic words that every interviewer wants to hear, “I never told anyone this, but…” I kept hearing these stories that, according to him, he’d never told. I first met him 40-odd days after his brother died and for whatever reason he decided to come forward with a lot of this.

I agree he is kind of the framing of the book and maybe the spine. He is the last person alive who knew Stanley Lieber. He didn’t know Stanley Lieber that well, because he was pretty distant from his brother even when they were kids. But he knew him and there are very few other people alive you can say that about. He had to be the spine of the book in a way because he’s the one person who caught a glimpse of the unformed clay. I will be forever grateful to him that he was so generous with his time and his stories. I really learned a tremendous amount and hope that that makes its way to the reader because it’s crucial stuff for understanding this very consequential human figure Stan Lee.

And he perfectly quoted that line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with which you end the book.

He just handed me that one on a platter! Two things. One, Larry Lieber loves old movies. He watches TCM all day. In that one interview he said, I feel like I’m talking about Charles Foster Kane. I thought, well, that’s going in the book. Then he said the line from Liberty Valance and I was like, that’s one’s going in too. It was a fascinating set of conversations I had with him and I’m really glad that he was willing to talk with me.

I’m sure some people will yell about the book and complain you didn’t respect Stan enough and all that.

I’ve gotten flack from people upset that they think I was too negative about Stan. I get that. Stan means a lot to people. Stan was a very powerful, emotional figure for a lot of folks, and I operated from that assumption when I was researching and writing the book. I didn’t want to write a hatchet job or an expose. That’s not interesting. What’s interesting is a story and a portrait of a guy. A lot of people are very invested in the myth. A lot of people don’t like hearing about Stan not being a great guy or Stan being in trouble. I get that, but it was something I had to talk about if I was going to tell an honest portrayal of Stan.

In the end, it is a very human portrait of him.

He was a human being. What I always say is that one of the lessons of this book is that there are no superheroes. He was not a superhero; he was a guy. Like any guy he had failings and made mistakes and made enemies and also had great achievements and accomplished a lot. There’s no simple narrative about Stan.

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