Numlock Sunday: Abraham Josephine Riesman on True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week, I spoke to Abraham Josephine Riesman, the author of the electric new book True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, out last week. It’s another podcast Sunday edition. Let me know what you think of these.
I have been waiting for this book for ages, I’m a huge fan of Abe’s and the topic could not be more prescient. We talk about the actual role Lee played in making the characters, how Stan Lee was ahead of his time when it came to making a living as a proto-influencer, and the undercovered, complex and unsavory period from the 1970s through his death. It’s a complicated portrait of a complicated guy, and is deeply reported at every stage.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The book is out, you've been working on this for quite a while at this point. It was delayed back in September. It's all about one of these people who have become a very central figure in modern American pop culture, Stan Lee. What got you interested in him as an individual?
Oh, geez, what got me interested in him? I guess you have to go a long ways back for the beginnings of it in that I grew up reading comics and being interested in Marvel. I think I first became aware of Stan Lee when I was very young, watching the now mostly forgotten Marvel Action Hour cartoon show. He used to introduce the animated segments there. And basically he remained this figure in the background of my life, in the way that he's been in the background of the lives of countless people who have engaged with Marvel superhero products. And long story short in 2015, I started writing a profile of Stan for my then place of employment, New York Magazine, and it came out in 2016. Then in 2018, when Stan passed away, an editor at Penguin Random House who had read the 2016 profile approached me about writing a full biography, and that's where it began.
He's interesting because he had a fairly seminal role at a company that has become incredibly central to American pop culture, but he himself has appeared in a lot of these entities. How did you get at the question of who is Stan Lee in terms of both the public and private and the individual person?
Well, it's a big question, isn't it? I tried to base it on as much evidentiary stuff as I could, as opposed to surmise and opinion. So, I did more than 150 interviews. I went through thousands and thousands of pages of his personal and professional documents, which were mostly ones that I got from the University of Wyoming, their American Heritage Center, which is where Stan's papers and other archival materials are stored — long story about why it's in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming. But, yeah, in addition to reading through documents, I also watched a bunch of home movies. There was this Holy Grail moment of the last day I was at the archives — I only had five days there — I found this box among the almost 200 boxes of materials there that was just a bunch of unlabeled home movies.
I started popping them in the little VCR they had at the reading room, and was just blown away by the fact that right under my nose there had been all this stuff that the Lee family either advertently or inadvertently had left behind for posterity. So, you take that, you take the documentation, you take the interviews, you take the comics, you just throw everything in a blender and try to sort it out in your brain and then put it on paper. There's no magic recipe to it. You just have to engage with the source material and then see if you can craft something from it.
It's fascinating because this is an individual around whom a couple of major corporations have attempted to construct a mythology.
A lot of your reporting, whether it was in that feature from a few years back or in the book itself, it's not poking holes, but really saying a lot of what we held up to be the myth of Stan Lee, is it necessarily as black and white as it might appear. Do you want to go into some of what you found?
There's a lot that Stan was less than truthful about, a lot of things he just outright lied about and then other things where there were sins of omission or misdirection. And the big thing that matters when it comes to talking about Stan's dissembling — there's a lot of things that matter with that — but the big one, as you mentioned, is the corporate claim on Stan and the characters that Stan was credited with creating. What my research turned up was there's literally no evidence Stan created any of those characters.
No, there's none. There's nothing. There's no presentation boards. There's no diary entries. There's no contemporaneous accounts from friends saying Stan was working on this and told me about it and then he created it. Nothing. It was a fly by night industry, so there wasn't a whole lot of documentation of anything to be fair, but there's significant evidence — it doesn't prove it, I don't have a smoking gun — but there's significant evidence or at least testimony that goes against Stan's word and says that one of his main collaborators, Jack Kirby, was the guy who came up with almost all of those characters.
Jack was also an artist. So he, according to him and his defenders, created the characters from whole cloth, whereas Stan at best can only claim to have come up with the idea. He was not an artist, so he didn't come with the visual look of these characters. It's a sticky thing because, again, you're not going to find a smoking gun. There really was just terrible documentation and a large lack of professionalism at comics companies circa the 1960s.
These were not the glossy corporate entities that they are now. Marvel was not a Disney subsidiary as it is now back in 1961. So, we don't really know who created those characters, but what I wanted to do in the book was just say the fact, which is we don't know that it was Stan. We've just taken it for granted that Stan was presented to us factually as the progenitor of these characters, usually at best you'll get people saying, “Jack was the co-creator, Jack did it with Stan.” Now that may be the case, but we don't know that. We can't say that with any certainty. It may well be that Jack was the only one who was actually coming up with these characters and that he was doing them from whole cloth. That's not even getting into the stuff that Stan more transparently lied about when it comes to crediting his collaborators for the actual comics they made. It's a long, complicated thing, but basically the process by which the classic Marvel stories were created was not "Stan sits down and writes a script, and then hands the script to the artists to draw." Stan was not writing scripts. He was having brief conversations with the artists who would then go home and write the story. So, really they were writer-artists.
They would go home and just draw out the entirety of the narrative that they were working on in the comic, add in little notes sometimes in the margins about what dialogue should go in there, and then they would hand this completed story, or more or less completed story, to Stan who would then add in dialogue and narration. Now, the dialogue and narration were very important, I don't want to discount that, and he also wrote the letters columns in the back, which were enormously influential and helped create the Marvel phenomenon. But he wasn't crediting his artists as co-writers, which they were. You can even argue that they were the primary writers since they were the ones who were actually coming up with the structure of the narratives. Anyway, I could go on and on like this, but that's just one area in which I wanted to cast some light on the disputes and force people to live with the ambiguity, which no one likes, of not knowing who actually is responsible for these things that are so enormously popular and prominent.
We always talk about people who were ahead of their time, and oftentimes that's indicated as a very unambiguously positive statement, but the idea of a person who is a brand creator, that seems fairly prescient for a couple of reasons. It's not the first time that, again, not necessarily negatively, not necessarily positively, somebody has been able to float to vast cultural influence through basically brand definition and steering.
You're exactly right. Stan was, in a time when we didn't talk about branding the way we talk about it now or being an influencer or any number of pop-y terms that we use to describe the present day media landscape, he really was an influencer and a brand himself. His personal brand and the brand of Marvel were intimately intertwined, and he was so good at promotion. There are very few people in the history of American life who have sold better and at a higher profile than Stan Lee, and that's huge. Jack may have been the person coming up with the characters, but Jack was a terrible salesman in terms of public relations and advertising and slogans and all of that. That was not something he was good at or enjoyed, whereas Stan, that was what he lived for.
He loved being a raconteur. He loved creating a fan base. He loved all of that. And without him, I don't think we would have the Marvel phenomenon, even if the creative material had been in there, it wouldn't have become this — again, to use a modern term to describe something not so modern — it wouldn't have gone viral in the way that it did. He was ahead of his time. I find myself, as I promote this book, often looking in the mirror and thinking, well, I've become my subject. There's so much in just the modern publishing landscape that requires you to be a Stan Lee if you want to succeed. It's all about individual hustle and getting your name out there. I wasn't alive in the ‘60s, but I don't presume these things were talked about in quite the same way that they are now, and they were skills that Stan had that, if anything, in the ‘60s were maligned.
That was back when the biggest object of joking that you could put into a satirical pop culture thing was about ad men. That was one of the reasons that Mad Men was the show that it was, because it was set during a time when being in advertising was in a lot of ways like having a tech gig now in that there was good money to be made, it was very much a hotly discussed industry, it was all based on bluster, et cetera, et cetera. And at the time you could really make fun of somebody for being a big promoter and advertiser, but Stan was really good at it! Now it's something we look at with a great deal of admiration, or at least grudging admiration when people can pull that off. And Stan really did.
Partially because they're both owned by Disney now, but you have a guy like Jim Henson who was very much in the trenches of making the art that he was promoting pretty consistently, and then Stan really was a little bit more hands-off than I think people tend to think when it comes to developing characters.
For the most part. Again, we don't know because we can't go back in time and figure out exactly who said what inside a closed room. We'll never know for certain, but even when it comes to creating individual comics as opposed to just creating the characters, yeah, he was relatively hands-off when it came to an individual comic, because he wasn't writing a full script. He was not being the auteur of these comics. He was saying, “okay, here's some ideas,” and then people would go and run with them. And a lot of the time it wasn't even, "here's some ideas, go run with," it was the writer-artists would come to him and say, “we're going to do this.” Stan would maybe have some tweaks, but would largely just say, “okay.” Then the writer-artists would go home and do that. So, it's not exactly like you say. It's not like Jim Henson going and tinkering away with his characters, it's much more of an ambiguous and distant creative role that he had.
Over the course of Marvel's history, obviously, the company had I think some of the most tumultuous possible business situations through the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s. What of Stan Lee's later life and pops culture ascendance do you track in the book?
All of it. There's nothing that was off-limits for this book. It's the full arc of his life to the best of my ability. I tried to keep it short, it's not a Robert Caro, but I talk a lot about what happened later because I think that that's the most interesting stuff to be honest. I think we're pretty well-covered — not as well as we should be — but prior to the release of my book, we were pretty well covered in terms of stories about Stan's life and work in the ‘60s. People have written about that stuff pretty extensively. Now, I have things to add to the ‘60s narrative that hadn't been there before, but comparatively, not that much, because it's been so heavily excavated. But when it comes to things that happened to Stan from 1971 and onward, basically no one had written in-depth about any of that.
There've been some attempts at it. The comics journalist Tom Spurgeon and his collaborator Jordan Raphael, who's now a lawyer, wrote a book together, the first biography of Stan in the early aughts. It had a lot of really good stuff, but it too was heavy on the ‘60s and some of the ‘70s and then drops off. And I just felt, well, there's got to be something in there and turns out, I think that's where the whole story was. That's where you see the vast majority of what Stan's life was like, both in terms of just the numbers of years— he was alive for much longer than that one decade of the 1960s — but also because that's where you start to really see what fame and success and money did to Stan.
What was it?
Well, a lot of things, but one was he wanted more. He was never satisfied. He didn't like comics, particularly. He didn't like superheroes, particularly. He said that on the record — that's not me inferring — it's just people don't pay attention when he said that because he would also talk out of the other side of his mouth and say he loved the medium, and he loved the genre. But evidence points toward that not really being the case. Every time he tried to break out of comics, which was basically every day of his life since he got back from World War II and went back to his comics job he had left to go be in the service, every time he was trying to escape comics, it was never to make more comics. It was never, "I want to go do superhero stories in another medium either." It was, “I want to go make movies and I want to be taken seriously as a novelist or as any number of other things that are not comic book writer.”
Later in life, once he had the taste of fame that he got from his work in the ‘60s, he just spent the rest of his life from 1971 until 2018 just trying to be something else. That led to a lot of disastrous incidents. I trace the history of his two post-Marvel companies. His first one was a Dot Com Bubble-era company called Stan Lee Media. The other one is one that still exists now as a subsidiary of this big Chinese conglomerate, but it's called POW! Entertainment, and both of them were accused of enormous criminal, or at least unlawful, malfeasance, of bilking investors and juicing a stock and all kinds of stuff. No one had talked about that, no one had looked at that. And yet that's where Stan's true colors — in a lot of ways, I don't want to say always — but where a lot of his professional true colors came through. He wanted to have money, he wanted to be famous. He wanted to break out of just being thought of as the Marvel guy. And it never happened.
Around the end of his life, or by the end of his life I should say, he was world famous for being the Marvel guy, but he was not world famous for anything else. No one talks about the great triumph that was Stan Lee's Stripperella, or Stan Lee's The Mighty 7, or Stan Lee's Superhero Christmas. All of these silly tossed off things that didn't really go anywhere. No one talks about them. They just talk about the work he did in the ‘60s, and that's something that Stan found very frustrating. He wanted to be known for more.
It's an incredibly powerful story and it's so deeply reported. It's gotten a lot of love from folks within the comics industry, many of whom have seen this, but have not had a chance to really see the real situation laid out. I suppose coming to the end, what do you think your main takeaways about this are? What do you think the main difficulties are? And where do you think this goes next?
Well, I don't know. I'd love to see what people have to say about it. I've been very gratified to get some nice responses so far, but I want this to be something that opens up discussion, not just about — this is all highfalutin, I don't know if any of this will happen — but I would love for this to be the beginning of a discussion about the ‘great man’ theory of business. I hate it. I hate this fixation we have on having singular geniuses who are responsible for the products that we like. We want there to be an intimate one-to-one relationship between us and the creator. If you want to get really heavy about it, you can talk about it in religious terms.
Maybe we want to feel like we have a relationship with one who creates, with one who has this godlike ability to make something out of nothing. That leads us down dangerous paths because we start avoiding the truth. We're not looking for the actual ways in which something does get created. The other problem is we then throw under the bus all of the many people who are not the one great man, who are in some part, or sometimes in most part, responsible for creating the thing. So, I would hope that if there's a lesson to this book, it's question what you're told about people, and especially what people tell you about themselves. People have regurgitated Stan's version of events for more than a half a century now. We just have widely taken this one man's word as gospel.
I would love for this to be something that prompts journalists and historians to think more carefully about who they believe, because oftentimes we just go with whoever the most charismatic and nicest seeming person is and say, well, their version of events is probably true, and then we print it uncritically. I get it. I'm a journalist. A lot of times you don't have enough information to be able to make a claim that you know something is one way or another, but that shouldn't be an excuse to do a shoddy job of describing what you know, or acting like you know something that you don't know for certain.
So, I guess that's the last thing. I would like for this book to be something that encourages us to live with the awful agony of ambiguity. We're not necessarily going to know what happened in the past in order to influence things that we like in the present. You sometimes have to sit with the fact that these things are unknowable, and that's hard for people. It's hard for me, it's hard writing a piece to admit that you don't know, but it's also sometimes the only intellectually and morally honest way to approach a subject.
So, there you have it, the definitive answer on Stan Lee. It is unknowable. And we must be content with ambiguity within the art that we like. Abraham, thank you so much for coming on. The book is True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, where can folks find it?
Easiest way is to go to your one-stop shop for all Abraham Riesman needs, which is Abrahamriesman.com. I'm on Twitter, @abrahamjoseph.
All right. Thanks so much for coming on. I appreciate it. And we'll want to hear why all of Stan Lee's stuff is in Wyoming at a later time.
Some other time.
Update, December 2022: This interview was updated to reflect the gender of the subject.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.