[book report] True Believer – the rise and fall of Stan Lee

hatchet job (plural hatchet jobs) (idiomatic) A journalistic or other treatment which portrays its subject in a very unfavorable manner; a work of criticism which aims to destroy a reputation. Synonyms: slam piece, hit piece, traducement, calumny, calumniation, obloquy, defamation.

This book by journalist Abraham Riesman is the very definition of a hatchet job. Relentless in its desire to portray Stan Lee as a villain who has stepped from the pages of an actual Marvel comic it does succeed in presenting ‘Stan the Man’ as a complex, vain, brilliant, greedy and somewhat sad man.

That said it is a well written book (apart from some of the latter chapters), clearly well researched and detailed with a mix of first person accounts and well sourced secondary quotes and comments. For someone who has taken a close interest in the comings and goings of the comic book business though there are few real revelations.

Did Lee steal credit from Kirby, Ditko and others? Probably. Is it clear cut? Nope. Does Riesman add anything new to the debate? No.

Did Lee even like comics? Everything points to the fact he tolerated them at most and in latter years had next to no idea what was happening in them – not even the main Marvel books.

Was Lee a shameless self-promoter? He made P. T. Barnum look low-key and this book does do a good job of tracking the evolution of that public character – of a salesman more than an artist.

Was he also such a company man who failed his creative peers by not pushing Marvel et al into better contracts and rights? This seems to be true. He definitely ducked any opportunity to support creators rights seemingly out of fear it would effect his own position.

Did his vanity and greed make him an easy mark for con-men? This is the main thing I took away from this book – he seems drawn to unscrupulous people with murky histories time and again. One of the problems I have with the latter sections of the book is the author is so keen to display the depth of their research into the financial malfeasance of Stan Lee Media and POW! and Lee’s involvement in it while also indulging in the parallel narrative that Lee was such a self-promoter that he was uninterested in anything beyond his pay out. Everything Riesman himself has shown Lee as up to this point supports the idea Lee had not interest in the details and would have been easily distracted from the real goings-on.

There are some uncomfortable elements of the book.

The portrayal of Lee’s wife and daughter makes the hatchet job on Lee himself seem tame. Time and time again they are blamed as the motivation for his worst flaws. His wife accused of being a spendoholic, potential alcoholic, bully who ostracised them from their wider family. His daughter JC is treated even worse. A proto-typical spoiled party girl. Mental health issues masked with drugs. Accusations of elder abuse.

This might be all true and I imagine it went through a lot of fact-checking before making the book but I wonder if they are really public figures deserving of this level of investigation? I don’t know.

Then the coverage of Lee’s final days after the death of his wife. I’m not sure you could cover this without it feeling uncomfortable. It is clear he was in ill-health physically and mentally, that people were taking advantage and stealing from him. That different factions were using the media to undermine each other.

It was a heartbreaking end to what was – one way or another – an amazing life.

For me the book didn’t really change anything. Stan Lee was always more personality than auteur for me. What I will say though is that even if he didn’t invent that slew of characters in the 60’s without him they would not have succeeded. Stan needed Kirby but Kirby without Stan?

Excelsior!