Monday 12 April 2021

The Lies That Bind

The story of Stan Lee is a quintessential American tragedy. It is the story of a man whose reach would
Beloved comic book icon Stan Lee
is a figure worthy of serious critical
study. Abraham Riesman's new biography
grapples with his oversized myth. 
(Image via People)

always exceed his grasp, and of someone who would sacrifice the truth, his friends, and eventually himself in a vainglorious pursuit of goals that could never bring happiness.

True Believer: The Rise And Fall Of Stan Lee by Abraham Riesman grapples with Lee’s oversized cultural profile, and with the legacy of one of the most divisive figures in comic book fandom.

Many parts of Stan Lee’s story have been told over the years in interviews, feature articles, and autobiographies. However, these accounts are contradictory and informed by Lee’s incessant and self-serving dishonesty. They were also often written either by journalists who lacked the depth of comic book knowledge to ask the difficult questions, or by comic book fans who lacked the journalistic discipline to parse myth from fact. Mainstream media was — and still mostly is — incurious about how comics are made and who was responsible for what, so often settled for the story told with the most charisma. If anything, Lee was charismatic.

True Believer is therefore a much-needed attempt to provide as complete and accurate a picture as possible of this iconic figure. New Yorker Magazine and Vulture Magazine culture critic Riesman brings both journalistic credibility and a depth of knowledge about comic book history to this biography.

The caveat “as accurate a picture as possible” is key to understanding why this biography is so satisfying. Riesman recognizes that Lee’s incessant lies — and the myth-making empire he built around himself — present significant obstacles when writing about him. When necessary, Riesman relays multiple accounts of the same events, and offers the reader his reasoning as to which might be the most factual. She writes, any account of Lee’s life is “where objective truth goes to die.”

So what is certain? The son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, Stan Lee was born in Manhattan in 1922, as Stanley Martin Lieber. Hired by his uncle at the age of 17, he began working at a comic book company called Timely and rose through the ranks rapidly. It is certain that he receives credit for helping create numerous famous comic book characters such as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, the Silver Surfer, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Black Panther, and many more.
Lee loved the limelight, a trait that often led him
to minimize the contributions of others. 
(Image via Times Of Israel) 

It is also clear that Lee was a gregarious and friendly person who managed to recruit and attract significant talent to the comic book industry. He wrote dialogue that was more engaging than most of his 1960s contemporaries, and had some hand in building a pop cultural phenomenon. It is also clear that Lee was capable of significant kindness.

But since the 1990s, there has been escalating controversy about how much of the creative process was Stan Lee’s, and how much belonged to the artists with whom he collaborated. Many of his most famous colleagues — and even his own brother Larry Lieber — suggest that Lee’s contributions were minimal. Riesman doesn’t offer a definitive verdict, but the documentary evidence he provides does not always paint a flattering picture of Lee.

The research put into True Believer cannot be overstated; Riesman interviewed almost every relevant figure, including Lee in his final years. She has combed source documents, old fanzines, lawsuit filings, and correspondence, and shows the ways in which Lee’s claims would change over time, contradicting himself. Lee lied about things even when there was no penalty for telling the truth, and he lied about things which could be fact-checked.

Our most significant quibbles with True Believer have more to do with what is omitted from the story,
Miscommunication over which
character was talking in a panel 
of Spider-Man #36 led Lee to
order artist Sol Brodsky to edit
Steve Ditko's artwork. Ditko
left Marvel comics two months
later, never to work with Lee again.
(Image via Marvel.Fandom.Wikia)

rather than what is included. The haphazard creation of the Avengers #1 (which Lee threw together to fill a publishing window after artist Bill Everett missed his deadlines on Daredevil) reveals aspects of Lee's talents and foibles. Steve Ditko's epic fight with Lee over Spider-Man #36 (where Lee had another artist edit Ditko's illustration of The Looter) illustrates the flaws with Lee's "Marvel Method" of comic book collaboration. The omission of these vignettes seems curious. But in any biographical work, the author must make difficult choices about what to include.  

Because most of Lee’s memorable accomplishments occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, his last three decades of life have mostly been glossed over by biographers. Riesman’s book both fills this gap and provides context to help better understand Lee’s commercial success. If the truth can set you free, then the life of Stan Lee is a parable about how lies can entrap us. Over his last three decades, his tenuous relationship with reality eroded his ability to maintain meaningful friendships. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Lee ended up surrounded by deceivers like himself, and trapped in a cage of his own making.

Abraham Riesman’s book becomes a cautionary tale about the seductive, destructive power of lies. For those who have been gaslit, or who have lived with a pathological liar, the experience of reading this book might be triggering.

It's often been observed that at the time of his death, Lee was in litigation with most of his friends and family while estranged from the rest.

The negative reviews of True Believer posted to Amazon and GoodReads can be seen as a testament to Lee’s prowess at self-mythologizing. Some of the reviewers seem never to have read the book at all, while others take umbrage at the suggestion that Lee’s involvement in the creation of certain characters was anything other than absolute. Fandom has been overly deferential to Lee in life and death, finding it inconvenient to talk about what artists like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Wally Wood endured.

There is a long tradition of fandom idolizing a certain variety of PT Barnum-style self-promoter. This tradition has come under much-needed scrutiny in the past decade thanks to works such as Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee and The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein by Farrah Mendelsohn. Abraham Riesman’s True Believer is a welcome addition to this critical reckoning.  

In Riesman’s telling, Lee is not a figure worthy of contempt. He’s a figure worthy of pity. Somehow, that’s worse.

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