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True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee

Will: In November of 2018, pop culture lost one of its greatest icons, Stanley Lieber or, as he was affectionately known, Stan Lee. Lee’s impact on today’s cultural zeitgeist is both monumental but easy to forget and/or dismiss. As a writer/editor/publisher of comic books with the company of many names (which ultimately settled on Marvel), Lee oversaw and co-contributed to one of the greatest influxes of intellectual property ever seen in the modern-day media landscape. Starting in 1961 with the birth of the Fantastic Four, the Marvel Universe, a fictional realm without borders or limits, was formed and continues to this day, populated by literally hundreds, if not thousands, of unique characters.

Since many dismiss comic books as “lower” art, Lee was perhaps not as appreciated on an “artistic” level as he should be. For the Marvel Universe was, in terms of its impact on fans of all ages, new mythology that not only spawned stories for 22 page illustrated books but firmly established an iconography both worshipped and, in times of massive popularity, despised by the population at large. Lee’s co-creations are now found in movie theaters, food products, appliances, and millions of other applications. Another of Lee’s co-creations, Spider-Man, for example, can be found on a mug you drink your coffee with, said mug held by a hand covered with a Spider-Man band-aid from a cut you got, and said coffee spilled on the Spider-Man shirt you’re wearing which you bought with money from your Spider-Man wallet after seeing Spider-Man: Homecoming at your local multiplex. You get the idea.

But like many things in life, legends and myth are full of complications, and journalist Abraham Riesman’s first non-fiction book True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee tries its best to ground this monolith of pop culture and the world he created into something realistic and understandable. Lee has been the face of Marvel Comics for decades and as he got older and older, his “brand” continued to be lionized and set in stone; Stan Lee = good guy, nearly flawless…a legend. Riesman’s book tries to find the human behind that legend, and utilizing years of research and interviews uncovers what Stan Lee was as a man, a father, a creator, a showman, and a businessman. And like all humans, there are cracks and fissures to the world wide adulation and perceptions of perfection.

Riesman admits his job of being Lee’s biographer was very difficult. Comics, and the creators behind them, didn’t leave much of a paper trail in terms of contracts, creative decisions, or business agreements. It was a hand-shake deal kind of environment and all that survives now are the memories and statements of old men who have formed fierce allegiances in heavily divided camps. So the major question asked of True Believer, and any comic history book for that matter, is who was the true creator of the Marvel Universe. True Believer doesn’t necessarily choose sides in this long-contested battle. Lee, as well as his partner/artist Jack Kirby, have each long held the opinion that they, themselves, alone, were the ONLY creators of some of the biggest intellectual property in history. Kirby says he did it all. Lee says it did it all. They can’t both be right.

But as you discover throughout the book, Lee and Kirby are both masters of exaggeration and full of intense pride. Lee was just more flamboyant about it. So flamboyant that he carved himself a piece of history as a geek figurehead while Kirby, and many other artists like him, toiled in relative anonymity (and near poverty). It was Lee who was honored with nearly 50 film cameos in Marvel film productions and who, upon his death, was given a heroes’ sendoff when news of his death hit. It is certainly a ripe and familiar tale of one man’s rise from rags to riches while others around him faded into history.

But while this component of the story is certainly intriguing, there are so many facets to Lee’s 95 years of life on Earth that warrant description and Riesman touches them all. Boy does he. The book starts depicting Lee’s grandparents and parents lives in Romania and after immigrating to the US. The story goes through the early age of comics and newstrips, World Wars, and the legally nebulous creation of a new industry in which the rich got richer and the poor labor mostly stayed poor. Even after going through the Marvel Universe saga of the ’60s and ’70s, Lee’s rocky road wasn’t nearly done. There are decades of Hollywood life racked with failure and full of decadence. Family sagas of betrayal and elderly abuse. Business deals gone wrong and crimes committed in Lee’s name. There is even a Clinton Scandal!

I won’t spoil this rich history for you but will recommend you pick up this new book immediately. Even if everything in the book is false (and, frankly, it all COULD be as NO ONE seems to want to tell the whole truth), it sure is fun as hell. Those looking for a non-corporate, objective look at Stan Lee and the world he created, will not fail here. This isn’t a puff piece. By looking at Stan from the inside out, through the truth and the lies, True Believer manages to both tear down AND build up the myth of what Lee represents.

Stan Lee looks up and to the side on the cover of True Believer

Written by TV Obsessive

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