My 2021 Reading Stacks #3: Stan Lee, Presented

Abraham Riesman's "True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee".

The man. The myth. The marketeer. The misery.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Welcome once again to our recurring MCC feature in which I scribble capsule reviews of everything I’ve read lately that was published in a physical format over a certain page count with a squarebound spine on it — novels, original graphic novels, trade paperbacks, infrequent nonfiction dalliances, and so on. Due to the way I structure my media-consumption time blocks, the list will always feature more graphic novels than works of prose and pure text, though I do try to diversify my literary diet as time and acquisitions permit.

Occasionally I’ll sneak in a contemporary review if I’ve gone out of my way to buy and read something brand new. Every so often I’ll borrow from my wife or from our local library. But the majority of our spotlighted works are presented years after the rest of the world already finished and moved on from them because I’m drawing from my vast unread pile that presently occupies four oversize shelves comprising thirty-three years of uncontrolled book shopping. I’ve occasionally pruned the pile, but as you can imagine, cut out one unread book and three more take its place.

I’ve previously written why I don’t do eBooks. Perhaps someday I’ll also explain why these capsules are exclusive to MCC and not shared on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites where their authors might prefer I’d share them. In the meantime, here’s me and my recent reading results…

I set this feature aside for a while because I knew which book would be next in line and dreaded how much headspace it would require. With its paperback edition coming soon, now seems a good time to exorcise it.

9. Abraham Riesman, True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee. Longtime MCC fans should not be surprised by my interest in this. My Marvel roots reach back 40+ years to when my mom first began letting me buy comics at the grocery store each week. Amazing Spider-Man was in the 190s and Marvel Tales was reprinting the classic Gerry Conway/Ross Andru run from the death of Gwen Stacy onward. I can remember hearing Stan’s gregariously NYC voice for the first time as the narrator of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, his first mainstream performance of himself as a character. Numerous series later, with lessons along the way about power and responsibility and superhero humility, a collector was born.

My customer relationship with the company that once began every product with the phrase “Stan Lee Presents” has gone through its ups and downs, but there hasn’t been a time in all these decades when I wasn’t making mine Marvel, not even in those pitiable low-quality ’90s when I was down to just three monthly Marvel books. Stan’s persona, by then no longer on full-time Marvel duty, would later reenter my periphery with the Sci-Fi Channel game show Who Wants to Be a Super-Hero?, a gleefully campy concoction that was, uh, certainly different from anything else on our TV. After the fact, I was excited to chat in person with an internet friend who’d become a season-2 contestant, then a little bummed when some of the details she divulged confirmed it was no better (or arguably any worse) than other reality shows of its time. It wasn’t among the worst 21st-century projects with his name attached.

When Stan began doing the comic-convention circuit in 2011, I leaped at the chance to meet him. Like thousands of other starstruck attendees, I imagined an enchanting afternoon with Stan rhapsodizing at length to each and every fan, dispensing wisdom and acknowledging us as individuals and validating our lifelong reading choices. What I found instead was the latest and ultimately final phase of his life: Stan as the sole factory-floor worker in an assembly-line rut, autographing whatever was pushed in front of him without comment, eye contact, or signs of brainwaves. In between autograph sessions, his handlers perched him on a stool in a photo-op booth, where he sat motionlessly while we fans took turns invading his airspace and using him as a background prop. For all you know, my results could just be me crouching next to a Stan-shaped bag filled with excelsior.

Stan Lee!

This very pic, with Stan holding still for the camera and for anyone who approached.

Stan and I each went on to attend more cons over the next several years, him much more so than me. We’d run into each other one last time at Cincinnati Comic Expo, where we shared a hotel elevator and I nearly crushed him. True story. My wife will vouch for me on this and may have saved Stan’s life and the very convention itself. When he passed away two years later, quite a few people checked in with me to make sure I’d heard and that I was doing okay. They knew he’d been a sort of recurring motif in my life, maybe even a hero of sorts. By 2018 “hero” was no longer the word I used.

It’s safe to say I had a vested interest in the 2021 biography from Abraham Riesman, a journalist and self-avowed comics fan who’s written for a number of news sites on subjects near and dear, including Stan himself. I was surprised I had to special-order this because no bookstores or even big-box stores near here carried a single shelf copy when it was released in February. A few pages into it, I could better imagine why not. His meticulous exploration behind the comics curtain is no glowing hagiography, no wide-eyed love letter to the idol of millions or to the legions of fans who’ve been taught to revere him as the veritable deity in the creation story of the billion-dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe, to say nothing of the comic book company that spawned it. If you’re seeking a more reverent and less objective Marvel hymnal, Lee already co-wrote his own memoir back in 2002, followed in 2015 by an authorized graphic novel. I haven’t read the former, but I wrote of the latter:

Lee recounts highlights of his life from growing up poor in Washington Heights to finding random jobs as a young adult, from his entry into the nascent comics medium to that momentous occasion when Marvel became a thing. We know up front his memories may have differed over the decades, and I’m sure a lot of his collaborators would have second opinions on some of their stories here. Lee also glosses over some of his later failures (about one publishing disaster in particular, he candidly admits he’d rather not talk about it), but even when you know some things have been left out, downplayed, or gotten 100% wrong, the bits that ring true, combined with Lee’s famous huckster enthusiasm, make for anecdotes both hyperbolic and affecting, and not always the shameless puff piece you’d expect.

In this context “not always” implied “yet frequently so”. For older fans like me who followed discussions in The Comics Buyer’s Guide, The Comics Journal, or other magazines and fanzines about the biz back in the day, it’s no stunning revelation that Stan was a huckster at heart prone to overstating his accomplishments and taking credits for the contributions and creations of others. Breaking that non-news to the generations after us hasn’t exactly been a top priority in recent times, and not just in Stan’s case — consider how many decades it took for DC Comics and the fandom at large to acknowledge Bill Finger’s once-suppressed significance to the world of Batman. Same as any other fandom, comics readers do love the medium’s figureheads, their showmanship, and any names and/or faces that become familiar with their repeated attachment to the stuff we super-like. We’ve been raised by our pop-culture surrogate parents — i.e., the for-profit corporations to whom we’ve sworn our consumer allegiance — to prize hot branding over honest billing.

Stan Lee autographed book!

My very own Stan Lee autograph from WWC 2011, requiring an hours-long wait for a ten-second brush with fame.

Many a comics fan knows the gist of his timeline. The seeds of Marvel’s genesis into an entertainment juggernaut lay within one Stanley Martin Lieber, a New York City kid from a devout Jewish family whose early rat-race dalliances would lead him to working for a relative-of-a-relative at Timely Comics, one of many publishers at the end of the 1930s and into the ’40s throwing their hats into the superhero ring once those became a thing. Only a handful of Timely’s concepts stuck, none of them Stan’s doing, but he’d later be put in charge of the operation. After the steaming sinkhole of a decade that was the ’50s, Timely would morph into Marvel, then Stan and some artists revolutionized the industry in the ’60s whence sprung forth from their furrowed genius brows the earth-shattering superhero milieu that wouldst be known forevermore amongst these hallowed halls of hobbyist history as the mighty Marvel Universe.

But wait! There’s more! Then Stan moved to California and begat Marvel Productions. Marvel Productions begat cartoons, though all their highest-rated shows were not about Marvel heroes. The cartoons begat crappy films. The crappy films begat slightly better cartoons. The cartoons begat objectively less crappy films. Those films begat Iron Man, which begat today’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, now an important part of the aesthetic diets of billions of viewers worldwide. Newcomers to these merchandising icons were told they could thank Stan Lee for making that happen. His cameos in all those films weren’t just cutesy sops to a venerated statesman under a long-term contract; they were glimpses granted unto us, the privileged flock, of the Creator himself. Hail Stan! Praise Stan! Worship Stan at the theater of your choice!

Meanwhile Behind the Scenes, Things Were Falling Apart™. Cracks appeared publicly in the facade at least as far back as my teenage years, probably earlier outside my narrow perspective. Collaborators such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, et al., argued to anyone who’d listen that Marvel’s greatest heroes owed at least as much to them as, if not more so than, they did to Stan. The Spider-Man debate alone is so messy that I can’t even begin to fit it into a single paragraph as it technically involves six different participants, two radically different recounts by Stan told 34 years apart, and one alleged eyewitness to key evidence. Stan’s recounts of many a story from Marvel’s early days would vary from one interview to the next, each replacing the previous version in his personal mythos.

By the end of the ’70s, Stan had passed on the workings of Marvel Comics to other successors of varying pedigrees and devotion. Aside from special occasions, comics were no longer his primary concern as he turned his attention and aspirations to Hollywood on Marvel’s behalf. When his ideas stopped receiving rounds of applause in meetings and executives disagreed with his estimations of his own importance, eventually he’d step back from his commitments to the House of Ideas — possibly due to disillusionment and possibly because they stopped serving his primary objectives: his own fame and fortune, generally sought in that order.

With his legends documented and his charisma cranked to 11, Stan tried his hand at forming or facilitating other companies (or being used as a tool to accomplish same), with shoddy new IPs and business relationships with new allies, each one shadier than the last. From that era you may recall seeing his name affixed to works of mixed quality, to put it kindly. You may also recall headlines from the past 10-15 years about deals gone sour and ventures gone kaput. More recently and lamentably, you may also recall the stories of abuse that an elderly Stan and his wife Joan suffered in their twilight years until her passing in 2017 and Stan’s own the following year. He wasn’t even afforded the dignity of a real funeral service.

Stan Lee standee and me!

For comparison’s sake, a Dragon Con 2019 shot of me with an actual Stan Lee cardboard standee, not a living simulation of one.

Riesman underwent a years-long research process to examine the complete Stan Lee timeline from start to finish. Genealogy experts traced Stan’s distant lineage back to the Eastern Hemisphere and amassed a wealth of details along the way (such as the grave of Stan’s mom). One of the biggest treasure troves, containing papers and films from Stan’s own files, turned up at the University of Wyoming, of all places. Interviewees included but were not limited to:

  • Various coworkers and employees, not just at Marvel, some of whom remain convinced Stan knew exactly what he was doing in his more questionable deals and that his excuse of “I’m just an old man, I don’t deal with that stuff” was an act
  • His estranged brother Larry Lieber, a writer/artist in his own right who kept working over the decades for as long as Marvel would let him, years past the undefined point when Stan downgraded their relationship status from “brothers” to “employer/employee”
  • Would-be defender Kevin Smith, among the few in this book who ever attempted anything approaching actual heroics without profit motive
  • Business partner Peter Paul, a convicted felon even before he latched onto Stan, who would…yeah, I don’t even know where to begin with this extravagantly culpable guy
  • Memorabilia hawker Keya Morgan, who for a time would be counted among his final caretakers, using the term loosely
  • Bodyguard Max Anderson, who’s disarmingly candid about how after Joan died, basically anybody could get Stan to do whatever they wanted him to in about four sentences flat
  • Stan and Joan’s daughter JC Lee, a socialite and onetime abstract artist who talked to Riesman to a certain extent before turning on him, a common move in her relationships (I refuse to devote the thousands of additional words that would be necessary to cover her sins throughout Stan’s life)
  • JC’s own lawyer, son of the creator of NCIS and allegedly an instrumental figure in the creation of Wife Swap
  • A P.I. who once worked for JC, whom she allegedly paid in cash with $20 bills out of her bra

…and more, more, more. All told, their testimonies (many of them requiring vigorous fact-checking on Riesman’s part) paint a tragic portrait of a young writer turned publishing maestro who peaked without realizing it, then spent still more decades desperately trying to prolong the magic or to parlay it into even bigger and bolder opportunities, despite any contradictions in his inner thought-life. He was on a roll at first, cultivating Marvel in the Silver Age into a shared world with heavy interaction among different series, which was as much a sales strategy in Stan’s mind at the time as it remains today in the current regime’s business plan. Turning the heroes and by the extension his readership into one big family was less a literary love-in than the building of a clientele base. His essays in the old “Bullpen Bulletins”, text features printed in every Marvel title, would espouse civil-rights solidarity that at the time may have felt politically cutting-edge (and to this day remain in circulation far and wide on the ol’ internets), but closer readings of the leanings in his ’70s work reveal stodgier stances that peel off the cozy “How do you do, fellow kids?” veneer.

And then there are those actual characters of his. You’re doubtlessly familiar with the MCU all-stars, all of them co-creations (at best) with classic artists of the time. Anyone who chooses to dismiss those artists’ claims and accept Stan’s starring roles in his own fables at face value is in willful ignorance of his post-1980 résumé. By my rough estimate and Riesman’s, 99% of everything else he produced, brainstormed, or otherwise blessed with his increasingly devalued imprimatur sans Marvel logo was utterly godawful. Remember The 7th Portal? Or the Stripperella cartoon starring the voice of Pamela Anderson, who refused to condone nude scenes for it? Riesman finds more that were either forgotten mere minutes after release or thankfully buried without seeing the light of day. Crumbled debris in Stan’s lifetime wake included:

  • A “how to do comics” book he wrote in the 1950s, in which he described Captain America’s creation without mentioning either Joe Simon or Jack Kirby
  • Other comics companies he tried to form after Timely and before Marvel
  • Hosting his own round-table talk show, a nominal Politically Incorrect prototype
  • Stan Lee Media, which was basically Entertainment 720 with Stan as its Detlef Schrempf
  • Their successor POW Entertainment, whose crowning achievement was Backstreet Boys Burger King Kids Meal toys
  • Multiple pitches for a Whoopi Goldberg superhero vehicle
  • Other stalled superpower-minded endeavors with Ringo Starr, Bruce Willis, the Playboy Bunnies, and David Copperfield, the latter of which fell through after one of Riesman’s own Vulture articles covered Stan’s abuse issues
  • Stan’s YouTube channel, just him complaining about random stuff like a bargain-basement Andy Rooney
  • Stan Lee coffee! Stan Lee cologne! Stan Lee submarine sandwich shops!
  • JC’s “Dirt Man”, a superhero she swears she and Daddy totally co-created before his death

…and, alas, more more more more more.

I could go on for hours. I would prefer not to. Riesman’s examination of the legally murky maneuvers from Stan Lee Media to POW Entertainment are an engrossing tale of paper-trail malfeasance on par with The Big Short. He’s also critical of Stan’s long-standing claim to Jewish heritage, which is at once a verifiable truth in an ethnic sense and an aspect for which Stan virtually never demonstrated any meaningful sincerity. Despite my last name, that subject is not in my wheelhouse, but I’m familiar with the notion of folks who claim a faith label for themselves less as an outward expression of love than as a cosmetic dressing shallower than the skin it covers.

Throughout it all, Riesman’s tone is neither mean-spirited nor proudly accusatory. He grew up a fan of the universe, just like many of us. The book’s photo gallery includes a shot of him as a youngster at Wizard World Chicago 1998, a year before our own first visit there. I can imagine and sympathize with the fanboy honor of his gallery’s inclusion of one (1) real photo of Spidey’s own Steve Ditko, the hermit-iest hermit who ever did hermit. Had enough evidence proven Stan’s life went more glowingly without incessantly turning a blind eye to the volumes that speak to the contrary, I’m sure Riesman would much rather have ghostwritten Stan’s version of Will There Ever Be a Rainbow?

if only Stan’s life had led that way, a four-color journey from Asgard’s Rainbow Bridge to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I was well aware of its true trajectory going in, but not of its immense scope or the depths to which it sank. Seeing all the little signs, tells, and stumbles snowball into catastrophes, all of which Riesman methodically strings together like an investigator’s cluttered bulletin board, makes it rather challenging to keep humoring Stan’s self-branded superstardom. In the end a once-entertaining writer’s accomplishments — some in aesthetics, others in marketing — declined into the career equivalent of a social media influencer getting by on image and attitude alone. To some his legacy is one of the most comprehensive fictional universes ever constructed; to others, it’s one of vanity and greed, qualities that proved contagious to far too many of his disciples.

Without him, the Marvel Universe as we know it might never have happened. Without the sins that his quest for fame encouraged, the final storyline in his saga could have ended with all the fanfare of a double-sized grand finale instead of the diminished, eyes-averted pen-stroke of a quiet editorial cancellation.

Stan Lee shirt!

A Stan Lee souvenir shirt I bought from that same Cincinnati con, featuring his face and his favorite descriptors. A few of these have taken on new applications.

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