This week's big news in comics is not about a crossover or a character death; the biggest seller (at leas according to Amazon) in the comics space right now is Abraham Riesman's True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee. In the book, Riesman traces Lee's history from the pogroms that drove his Jewish relatives out of Europe to the contentious days following the comics impresario's death, when, as the book notes, most of Lee's inner circle was either suing one another, waiting trial on criminal charges, or trashing Marvel in the press -- and in one case, all three.
In the middle, Riesman presents a well-researched and thoughtful portrait of Stan Lee, the artist, Stan Lee, the character and, to a lesser extent, Stan Lee, the man. That's no slight on Riesman; it's just that, as he says in an early chapter, "Stan Lee's story is where objective truth goes to die." And when it comes to business relationships, or his public image, there's ample opportunity to do research and conduct interviews. It's harder, the book makes it clear, to get a real sense for a man who seemeed to spend almost all of his adult life carefully crafting a public image with little resemblance to who he really was at his core.
For hardcore comics fans, many of the stories told in the book will be fairly familiar, whether it's arguments with Jack Kirby over credit for various creations, or the creative and financial differences that forced Steve Ditko out the door. To the average American, though, there's some really revelatory stuff even in those more well-trod tales. There are more than half a dozen Stan Lee biographies out there, but they have primarily focused on telling the story of Stan's life primarily based on Stan's own recollections -- they're his version of events. Riesman endeavors to tell a clear-eyed, less-mythologized version of Stan's story, in doing so, he makes Lee far more human, and as a result more compelling.
Equally compelling are the moments when Lee's personal life does come into focus. His adoration of his wife and daughter is one of his defining characteristics, but the book sees them, at least in part, as two of an army of people in Lee's life who took advantage of his innate desire to please people he cares about. The focus on the work is not just what the audience for a book like this would want, but it's in keeping with Stan's avowed workaholic nature, and stories of profligate spending by his family may offer an alternative explanation for why the man worked constantly well into senior citizenship. Was he a victim, though? Well, conversations with Lee's brother Larry Lieber certainly don't paint that picture.
Lee is not presented here as a villain, but as a complicated man who wasn't above taking advantage of situations, and people, when he saw an opportunity. Riesman's book, to borrow a phrase from Bruce Springsteen and paraphrase Riesman's own introduction, helps chart the difference between the American dream Stan Lee wanted his life depicted as, and the American reality that he actually inhabited, where family connections, opportunism, corner-cutting matter as much or more than work ethic and talent.
That said, it's not an attack, in spite of how some of Lee's biggest supporters might depict it. While it will "out" Lee's conflicts with his earliest collaborators to audiences who wouldn't previously know about it, it goes into great detail about how much the "next generation" of comics collaborators, from John Romita and Neal Adams to Chris Claremont and Roy Thomas, loved Lee, loved working with him, and considered him to be a great boss.
True Believer is about as fair, about as well-researched, and about as well-written as one could ask for from a book about Stan Lee, a character so much bigger than life that even his own massive mythology can't contain all of his story.