Stan Lee Was a Comics Saint Who Thought He Was God

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Michael Buckner/Getty
Michael Buckner/Getty

In 1983, Stan Lee, then Marvel Comics publisher, gave insight into his editorial feedback: “Hey, that shot is too weak. If you want a guy punching something, look at the way Jack Kirby does it. Let’s try and get that kind of force. This shot is too dull. Even if it’s a man walking in the street, look at the way Gene Colan does it. It looks interesting even if there’s no action.”

During Lee’s editorship of Marvel Comics, a 20-page issue had about 100 panels for epic battles and human foibles. Lee’s direction maintained visual momentum, and tied together narratives of many characters. That overwatch created Marvel’s universe; his marketing instincts invited readers to join a re-imagination of a child’s medium.

Abraham Riesman’s clear-eyed, anti-nostalgic biography True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, shows Lee’s discontent with those skills, how he took more credit than he deserved. He was brilliant, ever-optimistic, and believed in himself too much.

“That was a core tragedy of Stan’s legacy,” Riesman wrote. “He was never able to put his most inarguable achievements front and center and instead opted for the ones that were most debatable.

‘Picked Apart by Vultures’: The Last Days of Stan Lee

“It’s possible that [Lee’s] greatest talent was editing; the only other skill that competed with it was his flair for promotion. He never sold himself as comics’ greatest editor or comics’ greatest salesman,” which he may have been, “but rather as its greatest ideas man,” a title True Believer argues he didn’t deserve.

Marvel’s Fantastic Four debuted in 1961 with a deep weirdness compared to Superman’s corporate polish, or the adult-themed horror of the 1950s EC Comics. Marvel’s heroes targeted the new concept of teenagers with characters fantastical and strange, presented with Steve Ditko’s crazy angles, Jack Kirby’s inhuman designs, Stan Lee’s snarky dialogue.

Does it matter who created the characters? Simplistic, childish concepts like The Thing? Iron Man? Dr. Strange? A web-shooting teenager is ridiculous—until Lee examined each panel to ensure a gripping narrative. Lee didn’t write the stories, as much as provided dialogue to fine-tune the artist’s premise. Kirby and Ditko might plot narratives, panel the comics, conceive the story’s direction, and conceptualize ideas.

“What’s another word for plotting?” Riesman told The Daily Beast. “Writing.”

Lee eventually claimed to have created most of the characters, that he was the brilliant wellspring, not just a grown-up guiding hand and energetic marketer. From interviews and well-documented research, Riesman shows Lee’s early willingness to give fair credit becoming an aggressive campaign of self-promotion. In one 1966 newspaper article, Lee was compared to actor Rex Harrison and credited with dreaming up the entire slate of Marvel comics. Jack Kirby, a 30-year veteran of the industry, was called an “assistant foreman in a girdle factory.” Many relationships have ruptured for less.

Because the idea of “Stan Lee Presents” was too tempting. That phrase became an iconic signifier of an era, deserved and sometimes not.

“It was true across Stan’s entire life, that if he came up with an idea, other people may have built up the idea, but ‘there was no idea before me’—that mattered a lot for him,” Riesman told the Beast.

True Believer is not gossip. Riesman unpacks the humanity that makes popular culture bloom and fade. It is worth exploring the choices, compromises, relationships, and bitterness behind these ideas, especially when they spawn billion-dollar film franchises that drive modern entertainment.

Comic book fans will react defensively toward Riesman’s account of Lee’s serial credit-taking. An argument in Lee’s favor is that any writer’s room features give-and-take. Lee and Kirby might say they conceived aspects of the Fantastic Four, and the truth is merely in the middle.

“This is a dangerous line of thought for a historian,” Riesman wrote. “We should not ignore the possibility… that one of them was lying and the other telling the truth.”

There was no writer’s room. Kirby wrote at home, bringing pages to Marvel after he finished the penciling. Stan’s snarky, snappy dialogue provided critical personality compared to the tin-eared scripts of DC’s Batman or Superman, but the 20 pages were often someone else’s creative vision. Getting fair credit was not easy; artists were freelancers and Lee, Marvel’s company man. The artists were also terrible salesmen for their own merits. When Kirby did speak up, his “original impetus [for characters and ideas] was always something sad and mundane,” Riesman told the Beast. “Kirby was ‘I needed to put food on the table,’ as opposed to ‘this was an evanescence of ideas from me, Stan Lee, the wonderful genius.’ It was mundane versus exciting.”

Kirby died in 1994, years before Marvel’s resurgence. Ditko, creator of Spider-Man, holed up in a New York apartment, mailing out Ayn Rand-inspired screeds—an old crank difficult to take seriously before his 2018 death.

Lee died at 95 in 2018—nearly 60 years to stake claims, appear in movie cameos, and pose for thousands of fans’ pictures, including with Riesman in 1998. Six decades to turn Stan Lieber, an immigrant’s son, into “Stan Lee,” an American icon. A perfect story, sold well.

“Culture wants an unambiguous story about how things we love come into being,” Riesman told the Beast. “This idea that Stan’s the guy who created these characters, created Marvel, owned Marvel—none of those things are true. There’s always this vagueness or incorrectness about what he did. We should embrace that ambiguity.”

Riesman uses a Lee quote to open a chapter: “If I myself possessed a superpower, I’d never keep it secret.”

Riesman didn’t uncover any specific trauma in Lee’s childhood to make him that needy. Lee just wanted more, seeing comics as a springboard—Riesman chronicles test shoots of talk shows, hustling on the college speaking circuit, and book and screenplay ideas.

“He didn’t want to be remembered for the past,” Riesman wrote, “he wanted to be relevant in the present.”

Riesman’s research shows that Lee’s parents Iancu and Celia had left Romania at a time of growing anti-Semitism. His father’s village was the site of pogroms and violence. The past was no comfort.

Lee’s career began at Timely Comics through a cousin’s husband, Martin Goodman. His first byline was “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge,” a two-page text story in May 1941’s Captain America Comics #3, accompanied by two panels of Kirby art, their first collaboration. “Stan Lee” took the byline, not Stan Lieber. Lee later explained he wanted to save his real name’s first appearance for the novel he would someday write.

Lee’s father, Iancu, had Americanized his own first name to Jack; now Stan dropped his last name, and that connection with Jewish relatives and a lost homeland. Maybe there was trauma after all. Like Riesman wrote, Stan didn’t want to be remembered for the past, but relevant in the present.

Each paragraph in “The Traitor’s Revenge” matches a comic panel’s on-point action: “In an instant, both Steve and Bucky peeled off their outer uniforms and seconds later they stood revealed as CAPTAIN AMERICA and BUCKY, Sentinels of our Shores! ‘Let’s go!’ cried CAPTAIN AMERICA!”

Once World War II began, Lee spent his patriotic Army duty writing training manuals and projects like an anti-venereal disease campaign—“VD? Not me!”

Riesman wrote, “The key thing to remember about Stan Lee’s war years is that he was a propagandist…accomplishing military goals through simple, direct messaging designed to instill emotional reactions of loyalty and excitement.”

Propaganda is too sinister. Lee communicated with a military audience using that culture’s language to inspire a collective understanding. Propaganda? Or mission-focused?

That approach drove Lee’s banter with readers on each comic’s letters page. In 1965’s Strange Tales #135, a 300-word letter, from Tim Miller of Pontiac Michigan, presented ideas about the origins of Dr. Strange’s incantations, e.g., “I invoke the Hosts of Hoggoth.”

“Tim, you frantic fans are the greatest!” Lee (most likely) responded. “No matter what we make up, right out of our cornball heads, there’ll always be some Marvel madman who can explain the whole thing with such logic that we end up thinking we took it from a history book!”

Tim Miller probably never got over himself. All it took was a back-handed compliment, Lee’s self-effacement, and a little alliteration.

“By the time he became famous,” Riesman wrote, “Lee was a wizard at stirring his readers up with direct addresses, often using the martial phrase ‘face front.’ Such verbiage sought to make the masses feel as though they were members of a legion of devoted followers who would do whatever their commander asked of them.”

Lee craved the adoration, Riesman said. “He didn’t care about superheroes or comics… but he loved getting people behind something.”

Lee used a jaunty style for bylines like “Unpredictable Stan Lee,” “Unmatchable Jack Kirby,” “Unbeatable Johnny Severin.” Stan came first. When he stopped writing, “Stan Lee—Editor” appeared as a brand-new credit line. Lee’s collaborators didn’t appreciate this creative bigfooting, Kirby and Ditko only the most famous. Kirby’s former assistant Mark Evanier explained to Riesman that, “Unfortunately, from day one, Jack Kirby was doing part of Stan’s job,” the writing, “and Stan was not doing part of Jack’s job,” the drawing.

Despite all that, True Believer is not a revisionist take-down. It’s not unkind, nasty, or unfair—Lee’s just a creative man who wanted more than he earned.

Riesman digs into Lee’s later-life efforts to recapture the fragile magic—Stan Lee Media and POW! Entertainment. Lee schmoozes Pamela Anderson’s brother to get her to star as Stripperella—a pitch that actually came to fruition. Lee didn’t write any of the 13 episodes, but it’s still Stan Lee’s Stripperella on the DVD case.

Riesman interviews Lee’s business associates of his final years, Peter Paul and Keya Morgan, greasy self-promoters who are happy to provide some gossip and defend themselves against various allegations. None of it’s surprising. Of course Lee was an easy mark, and made bad choices with bad business partners. Of course he rants and raves with difficult family members. He was an old man too ashamed to admit he was put out to pasture.

The important part of this story isn’t that it ended badly, it’s that it happened.

Riesman interviewed Lee for a 2016 Vulture article, a half-dozen emailed questions sent through a publicist—a somewhat taunting experience, Riesman said, with closer access dangled, but ever out of reach. In those emails, Riesman asked Lee about growing up in New York and its Jewish culture. “It was a fascinating answer; he answered the question about New York, completely ignored the part about Jewishness,” he said. Stan’s brother Larry Lieber told Riesman that their father, Iancu-Jack, felt Stan had turned his back on Jewish faith, ignoring the struggles of Israel, and baptizing his daughter, among other criticisms.

That bitterness makes sense. Iancu left Romania in large part because of violent anti-Semitism; now his son wrote comic books about silly monsters (Bruttu? Sserpo? Zzutak?) in a world full of real monsters. It’s like an Iraq veteran baffled why their child wastes time on TikTok—maybe not grasping that followers can be monetized.

“The only topic I would have liked to talk about in a more substantive way was his childhood,” Riesman said. “He wasn’t a prince, so historians aren’t chronicling his youth; there’s just his brother.”

Larry Lieber, that younger brother, is the tell-tale heartbeat of Stan’s story. Larry had worked in comics since the early 1950s, and had retired from penciling the daily Amazing Spider-Man newspaper comic strip in 2018 after 32 years. He’s not the last surviving artist or writer from the old days, but his work was among the last pieces of cultural DNA connecting back to the old days. The brothers’ relationship had been acrimonious—at least from Larry’s side. They worked together now and then, and Stan didn’t completely cast him aside, but there was a constant distance.

At one point, Larry had left Marvel to work for the old boss Martin Goodman at a different comic company. Stan didn’t offer a raise to stop the move, just appealed to family loyalty that had been, at best, one way. “The guy’s got millions!” Larry recounted to Riesman. “I can’t pay my rent! And he’s telling me not to write for them!”

Stan had returned to New York for a comic convention and didn’t tell Larry he would be there; Stan badgered Larry into giving a deposition against Jack Kirby’s estate; Stan’s wife Joan belittled Larry with fake friendliness.

In the 1970s, “when Larry was struggling to get Stan to throw some work his way. Stan kept passing the buck. Larry… eventually turned to one of the editors for help. “Well, Larry,” he recalls the editor saying, “it’s the consensus of opinion here that the only people Stan thinks about are himself and his family, and that doesn’t include you.”

Larry is not nostalgic.

“I mean, everyone I know is going. Gone. And I thought, did I lose him?” Larry told Riesman. “Can you lose somebody you never had?”

It’s a tragedy to leave a story there—an angry brother alone at the end. So let’s not leave it there.

June 1962 was just the Fantastic Four and the Hulk, with Spider-Man debuting in August. Some buzz, some promising sales. Stan, Jack, Larry, Steve also cranked out comics of suspense and monsters, but new ideas were coming.

Martin Scorsese’s 1970s movies were something new; that group did the same for 1960’s comics. They even beat Scorsese to the punch—in June 1962’s “Bully Boy,” a sci-fi melodrama in Tales to Astonish #32, an under-estimated teenager makes an over-the-shoulder threat, “Are you talking to me?” before wiping the floor with four goons. That dialogue beat Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle by 14 years. The penciling is Kirby’s, nobody’s credited for the dialogue but it was probably Stan, and maybe Larry helped with the script. Ditko hung around, prepping Spider-Man. Look around, the revolution’s happening in New York and there were minds at work—Stan, Larry, Jack, Steve, many more.

True Believer’s origin story begins in 2015. Riesman misunderstood editor David Wallace-Wells' request for a review of Stan’s new graphic memoir, Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir. Riesman thought Wallace-Wells wanted a long-form profile, so he compiled research and interviews—until Wallace-Wells “informed me that he’d meant I should write a short book review. Oops,” Riesman wrote. But, intrigued, Wallace-Wells greenlit Riesman’s subsequent 10,000-word Vulture article on Lee. After Lee’s death, Will Wolfslau, editor at Crown Publishing, visualized a book’s scope in that article about Lee’s life of triumph and hubris. He reached out to Riesman’s agent with that idea.

Had Wolfslau shared Stan Lee’s credit-taking worldview and punched-up writing style, the book’s title could have been Wonderful Will Wolfslau presents True Believer, scripted by Able Abe Riesman.

Wolfslau did see that potential in Riesman’s article, but follow-through is the author’s domain. In 2021, editors stay in the back pages, thanked in the acknowledgments.

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