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Incredibly insightful and well researched. The mythology that Mr. Lee created for himself over the course of seventy plus years falls before a journalist of Mr. Riesman's caliber. From the shtetl to the Hollywood Hills, Lee's life is unpacked for the first time. True Believers is destined to be lasting record of Stan's colorful life.
If you want a dispassionate and honest portrayal of Stan Lee, True Believer is the book for you. It’s a well-researched biography of a uniquely American man, flaws and all. It’s a book that’s sure to piss off Stan Lee’s fanboys, yet not go far enough for the Kirby & Ditko fanboys. As Riesman shows, Lee was neither saint nor evil , just human. And, if you can’t deal with that, this isn’t the book for you. But, if you want a deeper portrait of the man, go get your copy today.
I had heard the rumors about Stan Lee ever since I got into comics in the early 90s. At the time, I was 12 years old and refused to believe the truth about my hero.
As I got older and I read more, it became obvious that these stories were more than rumors. I started to understand that Stan Lee wasn't the person he led everyone to believe he was. I understood now the animosity from Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. I understood why half of Marvel's staff left to form Image. I understood that he wasn't the creative force that he was believed to be.
After reading this book, I feel like I understand him better overall. This book isn't an attempt at tearing him down, but rather showing the truth about him. There are a few times early on when the writing can appear to be mean spirited, but as the book progresses, you can see that the author tried his best to be impartial and just present the facts.
The reality of the situation is that Stan Lee was a deeply flawed man. He may have truly had good intentions, but his spinelessness and willful ignorance allowed bad things to occur in his name. The book presents a fair view of Lee's life and it's written in a way that makes it impossible to put down.
This is a great book and is definitely worth a read.
In “True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee,” Abraham Riesman argues, “The often-false story Stan Lee told about himself and his work was that of the American dream: success earned through hard work, optimism, and staying true to oneself. But the true story of his life is that of the American reality: success won in no small part through nepotism, corner-cutting, dissembling, and stealing… Taken as a whole and with sober eyes, the man’s journey adds up to one of the more fascinating stories of the past century of American arts and letters, and it is a journey that has heretofore gone unexamined in public” (pg. 14). Riesman positions Stan Lee as a Mark Twain/Horatio Alger -type figure who invented his own identity in order to advance beyond the circumstances he experienced as a youth amid the Great Depression. In many respects, this makes Lee the quintessential American narrative, but Riesman’s “warts and all” portrait includes the steps Lee took along the way that embittered his colleagues. Riesman delineates Lee’s career into three phases. He writes, “The first had been his unrecognized toiling until 1961, and the second had been his bumpy, meteoric rise since. In the third, he would no longer write the characters that made his reputation, but he would finally perfect the details of the character that would allow him to stay famous until the end of his life” (pg. 181).
Riesman further argues that Lee chose to promote the wrong talent. According to Riesman, “[Lee] never sold himself as comics’ greatest editor but rather as its greatest ideas man. One can argue that that was a core tragedy of Stan’s existence and legacy: He was never able to put his most inarguable achievement front and center and instead opted for the ones that were most debatable” (pg. 67). While Lee’s persona and Marvel’s work appealed to the cultural left on college campuses, Riesman describes Lee as a confirmed centrist who gestured at leftist issues without fully committing as he tried to support both sides of the political spectrum (pg. 174). On the one hand, Riesman describes this as part of Lee’s centrism, but it also meant that he avoided permanently alienating audiences based on politics. According to Riesman, “losing Kirby had been like losing a limb, and [Stan’s writing] hadn’t since garnered the kind of praise he’d had when the two were working together. Indeed, he never would again. Stan’s good days as a respected creator of new material were, unbeknownst to him at the time, permanently over” (pg. 180).
Riesman describes how Lee perfected his persona while narrating “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends,” with his tone “evolving from the solemn tone he’d historically exhibited in public to the street-hawker cadences he would soon become famous for. His narration sequences would typically conclude with a cry of ‘Excelsior!’, further cementing the word as his verbal signature” (pg. 211). According to Riesman, “it’s a direct line from there to his world-famous cameos” (pg. 211). The final third of Riesman’s account details the duality of Lee’s final years, with his public persona reaching ever-wider audiences even as Lee’s final ventures – Stan Lee Media and POW – struggled to make an impact while stories of his personal life were dominated by conflict and people vying to control his legacy. Riesman concludes, “After a life that spanned nearly a century – a tapestry of triumph and tragedy, of enormous dreams and disappointing realities; a stretch of time in which a man could watch the world become unrecognizable and know he had some not-inconsiderable part in making it thus; an existence that went through a denouement of agony and discord – after all that, Stan may have found a way to rest and deem that life good enough” (pg. 331).
This is a fascinating read no matter your level of comics knowledge. It is expertly and meticulously sourced and written in a manner that allows readers to draw their own conclusions. Stan Lee is clearly a man who has inspired millions and played a key role in developing Marvel from its roots as an obscure New York comic publisher. However, this book provides a look into how great that role was and how much credit deserved and took from others he worked with. Riesman, through interviews and his own research provides a thorough examination of just who "created" Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the rest of the Marvel pantheon that Stan Lee has boasted or creating. Regardless of how you come out on that historical debate, I think most will find the stories of Stan Lee's post-Marvel career to be revealing, troubling, and, most of all, completely at odds with the face him and his entourage projected to the world. At the very least, it provides a vulnerable human side of a person who reached iconic status that even his most ardent detractors will find sobering and saddening. Even if you are the type who wants to side with the unverified negative reviews of this book I think you will learn a lot about Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the rise of Marvel and the life of its most famous (real-life) star.
I know this book was controversial because it asks hard questions about ugly behaviors, but it’s so well-researched and very clear about what’s proven and what’s speculation (and what the sources are), I found it riveting. As befits a book about Lee, who so often inserted himself into his own books, Riesman isn’t shy about speaking as himself in ways that humanize the experience of uncovering sad truths (and sad maybe-truths) about a beloved figure that elevated the storytelling above simple biography. I found the last third of the book, about Stan’s post-Marvel years, the most compelling, both because that’s the least-told part of his story and because so many of the players are still around and making their own contradictory claims. I think even if you don’t know who Stan Lee is or don’t care about comics, True Believer makes a great read, especially for those interested in the uneasy bedfellows made when art takes a backseat to business.
For those trashing the book as an attack on Lee, sorry, but the truth hurts sometimes. The issues the book deals with regarding Lee and his conflicts with Kirby, Ditko, etc. have already been established and known about by those in the comics field, long before the MCU grew into the cultural phenomena it is today. I have been collecting comic books for 45 years and have followed the stories at Marvel and about Lee throughout that time. What the author has done is to codify all of the information (good and bad) for clarity. Ultimately Lee was not the man he portrayed himself to be. Rather he was a flawed human being (like all of us) who also had some endearing traits. Worth a read if you want to know the truth about Lee and the Marvel experience.
Extremely well-researched and well-written biography. It is balanced in that it portrays Lee’s strengths (e.g. editor, pitchman) and weaknesses (credit-hog). It is interesting to read how Lee’s various stories about what he did and didn’t do have changed repeatedly over many decades. It’s unfortunate that Lee’s throngs of juvenile cultists are so unwilling to accept a series of objective facts that portray him in a less than heroic light. George Washington’s fans must have reacted similarly when confronted with the documented fact that he did not chop down a cherry tree. In like manner, to this day, JFK’s fans try to deny his serial adulteries. Reisman’s Lee bio is well worth a read. Consider the objective facts and then form your own opinion.
You know this book hits the mark when Stan Lee shills like Roy Thomas scream about how unfair it is to question his legacy.
It could have gone into some areas a bit more in-depth (i.e. was it Stan or Martin Goodman who ordered the Black Panther's mask to completely cover his face to prevent southern distributors from flipping out at the notion of a black super hero) but overall it paints a proper portrait of the man who claimed for decades to be a creative genius and convinced millions this was the truth. 'Nuff said.
This was a carefully researched and very well written portrait of a complicated man. I am not a comics fan but it is a fascinating story, accessible to everyone interested in a thoughtful analysis of the life of a public figure.