No good deed goes unpunished
Avaliado no Reino Unido em 18 de fevereiro de 2021
When a famous man dies, two books immediately appear—the complimentary, celebratory, non-controversial summary of his life, and the hatchet job that wallows in the negatives. The complimentary one finds a smiling, jovial picture for the cover, the hatchet job seeks out the angry or unflattering one. Find a political tome on Thatcher, Blair, or Trump, and you can immediately tell whether the author comes to praise Caesar or to bury him.
Stan is looking resolute and determined on the cover, and the image could be interpreted in several ways, but it is one of the few where he isn’t cheerful. But the late Stan Lee had a lot to smile about. He was about to quit comics, approaching middle age and unfulfilled, when in the space of a few months, he and Jack Kirby had created a mythology uniquely American and to rival the traditional heroes of myth (some of whom, such as Thor and Hercules, joined his own in the Marvel Universe). He had become a major figure of the 20th century with a fantastic and worthy legacy. And, of course, a target for the bitter and less accomplished.
Am I biased? Maybe. After all, I judge him, if he needs to be judged, by his work, his achievements, his talent, his reputation. I don’t feel the need to constantly doubt him, look for his failings (which were much the same as all of us), or try to bring him down. Along with Hanna-Barbera, pre-1968 DC Comics, Gerry Anderson, the Man from UNCLE, and Irwin Allen, he provided the joys and pleasures of my childhood. Other lads worshipped footballers or pop stars, I revelled in Marvel Comics. Without them, my life would have been considerably duller, my days less exciting, my youth less inspired. As with many young men without a father, he provided me with fun and a moral compass. I’ve been promising myself for years that I would take time out to sit down and properly re-read the Silver Age Marvels from start to finish, and lockdown and the Epic Collections provided the perfect opportunity. They have helped to keep me sane through the evil past few months. My life has been bookended by Marvel Comics, and I feel great about it.
Was Stan Lee a saint? No, of course not. He was extrovert, gregarious, a perfectionist, very much aware of his and Marvel’s public image, commercially minded and cautious, the consummate promoter and PR man. His poor memory was legendary. His flaws and attributes were those which many of us can lay claim to. Was I taken in by his jovial huckstering as a kid? No, I loved it, and succumbed to the Marvel myth-making willingly.
This book is titled “The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee”, which is odd, because he never really fell. Despite a handful of failed projects, bad business ventures, and occasional creative missteps, he was a success until the end of his days, if only—only!!—because of Marvel Comics and the Marvel movies, two of the most enormous contributions to popular culture ever made. After years of struggling through TV shows that ditched the elements that made the comics a success, cartoon shows, and B-movies (although I enjoyed the 1990 Captain America film, and so did many of my acquaintances), he had finally got where he wanted to be. He had made his point and been proven right, and he was worth a fortune. If this is failing, or falling, what does success look like?
It’s true his trusting nature and gung-ho let’s-do-it energy and attitude got him into some shady dealings toward the end of his life, as the book reveals, and he became particularly vulnerable when he lost his beloved and protective wife. It’s true his last couple of years were not happy or healthy, but that’s going to be true for most of us, and he lived to his mid-nineties. The last time I “saw” him, he was on an IMDB interview at a film market, sitting in glorious sunshine, eagerly talking about his next project (I’m 64, and pretty much done!). The thing I couldn’t help but notice was that his leg was jiggling up and down, not from old age or infirmity, but enthusiasm for whatever it was he putting together! I wish I could still get that excited about something!
These sort of books always appear when the subject has passed, so Stan can’t answer back, complain about the tone, or sue. But he wasn’t that way inclined anyway. He did his best to patch things up with Jack Kirby, and was aware (and far too tolerant) of the Kirby revisionists, the fan element that tried to do him down and minimise his contribution, but he also knew what he had achieved, and lived to see it. Like all of us, he had his missteps, misfires, and misjudgements, but he had enough successes, and got enough right, to be proud of what he had achieved, enabled, and unleashed on popular culture. He gave Kirby, Ditko, Colan, Steranko, Smith and Adams their career highs. He gave lesser talents as much work as he could. He said yes more often than he said no. The positives outweighed the negatives, and he left this world justified. I never met him, but I know Stan was one of the good guys, one of the nicest and most decent guys who ever lived, because I’ve read numerous interviews with him, and every Marvel comic he ever wrote; therein lies his personality and character, his morality. To read Stan Lee is to know Stan Lee. I worry about the gullible ‘true believers’ who may take all this in… (“Gee, I never knew…!”).
It becomes painfully apparent from the first time the author mentions Marvel comics and states that the Fantastic Four “hated each other” that he’s barely read a single one. If he once did, he’s forgotten it, or never got it. He’s thumbed through a copy of Fantastic Four 48, the only time in the book Stan’s actual work is discussed or described. He mentions Captain America saying something to a ‘friend’, seemingly unaware it’s Nick Fury. And he claims Jack never got his writing gig on a solo Inhumans strip as promised, but he did, in Amazing Adventures, and it only ended because he left. One might argue that he shouldn’t have to wade through ten years of Marvel comics to write a bio on Stan, but if you’re going to indulge the ‘Jack Kirby did it all’ line as early as page 13, you really should have some background knowledge of the work. If you want to know the personality of a writer, you read his words.
The author is a very clever and accomplished writer. Everything he writes about Stan is in a questioning, did-it-really-happen-this-way tone, and he uses negative words as often as possible; to give just one example, Stan’s windows looked out onto a brick wall in childhood, so he ‘boasted’ about the expansive view from his home in later life. We don’t hear that he was ‘thrilled’ to finally have a view, or appreciated his good fortune, or that he happily overcame that early disappointment when he finally became wealthy. No, when he showed off the view, he ‘boasted’. There is a nasty tone throughout the book which will become glaringly obvious to objective readers, but appeal to, and reinforce the views of those who want to believe the worst.
I’ve covered the Kirby nonsense in my reviews of the Morrow and Scioli books in great detail, as well as in several debates now lost when Amazon casually erased years of comments from their review section, and I’ve stated without reservation my view that Kirby was the best and most important comic book artist of the 20th century in numerous Amazon reviews, so I can’t go through it all over again for fear of sounding like a broken vinyl record caught on a scratch. Although Riesman relates the story that Stan may have snitched on Simon and Kirby moonlighting for DC, he has the decency to at least mention that Simon thought it unlikely (“There were no secrets… everybody knew”). The volatile Kirby however, already irritated by the young Stan’s adolescent nature (he was still in his teens when they first met), was quick to believe the worst, and believed it up to the day he died. For Riesman, “this is crucial”. Even when quoting people who sing Lee’s praises, the author seems not to hear his own text. It seems to count for nothing. All Stan’s quotes and stories are assumed first of all to be lies… even the ones that in his next sentence, Riesman admits are probably not. And the book proceeds like this from slow start to weary finish. At least Riesman, unlike his predecessors, has the grace to query and question the late Jack Kirby’s version of events. Riesman seems to be genuinely trying to be fair in the Lee/Kirby dispute (far more objective than Morrow or Scioli in their Kirby books), and notes that Kirby’s memory was as faulty as Stan’s. His chronology of events was wildly out of synch, making many of his assertions obvious fabrications or misremembered, and—a bit of fanboy pedantry here—he quotes “Kurrgo” as one of the many monsters of the 1950s sci-fi mags; he was in fact a character from an early Fantastic Four story.
The one thing that Stan was always noticeably coy about was that Martin Goodman was his uncle, and gave him his job at Timely—which is silly, because anyone who knows anything about Marvel knows about this family connection, and nepotism is rife in media; Timely was full of family. But when Stan told of his early years, it was always the tiny but significant detail he left out. He never denied it, but he never mentioned it either. And yet, Goodman made no significant contribution to Marvel beyond initially asking Stan for a super-hero book, other than the negative one of insisting on single issue stories for the whole of 1970, a disastrous request that was gradually disregarded. However, Lee thought well of him generally, and is quoted at length from Excelsior on page 57 unreservedly talking him up. After which, Riesman draws the conclusion that Stan thought he was “pathetic”! Later in the book, Stan is apparently more critical of him, but I find it hard to believe that Stan called anyone ‘a moron’ in public, he was way too tactful, respectful, and media-savvy for that, and in the notes, the author admits he doesn’t have memory or verification for Stan’s exact words. I genuinely believe that the author has tried to be fair and objective with this book, but also that he has approached the subject with a low opinion of Stan before he started, which is unfortunate and unfair. There is no new information in this book (the single exception for me being the Power Rangers story, which I hadn’t heard before), but as comedians like to point out, it’s the way you tell ‘em. Faced with this glum realisation, there is little point taking issue with anything else in the text (most of the really contentious anecdotes are eventually contradicted or doubted by the author himself or justified or denied by other interviewees), simply to say that this is strictly for the anti-Stan brigade, who will be waving its faulty logic and strange conclusions under our noses for years to come, despite the fact that when you strip it all down, there’s nothing here. Stan was basically an okay guy, and a very poor candidate for a tell-all expose.
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