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Stan Lee biography mines Marvel icon's complexity: 'Neither saint nor Satan'

Abraham Riesman talks about writing True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, which explores the man behind the myth -- and sometimes is uncomfortable to read.

Sean Keane Former Senior Writer
Sean knows far too much about Marvel, DC and Star Wars, and poured this knowledge into recaps and explainers on CNET. He also worked on breaking news, with a passion for tech, video game and culture.
Expertise Culture, Video Games, Breaking News
Sean Keane
5 min read

Stan Lee, seen in 1991, led a life of complexity rivaled by that of the characters he helped create. 

David Pokress/Newsday RM via Getty Images

Comics legend Stan Lee was one of the true titans of pop culture, with his Marvel Cinematic Universe cameos cementing his status as a pillar of the Marvel universe. The man behind Spider-Man, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men went on to charm the public in countless interviews and signed comic books for fans who paid $50 (or more) and waited in line for hours to meet him.


Abraham Riesman takes a deep-dive into Stan Lee.

Penguin Random House

I did exactly that at Wizard World New York in 2013 and felt a little odd as I observed the then-90-year-old legend's hand shaking as he signed my copy of Amazing Spider-Man No. 96. It was a flash of the vulnerable human behind a man I'd all but worshipped as a hero since I started reading Spidey's adventures religiously at age 9.

In the years since that meeting, through Lee's death in 2018, I've read countless biographies and accounts about him and Marvel's early days to try to understand the real people behind the fictional universe. Those stories had almost become as comfortable and familiar as the comics they spawned.

Then I read Abraham Riesman's True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, which hits shelves this week, and one early line told me this take wouldn't be quite so comfortable.

"Stan Lee's story is where objective truth goes to die," he writes.

Instead of starting with the familiar tales of Lee's childhood in Depression-era New York City or his early days at Marvel, Riesman wastes little time in alluding to Lee's alleged falsehoods and exaggerations regarding his role in creating characters, the legal difficulties faced by his post-Marvel companies and the elder abuse he may have suffered in the final months of his life.

It made for utterly engrossing and deeply uncomfortable reading, so I asked Riesman why he opted against opening with the usual romanticism about the dawn of Marvel Comics as we know them.

"If I'd started with 'Bang pow zoom, comics are cool' -- I mean, who cares? It just seemed like the natural thing to do to situate the reader in Stan's world, with all of its different facets," he told me via Zoom from his home in Providence, Rhode Island. 

"Stan was neither saint nor Satan. He was a human being, he was not a superhero. There are no superheroes."

Riesman's own Marvel origin began in '90s after he picked up a copy of Megan Stine's Marvel Super Heroes Guide Book, a mini-encyclopedia designed to draw young readers into the worlds of Spidey and friends, at an elementary school book fair. The Marvel Action Hour, in which Lee teased episodes of Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Hulk cartoons, introduced him to the man himself.

The first real-life encounter came in 1998, when Lee signed his beaten-up copy of Fantastic Four No. 47 (an early Inhumans story) at the Wizard World convention in Rosemont, Illinois. Riesman's biography includes a delightfully retro photo of the encounter taken by his mother, but that doesn't capture a strange moment in its immediate aftermath.

"He looked at me, looked at my mom and said, 'You've immortalized me' -- a very weird thing to say to somebody who will end up becoming your biographer," Riesman recalled.

The uncertainty behind who created Marvel's most iconic characters has long been a bone of contention for comics fans -- the late artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko both claimed Lee took more than his fair share of the credit for dreaming up the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man in particular. It's a question we shouldn't expect clear answers to, according to Riesman.

Stan Lee dies at 95: A look back at his most iconic characters on screen

See all photos

"I don't think there is a smoking gun that actually tells us who created the Marvel characters," said Riesman, a journalist who writes for New York Magazine and Vulture. "And that is really hard for people, because we want certainty. The human brain thrives on making judgments, but it's a complicated, messy world."

Part of the problem lies with the Marvel Method of comics creation, which Lee used with Kirby and Ditko in the '60s. He'd give artists a rough story outline and let them use their imaginations to fill pages and panels with images of action and drama. Then Lee would return to write the dialogue based on what his collaborators drew. 

Watch this: Every Stan Lee Marvel movie cameo

That approach created major ambiguity as to exactly who did what, in an age before we all started leaving digital trails. Kirby was particularly assertive in claiming full credit for the creation of Marvel's iconic characters, and Riesman explores this in his book.

"I think Stan and Jack were the only ones who knew … only two people are involved in that creative process at the top level," Riesman said of this pop culture enigma. "It was two men in a room to a certain extent, both of them are dead and didn't have any recordings or notes to back up their assertions."


Fantastic Four No. 1, by Lee and Jack Kirby, kicked off the Marvel Universe as we know it in 1961.

Marvel Comics

The Marvel Method also makes it tricky to use the comics to gain insight into Lee, since we don't know how much he contributed to individual issues and story arcs. Riesman opted to focus on the reality of life rather seek any deep autobiographical revelations in the lives of Bruce Banner, Peter Parker or Reed Richards.

"I don't think you can learn as much from these comics as a lot of people have thought," Riesman said. "I don't think it's nearly as important as looking at the hard facts of his life and impact."

Ultimately, the author wants this biography to help people accept that ambiguity is "the order of the day" when it comes to Lee or anyone else's life.

"We really run the risk of making the world a worse place when we make real-life people out to be superheroes, whether they're politicians, singers, actors or titans of industry," Riesman said. "Once you start putting people into those categories, you're really divorcing yourself from reality. And lord knows, we spend way too much time these days completely divorced from reality."

If there's one thing I've learned from diving into biographies like Riesman's, it's that the people behind the legends are always more fascinating and complex than the tales they told. If you obsess over every detail in each Marvel Cinematic Universe movie or show -- and the people who cameoed in many of them -- you owe it to yourself to understand the highs and lows of the real-life stories that laid their foundations.