'True Believer' Author Abraham Riesman Dissects The Complicated Legacy Of Stan Lee [Interview]

The legacy of Marvel Comics maestro Stan Lee has been muddy for decades. Even as the supposed mastermind behind the early days of Spider-Man, Thor, and the Fantastic Four evolved into a beloved international icon with cameos in every Marvel film, controversy nipped at his heels. At the heart of it all: the constant rumblings that he didn't actually co-create his most famous characters, and that he went out of his way to bury the talented artists who worked alongside him.

The new biography True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee explores Lee's life in detail, unraveling mysteries, asking troubling questions, and coming to grips with the the fact that this icon's life was full of contradictions, half-truths, and shifting narratives. Author Abraham Riesman isn't just a biographer, but a detective, forced to dig deep and even rub elbows with a number of shady figures.

True Believer is a harrowing read for Marvel fans, but the stories within this book should prove fascinating to anyone with an interest in history and culture. Lee's childhood as the son of immigrants in New York City is a window into a fascinating world. His years in the wilderness of Hollywood, where he strived and failed to make movies, is illuminating. And his final days, where Lee was surrounded by men and women who seemingly meant him only harm, are heartbreaking.

I recently spoke to Riesman about True Believer, which is available anywhere books are sold. Our conversation included what it is like to explore the Stan Lee archives, why so many fans and professionals alike are so quick to defend Lee at any cost, and what we are to make of one of the most important, and complex, legacies of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Congratulations on the book. It seems like people are talking about it, which is certainly a good thing.

Yeah, it is. I have no idea if it's translated into sales yet. I haven't gotten that data. But it's certainly got a lot of attention. I'm very lucky. It was a topic that I think a lot of people care about, and I'm very glad that it's gotten the attention it's gotten.

There's a photograph in the book of you as a kid getting Stan Lee's signature at a Comic-Con. Sometimes there's this narrative around this kind of subject, like, "Clearly you hate Stan Lee, you're out to get him." But clearly, you grew up with this being important to you. This must have been a painful process more than anything else.

Not really. It's not so much painful as intriguing. I have no ill will toward Stan on an ad hominem basis, and also I did not grow up idolizing him. I got a signature from him at Wizard World Comic-Con in Rosemont, Illinois in I believe it was 1998, that's when the photo's from. But he was never a big emotional figure in my life, which I think benefitted the book, ultimately. It wasn't that wrenching of a process. There were wrenching aspects of it just based on human empathy. Reading and learning more about his family life was, at times, uncomfortable. To get back to your original point: I don't hate Stan Lee. Nothing of the sort. I did not come here to write a hatchet job. I am not trying to cancel anybody. I'm trying to muster up evidence and tell a coherent true story as best I can. Some people don't like it, and what can I say? I hope people will give the book a chance and see that it is not me trying to tear something down, but rather trying to build a story.

I'll jump right into this, which I think is something a lot of people have a question about. There's this article that was published on The Hollywood Reporter from Roy Thomas [who worked with Lee at Marvel], where he essentially tries to take down a portion of your book. Do you have a response to this article?

Sure. I mean, everybody has their views about Stan, and some of them are very passionate. When it comes to criticism of the book, all I can say is that there's basically no factual errors that anyone points out. It's not that I got my facts wrong, it's that people disagree with the interpretation or sometimes the tone. And that's their right. It's a written work. In a way, it doesn't belong to me anymore. You can make whatever evaluations you want about it. But again, I tried to tell a balanced story, I tried to marshal the facts and stick to them. What I say to critics is that I hope you give the book a chance and I hope you understand that I did my level best to be as close to exactly what happened as far as I can tell as I could. If the story that resulted is something that you find to be unfair to Stan, that's up to you. But I did my best to be as fair as I could.

It's not like you're just making wild accusations. There's research in this book. The one that strikes me, the one that made me put the book down and talk to my wife about, was the radio interview that he claims gave him the inspiration for Thor. But you just logically look at that and say, "This does not make sense. This is clearly a lie," and not in a "I'm out to get him" way, but in a "the timeline doesn't make sense" way. The historian aspect of this – you're picking through the evidence of a man whose life is shrouded in so much mystery. How much of the detective work was a surprise to you? 

I mean, there were definitely things that popped up that I was certainly not expecting. Listening to the audio recordings that [Lee's former manager] Keya Morgan provided for me in Los Angeles, the recordings of Stan yelling obscenities at his daughter or about his daughter or about his former road manager, and being paranoid and racist and homophobic. That was evidence that I worked for months to try to get access to, and I did, and it was more shocking than what I even thought I was going to hear. Although, I don't want the book to be reduced to the salacious revelations that I found, it does fill out a larger picture of who Stan was behind closed doors. A picture that even people very close to him did not really get to see. Only if you were in the inner, inner, inner circle were you really able to see Stan be that way. That kind of detective work obviously led to some revelations. And yeah, just doing the math on things sometimes led to interesting realizations. Such as when you start breaking down, okay, he said the origin of this character came from this conversation, but that conversation probably couldn't have happened based on the available evidence we have. Or, this story of how this character was created changed over and over again over the years. That stuff, it was surprising. Not so much in a "I'm so shocked" way, but it kind of makes you realize that every story you tell in your own life, somebody could go fact check at some point, and it induces you to be a little more truthful or at least clear in the way you talk about things.

The book does emphasize that Stan was really, really good at a lot of things. I'm a managing editor at a website. I know how hard it is to manage talented people. I think there's something to be said about a man who could have wrangled that talent, edited that talent, and been the public face of that talent. In many ways, to me, that's enough. Rather than trying to complicate your own legacy.

That's what I say in the book. One of the great tragedies of Stan's life was that there were a lot of things that he was unambiguously good at, and those were generally not the things he chose to emphasize. He chose to put the spotlight on things that he claimed he did that there is a lot of doubt about. He emphasized that he was the great ideas man, when it's unclear whether the ideas behind these characters and stories were really his. He pitched himself as this great writer when he wasn't writing scripts. He was writing dialogue and narration, sure, but he was not doing the first pass at the drafts. At the same time, he was not saying, "I was a great editor," which he was in a lot of ways, or "I was great because I created the interconnected continuity of the Marvel universe." That was another thing that was pretty unambiguously him, but he didn't choose to emphasize. So yeah, it's interesting. It raises a lot of questions about human nature and the degree to which we all do that. We all have the things we do that we want to be known for that are not necessarily the things we're known for, and that can be frustrating. But when you go against the grain like that, you can at times end up getting caught in a lie. Or at least getting caught in a situation where people are doubtful about your claims about yourself.

Maybe it's just too cute of a comparison, but it really feels like if you want to put it in historical context, Stan Lee is the Thomas Edison to Jack Kirby's Nikola Tesla. You have a guy whose great talent is overseeing an army of geniuses versus a guy who's more singular.

You know, that's not for me to say. But there are parallels between any number of other creative or inventive processes that involve multiple people, where you have one person who's a very good salesperson and a good manager and a good public face who can get a lot of recognition, and another person who is not as good at selling themselves or at being a raconteur. And those people can fall by the wayside to a certain extent. It's harder to make pronouncements beyond that, but I see what you're saying. You can find parallels in Apple with Wozniak and Jobs, you can find parallels in Disney with Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. There's countless stories where you have these singular human presences that become iconic, and it's always more complicated than just one person was behind all of this.

One thing you reference a few times was visiting the Stan Lee Archives. My movie-addled brain pictures you walking into an underground vault like Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code.

[laughs] Not quite.

Can you describe what that experience was like?

It's just a library. There's a center, in this building called the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, Wyoming. And it's just a reading room you go to, like any university archival reading room. It's pretty nice, it's airy, it's got sunlight. And you just request boxes, and boxes come to you. I did not have time to read all of them, because I was only there for five days. I just had to go, "This one I want, this one I don't need," and she would go scan them. And I would watch little bits of the video they had or the audio they had and ask for that to be digitized later. But it was a fascinating experience. I was astounded at how much Stan and his late wife, Joan, left to the university. It was almost 200 boxes worth of stuff donated between the early '80s and the early 2010s. There's a lot of material there, and I encourage anybody who's interested in Stan to go visit. It's a little bit of a pain in the butt to get there, but it's free to the public and totally fascinating.

There are so many interesting revelations that seem to have come from this. So many notes about failed project. Arguably, he never created truly significant work after the '60s, but you can tell that he never stopped working, and never stopped shedding certain obsessions. Including the one that stuck with me: his obsessions with photo captions as a form of entertainment. That's what struck me, but in your time researching the archives, what recurring trends did you notice that jumped out as you as something that was interesting or weird?

That's probably actually the one, in terms of trends, at least. Throughout his career going back to the '50s all the way up until at least 2008, he was really obsessed with this idea of doing goofy captions to news photos, archival photos, or works of art. He either got that off the ground or tried to in a bunch of different forms over the course of the decades, and once you're sort of looking at it all in the archive, it starts to become clear just how prevalent that was for him. It was just a medium and a mode that he found very funny, and basically no one else did. It never took off, and over and over again he pitched it and either it didn't happen or it did happen and it landed with a thud. There's not so much a trend, but I was shocked at how many home movies were there. That's not his work, but I was very surprised that Stan and Joan had donated all these VHS tapes of just camcorder footage they'd taken at Christmas parties they'd had as family, or just families hanging out. That was somewhat surprising to see.

Seeing all of this laid out, it's all available for everybody to go see it, it makes it all the more surprising for anybody that has a knee-jerk reaction to criticism about Lee. Certain Marvel filmmakers I saw tweeting out the THR story, saying "don't read the book, and read this instead" –

Oh, really? I knew James Gunn did that. Who else did it?

James Gunn is the one I saw. As someone who likes James Gunn but also understands that things aren't so simple...I'll paraphrase a quote from your book. Somebody refers to Stan Lee as a good guy but not a great guy.

Yeah, [former Marvel writer and editor] Gerry Conway said that.

Do you think that's because when you meet Stan Lee, as James Gunn has on numerous occasions, he is a very nice, pleasant man. He's a kind man. He has great stories. Do you think that's why people are rushing to defend him? Because he simply was a nice person?

Well, look, people love him. He's been great to them. He was not, to the average person that he interacted with, cruel or mean. He was a jovial and genial guy to deal with, which goes a long way. But it's not the full story. I'm not saying, "Actually, you should hate this man." I'm just saying there's more to a person's story than what the person shows you. And that, in a way, I kind of had an advantage in that I didn't get to interview Stan for this. I'm sure there were things that I would have loved to know, but Stan was not the most reliable recounter of his own information either through bad memory or dissembling, but he also didn't have the opportunity to sort of put me under his spell the way he did with a lot of other people. Put under his spell in a relatively benign way. You meet him and you fell in love with him, was the case with a lot of folks. That is hard to shake, and it's hard to write an objective biography of someone you really deeply love or deeply hate, and I didn't have those feelings either way toward Stan. But people who do love him, I get it. I get why you'd be upset with this book, and I was not trying to upset anybody, and that's sometimes how it goes. A lot of it had to do with his personal charm. As Gerry Conway said, when he said he's a good guy not a great guy, that was something that was echoed by a lot of folks that I spoke to who knew Stan and were really enamored of him, but were also fully aware of his shortcomings and things he did that they weren't so happy about. That was kind of the nature of knowing Stan on a deeper level, I think.

The back third of True Believer is harrowing for different reasons. This is the first time, I think, where I've read a biography where, in the pages before the acknowledgements, somebody comes off as a genuine villain – not in a comic book way, but a person who I hope gets locked up. But then you thank Keya Morgan in those acknowledgements because you have to because he gave you so much.

He gave me a lot. I'm very lucky that Keya [Morgan, who faces allegations of elder abuse against Stan Lee] was as much of an information broker as he was.

What's the balance there? As a journalist, it's a line you've gotta walk every day. But it's also like, "This guy's giving me a lot of stuff that's good for my book, but I'm also pretty sure he's a monster." Is that a line you had to walk?

Well, I don't know. I don't know all the details, and there are a lot of things that are still question marks. You have to give people the benefit of the doubt. So I'm not ready to call anybody a monster. But I do think there was an interesting balance that had to be struck there. Of course I'm going to thank Keya Morgan. Keya Morgan was instrumental to the success of this book. Does that absolve Keya Morgan of any potential sins? No, but those two things can co-exist for me. As long as I'm being a respectful professional about it, I think you can have both of those things present. Those things being acknowledgement of his help, and also acknowledgement of the accusations against him.

When Lee passed away a few years ago, I said I was waiting for the biography that was going to really have the space and time to acknowledge how complicated Lee's life really was. I think your book came out at the right time, where enough time had passed for us to really think critically about this. In your mind, as his biographer, what is Stan Lee's legacy? If we acknowledge that the legacy that he painted for himself is not one that's entirely truthful, as the mascot, the figurehead of early Marvel, does that hold as much power?

One thing I'm trying to put across that there are these things that Marvel should be proud of him for, or thank him for, such as the concept of the shared Marvel universe. Or such as the wrangling of talent. Or even just the letters pages. The letters pages were enormously helpful. They were instrumental. People who read those comics came back month after month, week after week, because they wanted to interact with Stan and see what Stan's interactions with other fans was like. Stan still has an enormous legacy for Marvel. Without Stan, I don't think Marvel succeeds. I don't think you could have had the Marvel revolution without a Stan Lee. It's not that I'm trying to say his name should be banished from the Earth – far from it. He's somebody who really was crucial for the success of Marvel and therefore for the comics medium and the superhero genre, and that's not something to sneeze at. You just have to take it also with the fact that a lot of his legacy was built on falsehoods or dubious claims or exaggerations and so on. So, just because his legacy should change doesn't mean he doesn't deserve a legacy or that he has none.

Someone pointed this out to me and I'm not sure I agree with it, but I wanted to bring it up to you and see if you had a reaction to it. In an age of superheroes, where superheroes are the dominant form of media, are we just not equipped to deal with the idea of our heroes being flawed people? Marvel built its legacy on flawed heroes, but it feels like people aren't ready for this sometimes.

Well, the trouble with the flawed heroes is they're still heroes. Superheroes, at least in really mainstream depictions, especially the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's really hard to depict somebody with true moral ambiguity. It's always that they do things that they regret, or that other people think are bad, and then they feel bad about them and move on, and we forgive them. That's not how humans necessarily work. Part of the point of this book is that there are no superheroes. There's only us muddy individuals who shouldn't be heroes. I just don't buy the idea of setting up a human being as something infallible and someone who should be emulated in every way. I think that's a dangerous way to approach humans, because they're actually messy and they're often less than scrupulous in their morals – myself included, you, everybody. Superheroes, even if they have things they do that are not so great, they're still held up as better than you and me, and as people who save the world and who deserve our gratitude and our admirations. I just think that's often how people get away with stuff in the real world. You take a politician and say this person's like Superman, or you take an industrialist and say this person is like Tony Stark, whatever – all of a sudden, you're not paying attention when they do bad things. Or, they do bad things and, as I said, you just forgive them because you go, "Well, they mean well, and they're on the side of the angels." I just think that's a dangerous way to order society and to structure celebrity. So yeah, superheroes are the dominant mode, but superheroes may seem morally ambiguous, but more often than not, they're just tortured, which is a different thing.

You mention in the acknowledgements Marvel Comics: The Untold Story as being a big reference point for you.

Yeah, great book!

Amazing book. I'm recommending that people read them together because they both paint a really interesting picture of the time.

Thank you, that's an honor.

So what other books do you recommend if people want to read more about comics? What's your reading list?

Oh goodness, I didn't prepare this. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, definitely. If you want more about Stan Lee, the first real biography of Stan that came out in 2004, called Stan Lee: The Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book by a guy named Jordan Raphael and a sadly now-deceased journalist named Tom Spurgeon who was one of the great journalists of comics. Anything by Thomas Spurgeon is worth reading. His loss was devastating for the world of comics journalism and comics history. The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu is another good one, about the moral panic about comic books in the '40s and '50s. Stuff Said, that's another good one if you're looking for more about Stan and Jack and Steve, about Lee, Kirby, and Ditko. There's a book called Stuff Said by John Morrow that analyzes a lot of that. Why Comics? by Hillary Chute. That's a big fat one that really tells you everything you need to know in a lot of ways about the concept of comic books.

Last question: favorite Marvel movie of any of them.

That's a great question. Logan, I'd say Logan. I love Logan. If you mean Marvel in general as opposed to Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Yeah, anything across all of the years.

Yeah, Logan's my favorite one. I've seen it four or five times and I cry like a baby every time I watch it. I think it's a very, very good movie.


True Believer is available now.