True Believer

Abraham Riesman has written one of the most important books in comics history.

The field of Stan Lee biographies is not a narrow one. Ronin Ro brought the outsider’s perspective to his Tales to Astonish, but he simply rehashed the Marvel mythology without questioning it, and he refused to cite sources. Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon were on the right track with their 2004 Lee biography: they questioned Lee’s claims, but still portrayed Marvel as a Stan Lee-Martin Goodman operation that somehow benefited from having Kirby around. Danny Fingeroth’s A Marvelous Life is a straight-up hagiography: the Marvel mythology retold from the perspective of an industry insider. Lee was a great guy who was always nice to everybody, and Kirby, Ditko, Wood, and others were just unreasonable.

What sets Riesman’s book apart is that he is foremost a journalist. He is versed in the mythology but able to step outside it and look at it with a skeptic’s eye. The book is compassionate toward its subject, and compelling. It’s impeccably researched with copious endnotes, and incorporates eye-opening interviews with Lieber, Nat Freedland, Denny O’Neil, and Keya Morgan, among many others.

The introductory sequence portraying Celia Solomon’s family in the Old World is captivating. The book begins and ends with Larry Lieber, the little brother Lee barely tolerated for most of his life, and only grudgingly acknowledged while Goodman was still in the picture. Kirby’s death is like a scene from a movie, with his assessment of the relationship from a recent interview done as a voice over.

As Riesman details, Lee’s existence following Kirby’s death was disturbing and devastatingly sad, not something to be wished on anyone. Kirby’s 1972 Funky Flashman ends with Lee inadvertently burning down the House of Ideas and heading for Hollywood. Lee’s final decade bears an eerie resemblance to one of the storylines in another of Kirby’s DC titles, OMAC.

Although necessary, it’s disconcerting that the objective approach requires Kirby’s words to also be treated with skepticism. The propensity to question Kirby’s claims originated with Lee’s decades-long campaign to discredit his creator and story writer (aka his “collaborator”); it was the greatest possible injury he could have inflicted. Riesman says Kirby’s recollections were confusing, citing the Prisoners of Gravity interview where Kirby told Rick Green that The Fantastic Four “were the young people. I love young people.” It’s one of the supposed inconsistencies that requires “Kirby’s defenders” to explain for him. I oblige, here.

It goes without saying that the book’s release mobilized tens, if not dozens of Lee’s followers to discredit the book sight unseen. On the bright side, on February 8th, Kim O’Connor took issue with a line in that day’s review in The New Yorker:

“Like Troy or Rome, every new Marvel story exists on layers of foundations laid by various hands.”

Come on now, lol. This is surely the most bombastic version of “comics aren’t just for kids” in human history. Which is itself remarkable… but whatever, that’s harmless enough. It’s a lot worse to say, ‘Sure Jack Kirby deserves credit. And so do all the colorists who ever worked on that title and the fans who wrote in about plot points, etc.’ That’s not even remotely the same. Come onnnnnn… If we’re talking about assessing Stan Lee’s legacy, it seems to me the central point is that the myth the man created for himself was leveraged by Marvel to whitewash its egregiously exploitative practices. He was the mascot for what remains, in many ways, a shithole industry.

What does it mean that the entire Marvel Universe was built on the ethos of a glorified used car salesman? Among other things, it means someone at the New Yorker can compare Marvel to Troy & Rome (lmao) without ever acknowledging the deep deep human harm this business has done. The “Marvel Method” isn’t about collaboration and teamwork. That is not the takeaway. The Marvel Method is about exploitation. It is a process that has by every indication ruined lives. Can we stop romanticizing this stuff? Stan Lee is dead, and Marvel Comics really, truly deserves your contempt.

Chris Tolworthy, who also loved the book, pointed out that yes, there were no outside witnesses to a Kirby-Lee story conference, but that doesn’t mean, as Riesman suggests, that the distribution of labour is unknowable. The investigation, as Tolworthy does now, and Stan Taylor and Rich Morrissey did before, teases patterns, themes, plots and characters out of the physical product.

Although the examination of the published work is outside the scope of the book, True Believer promises to reach a wide audience outside of comics fandom. Hopefully now that Riesman has done the important part of skewering the mythology, more resources can be directed at the work of knowing the unknowable.

True Believer