“…Into Some Loathsome Pit!” Notes on True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee

"I'm ready for my cameo, Mr. DeMille": Lee's husk meets Captain Howdy of The Exorcist.
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In his attempts to appear fair to his subject, Abraham Riesman often skews toward being overly kind to Stan Lee in True Believer: The Rise And Fall Of Stan Lee, his mostly well-researched, cumulatively nauseating biography of the late Marvel figurehead. To be sure, Riesman does not erect a shiny tent for worship as most of Lee's previous biographers have. Instead, he digs a grimy evidential sinkhole as he details how Lee abused his most productive artist partners Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, as well as all of the other artists who worked by the Marvel Method, by making it so he and Marvel's other copywriters took not only full writing credit, but also full writing pay, for years--for stories that the artists were the primary writers of.

Now that Ditko and Lee are pushing up daisies and the Kirbys have money to burn, the truth might seem moot to some who don't want their child-brains bruised. But the thing is, Lee's fame primarily rests on the idea that it was he who created the character/properties--Fantastic Four, Spiderman, X-Men, Avengers---that form the core of the multibillion dollar Marvel Universe. However, as becomes obvious as Riesman describes Lee's overwhelmingly unimaginative concepts both prior to his Marvel heyday and subsequent to it, Lee was never creative in that way. Yet as Reisman hammers the salient points home and then suggests Lee's possible complicities in a range of bizarre corporate malfeasances that occur in his direct proximity throughout his later career, he still also emphasizes Lee's likability and possibly exculpatory naïveté and gullibility, while judging lesser players more harshly.

Some of Lee's contributions to Marvel's success are indisputably significant, and Riesman does not discount those: he details Lee's skills as a promoter; as an editor and art director with a grasp of what makes for clear, exciting comics storytelling; as an office manager with a talent for gladhandling artists; and as a copywriter and blurbist with a knack for punchy titles, clichéd soap operatics, glib humor and sly catchphrases. And Riesman offers some unique insights in that area: for example, he points to Lee's service during World War 2 as a stateside writer of propaganda films as being the major inspiration for the style of his editorial voice at Marvel in Bullpen Bulletins pronouncements, letters pages, and captioned asides throughout Marvel's stories in the 1960s. These and Lee's more unique bits of wordsmithing like the campy archaic-ish dialogue in Thor were part of why Marvel Comics were such fun and made us all feel part of something cool.

Unfortunately, what we didn't understand was that these fun, cool comics were made according to an inequitable comics production system. Lee's "Marvel Method" is based on the idea that a writer "writes the story" by providing a brief plot in a meeting or phone call with an artist, in even a sentence or two--or, by not even contributing anything at the outset. The artist may come up with the basic idea themselves. Whatever the story idea's source, though, the artist creates from that a complete set of sequential drawings that are the equivalent of a TV episode or film; i.e. the artist invents all of the specifics of incident that define storytelling, the full articulation of all well-cast players visually interacting and acting appropriately with dramatic timing, with "camera" movement in space, with light and atmospherics, sound effects, beats and foreshadowing, etc.---everything that involves a viewer/reader in a story and all far beyond the scope of the elevator pitch that the writer may or may not offer in the first place. Either way, the job of the Marvel Method writer was to take the complete pages that the artist makes and blurb them, writing captions and balloons based on the story notes and suggested dialogue that the artist wrote in the panel margins---and not always adhering to that artist's intent. Often, the best of Marvel's storytelling artists made up their own stories entirely; Kirby was like that, by Lee's own account--that is, by Lee's earlier, contemporaneous accounts. Later, he began to lie for legal reasons. But irregardless of their initiation of or contribution to stories, "writers" were given the entirety of writer credit and pay, while Kirby and his fellow artists were only ever credited and paid for their drawings.

Reading Riesman's book, I was reminded that former Marvel talents Jim Steranko and Gene Colan both told me that they usually liked Lee as an editor. Lee is presented in these pages as having the charm and slick management techniques to get everyone to do what he wanted, and a teflon aura that usually stopped them from blaming him if things went wrong. Gene told me that he liked the freedom the Marvel Method offered him to plot and pace stories himself; while Steranko enjoyed a privileged position as the sole writer/artist, at least credited as such, at that time at Marvel. "He's like AD Cedric Gibbons at MGM--let's give the old guy a break," Jim chided me when I grizzled about Lee to him.

You won’t be able to wash your eyes and brain.

But Steranko also told me that he left Marvel at the apex of his tenure precisely because after he asked Lee not to alter his exactingly orchestrated short horror masterpiece, "The Lurking Fear at Shadow House," Lee changed it anyway--hard. He messed with captions, added silly lines of dialogue and retitled it "At the Stroke of Midnight"--and he rejected the unique cover Steranko designed, opting instead for competent but derivative John Romita art. Nothing that Lee did needed doing, especially not at the risk of losing a major talent; and I doubt that his alterations contributed to the Alley Award the story won. His actions were only about establishing who is boss. Steranko had threatened that he would leave if this was done, and did. "It was the straw that broke the camel's back," Jim told me. Steranko could leave, because he always had other options. Kirby, Ditko and Wallace Wood likewise eventually all left in disgust. But Gene, Dick Ayers, Herb Trimpe and more didn't see themselves as having other options, and so they stuck with it for many years as work for hire freelancers at Marvel. All ended up suffering greatly from the lack of job assurance, benefits and recompense. Gene at the end of his life was afflicted with glaucoma and cancer with no health insurance. The halfhearted benefit comic Marvel did as a gesture to him just deflected responsibility to the fans.

Was that Lee's doing? Well, he wasn't there anymore, but he set up and greatly profited by a system that allowed the great talents who had helped put him where he was to be disenfranchised. He doesn't seem to ever have stood up for his ostensible collaborators in any way that counted. The guy who is shown here to be fun and entertaining is simultaneously revealed to be ethically challenged and lacking in sincere empathy. And more, plausible historical backup for his vaunted status of being known to millions as the primary creative dynamo who invented the sprawling Marvel Universe of characters is nowhere to be seen. It thusly seems strange when the author says in several different ways that that it is "possible and maybe even provable that the characters and plots Stan was famous for all sprang from the mind of Kirby" and that Kirby "may well have been the creator of the whole kit and kaboodle" ---because Marvel so obviously reflects the brunt of Kirby's furious talent for inventive character creation and design, sprawling narrative structure, and powerful sequential imagery, qualities which were always present in his work before Marvel and remained strong throughout his subsequent career---and face it, idea-wise, Lee is a nadir---but then relegates the relative few who believe Kirby's own account of their "collaboration" (including, ahem, myself) to being "hardcore comics geekdom."

Riesman should have consulted more geeks, because he missed certain areas of inquiry that might have helped to clarify Kirby's practice and so answer the overarching question of Marvel's founding authorship. For one thing, Riesman barely examines the dynamic of Jack Kirby's earlier team-up with Joe Simon, beyond allowing Simon's claims in his own book to pass unquestioned: that it was Simon who created Captain America and was the writer and inker of all the Simon/Kirby stories; that Kirby just penciled throughout their long partnership. But Kirby is on the record explaining how in his teaming with Simon, he usually wrote the stories he and others in the studio drew, while Simon concentrated on doing the business. Examination of the comics bears this out: many of the classic S&K stories in titles like Boy's Ranch, Young Romance and Black Magic clearly reflect Kirby's writing voice. In his upcoming book According to Jack Kirby, Michael Hill shares that Simon once conceded, "We were both prolific writers," but S&K studio writers are more specific: Walter Geier says that in story conference sessions with staff writers, "They sat there and made up the plots...Jack did most of that. Joe would say something once in a while but Jack was the idea man." Kim Aamodt agrees: "Jack did more of the plotting than Joe...Jack's face looked so energized when he was plotting that it seemed as if sparks were flying from him." Kirby scholars tend to believe that Simon contributed more to stories and inking in the earlier prewar years of their teaming, but as time went on shifted his attention to hustling deals. As Kirby said, "Had I stayed at Joe's side all the time that Joe operated we'd have never gotten any pages done." In the postwar S&K era, in addition to writing stories for himself and other artists, it is clear that Kirby most often inked his own pencils. In addition, he punched up pages by other S&K studios artist’s pages with his brushed ink blackspotting—and also colored, particularly on many effective covers.

Kirby pencils, inks, colors--and writes---S&K classics.

Doing the lion's share of the creative work was to Kirby a reasonable partnership, because "operating" was something he didn't want to deal with, while Simon did bring in lots of well-paying work. And so, Kirby likewise allowed Stan Lee to take way too much credit and pay---for years---because he thought he benefited from Lee's marketing savvy. Fan Barry Pearl claims that at the NY Comic Con in 2008, he overheard Lee whisper to Simon, “I have used what you taught me throughout my entire career.” And how.

That's another point that Riesman doesn't follow up on: by exploiting Kirby, his “partners” allegedly ended up with the lion's share of the assets including overly large portions of the original art. The Simon estate has auctioned off major original Kirby art including his early masterpiece “Mother Delilah” on Heritage. Riesman does mention a few times allegations that arose from Lee's 2010 appearance on the TV show Hollywood Treasure, when in a segment about valuing original Kirby Silver Age Fantastic Four art, one of Lee's entourage is quoted by the host describing Lee's "garages (and) storage units full" of Marvel original art. Given the context in which it comes up, one assumes this means similar art: highly desirable Silver Age Kirby art. I saw the show at the time, then discussed it with other Kirby fans. We all hoped that a real investigator, which Riesman is, would look into it. But even though a huge part of Kirby's dispute with Marvel was about his original art, and he only ever finally received a few hundred out of the thousands of pages which were rightfully his, Reisman doesn't afford the allegation any interrogation, but instead immediately diverts to what he calls a "far more eyebrow-raising" account of Lee's extravagances and the squiffy stock manipulations at his company POW.

An oozing stain of disempowerment seeps into the book whenever it deals with Kirby. Jack's claims of authorship are supported right up front in the Overture, if unverified---no "smoking gun"---but Kirby's own statements about this crucial issue are disbelieved by Riesman, and sometimes disputed even by others who present as being on Kirby's side. Mark Evanier was Kirby's assistant for a few years in the early 70s, also knew Lee "personally and professionally for decades" and worked for the aborted Stan Lee Media; he offers some valuable anecdotes in these pages. But several times herein, Evanier also subverts Kirby's authorship claim. I believe that Kirby, who by Lee's own admission constantly surprised his editor for years with new characters, through their accumulation and interdynamics initiated the elaborate cross-title continuity of the Marvel Universe, expansive lateral storytelling techniques he learned from his writing idols: Dumas, Dickens and newspaper strip cartoonist Milton Caniff. But Riesman ascribes this key innovation to Lee, without any justification beyond Evanier saying that Kirby "found it cumbersome and irritating, because it forced him to incorporate other people's ideas into his own comics." Really? Kirby seemed fine with including Bill Everett's Sub-Mariner and Carl Burgos' Human Torch early on with his own appropriation of Jack Cole's Plastic Man, and, um, the Norse god Thor--and who else created armies of interrelated characters in the early days at Marvel? Perhaps Jack said that about his later, ill-fated second stint at Marvel---after others has further filled his playground---and when Evanier no longer worked for him? And despite all the cited evidence that Lee rarely if ever plotted anything for or with Kirby, Evanier claims in these pages that Kirby and Lee "had already plotted" (in other words together) the issue of Fantastic Four that was "plotted" performatively after the fact by Lee for the benefit of the writer of a NY Herald Tribune article so insulting to Kirby and Ditko that it led to them quitting Marvel.

One thing Lee did create is the illusion that he somehow concocted that complex continuity and so added the most significant innovation, without inventing any of the participants. There’s no evidence that Stan initiated any of that, but there IS evidence that Stan blurbed a lot of cute captioned asides as he tried to keep track of all the things Kirby was adding to the sprawling canvas of Fantastic Four, The Avengers, SHIELD, The X-Men, etc. Yes, Lee may have asked Kirby to bring back characters sometimes, but they all were only ever on the board to be used because of Jack. But Kirby wore down after a while—against his nature, he tried to stop giving away ideas because he was cut off from the fruits of his labors. He was denied the promised royalties when his concepts were spun off into new titles and when his Marvel art was animated for TV cartoons and used wholesale for an array of merch. That wasn't all Lee's doing; no, the most major screwing was done by Lee's cousin by marriage, Marvel publisher Martin Goodman. But for all Lee's ability to secure lucrative consideration for himself with the publishers, first Goodman and then sundry corporate lowlifes, he never intervened for Kirby when Jack was struggling to get his due. Lee could have, but he didn't. And he sank his lowest long after Jack's passing, when he deposed against the Kirbys in their suit against the company, claiming that he was the sole creator of the Marvel Universe. But Riesman's tone goes hard on Kirby when describing his brilliantly incisive caricature of Lee as "Funky Flashman" in Mister Miracle #6 as a "brutal...gutshot."

Funky Flashman throws HouseRoy to the Furies.

He even lets Lee's understudy Roy Thomas, accurately nailed in that story as the subservient "HouseRoy," repeat his opinion that the "not in good fun" parody "hurt" Lee. Boo fucking hoo. Thomas has in recent years provided a needed forum for interviews of elder cartoonists with his zine Alter Ego, but his obsequious Pence-like defense of Lee is worth more than a demerit. The only person ever cited in True Believer or elsewhere as a witness to verify the provenance of Lee's few alleged "synopses" for two of the earliest issues of Fantastic Four is Roy Thomas. These documents, supposedly preserved since 1961, form the sole support for Lee's---and so Disney's---claims to the Marvel characters, but were likely concocted well after-the-fact of Kirby's initiative, and at any rate, Thomas did not work for Marvel until 1965. Perhaps here is the place to throw in that Marvel doesn’t pay royalties to artists, but I'm told they do to writers.

Twice, Riesman inexplicably describes Kirby's elder son Neal as "vicious" for his statement made during the Kirby family's last legal battles before their settlement that Lee was an "excellent" marketer, manager and promoter but without "any creative ability" ---a logical assessment that aligns with what Riesman himself implies throughout. Neal knew full well that his dad was a fount of ideas. All of the Kirby kids grew up watching their father's practice and saw his capabilities first-hand. Jack's youngest daughter Lisa recalls,

I do believe his work was well thought-out before he went to the drawing board. My dad was in his head a great deal of the time...My dad's studio pretty much had an open-door policy. We just came and went and it didn't seem to bother him...His schedule was usually from mid-afternoon and he worked all night. My mom would usually get up at 2 or 3 AM to check on him and try to convince him to go to bed.

That 12 hour workday didn't stop Kirby from caring from his family, who were in his mind the only reason he did what he did. Lisa says, "He was my father first, artist second...he did manage to take time off for family get-togethers and outings...He loved people and entertaining." Kirby did his best not to let his frustrations affect his family life, but his kids felt all their lives the damage that Lee's self-serving lies inflicted upon their family.

An awful picture is painted of Lee's own family throughout this narrative. For one thing, Reisman uses a repeating motif of the indignities visited on Larry Lieber, who gets bones thrown at him by his older brother Stanley and his subordinates of mostly low-level work writing and drawing for Marvel, but is largely dissed, exploited and/or ignored. That is pathetic, but on the other extreme is Lee's wife Joan and their troubled daughter JC, who are both depicted throughout as spoiled, profligate spendthrifts, and perhaps drivers for Lee's desperate greed. It is hard to assess JC, though; she does sound incredibly capricious and so her frequent appearances here may spur most of whatever scraps of pity are generated for the book's subject---but imagine what growing up with such parents would do to a person.

In truth, Lee held no regard for women. The man who claimed the "Invisible Girl" among his most famed female characters made it his business to objectify and diminish women throughout his career. Lee very deliberately altered Kirby's plotted Marvel stories to sideline the female characters. Lee's constant bowdlerization of Kirby's stories has been incisively articulated by Mike Garland in his series "A Failure to Communicate" in the Jack Kirby Collector. More recently, Kate Willaert examined the "Lee/Kirby" corpus and at first generously asserted, "Tight deadlines meant there wasn't always time for Lee to get an art correction when it didn't match his sensibilities, so he'd try to change it with text." But as Willaert compared Jack's penciled border story notes on the original art and the gestures and attitudes of the women in his drawings, with the published versions, reconfigured by Lee through his text and alterations and deletions of art, she observed "a recurring pattern of Stan Lee preventing a female character from having agency in a story, even when Jack Kirby had drawn it in." Kirby was a surprisingly progressive guy and he liked strong women, so he often wrote powerful, proactive female characters into his stories. A good example is The Invisible Girl. But no matter how bright, observant, resourceful and courageous Jack makes Susan Storm Richards, these qualities are vehemently denied by Lee's printed words. In the 100-plus issues of Fantastic Four that Jack Kirby wrote and Stan Lee rewrote, Sue is ignored, told to shut up, made to give the male characters credit for her actions that drive the plot, and removed from panels, over and over again.

Lee makes Sue Storm invisible.
Crystal and Medusa vanish, too.

Chris Tolworthy cites Lee's "foundational sexism: Kirby created (Sue) who was there due to her own intelligence and courage. But Lee would only allow a female as a love interest...(he) uses every opportunity to make her inferior to men." Lee goes far beyond any dismissals of "times were different then"--his constant sabotage of a quarter of the Fantastic Four greatly harms the storytelling across the series. And this is just one of the Marvel titles that he edited. Lee used his "great power" to be responsible for helping generations of boys be more sexist. Most of the ideas he ever genuinely came up with are based on his own leering propensities: besides the oft-derided Pamela Anderson vehicle Stripperella, he offered an endless succession of cheezeball titles: Stag Line, Virtue of Vera Valiant, Chastity Jones, Baaad Girl, Hef's Superbunnies, Li'l Repute, Harpies, etc.---and even an idea for a magazine that he discussed doing with Will Eisner with a feature article titled "Shall We Legalize Rape?"

After hundreds of pages about remorseless screwings, tasteless brainfarts, celebrity hobnobbings, and sordid, ethics-less and likely felonious business maneuvers done by, or under the aegis of, the revered cultural icon, it is hard to find any sympathy that as Lee's time on Earth wound down, he was increasingly a magnet for sleazeballs, con men and thugs, all eager to feed at his trough, and finally left to the less than tender mercies of his shrieking progeny. For whatever its faults, and I think the title True Believer is one of them as it suggests honesty on the part of the subject, the book finally pops the bubble of lies that made Stan Lee a multimillionaire and a revered figure to millions, but left his talented writer/artists in the dust, relatively unappreciated and even impoverished. In the end, Riesman did good--he nails the coffin on the old bullshitter. But the grime! I need a shower.

Thanks to Steven Brower, Mike Hill and Pat Ford, and Rand Hoppe of the Jack Kirby Museum and Research Center.
Selected sources

Hill, Michael. According to Jack Kirby. (upcoming)                      

Picariello, Gary. "The Kirby Work Ethic." The Jack Kirby Collector #51, p 56-57.          
Riesman, Abraham. True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee. NY: Crown, 2020.
Romberger, James. Steranko: The Self-Created Man. NY: Ground Zero Books, 2018.
Willaert, Kate. "Kirby Without Words." TJKC #66, p 5-7.                                     
Tolworthy, Chris. Email to Michael Hill, 3/10/2021.