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Friday, February 12, 2021 

Abraham Riesman's pretentious coverage of Stan Lee's history

The New Yorker wrote a history item about Lee's life and development of Marvel, reviewing a book prepared by propagandist Abraham Riesman called True Believer, named after one of Stan's notable phrases. And the way these articles are written up cannot escape a feeling they want to tear down Lee's image, no matter how much of a flawed human being he obviously was, because they'd rather offer up a discouraging take on a legend than one of somebody who ultimately did conceive great ideas as a scriptwriter:
Why should we care? One answer is money—lots of it. Nine of the thirty top-grossing films in history use Marvel characters. Though Lee gave up his stake in the intellectual property years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe began, money kept flowing his way. Another reason is honesty: audiences believe that Lee created those characters, and his lifelong habit of taking credit has stoked fans’ and journalists’ wish to get at the truth.
Ahem. As a scriptwriter, he was the primary creator in textual ideas. The artists obviously share much of that credit, but if he was the primary conceiver of a particular idea or character, then he has to receive the primary credit, and the artists next for helping to realize those ideas. Regardless, it's been well known for decades who his co-creators are, whether Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, or even Don Heck. And Stan practically gave them credit in the introductions he wrote for the Masterworks archives. For example, I own a copy of the 1st collecting Fantastic Four, where Stan said Jack had the "uncanny ability to visualize unforgettable scenes so clearly in his mind's eye that all he has to do is put down on paper what already exists in his incredible imagination." Most of the Masterworks (whose paperback editions have been mostly replaced by the Epic Collections, many of which I now own too) were first produced in 1987, and even well before that, Stan had already acknowledged the existence of his artists and inkers who made his visions possible. So what's Riesman trying to get at anyway? If he's insinuating Stan never gave genuine credit at all, that's mighty atrocious. And look what comes next in the article:
And then there’s the cultural dominance that superheroes, especially Marvel ones, have attained. Figures that Lee co-created, or said he created, revived a genre that had been on its last legs, helping to launch them from drugstore spinner racks to the screen. Americans who can’t identify Achilles or Botswana know Wakanda as a high-tech nation in Africa, Loki as a Norse god who’s up to no good, and Peter Parker as the original Spider-Man. Even as they dominate popular culture, superheroes—the flawed kind, the weird kind, the kind Marvel pioneered—can stand for exclusion, for queerness, for disability, for all manner of real or perceived oppression, marshalling enough power to blast their enemies into the sun. For decades, the title page of every Marvel superhero comic said “Stan Lee Presents”—no wonder we want to know who he really was.
I think we'd all like to know who Riesman - or the author of this alleged review - really is. Hijacking Stan's creations and legacy all for the sake of the LGBT agendas? Pretty low, but nothing new. Riesman was somebody who defended Axel Alonso and Nick Spencer's crude shock value story turning Captain America/Steve Rogers into a Hydra-Nazi, and that's surely the worst thing about somebody now suddenly writing a biography of a guy who became a big influence on Cap during the Silver Age. How are we supposed to believe, based on Riesman's past apologia, that he's sincere?
Named for one of Lee’s catchphrases, “True Believer” isn’t the first serious biography of Lee, though it is the first completed since his death, in 2018. It cannot settle every question about what, exactly, Lee did. What it does best is unfurl a Künstlerroman, a story about the growth of an art form and an artist who was also a director and a leading man, unable to admit that the show could go on without him.
Based on the past conduct of the "journalist" who wrote the book, that's why I'm skeptical it's any more serious than, say, the review itself. Based mostly on the following:
In what became known as the Marvel Method—not because Lee invented it (he did not) but because he preferred it—he and an artist would start out by chatting, perhaps making notes. The artist would draw the story and flesh out the plot, and Lee would add captions and dialogue. The method suited artists like the energetic veteran Kirby, known for his dynamic action and far-out costumes, and the moody Steve Ditko, who cooked up sullen characters and mysterious semi-Expressionist backgrounds. Kirby originated the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, and the X-Men. Ditko drew Spider-Man and Dr. Strange. Other early pencillers were asked to imitate Kirby’s style, while Kirby himself worked at a Stakhanovite pace: almost twelve hundred pages in one year. (As Kirby’s biographer put it, Kirby was “very, very good at creating comic book art and very, very bad at getting paid for it.”)
Hold on, what's this? Stan didn't invent the "Marvel method"? This seems more than a little forced, IMO. As does the following:
Lee’s dialogue revealed his need for attention, which some of his superheroes shared. [...]
And what's that supposed to mean? That he was little more than a dummy who craved attention for the wrong reasons? Why does this sound so stealthy, and more like a cunning attempt to rip down Stan's reputation? That's not saying Lee was a saint. Obviously, he wasn't, and there were times when he did seem to brag with exaggerations. But again, because of how slimy Riesman's acted in the past, that's why I'm not impressed with his attempt to look beneath the surface of a guy it doesn't take a genius to tell wasn't perfect, and view him as somebody flawed, because there's a feeling here they don't want to admire him at all. However, the review does make an interesting point about one specific thing:
Comics of the Silver Age—as collectors call this era—could never be described as realistic, but they did take place in a world more like ours than the universe of older cape comics. Ben Grimm hated his rocklike body. Bruce Banner feared the Hulk’s rage. Spider-Man could not have come to such vivid life without the iconic buildings of New York to climb. The original X-Men, advertised as “the most unusual teenagers of all time,” may not have been fashion forward, but they did bring youth culture to their punch-ups. Before they’re attacked by the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in issue No. 6, they hang “at a Greenwich Village coffee shop,” where the unsophisticated Iceman says to the intellectual Beast, “How about that jazz combo, Hank? It’s so far out that they’ll be fired if anyone can understand the melody!”
I find this interesting, because in the past 2 decades, I'd encountered some very disgraceful, phony "fans" who seemed to believe Marvel was "realistic" in virtually every sense of the word, even though a sci-fi world involving time travel, parallel dimensions, characters firing lasers from the palms of their hands and giant robots cannot be considered realistic in every way, shape and form. Actually, what was disgusting was their very lenient position on violence and offensive crimes like sexual assault (yes, I'm alluding again to apologists for DC's Identity Crisis, one of the leading reasons I stopped reading superhero comics), and refusal to recognize that a fictional character is not a real person. So what was this about "realism" again? People like that were very much like the "wokesters" of today, carrying a hypocritical viewpoint of everything, and decidedly more like infiltrators in entertainment than real fans of specific products. People like that are whom Riesman represents, whether they realize it or not. Let's continue:
In 1965, the Village Voice published a rapturous piece about Marvel. “College students interpret Marvel Comics. . . . Beatniks read them,” Sally Kempton wrote. “I myself was deeply in love with a Marvel hero-villain for two whole weeks. The fact is that Marvel Comics are the first comic books in history in which a post-adolescent escapist can get personally involved.” As more coverage followed Kempton’s swoon, Lee became the face of the company. No one could stop him: he had some say over who got credit and who got paid. Most creators in the industry—including Kirby and Ditko—were freelancers, doing what the law calls “work for hire.” It’s clear that Kirby drew the pictures and Lee wrote the words. What they later disputed, in decades of interviews and litigation, was who came up with characters and plot. Cognoscenti give Kirby more kudos than casual fans do, and more than they give Lee, especially after a vitriolic custody fight, in the nineteen-eighties, between Marvel and Kirby over his original art. As the sixties wore on, Riesman summarizes, “Stan went out of his way to praise Kirby,” but not to raise his rates. Kirby later concocted, for his DC series Mister Miracle, a harshly satirical picture of Lee as the ever-smiling, sleazy entrepreneur Funky Flashman, prone to grandiloquent pronouncements (“I know my words drive people into a frenzy of adoration!”).

There is no single word for the role that Lee played in building Marvel’s “massive latticework,” nor is there, even now, consensus about how he played it. Chris Claremont started working at Marvel as a teen-ager, in the late sixties, then wrote Uncanny X-Men continuously from 1975 to 1991. He recalls a figure “good as an editor, equally good as a manager, equally good as inspiration.” Artists and writers whom Lee would have regarded as his juniors generally paint him in the sixties as bombastic but kind, reliable, fun to work with.

Auteur models of artistic creation—Emily Dickinson alone at her desk—have little room for such an encourager and organizer. Perhaps above all, Lee was a grand self-mythologizer. As Riesman writes, one of his canniest bursts of creativity was inventing “a character to play named Stan Lee.” His ability to impress strangers, and to believe his own tall tales, suggests comparisons to Ronald Reagan. He claimed to have won public debates with Fredric Wertham back when Lee was too obscure to have merited Wertham’s attention; Riesman concludes that they never happened.
I'd consider that last line more credible than it could be if it weren't for the unfortunate jab at Reagan, who, if memory serves, once showed his appreciation for Lee. I don't know if Kirby was ever paid enough, or if he let his jealousy get the better of him, but I do know it was wrong of him to give an interview at the end of the 80s where he tried to claim sole credit for at least a few of the books Stan first conceived (in the Comics Journal, which is anything but a reliable source). Another part I decidedly take issue with here:
The team, of course, wasn’t the same without him. In 1972, Lee left the day-to-day supervision of Marvel Comics, facilitating his own promotion to “president and publisher.” As Sean Howe showed in “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story” (2012), the company in the early seventies was delightful, idiosyncratic, creatively fertile, but internally disorganized and economically shaky, running through five editors-in-chief in the five years after Lee left. Only lucky breaks from licensed properties (the rock band Kiss, and “Star Wars”) kept Marvel afloat until another editor-in-chief, the widely despised Jim Shooter, stabilized the ship.
Oh, please! All that talk about licensed merchandise saving their butts sounds exaggerated at best. You could argue Marvel did better at sales than DC at the time simply because the former kept their prices a little lower at 35 cents at one point compared to 40 from the latter. As for the part about Shooter, let's be clear. Did he make mistakes during the decade he was EIC? Yes, I don't deny it. But for the most part, Shooter did a good enough job in his time, and most errors made under his tenure were easier to repair than what came later. Though I'll admit, in the long run, some ideas conceived under his reign did prove detrimental for the MCU years later, like the Phoenix Saga, and now that I think of it, Hank Pym as alleged spousal abuser towards Janet van Dyne. I seem to recall it was alluded to at the start of Bendis' Avengers run, in a most disgusting manner too, I might add (Hawkeye was written making an offensive crack "don't you got a wife to beat?" towards Hank. Needless to say, that was uncalled for, period). These kind of troubling, questionable matters are never brought up by these propagandists, if at all, making their arguments about Shooter hypocritical at worst. The article continues with the following:
The industry that Lee had left behind was always changing. In the eighties and nineties, comic books were moving from drugstores to specialty shops, a shift that encouraged creators to write for what the comics critic Douglas Wolk calls “super-readers,” devoted fans who knew the decades-long backstories. Fans like that could impede change, seeking out only what they already knew they loved; as collectors, they could also generate boom-and-bust cycles, like the one that almost crushed Marvel again, in the mid-nineties. On the other hand, creators working in these later years could count on long-term emotional investment in changing characters, rounding out figures in what once seemed the flattest of media. These characters, such as Ben Grimm and Sue Storm, lasted beyond the generation of artists who produced them and readers who consumed them: they had room and time to grow.
And this sounds like a stealth assault on fandom, I'm afraid. Now, I'm not saying fandom are saints. Obviously not, and I will say that a product built on gratuitous violence, gender bigotry and far-left metaphors like 2004's Identity Crisis was, is something any "fanboy" who makes the stupid mistake of defending, will end up doing a terrible disservice to fandom as a whole (yet does the mainstream press ever take issue with such topics? Tragically not). But anybody implying Marvel fans defending the coherency of Stan's co-creations (and also DC's), and taking the position that forcing the kind of identity politics men like Riesman condone upon products that were meant foremost to entertain and provide escapism with are nothing more than mindless scumbags, is by extension damning Lee as a cult influencer of the worst kind. If that's what Riesman and reviewer are implying, that's another serious error here. Besides, after 2000, that's when character growth began to stagnate for real, quite the opposite of what's alleged here. I also don't like how they suggest "super-readers" only cared about what they already knew, when in the 80s, you had more creator-owned products like Nexus, Badger, Jon Sable, Xenozoic Tales et cetera coming along and there were people who bought into them too. Even Marvel ran their own Epic imprint for creator-owned stories like Dreadstar and Alien Legion at the time. During the 90s, some of the early Image titles also made a certain impact. I think this is looking at things rather narrowly, without considering the industry as a whole.
Few will read Riesman’s biography principally for its account of Lee’s last decades, but no responsible narrative could skim over them. [...]
Well I'm definitely not paying squat for Riesman's rag, because what he did a few years back really insulted my intellect. If he's going to be such a cynical creep, how can I really overlook that? When the issue of Lee's ill-advised early 2000s ventures with crooks like Peter Paul comes up:
To justify his get-rich-quick efforts, Lee cited Joan’s luxurious tastes and J.C.’s needs. Riesman describes a volatile relationship between father and daughter, with ugly fights recurring in Lee’s final years. A knot of new caretakers and hangers-on formed around him, including the collectibles entrepreneur Keya Morgan. After Lee died, at ninety-five, the disputes continued: over the estate, which J.C. inherited; over alleged elder abuse by Morgan (he pleaded not guilty); and, less credibly, over alleged sexual abuse by Lee. No one comes off well, and J.C. and Morgan worst of all. “He knew that people depended on him for a living,” one late-life associate said of Lee. “He was a generous, trusting man.” Even in his last months, he could be the center of attention, a well-meaning spider in his unlucky web.
Well at least they admit those tabloid accusations of sexual abuse were phony. But they still make the decidedly insulting insinuation he was engaging in get-rich-quick schemes, and some of those family feuds sounded more like tabloid fodder to boot. I do think he tried too hard to stay relevant, and it's regrettable that in his last 2 decades, he had to get involved with such shady characters as Paul, but it looks like the magazine - and quite possible Riesman - couldn't help make another insinuation Lee was too greedy for his own good. The article then references the social justice tactics Marvel sank into during the past decade, along with another questionable take on Lee's own creations:
In Lee’s X-Men, Jean Grey was The Girl, the fairer sex, the weakest link (many of the women in Lee’s books were, alas, The Girl); but in Chris Claremont’s X-books she became the cosmic center of the Dark Phoenix saga, burning down a patriarchal world. Kirby and Lee introduced Black Panther in Fantastic Four, in 1966, but he could not come close to the T’Challa of Chadwick Boseman’s screen portrayal until others (especially Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze, beginning in 2016) wrote and drew him. Peter Parker’s teen angst laid the groundwork for the internal divisions of such later young heroes as Kamala Khan, the current Ms. Marvel, defender of Jersey City, committed both to her Muslim faith and to the role models that older heroes provide (she writes fan fiction about the Avengers). Notably, neither the Black Panther nor the Ms. Marvel character was reinvented by white men. The writer G. Willow Wilson, the artist Adrian Alphona, and the editor Sana Amanat modelled Kamala partly on Amanat’s immigrant childhood.
Now this is fascinating! Are they putting down Lee's alleged approach to the ladies in his cast wholesale? Because Jean was actually the most formidable superheroine for starters in the Silver Age, based on her telekinesis, and Sue Storm's force field powers were officially developed about 2 years after her debut. And the insinuation only later writers like Coates and Stelfreeze made Black Panther a worthy read is yet another stealthy putdown. Why do they warrant official mention, but not Don McGregor? I say that as somebody who now owns a lot of the Bronze Age BP stories in Epic Collections. And I find it insulting how the magazine cites a politically structured character like the Muslim Ms. Marvel drew "inspiration" from Lee's past creations, which, while I don't deny they had flaws, were still much more engaging than these modern SJW embarrassments.
Today, new comic books featuring Marvel (and DC) superheroes make up a niche market. It’s unlikely that any staple-bound comic will ever approach the eight million-plus copies that an X-Men relaunch sold in 1991. [...]
But most of those copies gathered dust on shelves and in boxes. And it was a spinoff title launching that year, sans-adjective (along with X-Force, which succeeded New Mutants), not a relaunch of a flagship title at numero uno like today's shoddy practice. At the end:
Today’s X-Men, chronicled in ongoing comics, are citizens of a sentient island nation, Krakoa, with its own ecosystem, its own foreign policy, its own space colony, diplomats, and privateers. Mutants move there for safety and community, find long-lost friends and same-sex lovers, and resurrect the dead. It’s a far cry from the original X-men roster, five white-bread teens at a Westchester County school. And it’s a lot more like Marvel fandom—a found family, an imagined community, no longer all white, and frequently disabled, devoted to unlikely stories about people who may look odd, or lack social graces, but who can read minds, or teleport, or fly. That mutant nation could never have been created—or even anticipated—by the fast-talking, smug, sometimes generous, and surprisingly conventional Lee. But it could never have happened without him.
You could be forgiven for thinking this was meant to imply additional cast members like Storm and Sunspot never came about. But then, extensive research into everything Marvel ever put out in tasteful times was never the strong suit of these propagandists, nor do they think to provide any proper room to edit in such data. And why must they suggest mutants all isolate themselves on an island, and either not be part of wider society, or that wider society not welcome them? Or that Lee should've actually condoned such a direction? Or that homosexuality is something to approve of? Or that fandom is literally all questionably isolationist? Just the New Yorker being their ultra-leftist old selves, as usual.

I also found and decided to take a look at a New Republic review of the Riesman book, whose headline calls Stan's life "unheroic". It's no better in its own biases:
This scene from the 1995 movie Mallrats captures the long-prevailing view of Lee, the man behind Marvel during the comics renaissance of the 1960s, when superheroes became wittier and more angsty, more human than ever before. To many fans, he was a kind of god. Yet the same month the movie was released, the magazine The Comics Journal devoted an issue to Lee that was not entirely favorable. The cover featured a caricature of him as a grinning ringmaster with an oversize head, and cover lines teased “a circus of celebration” alongside “a carnival of criticism.” Inside, one article discussed “The Two Faces of Stan Lee,” while another asked, “Once and for All, Who Was the Author of Marvel?” As Abraham Riesman notes in his new biography, True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, the answer in the piece was not the man who took all the credit.

Certainly, Lee helped build the Marvel empire through his work as a writer, editor, and publisher there. But by the mid-’90s, his status as a trailblazing genius was in dispute. The comics artist Jack Kirby, who had worked with Lee for decades, had been saying that he alone was the progenitor of most of the company’s novel and long-lasting heroes and villains. “Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything!” Kirby said in a 1990 interview with The Comics Journal, going so far as to reject the narrative that he and Lee had invented characters like the Fantastic Four and Thor together. “I could never see Stan Lee as being creative,” he said. “I think Stan has a God complex. Right now, he’s the father of the Marvel Universe.”
But again, this obscures that Lee did acknowledge the artists by the time the Masterworks collection came around. And people like Daniel Best have noted that there is sufficient evidence out there that Lee was the primary conceiver of the stories, with Kirby drawing the ideas into visuals. Ah, now I get it. In the PC crowd's narrow view, Lee can't be forgiven for allegedly not providing the artists with clear credit in the late 60s to the press. And TCJ, again, is hardly a great source. What I do know is that, no matter how much I admire Kirby, this was a most unfortunate, unfair slam against Lee for his mistakes. But here's what really takes the cake:
Lee’s life was, however, far bumpier and more complex than the success story he cultivated. A major figure in a field he never liked, Lee became known for dreaming up characters that quite possibly were not his. His reputation flourished even as his ideas flopped. Some people found him delightful to work with, while others deeply resented him. He promoted the black-and-white morality of the superhero world, but his own relationships were a tangle of ethical uncertainties. As much as his flashes of brilliance, it was these weaknesses that left their mark on Marvel comics.
I beg your pardon? I know he once said he was considering dropping out at the dawn of the 60s, but his wife Joan encouraged him to keep giving the medium a chance, and he later made clear he was glad to continue. This is pretty fishy too. But here's something to ponder in regards to credit where it's due:
Lee did make efforts to give his collaborators some of their due. Comics had no standards for citing creators, and he implemented one by placing itemized credits at the front of each issue. He listed by name the writer, penciler, inker, and letterer; he also often praised them in letters to fans and public interviews. Yet, as Marvel became more and more successful, the charismatic Lee became the focus of the attention. Glowing newspaper articles positioned him as the mastermind of the whole operation, when in reality artists like Ditko and Kirby were doing much of the plotting and scripting on their own, while getting paid solely as artists, not writers.
Well this is decidedly telling something as far as crediting the co-developers is concerned! Seems a lot of these complaints about Lee hogging it all are overblown, all for the sake of tabloid tommyrot. And he can't be expected to serve as some kind of a financial safety net for his employees in all instances, so it's a shame these papers are making it sound like he should've gone full-blown nepotist. If the pay was just for employment on the whole, and there was no clause requiring both jobs lead to 2 forms of wages for one worker, what's all the fuss about?
As the ’60s progressed, Lee expanded the Marvel brand via spin-off products that boosted the company’s profile and profits—as well as his own career. The writers and artists, who were often freelancers, didn’t receive any royalties for the use of their work. Larry tells Riesman that as he watched his older brother get rich and famous, he was struggling to pay rent. Fed up, Ditko left the company in 1965. Kirby did the same five years later. Meanwhile, Lee’s ascent continued, and in 1972, he became Marvel’s president and publisher.
Is this supposed to imply Lee was obligated to "share his wealth" in every way? I guess everybody's got to be put on a socialist ride and not pull their own weight, huh? Stan made some of his extra fortune by participating in other magazine and entertainment ventures during the 70s and 80s, not just in comics. But here's something that looks very distorting:
Lee spent the 1970s fine-tuning his public persona as an amiable, all-knowing guide to comics. He spoke to the media and at venues across the country, from college campuses to convention floors, while defining the visuals of his one-man brand: thick mustache, gray-haired toupee, and tinted glasses. Internally at Marvel, though, he was facing rifts with artists and writers over everything from content to labor conditions. At one point, Lee’s old boss Martin Goodman and his son Chip formed a new, rival publisher and recruited top talent like Ditko and Larry to work on comics for them. Lee responded by sending his freelancers a letter that implored them not to contract with other companies. In it, he compared his competitors—including the Goodmans, who were Jewish—to Nazi Germany and Marvel to the Allies. He had gone “from being creative force to total company man,” in the words of Roy Thomas, his former assistant.
I checked the Grantland item by Howe. What it says is that Lee did try to get original art drafts returned their illustrators, but Al Landau, one of the higher-up managers apparently scuttled everything and even caused trouble for Thomas. The way this is written makes it sound like Lee was absurdly ignorant, if not selfish, and whether he stupidly spoke of the Goodmans in a crude manner, the alleged complaint rings hollow when there's only so many leftists today using the obnoxious slur of nazism all over the place, effectively minimizing the meaning (and wasn't Riesman the one defending Marvel's 2017 Hail Hydra horror?). From what I know, when Jim Shooter was EIC, he did come up with a certain policy to ensure creators could get residuals for use of their stories and/or characters, and this was at a time when Lee was still publisher. So I think this is all a lot more fudging up by the MSM reviewing a book by somebody whose respect for Lee is dubious at worst. Besides, if Stan didn't want his freelancers working at other companies, it's no different from DC staffers like Mort Weisinger demanding the same, as Thomas recently spoke about. Most of those unwise demands for exclusivity were abandoned by the mid-80s anyway, though a lot of ill-advised animosity between publishers remained long after.
Lee was still dreaming of success elsewhere, brainstorming humor magazines, novels, and newspaper strips that were mostly dead ends. In 1980, he became the creative director of a new animation studio, Marvel Productions, and set out with his family for Los Angeles. But in Hollywood, he quickly found that many people in show business, among them the head of the studio where he worked, took little interest in him or his ideas, including those for movies based on Marvel characters. “You couldn’t give comic books away in those days, as far as properties,” the animation writer John Semper tells Riesman. “So, consequently, nobody really cared about Stan.” He had meetings, including with director James Cameron, about making live-action superhero movies but couldn’t land a deal. His pitch to adapt a Japanese TV show about a team of acrobatic heroes was rejected—only for someone else to do it years later and strike gold with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. “I don’t understand why they don’t have any imagination,” Lee lamented to a friend. “I don’t understand why they can’t understand what I’m saying.”
Frankly, I don't think Riesman understands anything about Lee. And IMO, of course Hollywood at that time couldn't give a damn about Lee; in those days, no matter how intelligent the writing in comics proper, they were only considered worthwhile if it turned a cinematic profit. Certainly that's the situation today. Curious they don't mention 1986's Howard the Duck film, adapted from Steve Gerber's satirical creation from the Bronze Age, which George Lucas produced, resulting in such a disaster. It'd take at least a decade until a Marvel book was made into a mainstream film again, and that would be Blade, based on the vampire hunter first seen in Tomb of Dracula. But honestly, what does it matter whether they're adapted or not? I don't think even back then, it would've made a difference for sales of pamphlets, and besides, given the chance, Hollywood would've taken advantage of Lee in the worst ways possible, which is why I honestly think he made a mistake going there. Besides, unlike Japanese anime, where the producers are willing to deal with subjects far more sophisticated than what you might see in a US cartoon, I don't think most animated shows of the 70s-to-90s ever did anything challenging like examining race relations and how to combat illegal drug trafficking. If Lee's significant Spider-Man storyline from 1971 where Harry Osborn became a PCP addict never got adapted to animated format, that says all you need to know. The problem with commercialism in the US is that it has all sorts of politically correct stumbling blocks impeding the creativity Lee was trying to accomplish on the printed page. Most laughably, back then, it was all considered "children's medium", until it's seen as the perfect way to indoctrinate and push agendas as modern cartoons are. Later on, after discussing his work in the 2000s, it says:
In light of this, it’s only natural to ask: Could Lee really have invented all those Marvel characters on his own? Riesman doesn’t make a judgment either way, but I get the sense that he’s doubtful, as am I after reading his book. “Stan was a man whose success came more from ambition than talent,” he writes. Lee’s ambition was to reach the top, which he did thanks in large part to his skill at self-promotion and his charm.
I think Riesman fails to recognize that a guy in his 70s-80s whose mental health may have failed by that time (his eyesight and hearing weren't great by that time either) couldn't be expected to pull off what he was capable of doing when he was younger. Worst, he's merely ripping down the work of a legend just for the sake of the left's modern hobby of denigrating veterans.
You can see those qualities at work in interviews, where he comes across as genial, funny, and assured, speaking with a thick New York accent. In one from 2000 on CNN, Larry King introduces him as “the most famous name in American comic-book history” and goes on to ask, “What constitutes a hero?” Lee’s response harks back to the Marvel breakthrough of the ’60s: “Basically, to me, a hero is somebody who will sacrifice or will take great chances to help others but still have human traits, still not be perfect. When they become perfect, they become dull.”

The irony is that Lee could never adhere to his own definition. He rarely went out of his way to help others—whether they were his own workers vying for better conditions or Kirby trying to reclaim original art from Marvel in the 1980s—and he spent his whole life hiding and running from his own imperfections. The stories he told about himself were never as complex or compelling as those he wrote for his comic-book characters. The debut issue of Spider-Man famously depicts Peter Parker grappling with the results of his ethical choices: By not stopping a robber, he allowed that man to go on and kill his uncle. He is forced to confront the reality that “with great power there must also come—great responsibility!” as the oft-quoted line—written by Lee—goes.

By contrast, Lee’s 2002 memoir Excelsior! is, Riesman finds, “largely self-serving,” studded with lies that “reinforced Stan’s legend, and elided anything for which he might be found to be at fault,” including the fraud at SLM. The 2015 graphic novel adaptation of it is much the same, with a primary quality of tedious flatness. Poring through Lee’s archives, Riesman can’t find much in the way of genuine self-reflection, let alone suggestions of remorse. As a result, despite being well-researched and thorough, True Believer feels like it’s missing an emotional core, some sense of what the person at its heart, the real Stan Lee, was like. It seems that few people ever knew.
Is this supposed to mean Lee was required to be perfect, unlike his creations? Considering that the SLM case was surely still tied up in litigation at the time, I'm not sure they could've written about it at ease. And if he was supposed to help others, does that mean he should've put Shooter entirely on a leash? If he did, he'd be no better than Quesada/Alonso/Cebulski or the higher echelons they're working for. According to Look to the Stars, Lee did donate to charities like health, children and cancer issues. Yet these reviews ignore that, which is quite offensive. I also don't like this part near the end:
Lee may have done groundbreaking work, but his personal version of heroism was, at heart, old-fashioned: He envisioned himself as an icon who, by his own doing, redeemed some small part of the world. He believed not just in his own myth but in that of America: a place filled with well-intentioned, bootstrapping individuals who shape their own destinies. And the superhero genre, even Stan Lee’s version of it, propagates this national narrative, with its focus on strong men, its simplistic visions of good versus evil, and its glorification of justifiable violence.
Well I'm not saying his vision was perfect, but I thought his takes on good and evil weren't entirely simplistic? After all, there were a few super-crooks who later reformed, like the Sandman did following a Marvel Two-In-One storyline. And the accusation of "glorifying" violence is decidedly self-serving coming from the journalist and magazines reviewing, considering all the real life violence occurring around the world where Islamofascism struck. I see they even have the gall to call Lee's view of heroism "old-fashioned", without explaining what they think makes for real heroism. And is there an anti-American bias hidden in the text? Ugh.

Next, there's Rob Salkowitz commenting on the Riesman book at Forbes, and he's just as appalling:
The problem is, Lee’s jaunty public persona and beloved cameo appearances in Marvel movies concealed a rat’s nest of troubles under the surface. Since departing Marvel for Hollywood in the 1980s, Lee involved himself in one failed or disappointing venture after another, with a veritable rogues gallery of villainous business partners. More significantly, his creative legacy came under increasing scrutiny. How much, if anything, did Lee, who served as Marvel’s editor and was credited as writer, contribute to the characters and stories that cemented Marvel superheroes in the public imagination? Within some quarters of the comics community, Lee’s outsized share of the credit constituted an act of theft from his collaborators, notably Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Both men died without receiving even a fraction of Lee’s public acclaim, much less the financial rewards their work brought to Marvel and later Disney.
Says who? Kirby and Ditko were given a show of appreciation in Lee's Masterworks intros, yet it seems they themselves were unsatisfied, no matter how much he tried to thank them. And Lee didn't "depart" from Marvel, considering he was more or less a leading executive until 1990, and even afterwards remained a chairman emeritus.
True Believer is part for-the-record biography and part an effort to balance the scales between Lee’s public reputation and the more complicated truth underneath. The book delivers a wealth of details on Lee’s later life, unearths a few stories that blemish his reputation, and generally paints Lee as a restless and unsatisfied man whose own definition of success always lay just beyond his reach.
As though we couldn't figure out Lee wasn't a saint. Why don't they complain about how he stuck to a belief that you shouldn't talk badly about the places you've worked for, which sadly proved a weakness Joe Quesada for one exploited? All in order to remove the Spider-marriage from canon. Something nobody in these MSM outlets seems interested in.
Riesman gives comparatively short shrift to this pivotal phase of Lee’s career; a fuller exploration of the popular appeal of Lee’s contribution to Marvel in the 60s can be found in Danny Fingeroth’s 2019 Lee biography A Marvelous Life. Riesman does, however, track down the writer of a notorious feature story that ran in the New York Herald Tribune in 1966 which first planted the myth of “Stan Lee the creative mastermind” in the popular imagination.

In the piece, Lee demonstrated the “Marvel method” – where he concocts the plots to the story, explains it briefly to the artist, then adds dialogue to the drawn pages – to credulous journalist Nat Freedland. The resulting story portrayed Lee as the larger-than-life mastermind and relegated Jack Kirby, who often ignored Lee’s skeletal guidance and gave reign to his own titanic visual imagination, as a tired-eyed workman who could, in Freeland’s deathless phrase, be mistaken for the foreman in a girdle factory.

That New York Herald Tribune piece led to a permanent fracture in the Lee-Kirby relationship, with Kirby eventually leaving the company in 1970 to work for competitor DC. Though Marvel prospered on the back of Kirby’s characters, dynamic style and storytelling approach for decades, Lee was never the same creative force, and Kirby’s bitterness over the experience lingered until his death in 1994, still fighting for the credit, respect and money he believed he was due. Unearthing the background details of this incident is, on its own, a significant contribution to comics history scholarship and one of the most interesting sequences in True Believer.
I'm afraid this doesn't say anything we don't already know, and decidedly contradicts or obfuscates all that Lee said in Kirby's favor. Lee gives the outline, yet Kirby was solely realizing his own visions, not Lee's? Doesn't compute in my book.
The second half of True Believer puts Lee’s post-Marvel career under the microscope. This portion of Lee’s life - constituting more than 40 years - has been noted but not highlighted by Lee’s previous biographers, partly because his late-career efforts are much less creatively significant than his Marvel work, and partly because it is frankly embarrassing that a man of Lee’s reputation and previously-demonstrated ability would involve himself in such awful projects (Striperella?) or with such crooks and conmen. Best to just look away and chalk it up to the follies of age and ego.

But in Riesman’s account, these misadventures are as central to understanding Lee’s true character and career as his celebrated work at Marvel. True Believer documents the bitter saga of Stan Lee Media, a 90s-era digital media company spearheaded by entrepreneur Peter Paul, whose side of the story is told at length for the first time in the book. Like most of Lee’s late-life ventures, SLM traded on Lee’s public reputation to sell hackneyed and outdated superhero concepts, and eventually collapsed amid finger-pointing and financial shenanigans.
Oh, I get it. They're trying to use the mistakes he made in the past, his old age and lack of an estate conservator notwithstanding, as an excuse to imply Lee was just a guy full of hot air. And maybe even attack him for having a sex-positive viewpoint. Worst, they have the gall to say:
True Believer also explores Lee’s personal life, painting a less-than-flattering portrait of Joan Lee, as well as detailing the troubled relationship between Stan and his only child, daughter J.C. Lee. These personal issues help explain why Stan continued to plot get-rich-quick schemes well into his 80s and 90s, and fell in with an increasingly unscrupulous circle of handlers and managers.
After reading this, I think it's just plain rude to tear down on the guy's wife, whose career as a model may have inspired Lee to characterize Mary Jane Watson as a model/actress. And likely doesn't consider that Joan too could've been suffering elderly health issues much like her famous husband. I see there's no complaints how Marvel's own staff under Alonso exploited Lee as a shield for their own gratuitous politics either. If only Lee's the issue and not the modern Marvel staff, what good is this so-called biography?
Riesman’s unsentimental reportage, and his discovery of some troubling details that complicate the picture of Lee as a generally liberal, tolerant man, may seem gratuitous given the humiliations Lee experienced in his final years and the genuine joy he and his work brought to millions of people.
It's not because of what Lee suffered in his last years that makes Riesman's work gratuitous, but rather, his own attitude towards fandom and his ideology that does. Is Riesman qualified for this job based on what he's said in past years? I don't think so.
But Riesman’s careful debunking of the tall tales isn’t a takedown of Stan Lee as much as a takedown of the myth of the heroic creative genius – a myth that is not without consequences. Lee’s collaborators toiled and often died in obscurity while he basked in the limelight. The association of Marvel characters with Lee’s crowd-pleasing persona almost certainly contributed to their appeal both in comics and in the wider media universe, and the story of Lee as father-and-creator of the Marvel Universe papers over some messy creative rights issues facing companies like Disney.
And to this, I ask: what exactly was Lee supposed to do? Get them jobs in Hollywood? Was he supposed to be everybody's nursemaid? Even DC has tons of past creators who never hit it big time outside comicdom, mainly because men like Riesman don't care to write biographies about them. "Careful debunking"? My foot. I know Gil Kane worked in animation during the 70s, but he likely sought those jobs out himself; can you honestly expect the top company boss to boost everybody up the way Lee made it to tinseltown? Roy Thomas may have worked on a film or two (Conan the Destroyer in 1984), but he never became a Hollywood legend like Lee did, yet doesn't seem disappointed about it, and honestly, I think it's better Thomas didn't move to moviedom.

Here's another review from the Washington Monthly, where this money paragraph comes up:
As Lee became increasingly famous, however, his artistic collaborators chafed at his claiming all the credit for the Marvel Universe. In True Believer—a clever title taken from the jocular trademark phrase “Face front, True Believer!,” which Lee used to address Marvel readers—Abraham Riesman, a reporter at New York magazine, takes a close look at the mythology that surrounds Lee. It’s not clear whether Riesman is a Marvel fan, as he doesn’t delve into Lee’s body of work much beyond the obvious high-water marks. But Riesman has done a ton of research about Lee’s life, excavating his personal archive and interviewing numerous artists and writers he worked with as well as his business associates. His reporting starts with Lee’s childhood in New York, and stretches to his final years in Los Angeles. Throughout, Riesman provides an illuminating and reliable account of Lee’s improbable odyssey.
Umm, since he's provided every reason to doubt he's a Marvel fan, that's why I won't take the notion he's provided a "reliable" account at face value. No way. Interestingly enough though:
With the creation of Marvel and the arrival of three artists—Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, and Larry Lieber—the dim light finally burst into a vibrant flame. Those artists, Riesman writes, “would end up with an intense ambivalence, if not downright dislike, toward Stan.” Ditko played a central role in devising the character of Spider-Man, as did Kirby in developing a host of other Marvel characters, including the Fantastic Four. Throughout their work together, however, Lee sought to diminish their share of the credit and maximize his own. Lee had come up with what was known as the “Marvel Method.” Essentially, he would explain a scenario to his artists, wait for the storyboards, and fill in the copy with his jaunty prose.
This contradicts what the New Yorker subtly claimed, proving their own shoddy bias was at work. As Riesman's is here:
There is no known evidence, Riesman observes, that Lee created the premise, plot, or characters for the fabled Fantastic Four. A bitter feud opened up years later between Lee and Jack Kirby over the actual provenance of the FF, as they were known to faithful fans. Kirby flatly stated that he, not Lee, had invented the characters and plots for the FF, the Hulk, and the Avengers. Kirby ended up suing and receiving a munificent settlement from Marvel in 2014. The debate over authorship may seem esoteric, but, Riesman notes, “billions of dollars have hinged on it. Disney’s livelihood depends on Stan’s interpretation of it. A legal case centered on it came one step away from the Supreme Court and was settled for an unspeakable sum.”
Don't they mean Kirby's estate? He himself passed on 20 years before. In any case, it's clear Riesman relied on accounts given by scrap piles like the Comics Journal, and an incredibly stupid, ill-advised path Kirby took, all because he resented not retrieving the full rights to his art drafts, not to mention idiotic jealousy. Again, I do admire Kirby for his comics contributions, but such matters are why I must still take his work with a grain of salt.
When it came to the origin of Marvel’s hottest property, the Amazing Spider-Man, controversy also abounded. Lee wisecracked about his own claims of responsibility for the genesis of Spider-Man, “I’ve told this story so often that, for all I know, it might even be true.” An embittered Steve Ditko, who did much of the work on the early Spider-Man corpus, said that Lee was talking through his hat: “Lee started out early with his self-serving, self-claiming, self-gratifying style, of giving credit and then undercutting the giving by taking away or claiming most or all of the credit.” Riesman, for his part, is clearly dubious about Lee’s extravagant claims.
Just as I'm dubious Riesman's really a fan, and lest I forget, I'm doubtful he's a Kirby fan or a Ditko fan either. I don't think he's even bothered that Disney studios owns Marvel today. At the end:
For all the brickbats tossed at Lee by his former colleagues, Riesman doesn’t seem to have his heart in trying to demonstrate that Lee was a supervillain. Lee might have been an indefatigable self-promoter, but without his P. T. Barnum–like efforts, Marvel would never have hit the big time. The quality of the movies can be disputed—Martin Scorsese has decried them as “not cinema”—but Lee’s influence cannot. Today, the man referred to as the “Jewish Walt Disney” is more iconic than ever. The newly released video game Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales features a massive golden statue of a smiling Lee standing next to a diner. The plaque on his plinth reads, “Dedicated with love to the man who nourished the hearts, minds, and souls of True Believers everywhere. Excelsior!” As Lee liked to proclaim, “ ’Nuff said!”
And why is this SJW-pandering creation the big deal here, but not Peter Parker? That makes this more than a little bizarre. If they loved Stan, wouldn't they think to make a major nod to Peter and Mary Jane, in the games and on promotional posters? This is little more than joke commercialism, exactly what brought down Marvel.

And I'll decidedly not be putting money into Riesman's pockets, since he's done little to prove he's anything other than an apologist for the PC advocates now running Marvel who've proven to be fraudulent fans themselves. Whatever's been brought up here reeks of political correctness, not altruism. And if there's anything in the book even remotely distorted, that'd make Riesman the real life equivalent of J. Jonah Jameson. It's too bad that, even after he's gone, there's still people out there determined to sully Stan's legacy by making him sound more like a greedy schemer than somebody who, while obviously not without flaws, was still trying to entertain and provide what to think about, in sharp contrast to what's come since the turn of the century. If I want to read a Stan Lee biography, I think I'll try Danny Fingeroth's instead.

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It used to be, "If you can't do, teach."

How it's, "If you can't do, be a journalist and tear down those who can."

When was the last time either you or Riesman read a comic that was published before the year 2000?

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  • I'm Avi Green
  • From Jerusalem, Israel
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