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Saturday, February 27, 2021 

Roy Thomas pushes back against Abraham Riesman's pseudo-biography of Stan Lee

Veteran writer/editor Roy Thomas, a protege of Stan the Man in the Silver Age, wrote a guest article at the Hollywood Reporter, where he refutes much of what propagandist Riesman wrote against Lee in his biased "biography". For example:
You think I'm exaggerating when I suggest that Riesman finds gratuitous excuses to favor Jack's version of things over Stan's? I'm not.

For one thing, just a dozen pages into the book, Reisman informs us that Stan "lied about little things, he lied about big things, he lied about strange things," adding that Stan quite likely lied about "one massive, very consequential thing" that, if so, "completely changes his legacy." (By saying "quite likely," Riesman puts the burden of proof on himself to demonstrate that Stan was lying about coming up with the basic idea for some, if not necessarily for each, of the early Marvel heroes — and he never really does. He simply weighs Stan's statements against Jack's, without offering any real evidence that Jack's memories are any more reliable than Stan's. In fact, he will later cite a number of instances in which they are not, but here he tosses in that "quite likely" just the same.)

Then, on the very next page, he puts flesh on his earlier "bullshitter" depiction by writing: "It's very possible, maybe even probable, that the characters and plots Stan was famous for all sprang from the brain and pen of [artist/writer Jack] Kirby."

"Possible," yes. Lots of things are possible. But "even probable"? Why? Riesman never really makes a credible case for that. He merely piles up verbiage and quotations: "He said … he said."

And he weights things toward Jack's viewpoint with statements like the foregoing despite the fact that, for instance, partial synopses written by Stan for two of the first eight issues of the crucial Marvel flagship title Fantastic Four (including No. 1) have been vouched for as existing since the 1960s. Riesman gives a lot more credence than is called for to "a rumor that [Stan's synopsis for the first half of FF No. 1] was created after the comic hit the stands" in August of 1961.

The sources of said rumor? The "significant reason to suspect the synopsis was written after Stan and Kirby spoke" in person about the FF concept? 1: A onetime teenage assistant of Kirby's, who only went to work for him circa 1979, says that Jack "told me that it was written way after FF #1 was published. I believe him." Fine. The guy believes his old boss. But that doesn't necessarily mean we should. And 2: Kirby is quoted as once saying of that synopsis: "I've never seen it, and of course I would say it's an outright lie." So on this occasion, Stan Lee is apparently lying by coming up with that synopsis — but Jack Kirby, who Riesman points out told a whopper or three himself, isn't lying when he says he never saw it? Or, giving both men the benefit of a doubt, couldn't it be that Jack, after several decades, had simply forgotten it?

OK — so Stan Lee personally handed this two-page document to me, as his editorial assistant, sometime in the latter half of the 1960s, only a few years after FF No. 1, at a time when virtually nobody, except me once in a while, was asking him how the Marvel Age of Comics had started, and when there had not yet been any public or private disputes between Lee and Kirby over the creation of the Fantastic Four or other Marvel heroes.

Yet Riesman says it's "maybe even probable" that the Fantastic Four (and much else at Marvel) came solely from Kirby's admittedly fertile brain. Why is it "maybe even probable"? No supportable reason is given.
Sounds like Riesman fudged up quite a few details involving Thomas, who worked with both Lee and Kirby during the 60s, spoke with the latter well into the 80s, and even at the time he was working more for DC, kept in good contact with the former. I won't be shocked if Riesman got little or no input from Thomas for his book, because otherwise, how would he be able to shred a legend's legacy at ease? Here's some more:
While reading Riesman's attempt at a dismissal of this synopsis, I found myself wondering how he was going to handle another noteworthy synopsis I knew of. It was a typed sheet sent circa 1963 to my friend Dr. Jerry Bails, a 30ish university science professor whose avocation was gathering data on superhero comic books. When Jerry asked Stan by mail if he might be sent any artwork or scripts lying around the office for his own small collection, Stan mailed him a piece of paper on which he had typed the synopsis (complete with title!) for the first part of Fantastic Four No. 8, which had been published in '62.

I read that sheet when I visited Jerry in Detroit over Thanksgiving in '63
. While eschewing any actual dialogue and leaving ample choreography for Kirby to do, it is otherwise fairly detailed, complete with Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) trying to stretch his malleable arms far enough to save a man falling from a building but not quite reaching him, so that the Human Torch has to catch him on the fly — while a secondary plotline, woven through the three longish paragraphs, relates how Richards is secretly building a machine he hopes will restore the monstrous, tormented Thing to his true human form. All these things, and others described on the page, are reflected in the comics pages as drawn and published. You could read the synopsis as you paged through the finished comic, and you'd find no major surprises, except that Kirby skillfully covers that material in seven pages instead of 13.

Perhaps the synopsis for the remainder of that story was sent to Jack later and wasn't preserved — or maybe it was merely covered in a follow-up phone call with details left to the artist, since the yarn's ending as printed harks back to a horror story Kirby had drawn in the 1950s. Either way, a good part of the story is nicely outlined on that single sheet — which Bails retyped and published in 1964, and whose verbatim retyping I myself printed in 1998 in my comics-history magazine Alter Ego.

Knowing by this point in True Believer that, whatever his shortcomings as a dependable analyst of "who did what" in the Lee-Kirby relationship, Abraham Riesman was a fairly thorough researcher, I gazed eagerly over the ensuing pages to see if he would claim that, circa 1963, Stan had also "forged" this primary document, as well.

And I found … nothing. No mention of the FF No. 8 synopsis at all.

Three pages of typed-out Stan Lee synopsis material seem to still exist from the first year of Fantastic Four — and Riesman doesn't think one of them is worth so much as a mention?
It's pretty clear at this point Riesman only wrote this faux-bio for tearing down Lee at every conceivable turn, and didn't do any through research on Marvel's archives and those of their contributors. All he cared about was the tabloid news telling about Lee's family life going to hell in a handbasket, and why must we take even that at face value? But it figures the MSM would gobble this all up, because when did they ever truly care about Stan the Man? Only those with contempt would back such an effort to publicize shock value trash.

I'm glad there's a veteran around who was willing to step up to plate and point out all the gaping holes in what's clearly a cynical, disrespectful book that only wants to view Lee as scum. I don't know how much the bio is selling, but I'd strongly recommend not putting any money into Riesman's pockets, seeing how reprehensibly he went about this. And if there's more veterans of the times still around, I hope they'll follow Thomas' example, speak up, and let know why Riesman was wrong to take his contemptible approach to covering a legend.

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About me

  • I'm Avi Green
  • From Jerusalem, Israel
  • I was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. I also enjoyed reading a lot of comics when I was young, the first being Fantastic Four. I maintain a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy in facts. I like to think of myself as a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. I don't expect to be perfect at the job, but I do my best.
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