The PEN Pod: The Secret History of Stan Lee with Abraham Riesman
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke to culture reporter and author Abraham Riesman about his new biography, True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, which documents the extraordinary creative output of the head editor of Marvel Comics for three decades, Stan Lee, and also the controversy that chased him his entire life. We spoke with Abraham about what it means to make radical assumptions about artists we look up to, uncovering details about Lee’s past, and what he’s been reading lately. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Abraham begins at the 14:25 mark).
You pored over Lee’s entire life. How did you get on this track, and how did this book come together for you?
It started out as an accident and a misunderstanding. In 2015, Stan published a graphic memoir, which was really just sort of a comics adaptation of a memoir that he’d published in 2002, and an editor at New York Magazine—where I was on staff at the time—walked over to my desk. He had a galley that had been sent to him of this graphic memoir, and he plops it down on my desk and says, “You should do something with this.” The editor was David Wallace Wells, who I don’t know if you’re familiar with, but he’s a great author. I looked up to him a lot, so I was like, “Oh great. This is my big shot, I’m getting to do a big feature for David Wallace Wells.”
So I started researching Stan—and obviously I knew who Stan was—but I started doing a deep dive and trying to set up an interview and interviewing other people. After about a week of hard work on that, I went over to David’s desk and I said, “Okay, so here’s what I got,” and after I’d been talking for about 30 seconds, he realized what was going on and said, “Oh, I meant you should write a short review of the book,” and I then of course felt embarrassed, but he said, “No this is interesting, keep going with it. See if you can find something.”
So very long story short, I ended up writing a very long profile of Stan that ran in February of 2016 that was pretty well-received, and then when Stan died in 2018, an editor at Crown—the imprint of Penguin Random House—reached out to my agent because he wanted to see if I would be interested in expanding out my research that had turned into the article, and turning it into a full biography. I’m very lucky that I had two editors who were believers in me and in the topic, and I hope I live up to the expectations they had.
“What I would hope is that I encourage people to embrace ambiguity when it comes to Stan [Lee]’s life and legacy. Embrace ambiguity, and also embrace the stuff that’s hard to look at—which is often the same thing.”
I think a lot of people might just know who Stan Lee is, generally, and I feel like the book is going to do a lot for reintroducing him to so many people. He’s credited with some of the most iconic comic book characters in history, and yet he was dogged for taking credit where he shouldn’t have. How do you think you might be reframing his legacy? He died in 2018; now we’re a few years past his death and looking back on his life through this book.
You can’t predict what kind of impact work is going to have before it’s out there, but what I would hope is that I encourage people to embrace ambiguity when it comes to Stan’s life and legacy. Embrace ambiguity, and also embrace the stuff that’s hard to look at—which is often the same thing. People tend to have this very idealized vision of Stan Lee. He’s very important to countless millions of people around the globe, and I’m not out here trying to write a hatchet job or ruin your childhood or any number of other accusations that I’m sure will get lobbed at me.
What I’m here to do is say if you really love this guy, it’s worth looking at him with clear eyes and making your assessments about what he did, who he was, what he said, all of that—and a lot of that involves going, “Well, we don’t know.” The big question that ambiguity pops up in is credit. Who created the Marvel Universe and (spoiler alert) I don’t come to affirm conclusions one way or the other about exactly where all the creative credit deserves to be laid, whether it’s with Stan or his collaborators—most notably Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko—who are both writers and artists.
I don’t come out and say I’ve looked at all the evidence and know for sure exactly what happened behind closed doors back in those heated, creative days of the 1960s, but I do say that we have to reckon with the evidence that says Stan was not responsible, and whether you decide to believe that or not is up to you, but acting like that evidence isn’t there and then also acting like it’s a clear-cut choice of either it was all Stan, it was all Jack, or it was a collaboration between the two of them and they were sort of equally responsible. If you act like those are the only three options, you’re missing out on the fourth option, which is the only true one—we don’t know. We don’t, and it’s very frustrating for people.
It’s frustrating for me. I walked away from this book going, “I just don’t have the answer, and I don’t think anyone ever will.” It was a very fly-by-night industry—comic books back in the 1960s—there were no detailed records being kept. Stan didn’t keep a diary, he didn’t put together presentation boards—there’s just nothing to tell us firmly one way or the other who created what. That said, there’s a lot of evidence that suggests Stan was not the original progenitor of The Avengers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther, Spider-Man—all of these characters that he’s been credited with. There’s a lot of evidence that says he did less than he made it out to be. I could keep going on about that forever, but I would say embracing ambiguity and uncomfortable facts is something that I hope comes out of this.
“We have to reckon with the evidence that says Stan [Lee] was not responsible, and whether you decide to believe that or not is up to you, but acting like that evidence isn’t there and then also acting like it’s a clear-cut choice of either it was all Stan, it was all Jack, or it was a collaboration between the two of them and they were sort of equally responsible. If you act like those are the only three options, you’re missing out on the fourth option, which is the only true one—we don’t know.”
Even if you didn’t know Stan Lee and you’ve seen the output of the Marvel Universe and the films and the TV shows and everything that’s come out of it, it’s hard to say for anyone who works in a creative industry that you can’t attribute that to one brain. There had to have been collaboration, and from your book, it seems clear that this was an industry that wasn’t meticulous about recordkeeping and one that was highly collaborative.
It was, but the other thing that I say in the book that I’ll say here as well is when I say “embrace ambiguity,” I mean radically embrace ambiguity, because one thing people often do to try and deal with that ambiguity is say, “Well, it was probably a collaboration between Stan and Jack when they came up with these characters, and we can never know exactly how much is one and how much is the other, but it was in that mystical union between the two.” What I would contend is neither man said there was any collaboration on creating these characters.
Stan would admit that Jack drew the characters—Stan didn’t draw—but when it came to the initial ideas for who these characters should be, Stan always said it was all him, Jack always said it was all him. And if we just say, “Well, if one said it was all him, and the other said it was all the other, it must be somewhere in between.” That’s mathematical averages; that’s not history. It may well be that Jack Kirby was the sole progenitor of all of these characters. We don’t know, but you are right that it was a very collaborative industry, and no matter what it was collaborative because Stan didn’t draw, so even if we just say it was only the art that the writer/artists were producing, that art is still half the battle, you know?
What do you feel like you unearthed about Lee in the process of researching and writing this book that even diehard fans didn’t know?
There are two things that really stick out in my mind. One is the story of Stan’s failed business ventures after he left Marvel in the ’90s. So there’s Stan Lee Media, which was a big dot-com bubble boondoggle that only lasted a few years and was a pretty spectacular failure. In the end, people served jail time for the way they conducted business there. Then there was Pow Entertainment, which is still around—it’s now owned by a Chinese conglomerate, but Pow Entertainment came after Stan Lee Media and was around for much longer, and its failures were not as spectacular and theatrical as those of Stan Lee Media. But it never really produced any work that was a success, and also has a lot of allegations against it in the legal realm that are pretty serious.
The other realm that I hope I contribute to, the sum total of knowledge about Stan, is his Jewish background and his family. I’m Jewish, and I find Jewish genealogy to be a fascinating topic for myself and for the subjects that I write about if they are Jewish. Stan, as it turns out, has this very interesting—and in many ways—very sad Jewish story of basically just abandoning Jewishness and his family. He was born to Romanian Jewish immigrants and had a brother who is still alive, Larry Lieber, and from Larry—who was generous enough to speak with me at length on a number of occasions—I learned about how their father was a very staunch Jewish nationalist, very proud of his Jewish heritage, very supportive of the state of Israel, somewhat religious, but mostly just very proud of being Jewish at a level that was not necessarily about religious practice, although he came from a very observant family and his mother was also somewhat observant, not diehard, but cared a lot about being Jewish. And then Stan just didn’t have any interest in any of it and completely walked away from Jewishness.
“On a couple of occasions, [Stan Lee] talked about how he didn’t really identify that way and Judaism didn’t really mean anything to him, and that’s completely his right, but it makes for an interesting story. It’s not just unique to him—a lot of American Jews of the 20th century gradually just sort of walked away from Jewishness, and I think this is part of that larger tapestry.”
In his memoir, he talks about how it was hard for him and his wife to adopt because she was Episcopalian. It was a mixed marriage, and the way that they phrase it—or rather the way he phrases it is not—“I was Jewish and she was episcopalian,” it’s “she was Episcopalian, and my parents were Jewish.” He very pointedly does not say, “I am Jewish.” On a couple of occasions, he talked about how he didn’t really identify that way and Judaism didn’t really mean anything to him, and that’s completely his right, but it makes for an interesting story.
It’s not just unique to him—a lot of American Jews of the 20th century gradually just sort of walked away from Jewishness, and I think this is part of that larger tapestry. I’d say the post-Marvel stuff and his early life and background and rooting in Jewish history is something that I think I find interesting. Sorry, one last thing along the Jewish lines: I will proudly say I believe this is the first English language account ever published of this pogrom that happened in Stan’s father’s home city of Botoșani, Romania. I hired a Romanian researcher to do some digging into Romanian language sources on that, and in the first chapter I present that. I could ramble all day, but those are sort of the main areas.
And finally, what are you reading right now?
I’ve kept notes on this because I’ve been waiting my entire life to have an interviewer ask me what I’m reading right now. It’s a great honor, I can’t even explain why. I’ve been reading a few things. I have ADHD, so it’s kind of hard for me to read one book at a time, but I’ve been reading this really great book called Family Papers by Sarah Abrevaya Stein. It’s about this Jewish family that emerged from Salonica in the Ottoman empire, and then was scattered around the world, and it’s a nonfiction book. It’s really good. And a lot of wrestling newsletters and memoirs, because I’m writing a book about Vince McMahon, the professional wrestling CEO, so I’m reading a lot of that lately.
Not exactly high literature, but certainly interesting and worthy of attention, and then the other thing I’ve been reading with a tutor. I’m reading the book of Genesis in the original Hebrew right now, which has been a really exciting process and very revealing about this set of stories that we all think we know really well, but once you actually dive into the original language, you realize you know nothing and you’ve been making a lot of assumptions. Anyway, that’s a little snapshot of what I’ve been perusing lately.