Was Stan Lee a good person?
Between Hurricane Ike, Hurricane Harvey, and this past week’s winter storm, Houston has really callused me against the fact that the weather, like a house cat, will 100 percent try and kill you if it gets big enough. Three days without electricity, five without water. This past week in Houston was certainly an experience - but not necessarily a catastrophic one for me, personally.
Despite experiencing some inconveniences, I can’t, in any right state of mind, complain because there were folks who had it much, much worse than I. In fact, I almost found the past week to be a mini-vacation. Cut off from the internet, I was forced to take time away from work and instead read. A lot.
The best thing I read this past week was Abraham Riesman’s biography TRUE BELIEVER: THE RISE AND FALL OF STAN LEE.
Like a lot of folks my age, I grew up correlating Lee with Marvel Comics and its creation, right or wrong. In fact, when Jack Kirby died in 1994, my father told me over breakfast that “the creator of the X-Men has passed away” and, when I realized he wasn’t talking about Stan Lee, I told him he didn’t know what he was talking about. Who was this Kirby guy? Woof.
Riesman’s warts-and-all portrait of Stan Lee does not shy away from the controversy surrounding Lee and Kirby's contentious relationship. Who was the rightful creator of Marvel Comics’ most famous superheroes? Was it Lee, who claimed to have dreamed up each hero from scratch and given the blueprints to the artists to illustrate, or was it Jack Kirby, who claimed that he created the heroes and plotted every story, with Lee only providing dialogue to the finished product? We’ll probably never know the truth. What’s indisputable, though, is that Stan Lee took more credit than he earned and, intentionally or unintentionally, helped obscure the real work that collaborators like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko had in creating Marvel’s roster of superheroes. Riesman spends just as much time on Stan Lee’s post-Marvel life as he does with the prolific writer in the heyday of his time with the comic book company. It’s easy to look at the success (or, specifically, the lack thereof) that Lee experienced once he stopped collaborating with Jack Kirby as proof that Kirby was the true brains behind the operation. Characters like Striperella and Ravage 2099 never achieved the type of immediate success that Lee and his team won in the early ‘60s. The Marvel Universe would probably have existed without Stan Lee but would they have succeeded with only Jack Kirby?
Riesman’s book paints a portrait of a man who exists in a moral grayscale. He can be cruel and uncaring - especially to his own brother, Larry Lieber. He is self-serving, with the primary focus of his career being his own self-promotion. He’s a micro-manager, a blow-hard, lacking in empathy, and a fabulist of the highest degree. He was apathetic to, if not downright disdainful of, the industry that made him famous. He’s part Michael Scott, part Saul Goodman. To paraphrase a quote about Lee from Riesman’s book - he’s a good guy, not a great guy. If Lee were just getting started in the industry, he would have been “canceled” for a myriad of reasons.
And yet… and yet… it’s impossible to consider a scenario where Marvel Comics makes the level of cultural impact it made without Lee. Kirby may have come up with the concepts and designs - maybe even the stories - but Lee’s characterizations for the heroes are just as memorable as their costumes and their fights. We love Spider-Man for who he is, just as much as what he can do. More so, Lee was an ambassador for the comic book industry during the lean years - he was the jovial, smiling grandfather that made fans feel like part of a club. He kept the industry moving ever forward and, like Moses who led his people to a promised land he himself could not enjoy, Lee tapped out just before Marvel’s comic book creations hit peak cultural impact.
I’m fascinated by the idea of morally questionable people who do good in the world. Lee was, by all rights, prone to misdeeds and ill behavior, but should that negate all the good he did? What is the balance we accept? Where do we look past someone’s bad choices and recognize their achievements? Lee’s final years were, by all accounts, hell. Riesman spends many a page detailing how the man, who had built a career out of taking advantage of people, was himself taken advantage of time and time again. It’s painful at times to read about the emotional and physical trauma Lee was put through in the last years of his life - by less than scrupulous business partners, by members of his own family. Lee suffered and maybe it’s possible to say “what goes around, comes around” but I refute that as well.
I can’t help but feel our society has, prompted by the great injustices seen every day around us, become obsessed with the idea of people getting what they deserve. Fuck around and find out indeed. I saw that this week with folks on social media talking in almost gleeful tones about how Texas’ hardships were the result of its voting history. Forget baseball, justice is America’s new favorite pastime.
Where does this lead? I can’t help but feel this focus on comeuppance will lead to some dystopian future - the kind that Lee might have written about in his comics. The world isn’t fair and I’m all for pivoting society back towards something more closely resembling fairness but I do not want to live in a world where the world spends its off-time patrolling culture, a pitchfork and torch in its back pocket, like a vigilante mob ready to dish out justice at a moment’s notice.
Bottom line, read Abraham Riesman’s TRUE BELIEVER, it’s a fantastic portrait of a complicated man. You’ll read things that will make you consider Stan Lee in a different light, but don’t let those revelations completely shatter your image of the man. He did bad, but he also did so much good as well. Lee succeeded in the comic book industry because he gave superhumans the ability to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes. Let’s never forget to let humans make mistakes too.