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Stan Lee Biography Reveals the Darker Side of a Marvel Icon

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Stan Lee is arguably the most famous figure in the history of comics. That’s not to say his long career was free from controversy. For decades, he was dogged by allegations that he took too much credit for work he created with others, and shared too little of the spotlight. For most of his long life, however, Lee’s superpower was the ability to avoid taking too many hits to his reputation. That will likely change with the release of the new book, True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, by Abraham Riesman. It offers an illuminating and often harsh look at the life of this American icon, who died in 2018 at age 95, and calls into question many of the key elements of his legacy.Seasoned comics fans are familiar with the long controversy over rightfully assigned credit for the creation of the characters that launched the Marvel Age. As the face of Marvel since the 1960s, Lee has received the bulk of that credit, due to a combination of lazy journalism and his own significant self-promotional skills. There’s no denying Lee’s acumen for public relations. In many ways, his affability was an essential ingredient to Marvel’s success. His talent too was undeniable. His witty, inventive dialogue gave the Marvel line (he scripted most of the comics in the early days) a unique voice that made the books stand apart. That personable touch also helped him establish a connection with Marvel readers through casually charming letters columns and, later, his Bullpen Bulletins. Lee was also largely responsible for the then-novel idea of an inter-connected comics universe — the continuity that allowed Spider-Man to appear in the pages of the Avengers or the Fantastic Four.
“He made [comics] hip. He made it something that the Village Voice would do a piece about or Rolling Stone would have a cover story about,” Riesman tells IGN. “And that’s enormously important for the history of comics.”

With Great Power

But his knack for making himself the center of every story written about Marvel came at the expense of co-creators such as Steve Ditko and especially Jack Kirby. Lee constantly shortchanged his creative partners and in many ways helped create the impression the Marvel Age was a virtual one-man operation. True Believer establishes a consistent pattern of wildly inconsistent explanations in Lee’s stories over the years regarding how the company’s stable of heroes, from Spider-Man to Thor, were actually invented.

No matter where you stand on the issue of “Who did what?” at Marvel — and the Marvel Method of comics creation makes it hard to find the definitive answer — it’s hard to defend Lee’s refusal for decades to give proper due to the artists who helped him create countless characters.

Even the origin of the most famous phrase in Lee’s career — and perhaps in the Marvel canon — is called into question in Riesman’s book. “With great power there must also come — great responsibility!” is the defining tenet in Peter Parker’s life, immortalized at the end of the character’s origin story in Amazing Fantasy #15. Since its publication in 1962, it’s been taken at face value that Lee coined the phrase. But Riesman cites examples that include a 1906 quote from a young Winston Churchill as well as a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt that contain very similar versions of Spidey’s signature message. Could Lee have simply come up with that phrase on his own? Could he have been influenced subconsciously by something he had read years earlier? Perhaps. But Lee’s track record for misrepresenting the truth and claiming unearned credit practically demanded a closer look.

“That [phrase] was a minor point. I didn’t want to hammer that too much, but it is something where you just have to go… there might’ve been antecedents to this and that’s not a crime,” Riesman says. “It’s fine. But we have this [idea] that that quotation emerged like Athena from the head of Zeus; this brilliant observation [by Stan] that no one else had ever made before.”

Despite all the accolades and notoriety that Marvel’s breakout success had brought him, by the mid-1970s Lee was desperate to leave comics behind. He moved out to California to reinvent himself as a producer. Most books written about Lee spend little time covering this era from the late ’70s to the late ’90s, and yet it was a time that saw some of his most humbling failures and painful losses. True Believer spends significant time detailing this time period, showing how his attempts to get Hollywood to see the value in Marvel’s library mostly flopped. Lee could get a meeting with executives who grew up reading comics with “Stan Lee Presents” at the top of the page-one splash. But the industry didn’t take him all that seriously as a producer, even when his ideas had potential.

Lee’s track record for misrepresenting the truth and claiming unearned credit practically demanded a closer look.


TV animation executive Margaret Loesch, who ran Marvel Productions in the 1980s, recalls going to a meeting with Lee to pitch a television network on adapting a bizarre Japanese program. According to Loesch, the meeting was a disaster. Years later, Saban Entertainment would turn that Japanese show, Super Sentai, into the global sensation The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

“Stan had ideas in that period that would later come to fruition,” Riesman says. “The other classic one being Ant-Man. He really thought an Ant-Man TV show or movie would be a hit. And everybody laughed him out of the room. But in 2015 you got an Ant-Man movie that makes half a billion dollars. So they weren’t all terrible ideas, but a lot of them just didn’t go anywhere.”

Family Matters

For Riesman, providing fresh insight on his subject was an inherent challenge when writing about someone who was as famous for as long as Lee was. The author took a deep dive into Lee’s family history, going all the way back to its roots in Eastern Romania. His parents arrived in New York City around the start of the 20th century, and like many of the creators from comics’ Golden Age, Lee was Jewish. However, unlike Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, or Joe Kubert, Lee rarely made mention of his faith or made allusions to it in his work. Through his research, Riesman discovered a man frustrated with his family and, in particular, with his father.

“Stan very rarely talked about his father, but on the occasions when he did, he would say that his father didn’t think much of him,” he says. “And I would imagine that a lot of his desire to get away from Jewishness had to do with his desire to get away from his family.”

Every Major Comic Character Stan Lee Helped Create

Lee’s ambition and desire to leave the life he was born into would become a driving force for much of his adult life. “He wanted to be bigger than the average human,” Riesman continues. “And sometimes that, in your mind, can lead you to think, ‘Well, I have to leave behind the people who started it out for me.’”

Larry Lieber is interviewed for the book, and his strangely distant relationship with his more renowned older brother is one of the saddest and most bewildering aspects of Lee’s long life. Lieber, who spent years working at Marvel and co-created such characters as Thor, Ant-Man, and Iron Man, and even drew for decades the Amazing Spider-Man newspaper strip that Lee wrote, is unable to offer any explanation as to why his brother kept him at arm’s length for much of their adult lives. It was as if Lee was trying to leave any aspect of Stanley Lieber (Stan’s birth name) in his past, including his only sibling.

“Stan never said, ‘Hey, check out my brother, Larry Lieber. He’s great,’” Riesman says. “It just didn’t come up. He didn’t refer to him as his brother in any kind of proactive way. And Larry will be the first to tell you that he and Stan had a very strained relationship. Stan didn’t really want [or] have anything to do with him.”

Lieber mentions how hurt he was one year when Lee had come to Manhattan to appear at New York Comic Con and hadn’t even bothered to let his brother know. He also tells the author that his older brother never once told him he loved him. “He and Larry just didn’t really have much of a relationship,” Riesman says. “There wasn’t some incident that happened as far as I know that caused [the rift]. It was just for whatever reason. Maybe it had to do with [Stan’s wife] Joan or there’s any number of motivations that might’ve been there, but it’s somewhat sad to read about.”

Money would be a constant concern for Lee up until his final days, which is remarkable considering he had earned millions during his career.


While Stan and Joan’s long marriage may have seemed to be perfect, in truth the Lee family was constantly in turmoil. According to people interviewed for the book, a good amount of that stress could be traced to Stan and Joan’s volatile and hard-spending daughter, JC. Money would be a constant concern for Lee up until his final days, which is remarkable considering he had earned millions during his career. Lee also remained vexed by the fact that no matter what he tried or what deal he made, he could never come close to replicating any of the success he had making comics at Marvel in the 1960s. That desperation to rediscover lightning in a bottle would seem to explain much of Lee’s late-career decision-making.

There Are No Superheroes

The book makes mention of many of Lee’s high-profile flops… the Mighty 7, The Governator (with then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger), a concert series, and even, incredibly, a Stan Lee cologne. We also get new details of his most devastating failure, the dotcom foray Stan Lee Media. If there’s one thing we learn from all these misfires, it’s that Lee was a terrible judge of character and was an easy mark for con men. He was constantly surrounded by people who viewed him as a cash cow. They would attach him to all kinds of half-baked projects to trade on the Stan Lee name, and use his still-strong media appeal for quick publicity. Reading the book, the clear and sad conclusion one comes to is that, without the cameos in the MCU films that introduced him to an entirely new generation of fans, Lee’s final couple of decades of life would have been marked largely by failure and endless appearances at comic conventions.

“Once you start really pulling at those threads and talking to the players, Stan’s final years become a horror show and no one would deny that. There was so much abuse,” Riesman says, referencing the elder abuse allegations that arose after Joan’s death in 2017. “There was so much grifting and theft, and whatever you think of Stan’s flaws or mistakes or failings, nobody deserves to be 95 and be abused. It was a really sad ending to that story.”

One of the most notorious people in Stan’s latter-day orbit was Keya Morgan, his former business manager who was arrested in 2019 on charges of elder abuse. (Morgan would plead not guilty.) Morgan was interviewed for the book, and subsequently played for Riesman some disturbing recordings he had made that, as recounted in the book, capture Lee making offensive remarks.

That’s the message of this book. If there’s nothing else, it’s there are no superheroes, there are only humans.


“On a number of occasions, I heard Stan making racist, homophobic, and misogynist remarks either to or in discussion of JC,” Riesman writes in the book of the recordings. “‘I think you’re the dumbest white woman I’ve ever known!’ [Lee] screams at her in one (to which she replies, ‘Fuck you, Stan’). In another, Stan talks to Morgan about JC and says she’s ‘supposed to be an attractive lady,’ but instead she’s ‘like the worst lesbian you can imagine.’ At one point, JC tells Stan she’s going to adopt an African American baby (something that others in the inner circle say became a brief obsession for her), and Stan grunts back at her, ‘The hell you want a black baby for?’”

Riesman also notes that the files Morgan played for him were edited together and that “the recordings contain no context.” Even though he says he was never the type of fan who held Lee in the reverence that many others did, the author admits listening to those recordings was incredibly disappointing. “Once you start hearing someone who’s this beloved, a charming icon who is known as this great booster of liberal causes and fighting racism and all of that,” he says, “And you hear recordings of him saying racist and homophobic comments, you go, ‘Well, there are no superheroes.’ That’s the message of this book. If there’s nothing else, it’s there are no superheroes, there are only humans.”

There will be some who question the need to put Lee’s career under a microscope and to reopen decades-old arguments about who truly deserves credit for the Marvel heroes. Some will question whether the story of Lee’s life needed to include such revelations as those disturbing audio recordings. Riesman argues that Lee’s own contribution to elevating comics as an art form demands to be examined.

“I mean if you’re a young person and you’re going to all these MCU movies and seeing all the [Stan] cameos, and you read on the internet that Stan Lee’s the guy who came up with all these ideas; he’s the Steve Jobs of Marvel,” he says. “Because his account of events has been taken as gospel for decades upon decades. And he lied about a lot or distorted or said things that are dubious.

“I’m not saying Stan was the most evil guy in the world. I’m saying he’s like you or me. We all make compromises. We all smooth out the truth. We all think we can get away with things. It’s sad on some level but I also think it’s very healthy to have that splash of cold water on your face.”

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