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The “Genius” That Was Stan Lee: Book Review

Stan LeeTrue Believer, The Rise And Fall Of Stan Lee, Abraham Reisman, 335 pp., Crown Publishing.

When I was a boy, Marvel comics reigned supreme. Stan Lee was a familiar friend. The snappy dialog, the upbeat attitude, and most of all the amazing characters like Fantastic Four, Spiderman, and Dr. Strange, made an indelible impression. Over time, Lee remained an inescapable media presence, especially with his frequent cameos once the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise took off.

Abraham Reisman has written a thorough biography of Stan Lee. Reisman is also a comic book geek who counts meeting Lee in his youth as a big thrill, yet doesn’t allow being a fan to affect his journalistic objectivity, no matter how badly anyone ends up looking. And Lee did some stuff that comes across as shabby.

While his own genius was a constant refrain, Reisman notes how important luck was in Lee’s career. He joined what would become Marvel through nepotism (an in-law was the publisher) and then worked with some of the greatest comic artists of the Silver Age, e.g., Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. With the debut of characters like Spider-Man in the early ’60’s, Marvel took off, becoming popular with college students and an object of interest to the mainstream media, opportunities Lee capitalized upon with his gift for marketing himself and his product. Marvel fans will enjoy learning how characters like Captain America, the F4, and Spider-Man were created. Also fascinating, but depressing, Reisman’s bio provides probably the best, most accurate, single account of Jack Kirby’s bitter dispute with Lee and Marvel over who created those characters. This alone leaves a black mark on Lee’s reputation, his unwillingness from the start to share the credit and glory.

Lee’s actual working connection to Marvel ended early in the ’70’s, but he still served as THE spokesman for the Marvel brand, promoting the characters’ film and TV possibilities to anyone who’d listen. Unfortunately for Lee, Hollywood producers still regarded comic books as “kids’ stuff” and were averse. As a result, Lee toiled in the wilderness for almost two decades until the MCU finally took off.

After that, with cameos and personal appearances, it seemed like Lee was fixed, but his spendthrift wife and a daughter Kevin Smith described as “the worst f^&king human being in the world,”  drained him of money. Questionable business associates, some of whom undoubtedly ripped Lee off, only made his troubles worse. Lee’s real problem though, was his bad business judgement. He settled with Marvel over creative rights for $10 million, a seemingly large sum, but peanuts compared to a slice of the MCU pie. Lee also regularly developed projects that bombed simply because they were bad (i.e., “Stripperella”). That Lee generated so many punk ideas solo is strong evidence in my opinion that Kirby really was Marvel’s creative force. Lee’s last few years were sad.  In the clutches of manipulators, including his own daughter, they simply used him for what they could get, a miserable yet ironic fate for someone who built his career on others’ unacknowledged work.

I recommend this book to pop culture fans, comic book fans in general, and most of all, members of the Merry Marvel Marching Society. ‘Nuff said!

https://www.amazon.com/True-Believer-Rise-Fall-Stan/dp/0593135717/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=true+believer&qid=1615611627&sr=8-1

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