True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee is a new biography of late Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee by American journalist Abraham Riesman. The book aims to explore both sides of Lee — the legend who left an indelible mark on the industry by co-creating some of the most popular characters in pop culture, and the controversial man who has often been accused of stealing the credit for other creatives’ work and who has faced allegations of sexual harassment.
Like numerous famous people, Stan Lee has left a complicated legacy. And this book is an intrepid attempt to finally bring to light the less savoury aspects of Lee’s life and career that most people, including his fans, are not familiar with.
The book does go in detail into what made Lee such a towering figure. As editor of Marvel, the company launched so many pieces of intellectual property that the number would stagger anybody’s mind. He helped create characters like Spider-Man, the Avengers, X-Men and Fantastic Four that dominate pop culture today.
If his work on comics wasn’t enough, he garnered another generation of fans — millennials and Generation Z — with his cameos in Marvel movies.
But controversy stalked Lee almost throughout his professional career, though he was very good at keeping his reputation more or less untarnished.
Jack Kirby, another comic-book legend who was senior to even Lee, was supposed to have invented characters like Thor and Fantastic Four along with Lee. But he rejected that in 1990 when he said while speaking to The Comics Journal, “Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything! I could never see Stan Lee as being creative. I think Stan has a God complex. Right now, he’s the father of the Marvel Universe.”
Kirby left Marvel for DC, where he did some of the best work of his career with the New Gods storyline. Steve Ditko, who co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with Lee, was another Marvel creative who left for DC after a disagreement.
Through his charisma and camera-friendly image, Lee made it seem like he was the only one who revived Marvel in the Silver Age of Comics. Even after quitting the comic-book industry, he remained a figurehead for Marvel. He had this tendency of constantly making himself the centre of attention. Other creatives at Marvel felt left out and obscure when compared to Lee’s immense fame.
True Believer explains in detail the inconsistencies in Lee’s tales of how he allegedly invented a few major Marvel characters. The inconsistencies extend to the dialogue. Easily the most iconic piece of Spider-Man dialogue in comics is “With great power there must also come — great responsibility!” which was rephrased for the first Tobey Maguire-led Spider-Man. But even this is not original, True Believer says. A young Winston Churchill apparently spoke in 1906, “Where there is great power there is great responsibility.”
Lee will always be celebrated as a great, and deservedly so. He played a big part in making comics relevant by infusing them with real-world themes, making heroes vulnerable and human. But when conversation of his legacy comes up, we should also talk about the man behind that jovial, grinning cool grandfather persona.
True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee is a gripping book that is about both Stan Lees — the one we know, and the one we don’t.