If you’ve seen a Marvel movie any time during the last 20 years, you’ve seen Stan Lee. His cameos in those films became a trademark bit of fan service, anticipated by many just as much as the bonus scenes after the credits.
According to Andrew Riesman, author of the new Stan Lee biography True Believer: The Rise And Fall Of Stan Lee, the man who put Marvel comics on the pop culture map appeared in more than forty Marvel films. Riesman writes: “Stan was paid peanuts for the Marvel cameos, and although he was given executive-producer credits for those movies, it was a purely ceremonial title with no financial rewards.”
Stan Lee died in November 2018. He left behind a co-authored autobiography (Exclesior!, published in 2002) and an archive of notes, tapes and personal effects that are stored at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. Those sources along with numerous personal interviews have provided Riesman with the story of Lee and his life’s ups and downs.
The “Rise” of Stan Lee in the book’s title begins with the publication of Marvel’s Fantastic Four #1 comic book in 1961. Novelist Walter Mosely is quoted saying, “FF #1 crystalized an art form that has had an impact on our culture rivaling jazz, rock and roll and hip-hop.” But how much of Fantastic Four and other Marvel favorites came from the mind of Stan Lee and how much came from the minds of Marvel’s artists who drew them?
That is a forever argument that this book does not resolve and suggests will never be resolved. Jack Kirby, whose new and imaginative style of drawing made Fantastic Four a standout, died in 1994. Did he invent the characters and the narratives that attracted legions of fans? Or did he simply draw what Stan Lee created and guided him to draw? Lee is quoted in the book as giving Kirby significant credit in interviews and appearances, but Lee is the one who is generally perceived to be the creative force behind Marvel. As Riesman writes: “In the absence of conclusive data, history has been written by the victor.”
Riesman also offers this disclaimer: “Stan Lee’s story is where objective truth goes to die.” He shares a movie quote suggested by Lee’s brother Larry Lieber: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That line comes from the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Steve Ditko who drew the first Spider-Man comic books also had his problems with Lee. As with Kirby, there were disagreements over credits and compensation. Ditko, whose 2018 passing preceded Lee’s by just a few months, was not as vocal in his complaints about lack of fame and fortune as was Kirby and Kirby’s heirs.
Stan Lee’s letters sections in Marvel comic books cemented the company’s and Lee’s connections with fans. His responses in that venue gave birth to many of his catch phrases such as “Exclesior!” “‘Nuff Said!” and “Face Front, True Believers!”
Lee’s legend grew with media profiles in the New York Herald-Tribune and later in other media with national and worldwide footprints. As demand for Marvel comics ebbed and flowed, Lee led a move to California and launched efforts to make inroads in the worlds of movies and television.
Stan Lee was a font of ideas: for comic books, magazines, movies, TV, etc. Many were quickly rejected. He once suggested to his associates that they repackage a Japanese TV show which featured superheroes in Spandex jumpsuits. They passed and another production outfit came up with an American version which became the successful Power Rangers. Stan Lee gained a bit of added notoriety in the early 80’s as narrator of the animated Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends TV show.
In the final two decades of his life, came the “Fall” of the book’s title. After parting with Marvel, Lee became involved in Stan Lee Media, which crashed and burned in short order due to mismanagement and nefarious money dealings. That was followed by POW Entertainment, of which the author writes: “POW was, by many accounts, a largely criminal enterprise.”
Lee himself was not charged with any legal wrongdoings though some of his associates at those two companies were punished for their tricky financial misdeeds. Meanwhile, Stan was traveling to conventions across the country where fans were charged big bucks for autographs and selfies with the Marvel legend.
In 2005, Lee settled litigation against Marvel when the company agreed to a huge payout which the author writes was for a reported amount of $10 million.
Lee’s final days are recounted with the sad details of a variety of hangers-on trying to micromanage his affairs amid continuing friction with Lee’s high-maintenance daughter JC.
Stan Lee’s personal charm with media, co-workers and others in his orbit carried him far in this career. He scored many achievements and made a ton of money. But, by Riesman’s telling, he always wanted more.
One more thing: Among the many photos in the middle of the book is a pic of the author in what appears to be his teen years getting an autograph from Lee at a Wizard World show near Chicago in the late 1990’s. Nice.