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Deconstructing the myth of Stan Lee, no matter how much it might hurt

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Feb 19, 2021, 5:00 PM EST

I've never subscribed to the "don't meet your heroes" credo.

Why wouldn't you want to meet the people that inspire you? It's never made much sense to me. Thanks to a potent blend of circumstance and plain dumb luck, I've had the chance to meet many people I hold in high esteem. And with very few exceptions, those encounters have all been positive. And none was as positive an experience as the time I met Stan Lee.

I was actually lucky enough to meet him several times, between 1993 and 2012. Each time, no matter how brief or chaotic the setting, he was everything you hoped "Stan The Man" would be: charming, energetic, and ready with a quick story and a laugh. His ability to interact with people and put a smile on their faces was a gift.

Which is why reading True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, a new book by Abraham Riesman, is such a painful punch to the gut.

The book doesn't just unravel some of the grand myths about Stan's life. It practically demands a re-examination of his legacy as one of the great creators in comics. By digging deeper than just about any other book on Stan has ever done, Riesman has given the clearest picture yet on who Stan Lee was, and more importantly, who he wasn't. As an avowed Stan stan since... well, since I first started reading comics, it's a harsh truth to face.

Credit: Crown/Penguin Random House; Jacket design: Christopher Brand; Jacket image: Allan Amato

Stan has almost always been granted the lion's share of the credit for characters like Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men. For decades, when comics were still treated as a disposable "it's just for kids!" medium, journalists who had no idea how comics were created would ask the personable guy at Marvel with the snappy name where heroes like Thor and Iron Man came from. Stan would tell his entertaining tales, which grew taller each time he would retell the stories. As the book points out, because mainstream media didn't really care about comics, no one followed up or challenged Stan's claims. The contradictory evidence that could show Stan wasn't being accurate was out there to find. Newspaper interviews and radio recordings where Stan had told different accounts of how Marvel's heroes came to life existed. Most reporters simply chose to take Stan at his word.

The truth is, those heroes and their accompanying villains and supporting casts were created in tandem with artists such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, and Larry Lieber (Stan's brother, who we'll talk more about shortly). Lee concocted a working process that would become known as the "Marvel Method." He and the artist would plot the story, the artist would then go and draw the story based on their conversation, and essentially construct the story. Lee would then add the dialogue after the fact. This unique style helped keep the trains running on time and gave Stan the time to script virtually all of the comics Marvel was publishing at the time.

The benefits to the Method are obvious: it saved Stan time, and it freed artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko up to unleash their creative powers. But that muddied process also made it hard to determine who did what at Marvel. As the company's comics garnered unprecedented media attention in the 1960s, Stan, by virtue of being the editor and writer of the line, as well as being a charismatic fellow, became the face of Marvel.

His job as Marvel's Chief Cheerleader is as important as any role he played at Marvel. Stan was regarded as one of the best editors comics has ever had, and his witty, emotional dialogue helped give personality to the colorful heroes Marvel was introducing. But it was in his role as Marvel's main PR guy where Stan always seemed most comfortable. No one in the history of comics has ever been as good at selling and promoting comics as Stan.

There's a story in True Believer involving the late Denny O'Neil, who briefly worked as Stan's assistant during Marvel's '60s heyday. One of his first assignments was to find out how Stan could get an honorary college degree. O'Neil shared the story to underscore how important fame was to his boss. In the book, he's quoted as saying about Stan, "[he was] the first man I ever knew who really wanted to be rich and famous."

He had to wait for that to happen. Years later, he would find greater fame as the King of the Cameo in Marvel films, but back in the 1960s, when the media first came calling, Stan embraced the part. He spread the good word about Marvel to every newspaper, radio show, and college campus he could find. Problem is, he almost always seemed to claim most of the credit for Marvel's success for himself. For years, outside of the comics industry, Stan's claims were accepted as gospel.

But history and the truth remain undefeated, and as time went by, it started to come out. Stan's claims began being questioned, first in comics publications and eventually in mainstream outlets. Riesman himself did an in-depth feature for Vulture in 2016 that tackled the issue over the credit Stan deserved for Marvel's success. That story was the impetus for the new book, which goes into greater detail to show how long Lee had been shorting his collaborators on their deserved kudos.

For example, time after time when asked by interviewers to explain why Steve Ditko would inexplicably quit Amazing Spider-Man and Marvel at the height of the magical Ditko-Lee run, or why his relationship with Jack Kirby fell apart, Lee twisted reality to fit his own intentions. It was as if he couldn't face his own culpability, so he invented his own scenarios instead. "Ditko never told me why he was upset," Lee said. "To this day I have no idea what I did to make him quit," Lee would say.

With Kirby, Lee was more magnanimous and acknowledged Jack's contributions to titles like Fantastic Four and The Mighty Thor. In True Believer, the author even references an incredibly revealing 1965 interview (it's on pages 100-101) in which Stan admits Kirby was contributing at least as much as Stan was to the story. Here is a quote from Stan pulled from that interview, and reprinted in Riesman's book:

"He's so good at plots, I'm sure he's a thousand times better than I. He just about makes up the plots for these stories. All I do is a little editing... I may tell him that he's gone too far in one direction or another. Of course, occasionally I'll give him a plot, but we're practically both the writers on the things."

Credit: Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Remember, this interview was from an era — the mid-1960s — when credits in comics weren't yet a thing, and there was no great debate about who deserved credit for what. There was no incentive, no reason, for Stan to lie about who handled what part of the creative process. And so he gave one of the most honest answers he probably ever gave about the true dynamic in the greatest creative partnership comics has ever seen.

The Kirby vs. Lee debate has divided comics fans for years. Kirby supporters say Kirby was the driving force behind collaborations like the epic FF run the pair engineered, or the space-bound mythological saga they weaved in Thor. Lee was just along for the ride to fill in the word balloons, they say.

Lee defenders counter by saying Stan's writing and guidance — he is, after all, credited with the idea to have Marvel's heroes live in a tightly-connected universe — was as important as any visuals to the success of Marvel. But as Riesman's book notes, there are decades of history before and after his epochal Marvel days to hold up as proof of Jack Kirby's creative genius. He co-created Captain America in 1941 and did romance and monster books in the 1950s when superheroes fell out of favor. After he left Marvel in 1970, reportedly fed up with Lee's publicity barrage, unpaid bonuses, and, yes, lack of credit for his work in devising the stories, Kirby landed at DC like a viking on a rampage.

The Fourth World he made for DC wasn't a hit during its original run in the '70s, but the characters and ideas Kirby created for those series are mind-boggling. Many remain key figures in the DC mythos today. Kirby's creative bona fides are inarguable. Stan's on the other hand, are not.

Before and after that incredible '60s period when Marvel turned comics upside down, there is very little evidence to back the argument that Stan was the primary creative force. In Stan's own memoir, Excelsior!, he described himself as the quintessential hack during the '40s and '50s, when he oversaw Marvel's (then Timely Comics) mediocre comics output. After the Silver Age, he was bumped up to publisher, and only did occasional writing. The last major character he co-created was She-Hulk, in 1980.

The entirety of the Stan Lee myth stands on this unsteady foundation: That we must believe that a man who spent two decades in comics not creating a single memorable character or story, would suddenly be primarily responsible for the single greatest creative period in comics history... and who would never come close to creating anything remotely substantial ever again. How does that make sense in any reasonable way?

Kirby-Lee are often held up as comics' version of Lennon-McCartney. The problem with the comparison is that after the Beatles broke up, both John and Paul continued creating for another decade. Whether you prefer Lennon's socially-conscious records or you dug Wings' power-pop stylings is irrelevant; the point is, both were still firing on all cylinders, creatively.

After their breakup, the Kirby-Lee comparison isn't close. Kirby was by far the more relevant creator.

I want to be clear. Re-assessing Stan's legacy does not mean dismissing his contributions. Marvel, and perhaps the comics industry as a whole, wouldn't exist today without Stan's editorial guidance and public-relations savvy. He turned reader engagement into an art form. All those interviews and college lectures he did, self-serving though they were, helped legitimize comics. I've always held the belief his dialogue helped give Marvel's heroes the personalities that made them infinitely more relatable than DC's stodgy titans. And anyone who's read the Fourth World and Kirby's latter-day Marvel work on Black Panther and Captain America knows that Kirby's frantic dialogue came up short when compared to Stan's smooth scripting.

But after reading this book, and several others that have taken a closer look at the issue, it doesn't make sense to hold on to this belief that Stan Lee deserves the primary credit for the creation of the Marvel universe. The evidence simply doesn't support it. Perhaps the most professionally damning aspects of True Believer are the examples that show moments where Stan not only claimed more credit than he should but also declined to take steps to share the spotlight with his artists. Not even his younger brother Larry Lieber was exempt from Stan stealing credit. The book explains how Stan claimed he wrote many of the sci-fi/monster comics that dominated Timely's publishing in the late '50s, even though Lieber insists he actually scripted most of them.

I know this book is going to make some people angry. It's understandable. Stan is a beloved figure in pop culture. There are many details that will leave fans gobsmacked and perhaps heartbroken. In particular, the chapters looking at Stan's final years are painful to read. When I finished reading it, the word that best described how I felt was... disillusioned.

I started this column by talking about how you should want to meet your heroes. Stan Lee was one of mine for a long time. I placed him on my personal Mount Rushmore years ago. Will he remain there? I'm honestly not certain. But I'm still grateful I had the chance to meet him and talk with him, just as I'm glad I know as much as I now know about Stan.

To learn your hero has feet of clay is never easy, but it's necessary. We owe it to our heroes to hold them to the standards they inspired us to try and reach. We owe it to them to demand the truth, no matter how unpleasant or deflating it may turn out to be.

What's your favorite Stan Lee-written story? Find me on Twitter/Instagram and let me know!

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.