Culture  /  Book Review

The Unheroic Life of Stan Lee

In a career of many flops, he laid claim to the outsized success of Marvel Comics.
Abraham Josephine Riesman

A nerdy slacker is hanging around the mall, having been dumped by his girlfriend earlier that day. He is staring in the window of a lingerie store, when a sharply dressed older guy with gray hair and tinted glasses approaches and strikes up a conversation. As he casually mentions “an issue of Spider-Man I did,” the younger man’s eyes slowly widen. He realizes that he is talking to Stan Lee, the originator of some of the best-known and most beloved characters in American pop culture, including Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, and Iron Man. “Shit, man,” he exclaims, “you are a god!”

This scene from the 1995 movie Mallrats captures the long-prevailing view of Lee, the man behind Marvel during the comics renaissance of the 1960s, when superheroes became wittier and more angsty, more human than ever before. To many fans, he was a kind of god. Yet the same month the movie was released, the magazine The Comics Journal devoted an issue to Lee that was not entirely favorable. The cover featured a caricature of him as a grinning ringmaster with an oversize head, and cover lines teased “a circus of celebration” alongside “a carnival of criticism.” Inside, one article discussed “The Two Faces of Stan Lee,” while another asked, “Once and for All, Who Was the Author of Marvel?” As Abraham Riesman notes in his new biography, True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, the answer in the piece was not the man who took all the credit.

Certainly, Lee helped build the Marvel empire through his work as a writer, editor, and publisher there. But by the mid-’90s, his status as a trailblazing genius was in dispute. The comics artist Jack Kirby, who had worked with Lee for decades, had been saying that he alone was the progenitor of most of the company’s novel and long-lasting heroes and villains. “Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything!” Kirby said in a 1990 interview with The Comics Journal, going so far as to reject the narrative that he and Lee had invented characters like the Fantastic Four and Thor together. “I could never see Stan Lee as being creative,” he said. “I think Stan has a God complex. Right now, he’s the father of the Marvel Universe.”

Lee would live until 2018, and, superficially, he would remain the father of the Marvel Universe. Rejecting Kirby’s claims, he continued to serve as a figurehead even after he stopped working at the company, and a series of cameos in its increasingly successful superhero movies ensured his fame. With 23 titles to date, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the highest-grossing film franchise of all time, its products almost impossible to avoid. Arguably, more than any other single company, Marvel has defined the modern idea of the superhero, through its tales of ordinary people who gain extraordinary powers and use them to save society.