How 'True Believer' Untangles Stan Lee's Complicated Legacy

TRUE BELIEVER: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee Book Cover
Crown Publishing
Biographer Abraham Riesman chronicles the rise and fall of the Marvel legend in his new book.

True Believer leads Marvel fans to places they might not expect.

Abraham Riesman's new biography of Stan Lee takes readers to Romania, the homeland of Lee's ancestors, and to the small New York apartment of Lee's brother, Larry Lieber, for an at times heartbreaking conversation. It offers new insights into the final years of Lee's life, a tumultuous period that included accusations of elder abuse against the late legend's daughter and others. And naturally, it explores Lee's complicated relationship with collaborators such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and goes deep on the creation of the Marvel Universe.

Even before its publication this week, True Believer was sparking conversation, with some of Lee's fans worrying it might paint a less-than-rosy picture of the late icon. Yet Riesman asks potential readers to dig in for themselves before making a judgment on the book.

"This is not a book that is trying to tear anyone down," Riesman tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It is a book that is trying to make us see more clearly an individual who was human like all the rest of us."

Indeed, True Believer paints a portrait of a man who was just as flawed as his heroes, and he emerges all the more human for it.

While working as a reporter at Vulture, Riesman established himself as a must-read chronicler of the comic book industry with pieces on icons such as reclusive Spider-Man co-creator Ditko, an unvarnished look back at the groundbreaking Ultimate Marvel line of comics and a profile on Stan Lee. That widely read profile, published in 2016, ultimately led to an editor approaching Riesman after Lee's 2018 death about potentially penning this biography.

In a conversation with THR, Riesman details the winding journey the biography took him on, and what he learned along the way.

One of the most striking things about this book is the time you spent with Stan's younger brother, Larry Lieber, who worked for Stan and Marvel for years. How did that come about?

I called him out of the blue. He picked up the phone and he started giving me interesting information just off the bat. We met up for lunch in the Upper East Side where he lived. And he talked for about three hours about his life. His life, not Stan's life. I said, "Can I record this?" and he said, "Absolutely not," because he's planning to write a memoir. He told me this three-hour life story which is utterly fascinating and completely heartbreaking, and I was like, "You got to let me write this Larry." I've asked him like five times, and he always refuses.

Six weeks or so after Stan's death, you make your way to Larry's apartment for a proper interview, and the apartment is not what people might expect of Stan's brother.

I went to Larry's apartment on the Upper East Side. It's fascinating. Just the décor alone, it's a shoebox. It's a studio apartment that is really, really tiny. It's not the life of a rich man, is what I'm trying to convey. A stark contrast to the lifestyle Stan led. Talking to Larry was one of the most thrilling journalistic experiences I've ever had. I will forever be indebted to him for the degree to which he was open and forthcoming with me, and the degree to which he felt comfortable telling me things he hadn't told anyone before. The book would not be half the book it is if I had not been able to speak to Larry for this interview that ended up happening, where I went to his apartment and we talked for, I think, four hours. Then we had another interview, a follow interview, that was about an hour-and-a-half. So there's a lot of tape logs of Larry. I hope I can get his permission, but some day I'd like to publish the full interview, because I feel like it's a useful document for the history of comics.

Stan is not only a challenging character to unpack, but some of your sources are larger-than-life characters themselves who at times may tell tales that are hard to verify. How did you approach that? 

Without commenting on anyone in particular, I would say this was a challenging book to write in so far as truth seemed to be bent by a lot of people I was speaking to. There were things that people said that you could just easily identify as being untrue. There were things that were so fantastical that you could hardly believe them and there was no way to actually prove that they happened or didn't happen. It was a challenge and one that I took very seriously. The book is written in a way where I try to draw attention to the unreliability of everyone, not just particular people. The reader might think some of these folks are untrustworthy and others are trustworthy. Well, even the trustworthy people, quote unquote, may be misremembering something. Or talking about things that happened a long time ago.

The target demographic for this book will already know that Stan's public persona was different than his private one. They will already know that there is debate over how much credit he deserves for his creations. Still, are you worried about pushback from readers who may not want to see Stan this way? 

People are very passionate about Stan, and I respect that. I understand that. I did not, in this book, set out to write a hatchet job, nor did I. I acknowledge a lot of things Stan did that were enormously successful and were a step forward for the industry, or society, or pop culture. That said, I also report on things that to the best of my knowledge are true, or at least I have evidence that other people have presented, that maybe will be difficult for some people to read or hear about. All I would ask is that people please try to pay attention to what I actually said rather than what they heard I said or what somebody characterized my words as being. And to understand that this is not a book that is trying to tear anyone down. It is a book that is trying to make us see more clearly an individual who was human like all the rest of us.

In a strange way, I came away liking Stan even more, because of that humanity.

If there is a moral to this book, it's that there are no superheroes. We have this terrible tendency as humans, as Americans, as consumers, whatever, to take the things we like and the people we like, and ... decide that they are more than human. We decide that the brand is something that is worth completely devoting your life to, or at least taking extremely seriously. The point is, fans are passionate, and I hope they understand that I tried my best.

You went deep on the last 20 years of Stan's life — an era that to my knowledge has never been explored in this way before. Did you have a sense it would be such fertile ground?

Reporting the stuff that happened in the final 20 years of Stan's life from 1998 to 2018, was stepping into uncharted territory. This really had not been written about at any length. You had the first Stan Lee biography by Tom Spurgeon and Jordan Raphael — The Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, which was published in 2004 and therefore finished in 2003. It was a very good biography that was very critical, but very much incomplete when it comes to the full arc of Stan's life. I decided, "Well, what if we focused on the stuff that no one ever wants to get into?" That was where I could feel myself getting into stuff that had not been discussed before, and that's something that's worth doing in and of itself, but also in terms of the content, you see a lot in those 20 years of not only seeing Stan's character and seeing what he was like and the risks he was willing to take and what he was trying to achieve. You also get a sense of the kinds of relationships he had. You have the advent of home video, so you have a lot more evidence of what's going on.

And this is the era in which he became famous on a whole other level.

It's the story of 20 years in which superhero movies go from Blade in 1998 up to in 2018, just a few months before Stan died, to Avengers: Infinity War. It's this incredible journey and he was part of it. He's a character, literally, or series of characters, in it. And it's the story of how that brand acceleration happened and what Stan's input was. That's something that tells you a lot not just about him, but about the world he built, and therefore the world we all live in right now. Seeing how these movies learned from what Stan had come up with in the form of the interconnected Marvel Universe, that alone was something that in those last 20 years you see coming into major prominence. Even though Stan is not making those movies happen, to me what makes that situation interesting is he is watching from the outside, which is incredible to think about. Could you imagine somebody being basically barred from being a larger part of the franchise that at least they believe they created? And other people have credited him with creating? In any other industry that would be completely unacceptable. Then there's the fact that a lot of interesting characters are in the final few years. It's not that the years prior to that in Stan's life were uninteresting – far from it – but that's when a lot of the most colorful characters start to become prominent and well documented. I was hoping that people found it as interesting as I found it.


True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee is available now from Crown Publishing, a division of Penguin Random House. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.