Roy Thomas, Former Marvel Editor, Pushes Back on New Stan Lee Biography (Guest Column)

Roy Thomas was hired by Stan Lee in 1965 and succeeded him as Marvel editor-in-chief in 1972 when Lee became the publisher. Here, he examines True Believer, the new biography tackling the comic book legend’s life and legacy. For more from the book, read THR‘s interview with author Abraham Riesman here

Something like 95 percent of the time, Abraham Riesman’s True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee is a very good biography. However, the remaining (and crucial) 5 percent of its content, scattered amid all that painstaking research and well-written prose, renders it often untrustworthy… i.e., a very bad biography. Because the author often insists, visibly and intrusively, on putting his verbal thumb on the scales, in a dispute he seems ill-equipped to judge.

As Marvel Comics visionary Stan Lee’s longtime employee and de facto protégé, and as a known student of the history of comic books, I suppose I would be expected to denounce Riesman’s book as scurrilous, a pack of lies.

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But it’s both better — and worse — than that.

“In the New Jerusalem they called the United States, you could make it just fine as a bullshitter.”

Thus nakedly, on the third page of his introduction, does Riesman articulate what we soon discover to be the main thesis of his new book, which chronicles the life and legacy of the talented New Yorker who, from 1941 through 1972, was both the chief editor and a major writer for the company now hailed as Marvel Comics, and who, from the 1980s on, was more a spokesman (some claim a huckster) for Marvel, for comics — and, yes, I’d hardly deny it — for himself.

But, I contend, it’s primarily what he did between 1961 and 1972 that defines the importance of Stan Lee to pop culture — and that was a period of solid accomplishment.

In the quotation three paragraphs back, although he’s ostensibly writing about a Romanian Jew who in 1899 spouted what turned out to be tall tales concerning his achievements overseas in America, Riesman is, of course, really referencing Stan Lee, ne Stanley Martin Lieber.

In its remaining 300-plus pages, Riesman’s book attempts to bolster that debatable and not-so-subtle theme at every turn. He’d have been better advised — well, maybe not in terms of book sales but in the interests of historical integrity — to have confined such ill-considered judgments to his wastebasket and let the facts he’s gathered simply speak for themselves. He doesn’t do that nearly often enough.

That Stan Lee was the co-creator, and not the sole creator, of the key Marvel heroes from the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man through Daredevil and the Silver Surfer can hardly be in dispute at this late stage. I myself, back in the ’80s when I wasn’t working for him, had a friendly argument with him on that score over lunch. I soon realized that, as much as he respected the talents and contributions of artists (Riesman would say “artist/writers” and he’s right, at least in one sense) such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko to the characters introduced in the 1960s, he could never really bring himself, in his own mind, to think of them as “co-creators.” The two of us had to agree to disagree, and I never saw any use in bringing it up again.

If I can judge from Riesman’s writings, and from other sources over the years, I’m sure I’d have encountered the same kind of blinders-on stubbornness in Jack Kirby (oft-quoted in this book), who saw Stan as little more than the guy who scribbled a few words of dialogue and rode to unearned glory on his back.

Both men were, I think, wrong, and that’s why Riesman is so ill-advised to use nearly every opportunity he gets to weight things in Jack’s favor and against Stan. (By the way, if someone objects to my referring to Jack Kirby as well by his first name, it’s because the two of us were on a first-name basis from 1965 till the last time we met, sometime in the 1980s. I considered him then, and I consider him now, to be by far the greatest superhero artist in the history of the medium, and, along with Stan, one of its preeminent pop-culture geniuses.)

You think I’m exaggerating when I suggest that Riesman finds gratuitous excuses to favor Jack’s version of things over Stan’s? I’m not.

For one thing, just a dozen pages into the book, Reisman informs us that Stan “lied about little things, he lied about big things, he lied about strange things,” adding that Stan quite likely lied about “one massive, very consequential thing” that, if so, “completely changes his legacy.” (By saying “quite likely,” Riesman puts the burden of proof on himself to demonstrate that Stan was lying about coming up with the basic idea for some, if not necessarily for each, of the early Marvel heroes — and he never really does. He simply weighs Stan’s statements against Jack’s, without offering any real evidence that Jack’s memories are any more reliable than Stan’s. In fact, he will later cite a number of instances in which they are not, but here he tosses in that “quite likely” just the same.)

Then, on the very next page, he puts flesh on his earlier “bullshitter” depiction by writing: “It’s very possible, maybe even probable, that the characters and plots Stan was famous for all sprang from the brain and pen of [artist/writer Jack] Kirby.”

“Possible,” yes. Lots of things are possible. But “even probable”? Why? Riesman never really makes a credible case for that. He merely piles up verbiage and quotations: “He said … he said.”

And he weights things toward Jack’s viewpoint with statements like the foregoing despite the fact that, for instance, partial synopses written by Stan for two of the first eight issues of the crucial Marvel flagship title Fantastic Four (including No. 1) have been vouched for as existing since the 1960s. Riesman gives a lot more credence than is called for to “a rumor that [Stan’s synopsis for the first half of FF No. 1] was created after the comic hit the stands” in August of 1961.

The sources of said rumor? The “significant reason to suspect the synopsis was written after Stan and Kirby spoke” in person about the FF concept? 1: A onetime teenage assistant of Kirby’s, who only went to work for him circa 1979, says that Jack “told me that it was written way after FF #1 was published. I believe him.” Fine. The guy believes his old boss. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we should. And 2: Kirby is quoted as once saying of that synopsis: “I’ve never seen it, and of course I would say it’s an outright lie.” So on this occasion, Stan Lee is apparently lying by coming up with that synopsis — but Jack Kirby, who Riesman points out told a whopper or three himself, isn’t lying when he says he never saw it? Or, giving both men the benefit of a doubt, couldn’t it be that Jack, after several decades, had simply forgotten it?

OK — so Stan Lee personally handed this two-page document to me, as his editorial assistant, sometime in the latter half of the 1960s, only a few years after FF No. 1, at a time when virtually nobody, except me once in a while, was asking him how the Marvel Age of Comics had started, and when there had not yet been any public or private disputes between Lee and Kirby over the creation of the Fantastic Four or other Marvel heroes.

Yet Riesman says it’s “maybe even probable” that the Fantastic Four (and much else at Marvel) came solely from Kirby’s admittedly fertile brain.  Why is it “maybe even probable”?  No supportable reason is given.

As support for the likelihood that Stan wrote that FF No. 1 synopsis at a very early stage in the creative process in 1961, dare I suggest one extended proposition: If he had decided to “forge” such a document in the latter 1960s, to bolster his role as creator, it’s highly unlikely that he would’ve included in it a number of directions/suggestions to Jack that failed to make it into the published comic.

Among them: Susan Storm being an “actress” (there was never any mention of this in the series); Reed Richards’ intention of flying his completed rocket “to Mars” (in FF No. 1, they’re trying vaguely to make it to “outer space” or “to the stars”); Ben Grimm being listed as a newly hired pilot (he acts more like a longtime colleague in the synopsis); Susan’s inability to become visible again (with Stan writing that later she’d have to wear a face-like mask in order to be seen, adding, “Talk to me about that, Jack — maybe we’ll change the gimmick somewhat”); and that Grimm “has a crush on Susan” (there was just one passing reference to this — and then never again for the rest of the series.)

If Stan Lee were engaging in an act of ex post facto forgery, it was the most inept attempt ever seen by man. And Stan was far from inept.

While reading Riesman’s attempt at a dismissal of this synopsis, I found myself wondering how he was going to handle another noteworthy synopsis I knew of. It was a typed sheet sent circa 1963 to my friend Dr. Jerry Bails, a 30ish university science professor whose avocation was gathering data on superhero comic books. When Jerry asked Stan by mail if he might be sent any artwork or scripts lying around the office for his own small collection, Stan mailed him a piece of paper on which he had typed the synopsis (complete with title!) for the first part of Fantastic Four No. 8, which had been published in ’62.

I read that sheet when I visited Jerry in Detroit over Thanksgiving in ’63.  While eschewing any actual dialogue and leaving ample choreography for Kirby to do, it is otherwise fairly detailed, complete with Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) trying to stretch his malleable arms far enough to save a man falling from a building but not quite reaching him, so that the Human Torch has to catch him on the fly — while a secondary plotline, woven through the three longish paragraphs, relates how Richards is secretly building a machine he hopes will restore the monstrous, tormented Thing to his true human form. All these things, and others described on the page, are reflected in the comics pages as drawn and published. You could read the synopsis as you paged through the finished comic, and you’d find no major surprises, except that Kirby skillfully covers that material in seven pages instead of 13.

Perhaps the synopsis for the remainder of that story was sent to Jack later and wasn’t preserved — or maybe it was merely covered in a follow-up phone call with details left to the artist, since the yarn’s ending as printed harks back to a horror story Kirby had drawn in the 1950s. Either way, a good part of the story is nicely outlined on that single sheet — which Bails retyped and published in 1964, and whose verbatim retyping I myself printed in 1998 in my comics-history magazine Alter Ego. 

Knowing by this point in True Believer that, whatever his shortcomings as a dependable analyst of “who did what” in the Lee-Kirby relationship, Abraham Riesman was a fairly thorough researcher, I gazed eagerly over the ensuing pages to see if he would claim that, circa 1963, Stan had also “forged” this primary document, as well.

And I found … nothing. No mention of the FF No. 8 synopsis at all.

Three pages of typed-out Stan Lee synopsis material seem to still exist from the first year of Fantastic Four — and Riesman doesn’t think one of them is worth so much as a mention?

Could it be, I couldn’t help wondering, because the heady amount of story detail in the FF part-synopsis undercut his thesis that Jack Kirby did it all, and that Stan Lee “merely” added the precise dialogue and captions that floated over the heads of the characters?

It’s not for me to say. It could have been simply an unaccustomed (and very convenient) lapse in the author’s research. We all make mistakes — though this was, I maintain, a rather crucial one.

Over and over again in the book Riesman attempts to undercut Stan’s veracity. Even regarding the story Stan told of his high school days, when he was impressed by an older kid’s classroom spiel intended to sell subscriptions to The New York Times, Riesman says that much of the tale “may well be apocryphal” — though he gives not a single reason why we should distrust Stan’s account. (That kid definitely existed, at least. Riesman can find a photo of him in my 2018 Taschen book The Stan Lee Story.)

At the same time, to give the author his due, he is at least capable of occasionally calling Jack out on claims of his own that won’t hold water. But he tends to let Jack, far more than Stan, off the hook concerning them. For instance, Jack said more than once that, as a soldier, he had landed on Omaha Beach just 10 days after D-Day, when it was actually two and a half months later. (Riesman dismisses this as “either poor memory or an exaggeration.”) Jack also seems to have stated numerous times that he held Stan personally responsible for artist Joe Maneely falling to his death from a commuter train in 1958 — that it was due to “overwork” caused by Stan — a totally unsupported analysis that seems pretty much like sheer vindictiveness on Jack’s part, but which Riesman pretty much lets slide.

Now, all the above said, I’m hardly about to deny some of Jack’s claims, based on my own limited-yet-not-inconsiderable first- and second-hand knowledge from mid-1965 onward. Jack Kirby did do an increasing amount of the plotting of individual stories as time went along and the demands on Stan of overseeing the expanding Marvel line kept growing. In fact, as Riesman’s quotes testify, Stan often — not invariably, but often — gave Jack credit for doing much, even most of the actual plotting on individual storylines.

By mid-1966, Stan, eager to accommodate Jack, stopped listing himself as “writer” in the credits and readily agreed to the mutual credit Jack suggested: “Produced by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.” If Jack wanted still more credit than that, it doesn’t seem he ever made his wishes clearly known to Stan.

To Stan, it wasn’t all that important whose idea a particular story was; what mattered was that it sold comic books, and Stan had every reason to believe that both his editorial guidance and his command of the dialogue contributed materially to that popularity. No, Jack may not have gotten rich drawing comics — few of us did — but the decade from 1959 to 1970 that he was employed full-time by Marvel Comics was probably the most financially stable job that he ever had in the comics industry, a field not exactly known for offering long-term security.

As for the page rates: Riesman insists artists “weren’t being paid for the massive amounts of writing they were doing” (italics are the author’s). Well, that kind of depends on how you look at it. Certainly, by the mid-’60s at least, whenever a new artist came on board, they knew that choreographing the story, including adding details, was part of the job description of “artist” at Marvel. If they didn’t want to accept that, they were free to work for some other company. Stan got the publisher to raise page rates whenever he could, and part of the reason he fought for that was because he knew how important the artists were to the process. Maybe the later-despised “controversial Marvel Method” (as Riesman anoints it) of doing a story is one reason that Marvel writers’ rates generally tended to lag behind DC’s for some years: so that the artists could be paid as well as possible.

Riesman himself doesn’t seem to understand the full variety of ways that the “Marvel Method” worked. It was begun primarily to benefit the artists — so that, at a time when Stan was virtually the company’s sole writer, they wouldn’t have to sit on their hands earning no money until he had time to bang out a full script for them. It turned out to have other, unintended consequences, like increasing the action quota and visual appeal of the stories. Then the scripter would swoop in and tie things together with whatever words were needed to augment the pictures and add flavor to the sequence.

On page 99 of his book, Riesman makes a more-or-less blanket statement that “critically, no script was written” before the artist drew it following “some kind of discussion between writer and artists” — but he’s demonstrably wrong on that. Maybe Stan quit writing synopses for Kirby and Ditko (and the credits eventually reflected that), but I myself began scripting for Marvel in July of 1965, and with relatively few exceptions of stories plotted or partly plotted over the phone (usually so an artist could make some money by starting work a day or so sooner on a story), I wrote out my synopses — usually two or three or more pages for a 20-page story. A number of them still exist and have been printed. Sure, a lot of fight choreography therein got left to the Don Hecks, Sal Buscemas and Gene Colans, but the motivation and the storyline were there. And other writers that came along followed that example. They had to, or Stan (and later I) wouldn’t have hired them.

Later, inevitably, various writer and artist teams evolved their own ways of working together — e.g., Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner would get together to co-plot Dr. Strange, but that was because Brunner wanted to be involved, not because Englehart couldn’t have come up with a synopsis all by himself and simply mailed it to the artist.

Riesman even either misunderstands Stan’s brother, Larry Lieber, on the way many of the early Marvel stories were written — or else, back in 1999, Larry was totally misremembering when he told me in an interview for Alter Ego that, to the best of his recollection, every single story he wrote was done in the script-in-advance format, never by the Marvel Method: “A full script is the only way I know how to write.”

All that said: If you slice and dice the more-than-occasional bits of unhealthy fat off Riesman’s book — the places where he goes off on unsupported flights of fancy to declare on his own recognizance that “Kirby … may well have been the sole creator of the whole kit and caboodle” of Marvel concepts and characters — you wind up with a book that could be a welcome, even major addition to the handful of Stan Lee biographies written to date.

But, no matter how well the Random House publicity machine manages to hype this book, as long as it stands as currently published, with Stan all but written off as an inveterate liar whose most important creation was his public persona (when it was actually the concept and direction of the Marvel Universe, an idea that was anathema to Jack Kirby, as per in-book quotes), it will remain undeserving of the high praise heaped upon it by people who, for the most part, don’t really know what the hell they’re talking about.

Roy Thomas, who is repped by manager John Cimino, is preparing an expanded version of this article for issue No. 171 of Alter Ego, the comics history magazine he edits.

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