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How Stan Lee’s ‘True Believer’ Biography Untangles a Legacy

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Even before its publication this week, True believer sparked conversation, with some of Lee’s fans worried it would paint a less than rosy image of the deceased icon. Still, Riesman asks potential readers to dig for themselves before passing judgment on the book.

“It’s not a book that tries to demolish anyone,” says Riesman The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s a book that tries to make us see more clearly an individual who was human like all of us.”

Indeed, True believer portrays a man as imperfect as his heroes, and he emerges all the more human.

While working as a journalist at Vulture,Riesman has established himself as a go-to columnist in the comic book industry with plays on icons such as Spider-Man Recluse Co-Creator Ditko, an unvarnished return to the revolutionary Ultimate Marvel Comic Lineand a profile onStan lee. This widely read profile, published in 2016, ultimately led an editor to approach Riesman after Lee’s death in 2018 about writing this bio.

In a conversation with THR, Riesman details the twisty journey of the biography 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 it happen?

I called him out of the blue. He picked up the phone and started giving me some interesting information right off the bat. We met for lunch on the Upper East Side where he lived. And he spoke for about three hours of 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 utterly heartbreaking, and I was like, “You have to let me write this Larry.” I’ve asked him five times, and he still refuses.

About six weeks after Stan’s death, you head to Larry’s apartment for a proper interview, and the apartment isn’t what people might expect from Stan’s brother.

I went to Larry’s apartment on the Upper East Side. It’s fascinating. Just the decor alone is a shoebox. It’s a studio that’s really, really tiny. This is not the life of a rich man, this is what I try to convey. A stark contrast to the lifestyle led by Stan. Talking to Larry has been one of the most exciting journalistic experiences I have ever had. I will forever be indebted to him for how open and available with me, and how comfortable he was telling me things that he had never said to anyone before. The book wouldn’t be half the book it is if I hadn’t been able to talk to Larry for that interview that ended up happening, where I went to his apartment and we talked, I think, four o’clock. . Then we had another interview, a follow-up interview, which lasted about an hour and a half. So there are a lot of Larry’s tape journals. I hope I can get his permission, but someday I would like to post the full interview as I feel like it’s a useful document for comic book history.

Stan is not only a difficult character to unbox, but some of your sources are larger than life characters themselveswho can sometimes tell stories that are difficult to verify. How did you approach this?

Without commenting on anyone in particular, I would say it was a difficult book to write as the truth seemed to be twisted by a lot of people I spoke to. Some people said that you could easily identify as being fake. There were things that were so fantastic you could hardly believe them and there was no way to prove that they did or did not happen. It was a challenge that I took very seriously. The book is written in such a way that it draws attention to the unreliability of everyone, not just specific people. The reader might think that some of these people are not trustworthy and others are trustworthy. Well, even trustworthy people without a quote can remember something. Or talk about things that happened a long time ago.

The target population of this book will already know that Stan’s public figure was different from his private. They will already know that there is debate about the credit he deserves for his creations. Still, are you worried about feedback from readers who might not want to see Stan that 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 I. I recognize a lot of things Stan has done that has been hugely successful and has been a step forward for industry, society, or pop culture. Having said that, I also report things that I know of to be true, or at least I have evidence that other people have presented, that maybe will be difficult for some people to read or hear. All I would ask is that people try to pay attention to what I actually said rather than what they heard I said or what someone called my words. lyrics. And to understand that this is not a book that tries to demolish anyone. It is a book that tries to make us see more clearly an individual who was human like all of us.

In a strange way, I came away loving Stan even more, because of this 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 love and the people we love, and … decide that they’re more. than human. We decide that the brand is worth dedicating your entire life, or at least taking very seriously. The point is, the fans are passionate and I hope they understand that I have done my best.

You’ve delved into the last 20 years of Stan’s life, an era that to my knowledge has never been explored in this way before. Did you feel that this would be fertile ground?

To report what happened in the last 20 years of Stan’s life from 1998 to 2018 was to step into uncharted territory. It really hadn’t been written at length. You got the first Stan Lee biography by Tom Spurgeon and Jordan Raphael The Rise and Fall of American Comics, which was released in 2004 and therefore ended in 2003. It was a very good biography that was very critical, but very incomplete when it comes to the full arc of Stan’s life. I decided, “How about we focus on things that no one ever wants to get into?” This is where I could feel myself stepping into things that hadn’t been discussed before, and it’s something worth doing in and of itself, but also in terms of content, you see a lot of things over those 20 years of not only seeing Stan’s character. and see what he looked like and the risks he was willing to take and what he was trying to accomplish. You also get an idea of ​​the types of relationships he had. You have the advent of personal video, so you have a lot more evidence of what’s going on.

And it was during this time that he became famous on a whole new level.

This is the 20 year story that superhero movies start from Blade in 1998 until 2018, a few months before Stan’s death, at Avengers: Infinity War. It’s that amazing trip and he was part of it. It’s a character, literally, or a series of characters. And this is the story of the acceleration of the brand and of Stan’s contribution. It’s something that tells you a lot not only about him, but the world he built, and therefore the world we all live in right now. Seeing how those movies learned from what Stan envisioned in the form of the interconnected Marvel Universe, that alone was something that over the past 20 years you see take on major significance. Even though Stan doesn’t make these movies, what makes this situation interesting for me is that he looks from the outside, which is amazing to think about. Could you imagine someone being fundamentally banned from being a part of the franchise that they at least believe they created? And other people attributed the creation to him? In any other industry that would be completely unacceptable, then there’s the fact that a lot of interesting characters are in the last few years. It’s not that the previous years in Stan’s life were far from uninteresting, but that’s when many of the more colorful characters start to become prominent and well documented. I hoped people would find it as interesting as I did.

***

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.



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