Maybe it is all about the marketing. I’ve been very surprised by the vehement reaction of many fans to Abraham Reisman’s new Stan Lee bio True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee. The cover, designed by Barbara M. Bachman, showcases a less than flattering photo of Stan*. The whole look, in fact, seems to evoke the feeling of dread that fills us when we realize there is an exposé of a beloved figure, designed to shock us with all the awful disclosures.
In fact, the pre-publication reactions I’ve seen to this book in some online fan groups have resulted in online cat fights. Some fans say they have no need to ever read that trash, while other collectors and fans, who may already think of ill of Stan Lee, are eager for more fuel for their ire. I interjected a few times with posts like, “I’m reading it now. That’s not really what it’s about”. But when a person is in the heat of an argument, they don’t want to listen to that sort of thing.
I’ve read it and enjoyed it quite a bit. Like 99.9% percent of people of who have walked the earth, Stan was a guy who did some good things and did some less-than good things. And while I will say this book isn’t a tell all, it does provide a frame of reference to better understand motivations at different stages of his life. If anything, I would say that the book shines a new and harsh light on many of Stan’s family members and business associates.
I’ve recently reviewed a few other books in the rapidly growing “Stan Lee Book Category”. Danny Fingeroth’s A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee was an exceptional and balanced read. John Morrow’s Kirby & Stan: Stuff Said was exceedingly well-researched and presented a detailed crazy-quilt of the public statements by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as a way to better understand who did what and why they said all the (often-contradictory) things they said.
Riesman’s True Believer takes a deep dive into Stan’s Marvel years, the time that most fans, I imagine, want to know more about. It’s clear he’s engaged in exhaustive research. He’s also a clever writer. But to me, the most fascinating parts of Riesman’s book are the details about Stan’s later years. This was “new information” to me. Riesman paints a picture of a man struggling on many fronts and seemingly, to an outside observer, making so many bad decisions and engaging in (so many) unfortunate relationships.
I remember when Leonard Nimoy died, and his frequent co-star Bill Shatner didn’t make it to his funeral. To casual fans, this was unthinkable! Their onscreen characters would have done anything for the other in the name of friendship. In reality, Shatner and Nimoy, were at a stage in their relationship where they were again feuding. It probably wouldn’t have been appropriate for Shatner to attend the funeral. I believe he sent his daughters, which was deemed the right thing to do for those who really know about these things.
Likewise, with a man like Stan, it’s often difficult for fans to reconcile his humanity with the overwhelming goodness, sense of justice and heroic decisiveness that many of the characters he created and co-created embody. But for those of us who are eager to learn more, who want to know what made our favorites tick, and who aren’t afraid to better understand their failures, shortfalls and humanity, True Believer is a must read.
*I kept thinking about what my favorite book designer, Chip Kidd, would’ve done with a cover like this.