Looking for the Real Stan Lee

Abraham Riesman on comics, wrestling, and popular culture

Abraham Riesman, at home in Providence with his cat, Barbara, writes about pop culture’s overlooked depths.Photograph by Jim Harrison

Sometime in the mid-1980s, comics, a centuries-old art form, became legitimate. Prompted by a sudden influx of adult-themed and thematically heavy works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, critics, seemingly with one voice, declared comics weren’t just for kids anymore.

But comics never were for kids, before or since. They were for profit and ego—and worse. Author and journalist Abraham Riesman ’08 learned as much while researching True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee (2021), a biography of the Marvel Comics impresario that examines power and responsibility, ambiguity—both moral and factual—and the fluidity of artistic collaboration.

Journalism wasn’t Riesman’s first career choice—or his second. Born in Chicago and raised in nearby Oak Park, Illinois, the son of a teacher and an author, he dreamed of acting and teaching history. “I wanted to be an academic historian or a high-school history teacher because I loved my high-school history teacher so much,” he explains.

He arrived in Cambridge as an unusual kind of legacy. His great-grandfather Sylvester Robert Stone was in the class of 1920. Both grandfathers attended Harvard, as did his mother and father, who met as students. “For a Jewish person, it’s remarkable how many of my family members graduated from there,” he says. “Because Jews were—I mean, now, it’s not an issue. But you can only go so far back when it comes to Jewish legacy,” given Harvard’s early-twentieth-century history of anti-Semitism and Jewish admissions quotas.

Riesman, who’d spent high school summers at theater camps around Chicago, at first pursued acting at Harvard, but lacked “good chemistry,” he says, with his fellow thespians. Acquiring an immunity to the acting bug, he settled instead on a dual concentration in political science and anthropology and began exploring journalism. He applied for the arts board of the Harvard Crimson, where he served for the rest of his College years. Most of his writing for the Crimson seems “silly in retrospect,” he says, but he still points with pride to an extended, exclusive interview with Rivers Cuomo ’06, lead singer and songwriter for the band Weezer. The conversation roamed from classes and social life to songwriting, ego, fame, and loneliness—an early entry in Riesman’s career-to-come as an observer and analyst of popular culture.

After graduation, he worked for the now-defunct New York Sun and freelanced for the New York Post. Later he wrote copy for the anchors at New York One, a local 24-hour cable station, and got a staff position producing an interview series called One on 1 with Budd Mishkin. Then, personally pivoting to video, he produced short reports and profiles for Vice, The New York Observer, and other outlets, before becoming “the video guy” at New York Magazine, turning out similar content. His work during these years was often madcap and intentionally goofy, but it also sought out popular culture’s deeper layers. In 2013, Riesman accompanied media theorist and author Douglas Rushkoff to a clock shop to talk about the philosophy (and anxiety) of time in the digital age, as clockmakers bent over their meticulous repairs, surrounded by the whir and ding of antique clocks. With novelist Sam Lipsyte, Riesman discussed the enduring influence of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons on authors’ creative thinking.

“Then I went to see Spotlight,” Riesman says—the Oscar-winning 2015 film chronicling the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal—“and had this big emotional journalism moment where I was like, ‘I can’t keep making viral videos. I have to go be a real, serious writer.’” With his editors’ assent, he moved into a writing position at New York, and in 2016, became a staff writer for the magazine’s arts and culture site, Vulture. There, his work covering books, films, and television coincided with a rekindled childhood interest in comics, which had fallen off after college. He wrote about fantasy and superhero media, often through a social lens, analyzing what pop culture revealed about wider cultural fault lines: “Why Cops and Soldiers Love the Punisher,” “I Hated the New Star Wars, so I Talked to My Rabbi About It,” “What We Talk About When We Talk About Evil Superman.”

The 2016 article that led to True Believer sprang from a misunderstanding: an editor handed Riesman a copy of Lee’s co-written autobiography in graphic-novel form, modestly titled Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible, and suggested he write about it. Riesman dove into the research, only to discover a week later that his editor had meant to assign merely a short review. “To his credit, though, he let me continue with what I was doing,” Riesman says. “So I went out and reported the story.”

And he was perhaps the ideal reporter to profile Lee: deeply knowledgeable, but also detached. His connection to Marvel began when he was six or seven years old, watching television cartoons starring Spider-Man and the X-Men—including The Marvel Action Hour, introduced every week by Lee. By junior high, he was devouring the comic books. Riesman describes himself as thoroughly invested in Marvel’s characters and stories (“They meant a lot to me,” he told one interviewer), but unlike a lot of comic fans, who idolized Lee, “I never thought of him as a personal hero.”

For the profile, Riesman talked to many of Lee’s associates, long-time hands in the comic-book world and former assistants who later became famous in their own right. But getting time with the man himself proved troublesome, or more accurately Talese-ian. “It’s like ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,’” he remembers, referencing writer Gay Talese’s famous 1966 profile of the singer. “I couldn’t get Stan. His people kept promising him to me, and then it never happened. And so I wrote around it.”

In 2018, two years after Riesman’s story appeared, Lee died at age 95. An editor at Penguin Random House suggested writing a full biography; Riesman left New York in 2019 to work on the book, which extended his earlier reporting, broadening the picture of the elusive Marvel auteur. In the process, Riesman uncovered another vein of connection with his subject: Lee’s Jewish past. It was generally known that Lee grew up in New York, the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, but the fuller story, and its influence on his life and work, had not previously been explored. Riesman interviewed Lee’s brother, Larry Lieber, tracked down distant relatives, and even hired a genealogist to assemble a portrait of Lee’s familial and cultural underpinnings: his parents’ flight from anti-Semitism in eastern Romania, his father’s proud Jewish identity and passion for Israel—and his coldness toward his sons—and Lee’s later attempts to leave his Jewishness behind.

As Riesman lays out in the book, Lee lived several lives. His main legacy rests with his reputation, which Lee himself trumpeted, as the purported creator, or at least co-creator, of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and other Marvel properties in the early 1960s. From the 1970s on, Lee mostly coasted, acting as a figurehead at Marvel for several years before leaving for a string of unsuccessful, often disastrous, ventures (a final, gloomy chapter of Lee’s life, about which True Believer also uncovers new, illuminating details). In fanzines and the comics press, whispers long persisted that Lee was a flimflammer, that in fact he had little to do with the creation of Marvel’s most famous characters, and that artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others were the real progenitors.

During the 1980s, the eternally affable, charming, and smarmy Lee benefited, Riesman argues, from journalists’ focus on deadlines at the expense of reporting. “You look at any frickin’ article written in the mainstream about Stan Lee for decades, decades….It’s all Stan Lee’s version of the story. And it’s not because Stan was some nefarious mastermind. It’s because journalists are lazy,” Riesman says. “I’m a journalist. I know what that’s like: you get an interview with somebody, and you just sort of go, ‘Well, how important is this interview anyway? It’s just for this comic-book writer. I don’t really have to do a whole lot of fact-checking on this stuff. I might as well just print what he said. He was amusing enough, comics are funny. Hey, comics aren’t just for kids anymore.’”

Lee’s cameos in the wildly popular Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, beginning with 2008’s Iron Man, raised his profile again, exposing a new generation to his foxy-grandpa persona. Lee wasn’t a monster, just an enabled huckster, Riesman emphasizes—and in fact, Marvel likely wouldn’t have become the juggernaut it is now without his relentless marketing and promotion in the 1960s, nor perhaps without an innovation that is undisputedly his: the Marvel “shared universe” of interconnected stories that build and feed on one another. “Stan was somebody who really benefited from charisma,” Riesman says.

A similar theme runs through his forthcoming book, Ringmaster: The Life and Times of Vince McMahon, the wrestling promoter and chairman and CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). It’s a short walk from flashy spandex comic-book battles to the sweaty environs of the wrestling ring, and both have an overlooked seedy side. Like Lee, McMahon revolutionized his industry, but also straddled the line between fiction and reality, between the person and the persona. Lee’s public life was a kind of performance, says Riesman, the onetime theater student, and the same is true of McMahon, who “has lived a life that could fill out a multivolume Robert Caro-style, epic saga.”

His reporting aims again to push past the simple tales of good and evil that professional wrestling offers its audience—and the even more simplistic coverage the “sport” often receives. “In wrestling and the comic-book industry,” Riesman says, “you have these two ecosystems where very bad things that are in no way childish or funny, or campy, occur all the time: labor abuses, sexual assault,”—and, in professional wrestling, at least—“murder. They’re industries that are worth a lot of money. So, bad things happen in them, and yet we live in this world where if the product itself is deemed to be childish, then for some reason, we assume that it’s not an object of study that’s worth our time.”

Riesman is keeping the details of Ringmaster private. But he sees the book as a “step up” in his work, in part because it’s being edited by his spouse, journalist S.I. Rosenbaum (a Harvard Magazine contributor). The two married in 2020 and moved from New York to Providence, Rhode Island. From there, Riesman serves on the board of Jewish Currents, a magazine originally founded in the 1940s and relaunched in 2018 as a website and progressive publication covering politics, culture, and ideas. He is also one of its contributors; in recent articles, he’s covered liberal Zionist politics in Israel and its diaspora, Israeli graphic novelist Rutu Modan, and Stan Lee’s Jewish history.

Thinking again about the Marvel icon, whom he spent years trying to pin down, in writing and in person, Riesman recalls that he did meet Lee, exactly once. In 1998, at age 13, he attended a comic convention in suburban Chicago where Lee signed his beat-up copy of Fantastic Four #47. Riesman’s mother snapped a photograph of the two together. “The extent of our interaction was limited, though eerie,” he recalls. “Right after the flash had gone off, he looked at me and he looked at my mom….And he said to one or both of us, ‘You’ve immortalized me!’” Lee was right—not then, but eventually. 

Published in the print edition of the March-April 2022 issue (Volume 124, Number 4), under the  headline “American Marvel.”

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