Non-Fiction Spotlight: True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee by Abe Riesman

Today, I’m continuing the Non-Fiction Spotlight project, wherein I interview the authors/editors of SFF-related non-fiction books that came out in 2021 and are eligible for the 2022 Hugo Awards. For more about the Non-Fiction Spotlight project, go here. To check out the spotlights I already posted, go here.

For more recommendations for SFF-related non-fiction, also check out this Facebook group set up by the always excellent Farah Mendlesohn, who is a champion (and author) of SFF-related non-fiction.

Biographies of SFF authors and other people of genre interest have appeared on the ballot for the Best Related Work Hugo several times in the past. So this Non-Fiction Spotlight features another excellent biography of an important figure in SFF history.

Therefore, I’m thrilled to welcome Abe Riesman*, author of True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, to my blog. Furthermore, by some amazing cosmic coincidence (not really, since we timed it that way), True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee came out in paperback yesterday, so get yourselves to your favourite bookstore and buy a copy.

True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee by Abraham Riesman

Tell us about your book.

It’s the first complete and unvarnished look at the life of the man born Stanley Martin Lieber. You know him as Stan Lee, the writer/editor who brought Marvel Comics to the world, changed global popular culture, and became an unmistakeable icon. But beyond those broad strokes, most of what the world knew about Stan Lee was false.

True Believer is based on more than 150 exclusive interviews and thousands of pages of archival material — from both Stan’s massive, rarely-visited archive and the private archives of others. True Believer’s narrative stretches from Stan’s ancestral trauma in eastern Romania to his shocking final days in Los Angeles. Along the way, it digs into many unsettling questions: Did Stan actually create the characters he gained fame for creating? Was he complicit in millions of dollars’ worth of fraud at his post-Marvel companies? Which members of the cavalcade of grifters who surrounded him were most responsible for the misery of his final days?

It’s a story of overreach; of a man who achieved so much, yet always boasted of more. It’s a story of obsession; of the birth of modern fandom and its ripeness for manipulation. Above all, it’s a story of ambiguity; of the fact that certain moral judgments and factual assertions can never be made with certainty. Living with that ambiguity is the great challenge of understanding the life and impact of Stan Lee.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a 36-year-old author and journalist based in Rhode Island. My main gig has been as a writer for New York magazine and its culture site, Vulture. I was on staff there for about six years, writing about a wide array of things — but especially about the geek-industrial complex, for lack of a better term. I’ve also written for The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The New Republic, and The Washington Post. I have made it my goal to bring serious analysis to topics where real harm is being done and no one is paying attention because the industry in question makes a product deemed silly by the mainstream media. True Believer is my first book, but I’m currently writing Ringmaster, a biography of professional wrestling’s Vince McMahon, for Simon & Schuster. I’m married to a wonderful journalist/editor named S.I. Rosenbaum and we have three cats.

What prompted you to write this book?

In the summer of 2015, while I was on staff at New York magazine, an editor named David Wallace-Wells stopped by my desk, plopped a book onto it, and said, “You should do something with this.” It was a galley of Stan Lee’s then-upcoming graphic memoir Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible. I was eager to show my mettle, so I got to work on a profile. A week later, I checked in with David and he told me he had meant I should write a short capsule review. Oops. But, to his credit, he said I should continue! So I wrote a long reported feature about Stan — without interviewing him; his people kept giving me the run-around — that was released in February of 2016. It was a hit. Flash forward to November 2018. When Stan passed away, an editor at Penguin Random House / Crown reached out to me about doing a full biography. I almost said no! I had no idea how to write a book! But sense was talked into me and I got to work.

Why should SFF fans in general and Hugo voters in particular read this book?

Well, first of all, superhero fiction is a subdivision of SFF, is it not? Its own unique, screwed-up species, to be sure. But the superheroes Stan worked on were all powered by radioactive accidents and ancient incantations. Even before the superhero days of the sixties, Stan did a wide array of SFF (well, mostly SF) comics — as did his most important collaborators, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko! By that basic measure, the core cast of this book is crucial for understanding the history of genre fiction. And the story of Stan, the possibly undeserving man at the center of it all, has simply never been told before now.

Do you have any cool facts or tidbits that you unearthed during your research, but that did not make it into the final book?

I keep kicking myself that I forgot to put this in, but there’s a fascinating bit in Stan’s co-written early-aughts memoir, Excelsior!, in which he talks about his difficulty adopting a child as a mixed-background couple alongside his wife, Joan Boocock Lee. Joan was an Episcopalian Englishwoman and Stan — well, as Stan puts it in the memoir, “My parents were Jewish.” Not “I’m Jewish,” mind you. It was such a window into Stan’s tortured relationship with his Jewish identity and his very stern, very Jewish father. But most of the stuff about that relationship made it into the book, Baruch HaShem.

SFF-related non-fiction is somewhat sidelined by the big genre awards, since the Nebulas have no non-fiction category and the Best Related Work Hugo category has become something of a grab bag of anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere. So why do you think SFF-related non-fiction is important?

Well, for one thing, because SFF is the dominant mode of storytelling in the global entertainment marketplace right now. Period, end of sentence, full stop, over and out. Of course we need serious historical and journalistic work on the behemoths that dominate our lives!

Additionally, we live in an age of genre storytelling where the Powers That Be have figured out how to make crude hijackings of fandom dynamics, and part of that has to do with fictional “non-fiction.” Memoirs from geek-celebs, official histories, adoring fanboy hagiography — it’s everywhere! And nobody seems to question it! I’m writing about wrestling right now, and it sort of laid out the template: wrestling superfans were always looking for the “true story” behind the scenes, and, eventually, promoters figured out how to seed the gossip mill with disinformation. Soon, people were superfans of the “real life” versions of the wrestlers — which were just as made-up as the in-ring versions. We see that all over the place in genre storytelling these days, and we need good nonfiction about the nature and creation of SFF if we’re going to get out of the apocalyptic mess we’re in.

Are there any other great SFF-related non-fiction works or indeed anything else (books, stories, essays, writers, magazines, films, TV shows, etc…) you’d like to recommend?

I always recommend this amazing, brief video-essay by Slavoj Žižek about John Carpenter’s They Live:

Beyond that, read everything written by comics critic Tegan O’Neil:

Where can people buy your book?

Head over to the book page on my website!

Where can people find you?

Thank you, Abe, for stopping by and answering my questions. Also, did I mention that True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee just came out in paperback?

About True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee:

The definitive, revelatory biography of Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee, a writer and entrepreneur who reshaped global pop culture–at a steep personal cost

“A biography that reads like a thriller or a whodunit . . . scrupulously honest, deeply damning, and sometimes even heartbreaking.”–Neil Gaiman

Stan Lee was one of the most famous and beloved entertainers to emerge from the twentieth century. He served as head editor of Marvel Comics for three decades and, in that time, became known as the creator of more pieces of internationally recognizable intellectual property than nearly anyone: Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men, Black Panther, the Incredible Hulk . . . the list goes on. His carnival-barker marketing prowess helped save the comic-book industry and superhero fiction. His cameos in Marvel movies have charmed billions. When he died in 2018, grief poured in from around the world, further cementing his legacy.

But what if Stan Lee wasn’t who he said he was? To craft the definitive biography of Lee, Abraham Riesman conducted more than 150 interviews and investigated thousands of pages of private documents, turning up never-before-published revelations about Lee’s life and work. True Believer tackles tough questions: Did Lee actually create the characters he gained fame for creating? Was he complicit in millions of dollars’ worth of fraud in his post-Marvel life? Which members of the cavalcade of grifters who surrounded him were most responsible for the misery of his final days?

And, above all, what drove this man to achieve so much yet always boast of more?

About Abe Riesman:

Abe Riesman is a Providence-based journalist, writing primarily for New York magazine about arts and culture. Her work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The New Republic, and Vice, among other publications.


Did you publish a work of SFF-related longform non-fiction in 2021 and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.

*The article has been updated with regard to Abraham Riesman’s pronouns.

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