While a person in his eighties can be forgiven for not managing to re-create the glories of his earlier career, the failures of Lee’s last two decades point to a through line in True Believer: The man hailed as brilliant had a lot of bad ideas, not simply in terms of marketing, but in content and execution. He was obsessed, for instance, with the idea of publishing collections of found images with comedic captions. (One example: a woman who stands beside Marilyn Monroe and exclaims, about her breasts, 'They’re real!'). The concept is basically a proto-meme—which has potential. But for Lee it never landed, probably because the pairings were not funny. ... In light of this, it’s only natural to ask: Could Lee really have invented all those Marvel characters on his own? Riesman doesn’t make a judgment either way, but I get the sense that he’s doubtful, as am I after reading his book. 'Stan was a man whose success came more from ambition than talent,' he writes. Lee’s ambition was to reach the top, which he did thanks in large part to his skill at self-promotion and his charm ... Lee may have done groundbreaking work, but his personal version of heroism was, at heart, old-fashioned: He envisioned himself as an icon who, by his own doing, redeemed some small part of the world. He believed not just in his own myth but in that of America: a place filled with well-intentioned, bootstrapping individuals who shape their own destinies. And the superhero genre, even Stan Lee’s version of it, propagates this national narrative, with its focus on strong men, its simplistic visions of good versus evil, and its glorification of justifiable violence.
True Believer is part for-the-record biography and part an effort to balance the scales between Lee’s public reputation and the more complicated truth underneath. The book delivers a wealth of details on Lee’s later life, unearths a few stories that blemish his reputation, and generally paints Lee as a restless and unsatisfied man whose own definition of success always lay just beyond his reach ... Riesman’s unsentimental reportage, and his discovery of some troubling details that complicate the picture of Lee as a generally liberal, tolerant man, may seem gratuitous given the humiliations Lee experienced in his final years and the genuine joy he and his work brought to millions of people. But Riesman’s careful debunking of the tall tales isn’t a takedown of Stan Lee as much as a takedown of the myth of the heroic creative genius ... True Believer may not be the book that Stan Lee’s fans want, but it’s a book that anyone concerned with the hard truths of human nature and the business of popular culture over the last 80 years needs.
To give a full account of Stan Lee, as Abraham Riesman sets out to do in a new biography, True Believer, is to contend not just with his presence in popular culture (the smiling oldster in sunglasses, with a cameo in each Marvel film) but with the fluid nature of artistic collaboration, and so with endless debates over which parts of the comics are his ... True Believer isn’t the first serious biography of Lee, though it is the first completed since his death, in 2018. It cannot settle every question about what, exactly, Lee did. What it does best is unfurl a Künstlerroman, a story about the growth of an art form and an artist who was also a director and a leading man, unable to admit that the show could go on without him.