As Comics Press Trashes Stan Lee (Again), Roy Thomas Pushes Back


As we reported last week, a new Stan Lee biography by Abraham Riesman called ‘True Believer‘, named after one of Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee’s most notable phrases, has hit the book shops and the press tour. Avi Green was immediately certain the book was simply designed to tear down Lee’s image, no matter how much of a flawed human being Stan may have been, because they’d rather offer up a discouraging take on a legend than one of somebody who ultimately did conceive great ideas as a scriptwriter. 


The book is clearly sensationalist junk that is willing to spit on the legacy of a deceased man and the author is trying to make a name of himself by soiling Stan Lees name. Meanwhile, the usual comics news website thirsted for all the gory, unsubstantiated details, with none other than Heidi MacDonald’s ComicsBeat publishng a salacious two part interview with Riesman, looking for more juicy details.  Thankfully, a few mature adults in the know, namely legendary editor and comics creator Roy Thomas agreed with us. 



Roy was Stan Lee’s first successor as editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, and is possibly best known for introducing the pulp magazine hero Conan the Barbarian to American comics, with a series that added to the storyline of Robert E. Howard.


While the legendary comics creator is willing to admit that perhaps 95% of the book is accurate, he still calls it:


“a very bad biography. Because the author often insists, visibly and intrusively, on putting his verbal thumb on the scales, in a dispute he seems ill-equipped to judge.”


Thomas continues:



“Riesman’s book attempts to bolster that debatable and not-so-subtle theme at every turn. He’d have been better advised — well, maybe not in terms of book sales but in the interests of historical integrity — to have confined such ill-considered judgments to his wastebasket and let the facts he’s gathered simply speak for themselves. He doesn’t do that nearly often enough.

That Stan Lee was the co-creator, and not the sole creator, of the key Marvel heroes from the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man through Daredevil and the Silver Surfer can hardly be in dispute at this late stage. I myself, back in the ’80s when I wasn’t working for him, had a friendly argument with him on that score over lunch. I soon realized that, as much as he respected the talents and contributions of artists (Riesman would say “artist/writers” and he’s right, at least in one sense) such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko to the characters introduced in the 1960s, he could never really bring himself, in his own mind, to think of them as “co-creators.” The two of us had to agree to disagree, and I never saw any use in bringing it up again.

If I can judge from Riesman’s writings, and from other sources over the years, I’m sure I’d have encountered the same kind of blinders-on stubbornness in Jack Kirby (oft-quoted in this book), who saw Stan as little more than the guy who scribbled a few words of dialogue and rode to unearned glory on his back.”



“Both men were, I think, wrong, and that’s why Riesman is so ill-advised to use nearly every opportunity he gets to weight things in Jack’s favor and against Stan. (By the way, if someone objects to my referring to Jack Kirby as well by his first name, it’s because the two of us were on a first-name basis from 1965 till the last time we met, sometime in the 1980s. I considered him then, and I consider him now, to be by far the greatest superhero artist in the history of the medium, and, along with Stan, one of its preeminent pop-culture geniuses.)

You think I’m exaggerating when I suggest that Riesman finds gratuitous excuses to favor Jack’s version of things over Stan’s? I’m not.



For one thing, just a dozen pages into the book, Reisman informs us that Stan “lied about little things, he lied about big things, he lied about strange things,” adding that Stan quite likely lied about “one massive, very consequential thing” that, if so, “completely changes his legacy.” (By saying “quite likely,” Riesman puts the burden of proof on himself to demonstrate that Stan was lying about coming up with the basic idea for some, if not necessarily for each, of the early Marvel heroes — and he never really does. He simply weighs Stan’s statements against Jack’s, without offering any real evidence that Jack’s memories are any more reliable than Stan’s. In fact, he will later cite a number of instances in which they are not, but here he tosses in that “quite likely” just the same.)


Then, on the very next page, he puts flesh on his earlier “bullshitter” depiction by writing: “It’s very possible, maybe even probable, that the characters and plots Stan was famous for all sprang from the brain and pen of [artist/writer Jack] Kirby.” “Possible,” yes. Lots of things are possible. But “even probable”? Why? Riesman never really makes a credible case for that. He merely piles up verbiage and quotations: “He said … he said.”



Thomas continues:


And he weights things toward Jack’s viewpoint with statements like the foregoing despite the fact that, for instance, partial synopses written by Stan for two of the first eight issues of the crucial Marvel flagship title Fantastic Four (including No. 1) have been vouched for as existing since the 1960s. Riesman gives a lot more credence than is called for to “a rumor that [Stan’s synopsis for the first half of FF No. 1] was created after the comic hit the stands” in August of 1961.

The sources of said rumor? The “significant reason to suspect the synopsis was written after Stan and Kirby spoke” in person about the FF concept? 1: A onetime teenage assistant of Kirby’s, who only went to work for him circa 1979, says that Jack “told me that it was written way after FF #1 was published. I believe him.” Fine. The guy believes his old boss. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we should. And 2: Kirby is quoted as once saying of that synopsis: “I’ve never seen it, and of course I would say it’s an outright lie.” So on this occasion, Stan Lee is apparently lying by coming up with that synopsis — but Jack Kirby, who Riesman points out told a whopper or three himself, isn’t lying when he says he never saw it? Or, giving both men the benefit of a doubt, couldn’t it be that Jack, after several decades, had simply forgotten it?


And if you have any doubt about Roy Thomas’ bonafides, he joined Marvel Comics in 1965, and quickly established himself at the company at a time when most of the publisher’s superhero stories were still being scripted by Stan Lee. In 1966, he took over writing duties on The Avengers directly from Lee, and became one of the most important Avengers scribes ever, scripting the title for six years and co-creating Avengers mainstays like Vision, Carol Danvers (now known as Captain Marvel), and the supervillain Ultron. Through the late 1960s and early 1970s he wrote runs on numerous key titles, including Uncanny X-MenFantastic FourThe Incredible Hulk, and, yes, Daredevil. In 1972, he succeeded Lee as Marvel’s editor-in-chief, a title he held until 1974.


He knows what he’s talking about.



Roy Thomas is essentially Marvel Comics royalty, a member of the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame, and a living legend. He knows what he’s talking about.  So we should pay attention when he summarizes the Riesman book as “undeserving of the high praise heaped upon it by people who, for the most part, don’t really know what the hell they’re talking about.”


Read the full column at THR here. Roy Thomas is preparing an expanded version of the THR article for issue No. 171 of Alter Ego, the comics history magazine he edits.