In 1942, Ralph Ellison had a meeting with Fredric Wertham, the director of psychiatric services at Queens General Hospital in New York. Ellison, who was eligible for the draft, didn’t want to join a segregated army. A friend had suggested that Wertham might find a way to get him a psychiatric deferment. Wertham, a German Jewish emigrant, sympathised, and though a deferment wasn’t needed in the end – a draft notice never showed up – their talks uncovered a shared indignation about the colour line in access to medical care. The result was the Lafargue Clinic, a low-cost psychiatric centre which Wertham opened in a church basement in Harlem in 1946 with help from Ellison and Richard Wright. Six years later Wertham was called as an expert witness for the NAACP in one of the cases reviewed in Brown v. Board of Education. With the evidence of his experiences treating traumatised children in Harlem, he persuaded a federal judge that school segregation was a danger to public health.
Unfortunately for Wertham’s reputation, his work with children also left him with a bee in his bonnet about comic books. His younger patients, he observed, liked reading comics, and as far as he could see the medium was a poisonous jumble of will- to-power fantasies, sexualised violence, misogyny, racism and deviant sexuality. He wasn’t the first to take aim at ‘the marijuana of the nursery’, as a columnist for the Saturday Review called them, but he was the first to offer a socio-psychiatric argument that they led to juvenile delinquency: first at a symposium on ‘The Psychopathology of Comic Books’ in 1948, and then in a book, Seduction of the Innocent, published in 1954. Wertham became the public face of a moral panic. Youth groups organised bonfires of objectionable material. A Senate subcommittee put publishers on the stand: ‘Here is your May issue. This seems to be a man with a bloody axe holding a woman’s head up which has been severed from her body. Do you think that’s in good taste?’ Fifteen comics companies went out of business in the summer of 1954 alone.
Generations of fans have had their revenge. Wertham is remembered, if at all, as a paranoid scold who thought that Superman was potentially fascist, that Batman and Robin could be construed as positive gay role models, and that Wonder Woman’s early adventures had a bondage subtext. (Never mind that such views, without the disapproval of gay role models, have since become received wisdom among fans.) Superheroes, however, weren’t high on Wertham’s hit list, because they didn’t dominate the market, which was huge: in 1948, American publishers sold between eighty and a hundred million comics a month. Superman (launched in 1938), Batman (1939) and Wonder Woman (1941) still had their own publications in the mid 1950s, but they were coming to be seen as a wartime fad. Humour, romance, western, crime, science fiction and horror titles sold as well or better, and Wertham and the Senate were chiefly exercised by EC Comics’ crime and horror output. Publishers responded with a Hays Code-style programme of self-censorship. EC closed all its titles except Mad magazine, and American comics became a little blander, until, in his own telling, Stan Lee came along and shook things up.
Lee – the writer-editor who supervised the renaissance at Marvel Comics in the early 1960s that gave the world Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, Iron Man, Black Panther and the rest – spent the 46 years between his departure from a hands-on role at Marvel and his death in 2018 getting paid to play the part of Stan Lee, the writer-editor who had supervised etc. Giving the fans what they wanted involved remembering the ‘Marvel revolution’ as a conscious overturning of a stultified post-Wertham regime, and, if necessary, backdating Lee’s role as the industry’s celebrity spokesman. ‘To me, Wertham was a fanatic, pure and simple,’ Lee wrote of the 1950s panic in a memoir:
I used to debate with him, which was fun because I usually won … He once claimed he did a survey that demonstrated that most of the kids in reform schools were comic book readers. So I said to him: ‘If you do another survey, you’ll find that most of the kids who drink milk are comic book readers. Should we ban milk?’
That these debates didn’t happen, and that Lee in fact spent the 1950s trying to escape a business he saw as an embarrassment, are only two of a thousand tiny gotchas in Abraham Riesman’s biography.
Not all of them are new. The central controversy about Lee – the extent to which he stole the credit for creating the Marvel characters – has been simmering since the early 1980s, when Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who did the artwork and more, began to grumble in public about their contributions being underacknowledged. As Riesman says, it’s unlikely ever to be resolved: there was minimal documentation of the creative process because comics were a fly-by-night business, because Marvel was assumed to own its employees’ creations, and because no one expected them to become multi-billion-dollar items of intellectual property. (There has been a fair amount of litigation since then, and in 2014 Disney, which bought Marvel for $4 billion five years earlier, settled with Kirby’s children ‘for an untold but surely enormous sum’.) More generally, being a self-promoting, carnival-barking type was as much a part of Lee’s persona as his toupee, tinted glasses, moustache and New York accent. Strict accuracy with regard to facts wasn’t what he was selling, and his schtick made room for the idea that he was a lovable old fraud.
Riesman’s biography isn’t a straight-up demolition job. It includes a photograph of its author as an adolescent ‘circa 1998’ getting Lee to sign a comic, and aims for the tone of a fan who’s trying to be generous about his sometimes disappointing findings. Riesman doesn’t always manage this tone very well. The ironical profile writer in him keeps breaking through, and he has a lot of fun with the dubious figures who attached themselves to Lee in his Hollywood years. One of them, ‘an avowed con artist named Aaron Tonken’, is introduced as a man ‘who began his memoir with the sentence: “In a land of moral imbeciles, I knew I could be king.”’ All the same, the final stretch of Lee’s life was quite sad, and in Riesman’s telling it becomes a kind of goofy parable about the dangers of attaching a single face to collaborative endeavours. There’s a theory that the modern notion of authorship arose from the state’s need to make writers available for punishment. Lee was more interested in rewards, but near the end it must have been hard to tell the difference.
Stanley Martin Lieber was born in Manhattan in 1922 to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Romania. His father, Jack, was a dress cutter who could find only intermittent work during the Great Depression. His mother, Celia, ‘was my biggest fan’, he recalled. His younger brother, Larry, told Riesman that Celia’s idolisation of Stanley had made his own childhood ‘almost like the movie Rebecca’. Stanley went to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, which had already educated Will Eisner, one of the most revered figures in American comics, and Bob Kane and Bill Finger, the creators of Batman. He wouldn’t have been very interested in these predecessors at the time. ‘The funny thing is, I never was a comic book reader,’ he later said. ‘I only wrote ’em, but I didn’t like to read ’em, particularly.’ Of his high-school contemporaries – who included James Baldwin, Paddy Chayefsky, Richard Avedon and Sugar Ray Robinson – the only one to make an impression on him was a classmate who used an easy flow of patter to sell his fellow students subscriptions to the New York Times.
At seventeen he found a job at Timely Comics, which later became Marvel, through a family connection. His uncle worked there, and his cousin was married to Timely’s owner, Martin Goodman, a piratical operator who used a network of shell companies to put out an enormous range of pulp magazines. ‘Fans are not interested in quality,’ Goodman liked to say. If something started selling, he aimed to flood the market with similar titles. When Stanley joined the company as an assistant to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1939, the first superhero craze was in full swing, and his bosses were about to launch Captain America, the most successful of several Nazi-punching heroes invented around that time. Comic books got cheaper postal rates if they included two pages of unillustrated text, and Stanley became Stan Lee for his first byline on one such filler. For years he said he’d been saving his real name for a great novel he planned to write. He was also following standard practice: Kirby had started out as Jacob Kurtzberg, Simon as Hymie Simon. Waspy suspicion of this sort of name in Madison Avenue’s art departments was one reason they had all ended up in the comics business.
After Goodman failed to honour an informal agreement with Simon and Kirby over the profits from Captain America, they began to freelance on the side for the company that became DC Comics, the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. When word reached Goodman – Kirby, according to Simon, believed ‘to the day he died’ that Lee had ratted them out – he fired them. Lee, aged nineteen, replaced Simon as Timely’s editor. Apart from three years of military service, during which he continued to write scripts for Goodman, he stayed in the job for the next three decades. By most accounts he hit the ground running. He had an eye for talent, worked hard, and in time gave his writers and artists credits. Staffers found him ‘a very jolly guy’. The comradely ‘bullpen’ of inky employees that he later encouraged Marvel readers to imagine drew on his memories of the early years. In reality, Goodman made him replace most of the staff with freelancers at the end of the 1940s, and a complicated distribution debacle led to another cull in 1957. Even then, those laid off rarely held it against Lee personally.
The comics were strictly product, however. When Kirby and Simon started having hits with romance titles published elsewhere, Goodman ordered Lee to follow suit. Imitative cycles of horror, western and giant monster comics followed in the course of the 1950s, and Lee began to cast about for a more elevated job. By this time he had married Joan Boocock, a hat model from Newcastle who had come to the US with her first husband before meeting Lee and getting a quick annulment. They lived out on Long Island, where Lee presented himself as a dapper Manhattan publishing executive, keeping quiet about exactly what it was he published. He tried to break into magazine writing, broadcasting and advertising, without success. A newspaper comic strip looked as though it might take off but then the artist fell under a train. ‘Vicious cycle’, Lee wrote of this time, under the heading ‘The Limbo Years’, in an autobiographical outline from 1978. ‘We spent money because we felt we ought to be getting something out of all the writing – and I kept writing to be able to pay for the lifestyle.’
In a roundabout way, it was Wertham’s campaign against comic books that saved Lee. Without it, there might have been no Marvel Studios. Among the companies that collapsed in the post-Wertham slump was Mainline Publications, set up by Kirby and Simon. The two men parted ways and in 1958 Kirby returned to Goodman’s fold, where he and Steve Ditko, a young artist who later became a reclusive follower of Ayn Rand, worked under Lee’s direction. Instead of giving them scripts to illustrate, Lee evolved the ‘Marvel Method’, which involved a quick meeting to hash out a story idea. One or other of the artists then drew the pages, with considerable freedom in plot construction as well as layout, after which Lee wrote the dialogue for the speech bubbles. A race was on to attract older teenagers without recourse to EC-style sex and gore, and DC had a success in 1960 with the Justice League’s first outing. Goodman ordered up a knockoff team of superheroes. Lee and Kirby responded with the Fantastic Four, launched in 1961. They were an instant hit. The rest of the Marvel canon fell into place over the next few years.
There’s no question that Lee, as art director, story editor, dialogue writer and general impresario, had a large hand in making Marvel’s products stand out. From Spider-Man’s hokey wisecracks to Thor’s cod-Shakespearean language to the Thing’s Lower East Side accent, his dialogue might not exactly have sparkled, but he took pains to distinguish it from the wooden, undifferentiated speech associated with older superhero comics (‘Confound Superman! He spoiled everything!’). Lee was also responsible for the jaunty tone and fourth-wall-breaking propensities of the editorial packaging, especially in his ‘Stan’s Soapbox’ columns and letters page interventions. But it’s hard to know how much he had to do with bringing in the readers he worked so hard to keep engaged. The characteristic Marvel tone of angsty soap opera owed a lot to Kirby’s earlier work in romance comics. Lee wasn’t the moving force behind Kirby’s dynamic compositions, Ditko’s expressively distorted bodies, or the increasingly psychedelic backgrounds that both men drew as the decade wore on. Ditko decided what Spider-Man would look like and Kirby designed most of the other characters. As for the actual stories, it isn’t clear that Lee’s contributions amounted to more than elevator pitches, if that.
Still, Lee was ready for primetime in a way his subordinates weren’t. Once the Marvel revenues started flowing, he treated the company, in his words, ‘like a huge ad campaign’. He filled each book’s narration with hyperbolic copy – ‘And now, with this record-breaking fourth issue, Spider-Man soars to still greater heights as he battles the most fantastic foe of all!’ – and used crossover stories to promote his other titles, with footnotes directing fans to whichever issue they’d need to buy to keep up with the ever-expanding continuity (a ploy that’s no less alienating in the Marvel Studios films). An air of hipness began to gather around Marvel, as noted by the Village Voice in 1965: ‘College students interpret Marvel Comics. A Cornell physics professor has pointed them out to his classes. Beatniks read them. Schoolgirls and housewives dream about the Marvel heroes.’ Lee, in his forties, was fêted as an elder statesman of youth culture. Slowly ditching his Don Draperish persona, he went on speaking tours of universities and discussed the problems of the day on any chat show that would have him. Fellini visited the Marvel office. Alain Resnais proposed a collaboration.
Goodman, who made it clear that he felt comics ‘were only really read by very, very young children or stupid adults’, was happy for Lee to have his moment. Kirby, a gruff workaholic, and Ditko, a touchy introvert, were less happy. They didn’t particularly enjoy being called ‘Jolly Jack’ and ‘Sturdy Steve’ in the ‘Bullpen Bulletins’ that Lee put out for the fans each month. They also noticed that Lee got paid as a credited writer on top of his editorial salary, though all three of them took it as simply the way of the world that they were exploited by Goodman, who once said, Lee recalled, ‘that he could make more money raising the cover price of one of his magazines than I could by working all year’. Lee eventually agreed to give Ditko credit for plotting The Amazing Spider-Man as well as drawing it, but extra pay wasn’t forthcoming. Ditko stopped talking to Lee and resigned at the end of 1965. Kirby, whom Lee was careful to handle with more tact, defected back to DC in 1970. He had been especially annoyed about being dismissed in one sentence in a fawning profile of Lee in the New York Herald Tribune: ‘If you stood next to him on the subway you would peg him for the assistant foreman in a girdle factory.’
The great realisation of the Lee era at Marvel was that heroes didn’t need to be paragons. They could be anxious teenagers with money worries, like Spider-Man, or members of a bickering pseudo-family, like the Fantastic Four, or outsiders threatened with persecution, like the X-Men. Beyond that, it was left to others to fine tune their metaphorical resonances. Unlike the Jewish motifs in, say, Superman’s backstory, the Marvel equivalents – Magneto being a tortured Holocaust survivor, for instance – were mostly added by later writers. Lee didn’t get on with his bitterly pious father, married out and took zero interest in Jewish affairs, which is a problem for Liel Leibovitz in his short book on Lee in Yale’s Jewish Lives series. (He solves it with imaginative theological readings of the comics, including a claim that, in a rarefied spiritual sense, Mister Fantastic is a dybbuk.) Riesman derides the fence-sitting platitudes of Marvel’s 1960s storylines addressing student protests and Black Power. Others have complained that Lee systematically undercut Kirby’s efforts to give female characters better roles. When later generations of Marvel writers consulted Lee, they often found that he hadn’t kept up with the continuity. He wasn’t kidding when he said that comics were ‘just a job’.
The main point of the job, by 1968, when Marvel underwent the first of many changes of ownership, was to sustain an increasingly expensive lifestyle. Joan was a great shopper, as was their daughter, JC, who now needed a Manhattan apartment to pursue a career as a socialite and would-be actor. ‘I’ll see to it that you and Joanie will never have to want for anything as long as you live,’ Goodman told Lee while selling his empire to Cadence Industries. Successive corporate regimes at Marvel made good on this, keeping Lee on the payroll as a figurehead long after he stepped down as editor in 1972. Lee’s appetite for fame acquired a self-protective edge. Paid appearances at fan conventions were a reliable income stream, and he was in his element as a raconteur. More important, his celebrity made it difficult for Marvel to stop paying him a retainer. There was a tricky moment in the late 1990s when the company, restructuring after a bankruptcy, tried to limit his payments to $500,000 a year. But the possibility of a public rift was usually enough to head off penny-pinching measures. When Lee filed a lawsuit over film profits, it was likened to ‘Colonel Sanders suing Kentucky Fried Chicken’.
Continuing payments from Marvel were important to Lee because, as Riesman shows in exhaustive detail, he had few successful creative or business endeavours to show for the rest of his career. A particular cloud hangs over his time in Hollywood, where he and Joan settled in 1980. As the notional creative director of the newly formed Marvel Productions, he aimed to get the company’s superheroes on the big screen. Studio executives didn’t want to know. ‘In those days,’ a screenwriter recalled, ‘you couldn’t give comic books away’. Lee’s production partner wasn’t keen on them either, and Saturday morning cartoons based on non-Marvel properties such as the Transformers and My Little Pony became the company’s bread and butter. By the 1990s, Lee was ‘a minister without portfolio’, one executive told Riesman. ‘He would sometimes send us ideas, but they weren’t always the greatest ideas.’ Rejecting one of them, a pitch for a Marvel project constructed around David Schwimmer from Friends, the executives reached a consensus that ‘David Schwimmer had no charisma and was a little bit derided.’ Then they high-fived one another over Lee’s head.
Professional humiliations didn’t affect Lee’s home life, which at the start of his Los Angeles period was very happy. He and Joan were prolific party-givers. ‘If I had to draw a picture of it, it would be Joan with a glass in her hand, and everybody’s head tossed back in laughter,’ a friend said. ‘They were in love, and they were fun … Eating and partying. Telling jokes, laughing, ranting about politics. I think their desire to have a good time was contagious.’ JC, who was now trying to be an artist, lived in a nearby house Lee had bought for her. As time went on, her drinking, demands for money and paranoid rages became harder to laugh off. Strange characters began to haunt Lee’s poolside. Among the strangest was a man called Peter Paul, a former lawyer with several felony convictions – he couldn’t defend himself without exposing his clandestine anti-communist activities, he explained – who had reinvented himself as the manager of the male model known as Fabio. In 1998, Lee went into business with Paul, who began to raise money on the strength of the world-beating online content that Stan Lee Media was certain to develop.
At this point in Riesman’s story, the storm cloud breaks. One reason Lee went in with Paul was that his position at Marvel was looking dicey. A month later, however, he signed an agreement with Marvel that guaranteed him $1 million a year, plus pensions for Joan and JC, but didn’t give him ironclad rights to a share of movie revenues. In the same year, Blade inaugurated a run of hit films of the kind that Lee hadn’t interested anyone in making, which continued with Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002). Lee’s lawsuit got him a pay-out in 2005, reputedly of $10 million, but his outgoings were huge, and the settlement meant he had no stake in the endless cycles of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) pictures that went on to suck all the air out of American movies in the following decade – and most of the money out of the box office. In the meantime, the dotcom crunch of 2000 had done for Stan Lee Media, after which the Securities and Exchange Commission began to investigate Paul for stock manipulation. Paul left for Brazil. Lee was cleared of wrongdoing, as he was when his next venture, POW! Entertainment, ran into legal and financial difficulties.
These developments meant that Lee’s final years were a strange mixture of global fame and outlandish hustling. He enjoyed filming his Hitchcock-like cameos for the MCU movies, but got only token fees for them and avoided sitting through the premieres: ‘Stan hated superhero films,’ his business manager told Riesman. A parade of unreliable associates – including a memorabilia mogul who claimed to be Michael Jackson’s best friend – tried to persuade him they’d found a way to turn his celebrity into cash. Collaborations with Whoopi Goldberg and RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan were mooted but didn’t happen. (‘If they’re popular with young people,’ Lee said of the Wu-Tang, ‘I don’t mind being associated with them. Maybe in our own way, we can turn them away from gangsta rapping.’) Hef’s Superbunnies, a cartoon series co-produced with Playboy, didn’t make it past the pilot stage. Stan Lee’s Stripperella, a cartoon vehicle for Pamela Anderson, did. Lee’s relationship with JC, whom his friend Kevin Smith was by this time describing as ‘the worst fucking human being in the world’, became more and more destructive. Between Joan’s death in 2017 and his own a year later, Lee disappeared into an opaque muddle of unsteady public appearances and claims and counter-claims of ‘elder abuse’. A hanger-on, it was alleged, arranged for a phial of blood to be taken from Lee ‘for use in a comic book promotion’.
It’s hard to finish Riesman’s account without feeling some sympathy for Lee, however shabbily he might have treated Kirby and Ditko and his younger brother, Larry Lieber, who was fobbed off with a job drawing a Spider-Man newspaper strip. (Lieber is currently embroiled in litigation with Disney, as is the administrator of Ditko’s estate.) Kirby didn’t fight for a better deal with Marvel because he was a child of the Depression, whose fear of losing a steady source of income made him unwilling to rock the boat. As obnoxiously wealthy as he later became, Lee was a company man for the same reason. Riesman thinks his ‘core tragedy’ was a matter of emphasis: instead of selling himself as ‘comics’ greatest editor’, he wanted to be seen as their greatest ideas man, a claim that was more debatable and, later, falsifiable. But becoming, in effect, the incarnation of a brand to which so many people felt a powerful connection was a less than comfortable fate, a bit like inhabiting the idea of the sacrificial monarch from The Golden Bough. Soon after his death, Lee appeared in Avengers: Endgame as a digitally de-aged avatar of himself in his 1960s prime. The fans, and the keepers of the MCU, liked him better that way. The previous year, Black Panther, which Lee had next to nothing to do with, was briefly the white-hot centre of popular culture. What Wertham would have made of it is anyone’s guess.