True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee is a brand new biography from author Abraham Riesman about the life of Stan Lee, with all its complications. Riesman conducted more than 150 interviews and sifted through thousands of pages of private documents—legal paperwork, family voicemails, and more—to paint a much more nuanced portrait of the iconic Marvel spokesman that goes beyond the occasional cheeky cameo by an old man in sunglasses. "Stretching from the Romanian shtetls of Lee's ancestors to his own final moments in Los Angeles," the book cover reads, "True Believer chronicles the world-changing triumphs and tragic missteps of an extraordinary life, and leaves it to readers to decide whether Lee lived up to the responsibilities of his own talent."
I was hoping to have a full review of the book up in time for its release this week, but I've unfortunately fallen behind on a few things. However, did time to read this jaw-dropping excerpt, courtesy of Vulture, which details the shady financial dealings around Lee's turn-of-the-millennium business venture, Stan Lee Media, which other journalists have described as "a sleazy Internet start-up that could function as the poster child for the excesses of the turn-of-the-century era."
This wasn't necessarily Lee's fault, as Riesman explains, but had more to do with his business partner, Peter Paul:
To hear him tell it, Peter Paul was a con man by age 13 — though he'd never use that term, of course. […] Paul has multiple felony convictions from the '70s and '80s: one from cocaine possession, another from trying to bilk the Cuban government in an elaborate scheme involving the fraudulent sale of 3,000 metric tons of coffee, a third from using a dead man's ID to cross the Canadian border. These, he claims, stemmed from secret missions he was performing on behalf of the U.S. government in the global struggle against communism.
Paul's life story comes out in an overwhelming torrent when you speak with him: Spanish surrealists, Russian mobsters, Iranian nuclear officials, Nicaraguan death squads, Cuban counterrevolutionaries, Brazilian arsonists. These are the people who populate his self-professed personal chronicles. Who knows how much of it is true? Paul is charismatic and intimidating, the sort of man who could alternatingly charm and bully you into starting a business with him. And that's exactly what Stan Lee did, in 1998.
In October 1998, Paul presented Stan with an employment agreement (formatted, for some reason, in Comic Sans) that would make Stan chairman, publisher, spokesman, and chief creative officer of a company Paul had registered, called Stan Lee Entertainment, Inc. The agreement stated that Stan would forever assign to the company "all right, title, and interest I may have or control, now or in the future" to all the characters and concepts he held any rights to, as well as his name, likeness, and special verbiage. Such a wide-ranging agreement was, as Paul puts it, "not usual, but it's not exceptional, either."
More important, Paul says he had done research and found that the legal ambiguities of Marvel in the early '60s meant Stan, in fact, actually owned all of the characters he claimed to have created there, meaning this new company would own them. Paul says he planned to make a move on Spider-Man et al. eventually, but that Stan didn't want to do it right away, out of residual loyalty to Marvel. Stan signed the document.
The story gets crazier from there, and even ends up twisting around some financial embezzlement tied to Hillary Clinton's first Senatorial campaign. Like I said: it's wild. I still hope to have a full book review up here soon, but in the meantime, this sample chapter should keep you satisfied.
Stan Lee and the Dot-Com Disaster [Book excerpt via Vulture]
True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee [Abraham Riesman]
Image: Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)