A Crucial Re-Examination of Stan Lee’s Legacy- “True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee” by Abraham Riesman

When I was younger, I never thought I’d be writing about how much I love reading biographies. They were part of that section at the bookstore I never wandered into–all those stuffy history books and books about people! Who cares? Now I have been devouring biographies at an obscene rate and churn through history books as quickly as I can get my hands on them. People change. That’s what makes them so interesting, and that’s why real life is often so fascinating to read about. Stan Lee is certainly best known for his work with Marvel comics, but what went on behind the scenes is of great interest for those wanting to know the “real story” behind the explosion of comic book popularity. True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee gives deep insight and raises many questions about who should really be credited for Marvel’s fame and characters.

All of this background is to say I didn’t have much invested here beyond a passing interest in the people involved and the characters around which Stan Lee and the other major players in the biography would revolve. True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee struck me like a hurricane. Abraham Riesman is clearly a skilled biographer with both the passion for the subject and strong prose required to make virtually anyone fascinating. And Stan Lee’s life is interesting on its own, for all that a large portion of it revolves around trying to make ends meet at a publishing company that would eventually turn out the now titanic Marvel.

Riesman gives readers background into why Stan Lee’s family ended up in America–fleeing anti-Semitism abroad. Lee’s father wanted his children to be devout Jews, but was ultimately disappointed by Stan. Reading the early life of Stan Lee gives the impression of someone who desperately wanted to make a name for himself and have that name acknowledged and acclaimed. What’s striking is that even in telling stories about how he landed his job in publishing, Stan Lee’s own tale changed. Did he just happen to have a talent for writing acknowledged long ago by newspaper editors (though documentation shows his story about this is a stretch of the truth as well), or was it because he was related to big shots in the publishing company he went to work for? In Lee’s telling[s], it’s all him, all the time. The credit belongs to him, and so does any fame that comes with it. That’s the story again and again throughout Stan Lee’s life.

The documentation Riesman provides is strong. He admits when he is putting forth conjecture or trying to piece together information from multiple, oft-conflicting primary sources. That latter point is worth reflecting on: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee’s long-time artist and compatriot, claimed credit for many of the same things Stan Lee did, whether that was the invention of the Fantastic Four or characters like Thor. Their origin stories of these larger-than-life characters are incompatible. Ultimately, one of them is telling something closer to the truth. Riesman notes the danger for the historian is trying to meet halfway in between and assuming that each has some portion of the truth. That goes beyond what the evidence can show and essentially means the historian or biographer is making their own account of what actually happened. That doesn’t mean something in the middle is untrue. It’s possible that Kirby and Lee collaborated on the idea of Thor, but when Lee claims a special interest in mythology led him to the idea (an interest Riesman points out is undocumented anywhere else) while Kirby’s own acknowledged and documentable interest was alleged to be his own inspiration, it becomes even murkier. Examples like this abound throughout the book and analysis thereof takes up many pages.

Readers interested in this kind of careful analysis of documentation, sources, and trying to piece together the facts of someone’s life will love it. Those looking merely for another work giving Stan Lee unvarnished acclaim will be deeply disappointed. Stan Lee certainly had revolutionary ideas. There seems to be a solidified notion in my mind that his innovation of having all of the Marvel comics inter-connect was a revelation at the time. But who gets credit for individual characters? It seems that, at best, Lee overstates his own genius in this regard throughout his life. Looking at interviews from the 60s vs. the 80s shows a decided change of tone from Lee. Earlier, he’d acknowledged collaboration and even credited others for ideas or writing of comics, while later the story changed to give himself virtually all the credit of any kind. Of course, the notable “Marvel Method” of collaboration on comics–which basically has the writer provide a generalized plot while leaving the innovation of layout of the panels and other big picture notions to the artist–likely helped yield a number of wonderful stories and superheroes also makes it extremely difficult to decide where credit is due.

And why does it matter? Well, certainly there’s a lot of cash on that question, and apparently some extremely large sums of the same were paid out in settlements behind non-disclosure agreements. But beyond that, it matters because there are others like Steve Ditko who deserve more credit for the creation of some of these iconic characters than they get. Hey, it’s all just superheroes, though, right? In a sense, sure, but as Riesman points out–sometimes even through Lee’s own defense of the cultural impact of comics–these characters have had monumental influence on many people’s lives and even on their beliefs. Ultimately, True Believer tells that tale as well: about how stories shape us and mold our perspectives in ways we may not truly expect.

After a lengthy portion of the book is dedicated to the burgeoning years of Marvel’s growth, Riesman sweeps us along Lee’s pursuit of Hollywood, his several failed attempts to market his name, and ultimately to his death. Lee’s later years have their own share of controversy, as people fought over who controlled his legacy and, ultimately, over who controlled Lee himself. Each of these stages of life are as elegantly covered through Riesman’s strong prose as the early Marvel years, though they don’t necessarily feel as intense. It’s like Lee himself put so much effort and energy into those years that it made the rest of his life kind of feel like it was winding down from there. What he’d set in motion–and really, there’s still reason enough to say he helped the Marvel ball roll along–kept going even as his own aspirations floundered and took hits as he missed opportunities or invested in the wrong interests and, sometimes, people. The end of his life is a messy, tragic tale of people deceiving him, trying to deceive the public, and many questions that still need to be asked. Lee died with some of his inner circle mourning him, while others sought to immediately exploit it, and some of his closest, longest friends having long been alienated by his own relentless pursuit of sole credit.

True Believer is a tragic story of a man whose legacy deserves a more objective look. Lee wanted to make a name for himself and craved fame. He got those things–but at what cost? Was alienating all of his friends and even his family worth the gains he had? I don’t think so. It’s a tragic story that lies at the heart of Marvel. It will take decades to sort everything out even more, and I doubt we’ll ever know the facts of who invented which character or where credit lies. Ultimately, Riesman’s biography is important not just as a correction of Lee’s legacy, but also as a key work for touching of future exploration. Fans of speculative fiction, comics, and biographies should all be grabbing True Believer and reading it as soon as they can.

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SDG.

Presidential Biographies: Andrew Johnson #17

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Andrew Johnson, the Seventeenth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) actually turned into me reading two books: Andrew Johnson by Annette Gordon-Reed and Impeached by David Stewart.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Andrew Johnson, #17

Andrew Johnson frequently ends up on lists as the worst or, minimally, one of the bottom 5 Presidents. Is that evaluation justified? Or is it as strange as ranking Andrew Jackson in the top 10 Presidents (he manifestly was not)? Having read this pair of books on Andrew Johnson, and some related works about Reconstruction, I think it is almost certain Andrew Johnson ought to be ranked as the worst or one of the worst Presidents we have ever had.

Andrew Johnson is another president who might be said to be a picture of the American Dream–and what he did with his success might be a lesson to us about how we ought to qualify that Dream. Born in a log cabin in poverty, he learned to be a tailor but left his apprenticeship to find his own fortune. Abandoning an apprenticeship was something that the master could find you and put you back into service for, and this shaped Johnson’s perceptions of race and poverty going forward. Many white people who were in these kind of poverty-reinforced relationships saw slavery as a way to at least say someone was worse off than them. Their felt entitled to having lives that were better than that of slaves, who were considered lesser persons. Though Gordon-Reed notes that not every white person felt this way, it was indicative of a general sentiment and background belief that Johnson grew up with (24).

Johnson rose to political power as a self-motivated man seeking to push his own agenda. He often stood against popular positions, as his stand against railroad companies indicated in Tennessee. He rose to the House of Representatives where he fought for the Homestead Act and giving money to poor whites to help get them land. Then, he became the Governor of Tennessee and a United States Senator. His policies continued to favor slaveowners and poor whites. As Senator, Johnson argued that it was the North who was pushing for conflict, not Southern slaveowners. Though he did go on to call the secessionists treasonous, he also supported policies that were concessions to Southern interests.

After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson became President, and this was a horrific tragedy. Though he initially seemed to take a hardline stance, he quickly pushed for concessions. He was determined to avoid offering protections for or endorsements of black votes, he did not believe the Constitution meant he had to allow blacks to vote, and so he allowed Southern states to oppress these votes. When picking political appointments, he favored loyalty to himself and alliances that would benefit him personally to those that would help the party or country. Moreover, he moved to gut the Freedman’s Bureau of federal authority and backing, thus removing protections for newly freed slaves and preventing them from getting the land that was initially promised to them.

Johnson was famously impeached, and the circumstances surrounding this seems to demonstrate a growing frustration of Republican Congressional members with the President they got stuck with. The definitions of terms related to impeachment, such as “high crime” or “high misdemeanor” remain unclear to this day, and the articles of impeachment for Johnson are famously confusing regarding what exact charges were brought forward. Interestingly, numerous people involved in standing against the impeachment were mired in possible payoffs and other political debts which Johnson paid (such as granting positions to apparent enemies). These are covered in detail in Stewart’s Impeached. Though difficult to confirm so long after the fact, it seems plausible that, given Johnson’s predilection for appointments to benefit himself, this may have been what happened. Yet another chapter in a terrible presidency.

Andrew Johnson’s beliefs can only be characterized as extreme, entrenched racism. He stated in private that “I am for a white man’s government in America” (quoted in Stewart, 14) and believed that black political power was a greater evil than the Civil War (ibid, 16). He actively worked to limit the power of freed blacks after the Civil War. He colluded with Southern governments to usher in the Jim Crow era, along with the continuation of slavery by another name (the use of inmates for forced labor). He withdrew federal troops and protections for freed blacks in the south, callously standing aside while thousands of black people were murdered for such “offenses” as looking at a white man.

The amount of damage that Andrew Johnson did to our country cannot truly be measured. Had he not been at the reins after Lincoln was assassinated, we may have been able to unify the country and unite against racism–or at least enforce a lasting peace. Instead, the Jim Crow era was ushered in and it would be decades before the Civil Rights movement began to correct some of the wrongs that continue into today. Andrew Johnson was a terrible President.

Andrew Johnson’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Andrew Johnson (17th President – Original Ranking #17)- Andrew Johnson was an unapologetic racist whose opposition to Radical Reconstruction policies damaged our country in ways that continue to have negative impact to this day. His completely capitulation to Southern interests, including allowing Southern whites to murder black people at will, is totally disgusting. His ineptitude at command contributes to his low ranking, as he totally failed to do anything but push for the policies he favored instead of attempting any kind of compromise whatsoever. He was a racist brute who is a disgrace to our country’s history.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight- A prophet for then and now

[H]e is the lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins. –Frederick Douglass (quoted on p. 361)

Frederick Douglass is one of the most important thinkers in the history of the United States. David W. Blight’s fantastic biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom shows the man in a way I hadn’t met him before, despite reading one of his three (!) autobiographies. I write in this post that he is a prophet for then and now because much of what Douglass had to say can still apply to today. His philosophical insight, his way of speaking, and his life’s devotion to a cause are things we can think on and emulate to this day.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, took help where he could, taught himself to read and write, and escaped from slavery. He became one of the most traveled people of his century, a prolific speaker, writer, abolitionist, and philosopher. Blight uses the term “prophet” in the way that highlights Douglass’s words to moral persuasion, just as so many of the Old Testament prophets did. And Douglass was a deeply Christian man who saw two faiths that were incompatible co-existing in the United States: the religion of slaveholding and the religion of Christ.

Douglass existed in a place where few others did. A former slave, he told firsthand accounts of the brutality of that horrific system and its injustice. Working with white abolitionists, he favored more radical views and even, at times, the perfectionism of some aspects of the abolitionist movement, while also moderating some of his positions depending upon the crowd to which he spoke. An insightful, lucid thinker, he called injustice to account and pointed out the true hypocrisy of people calling themselves Christians while perpetrating awful deeds. One example of the clarity of thought he provided united with his “radical” persuasions about antislavery can be found in his philosophical argument about the morality of the slaveholder and slave: “The morality of a free society can have no application to slave society. Slaveholders have made it almost impossible for the slave to commit any crime, known either to the laws of God or to the laws of man. If he steals, he takes his own; if he kills his master, he imitates only the heroes of the revolution” (quoted on page 57). This kind of sharp logic is revolutionary and world-changing, and many saw it as such.

Douglass’s life would be impossible to summarize here. Blight’s biography is one of those which goes for a fairly comprehensive look at the life of its subject. A few notes along the way: Douglass reacted to and changed his view on some things over time. His bootstrap-type thinking for African Americans was moderated in later years as he saw how inequality could be enforced through Jim Crow laws and the like. He married a white woman after his first wife died, causing no small amount of controversy and showing his–and Helen Pitts’s–commitment to the equality of all people regardless of skin color. He leveled vicious attacks on slaveholders and their cruelty but later in life moderated some of these claims, perhaps in order to try to assist with the reunification of a country he saw as died and resurrected after the Civil War. There is no shortage of rich detail to his life. Blight points out how Douglass was, as any would be, prone to shaping his personal narrative to fit current needs. He was also one who enjoyed the spotlight and did not wish to cede it to other rising stars, though he did help mentor many African Americans and was generous with his often overestimated wealth.

Though Blight does little reflection on Douglass’s application to our day, the parallels could be drawn out. For one, racism continues to exist to this day. Organizations that are white nationalist, KKK, and the like continue to exist. Less overt racism continues in supposed color-blind laws that are unequally applied. Moreover, the co-existence of true faith–the faith in Christ–with radical heresy and anti-Christian beliefs continues to this day in movements like the Prosperity Gospel. Any Christianity which tears people down rather than freeing them with grace, which divides rather than unites (as in Galatians 3:28) is a Christianity without Christ. Let us allow Douglass to continue to be our prophet of freedom and listen to his words today.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom is a truly monumental work on the life of a monumental human being. Douglass is a name that every American ought to be familiar with. He was a prophet of our country and one whose words should continue to stir us to fight inequality on every level. Biographies that truly shake and shape the reader are few and far between, but this is one that did so for me.

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SDG.

Presidential Biographies: Educating Myself and Giving Arbitrary Grades

I like lists. Are there people that don’t? Probably.

Anyway, I heave been burning through the science fiction reading list that I’ve been doing for a couple years and realized I was rapidly running out of ideas for what to read next. I am, of course, going to keep reading science fiction and fantasy, but I wanted to do something different. I tried looking up some lists of classics, but I’d either already read too many of them or they included “modern classics” alongside things like Pride and Prejudice or Crime and Punishment. No thank you. So, while I keep searching for a list of classics worthy of the name, I decided to educate myself. I realize that even though I studied history in college and got more than my heaping helping of history, I still know very little about the history of the United States. So to alleviate that, I figured I’d start reading through biographies of Presidents of the United States. So then new quest is launched: read one biography of every President of the United States, in order! I’d totally have an awesome picture with all the Presidents on it, but I couldn’t find one in the limited time I took searching. So here’s the book cover of the first biography I’m going to read.

How will you choose which biography to read?

Good question! Goodreads reviews and lists, blog reviews, and the like will help me choose which biography to read. Heck, feel free to suggest one if you think there is a MUST READ biography of a specific President.

Grading?

Yes, I’m going to rank the Presidents. As I read through this list, I’ll do a review of each biography I read, and at the end I’ll have an ever-increasing ranking of the Presidents until, at long last, we will have:

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments! I’m hoping each entry will look something like this:

1. George Washington: THE Presidential appearance, basically saved the existence of our country, but owned slaves. _____ (list of other accomplishments). Starts ranked at one because I haven’t read about any others.

Anyway, I’m hoping it’ll be a good time. I’m sure I’ll have fun anyway. Come along for the ride! Starting…. soon… ish.

*Rankings not definitive

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

 

One Sentence Book Review: “Unashamed” by Lecrae Moore

Unashamed by Lecrae Moore

Review

Lecrae had a hard life, but makes fulfilling, worldview-rich rap music now.

Links

One Sentence Book Reviews- Read more one sentence book reviews here. I’ve decided to do one for every book I read, which is a lot. I got started on 5/14/16 so this list will grow from there.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.