Still Smilin'?

Part Disney, part Barnum, the man who saved comics is all Stan Lee

Stan Lee, for better or worse the most recognizable face in the history of the comic book, insists he has no love for rehashing his past. He claims to take no great joy from talking about long-ago yesterdays spent in smoky rooms co-creating the likes of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, X-Men and Dr. Strange--the flawed, hung-up heroes of the Marvel Universe, of which the brightest star was and always will be Stan Lee. "Maybe I would if I were retired, if I were sitting in a rocking chair on a porch somewhere," Lee says. "I might say, Oh, those were the good old days, I remember this and that.'"

But at 80 Lee is not retired, not even close. He calls from his office at the Los Angeles-based POW! Entertainment. The wounds are still fresh from the colossal and embarrassing failure of Stan Lee Media, the Internet company destroyed in 2001 by swindlers and con men eventually prosecuted and punished by the government. Lee wasn't to blame, but his investors lost millions, and he remains shamefaced by its demise. "If I ever can strike it rich in any way, I'm going to pay them back," he says. "Oh, boy, it was a nightmare. The breath was knocked out of me."

Maybe that is why he still works, 63 years after first getting into the comic-book business: to make money enough to buy away the guilt. Two weeks ago, his latest creation, the Pamela Anderson cartoon Striperella ("Stripper by night, superhero later that night"), debuted on the New TNN network, and Lee says he is working with, among others, Pierce Brosnan on a future project. He is also lending his voice to the new Spider-Mananimated series debuting this week on MTV, as well as introducing older Marvel cartoons being rolled out on DVD. Lee, it would seem, has caught his breath.

Though Steve Ditko co-created Spider-Man, Stan Lee is generally recognized as his father, as Marvel illustrator John Romita made clear in this illustration.
Though Steve Ditko co-created Spider-Man, Stan Lee is generally recognized as his father, as Marvel illustrator John Romita made clear in this illustration.
Stan the Man, surrounded by his co-creations
Stan the Man, surrounded by his co-creations

But Stan Lee, like all comic-book characters, would be nothing without his past--the moment when a man became an immortal and a life story acquired the power of mythology. He may not like talking about all those yesterdays, but he has done nothing but expound on them since he stopped writing comic books 30 years ago and became the comic-book publisher who became the medium's biggest promoter.

Look around each time a Marvel property suits up for a multimillion-dollar film, and there you will find Lee reminiscing about how his Fantastic Four saved his cousin-in-law Martin Goodman's Marvel Comics from extinction in 1961, how he created Spider-Man because he wanted to see a neurotic teen-ager in a superhero's tights or how he imagined the Hulk as Frankenstein's monster with a heart and a scientist's brilliant mind. Just last year, the man who hates history saw publication of his autobiography Excelsior!--one of several he's written since the release of 1974's Origin of Marvel Comics. He even granted several interviews to Tom Spurgeon and Jordan Raphael for their unauthorized biography, Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, due out in September.

Yet, slowly, he purges the past--and, perhaps more poignantly, risks severing the ties that have bound Lee to Marvel since 1940, when it was known as Timely and he was a 17-year-old kid running errands for the relative who owned the company.

On November 12, 2002, Lee filed a lawsuit against Marvel, claiming the company owes him more than $20 million made from the X-Menand Spider-Manfilms. Though Lee insists he hopes "this will be the friendliest lawsuit on record, because I really love the guys at Marvel and I love the company," the language of the suit, filed in New York, suggests otherwise: Marvel, it reads, has "embarked upon a shameful scheme to keep Mr. Lee from participating in the commercial success of his creations." Marvel insists the suit is without merit.

According to his 1998 contract with Marvel, Lee makes $1 million a year for working "10 to 15 hours a week" for the company, serving "as a spokesman for Marvel" in interviews, lectures and convention appearances. (Lee's suit contends he gave 50 interviews in conjunction with the Spider-Manfilm.) If Lee dies before his wife, Joan, she'll get $500,000 a year till she passes; his daughter will get an additional $100,000 a year for five years. The contract also allows Lee to serve as Marvel's publisher, though he long ago ceased being involved in the company's business dealings; gives him an additional $125,000 annually to write the syndicated Spider-Mannewspaper strip; and gives him 10 percent in profits from movies and TV shows made using Marvel's characters. It's the last bit of language Lee feels needs some clearing up.

"Actually, I was sort of talked into it," Lee says of the suit. "People have written it's like the Colonel suing Kentucky Fried Chicken. It feels funny, but I don't see it as a lawsuit as much as trying to get to the bottom of what the contract really means, what those words mean."

In truth, it's more like a father suing a son. But Lee doesn't think of himself in those terms. He doesn't read Marvel's comics anymore. He says it's because he doesn't have the time to read anything besides the daily paper and the Hollywood trades. But the father also has no interest, literally or financially, in checking on the progress of his sons and daughters.

"If they were my children--if I owned Spider-Man or the others--of course I would be checking up," he says. "They would be very precious to me. But I don't own them. They belong to Marvel Comics, and I have absolutely nothing to say about them. So, to me, it might as well be Superman or Batman. They're not mine."

And neither are the comic books he once worked on: Last year he was contacted by Dallas-based Heritage Comics Auction house and began selling off his entire collection, including the issues he wrote from 1962 till the early '70s. Heritage's John Petty says a signed but "beat-to-hell" issue of Strange TalesNo. 135, featuring the first appearance of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., recently sold for $900, though it's worth no more than $20 in most comic price guides.

"I don't think Stan is nostalgic," Petty says. "One of the things that impressed me the first time I met him was he has scrapbooks full of letters people sent him and wrote to him. If you ever wrote him a fan letter, he's probably got it. He treasures and values and thinks highly of his fans, and that means more to him than the first appearance of Spider-Man."

But what of preserving his work for posterity? Lee answers this himself.

"Oh, let posterity worry about itself."

But Stan Lee has been a most protective guardian of history, which is why he's at once the most beloved figure in the history of comicdom and the most beleaguered, a man considered savior by most but unsavory by some within the industry.

To most folks, those who read the comics as kids or saw the movies as adults, Lee's the kind, charming patriarch--Smilin' Stan Lee, Stan the Man. But over the years, a portrait has emerged of someone who claimed for himself credit due others in order to propagate his own profitable mythology. As a result, the history books haven't been so kind to Lee, painting him as a "dazzling writer, a skilled editor, a prodigious talent, a relentless self-promoter, a credit hog and a hustler--a man equal parts P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney," as Raphael and Spurgeon write in their forthcoming biography.

There is no doubt Lee helped rescue the industry in the early '60s, just as there is no debate he reinvented the medium in his own image. He brought to comics superheroes who fought among each other, who often didn't even like being super, whose private lives smelled of soap opera, who sometimes looked more like villains than heroes. His heroes sounded like real people, suffered like real people, acted like real people; they were funny and familiar, unlike the stiff do-gooding dullards being cranked out at DC Comics.

But Lee did not do it alone: From the very beginning, Lee relied on artists and writers Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, whose contributions to the medium have gone little noticed outside the insular comic-book universe. Ask anyone who has seen the Marvel movies to name the creator of Spider-Man or Hulk or X-Men or Daredevil, and surely they will tell you, "Stan Lee." Lee has done much to make sure this is the case: His lawsuit against Marvel names him as "the creator and artistic force behind" those characters and more, not co-creator.

The late Kirby and the reclusive Ditko are superheroes who became known as little more than sidekicks. The reasons for this date back to 1940, when Kirby and partner Joe Simon, creators of Captain America, hired the 17-year-old Lee to dump their ashtrays. Back then they thought him a bit of a nuisance, and Kirby would come to resent this kid becoming his boss and collaborator years later. There was also a January 1966 article in the New York Herald Tribunethat portrayed Lee as a "rangy Rex Harrison" who plotted every Marvel comic and made Kirby out as a nodding, cigar-chomping yes-man who looked like "the assistant foreman in a girdle factory," when in fact Kirby drew and plotted the comic pages and gave them to Lee to fill in the dialogue. By the 1970s, Lee would come to refer to Ditko not as collaborator but as "the man I chose to illustrate the web-spinner's adventures."

Things got worse between Kirby and Lee in the mid-'80s, when Marvel refused to return to Kirby his original artwork for the comics he illustrated during the '60s, which had become valuable in the collectors market and were considered by then important works of pop art. Marvel wanted Kirby to sign papers insisting he wouldn't reprint the works, while Kirby wanted Marvel to formally (and financially) acknowledge him as co-creator of the famous characters he worked on. Though Lee had moved to the West Coast in 1980 to work on turning Marvel's characters into film and TV properties, Kirby would hold him partially responsible for what became a legal mess and a PR nightmare for Marvel, which finally returned to Kirby much of his works. Kirby, who died in 1993, eventually came to resent Lee so much that in a vicious 1989 interview with The Comics Journalhe insisted, "Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything!" and said Lee "took advantage of whoever was working for him."

The argument over who created what might never be solved, though academics and comic fetishists have tried. Comic books weren't taken seriously till fact and fiction blurred into this mishmash of history in which everyone did everything and no one did anything. Says Spurgeon, "Stan and Jack are fighting over phantoms--inspiration." Suffice it to say Lee needed Kirby and Ditko just as they needed him: They were never so good as when they worked together.

"Steve feels he co-created Spider-Man with me because he drew it, and as far as I'm concerned, maybe he's right and I have no problem with that, but he did not come up with the idea for Spider-Man," Lee says. "Deep down in the inner recesses of my soul, I feel the guy who had the idea was the guy who created it. But Steve says, and maybe rightly so, all I had was an idea, and until he put it on paper it was just an idea, so I'm very happy to say he was the co-creator. But he resents me saying that. He says, It's not for you to say you're happy to say,' so, I don't know, there's nothing I can say that will satisfy these people. And as far as Jack goes, the one thing that bothered him the most, that I know of, was the company didn't give him his artwork back. Nobody understands I had nothing to do with that. I was out here in L.A. doing whatever the hell I do out here...The other day I read somebody had written, Why didn't Stan step in and help him?!' For all I knew Marvel was right, and if Jack was right, let him work it out. I don't get involved in things like that."

I tell Lee that when you're reading those books as a child, you have no idea there's bad blood mixed in with the ink, but as an adult it's heartbreaking to find out so legendary a collaboration ended so acrimoniously. He agrees.

"It's a shame, because Jack and Steve were really the only two guys that I ever had a falling-out with," he says. "There may have been other dissatisfied people, but they didn't say anything to my face. But it's a shame, because I'm their biggest fan. I mean, both of these guys are brilliant. And I never denied that after the first few things we had done, I let them do a lot of the plotting, I didn't care. And I would let them do a lot of the plotting, and I would just put in the dialogue and the captions and would change a lot of things when I didn't like them, but I had other things on my mind. It was a funny situation."

Whether Stan Lee was the John Lennon or Paul McCartney--or Ringo Starr--of Marvel Comics is meaningless to most, an argument left to the fanboys and, now, the lawyers. At the end of the day, he still brought millions of readers--kids, college students, even counterculture filmmakers and musicians who for years would reference Marvel's heroes--to a medium thought dead and buried by the late 1950s. Whether he was writing dialogue or winking asides in the margins or penning "Stan Lee's Soapbox" at the end of each issue, Lee came off as your best friend, an accomplice, a grown-up who preferred to spend his time entertaining kids (and the stoners getting a buzz off Dr. Strange's psychedelic adventures) than socializing with the middle-aged.

"You could wanna be Spider-Man, yes, but you also wanted to be Stan Lee or Jack Kirby when you grew up," Spurgeon says. "He presented the creator as hero and had winking conversations with fans, and that delighted younger fans. Here was a guy who would say in an aside, We know this is a comic story and we're having a good time.'"

David Goyer was one of those kids. Today, he's a comic-book author and a screenwriter; he just turned in his script for the next Batmanfilm, to be directed by Memento's Christopher Nolan. It was Goyer who, in 1998, proved Marvel could make profitable films from its back catalog. He convinced New Line to make threefilms based on a little-known Marvel character named Blade, a vampire killer; the first film made more than $100 million, a sequel was released last year and the third installment is due next year.

Lee will often thank Goyer for getting Marvel in the movie business, after so many years of aborted projects and amateurish productions in the '70s and '80s. Goyer returns the favor tenfold, insisting that Lee is the very reason he and so many other writers got into the entertainment business--not just because he made his heroes accessible, but because they were infused with their co-creator's affable, larger-than-life personality. Lee, he says, created superheroes who "cared about you and what you were interested in," much more than those being cranked out by the competition.

"The fact he was so visible and so much a self-promoter benefited comics as a whole, in particular Marvel," Goyer says. "And you can't put a negative public-relations spin on it. I am where I am today because of it, because of my perceived relationship with Stan. As a man who revolutionized the comic industry, his importance cannot be understated."

Especially by Stan Lee.

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