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Stan Lee Bemused By Kirby Controversies, Not As Rich As You Think He Is

Photo by Lorenzo Agius for Playboy, used with permission

Describing Stan Lee as “the original genius behind Marvel Comics and most of the superheroes you’ve ever loved or watched on the big screen” probably isn’t doing the 91-year-old comic book veteran any favors as he tries, seemingly, to rehabilitate his reputation for glory-hogging in a wide-ranging conversation to be published in this Friday’s new issue of Playboy. Indeed, the (in)famously self-promoting Lee uses the interview to deliberately undermine the public perception — one he worked hard to create, as recently as last year with his reality show Fangasm — that he’s a tremendously wealthy comic book mogul primarily responsible for the success of some of Marvel Comics’ most iconic — and profitable — superhero characters.

Like most expressions of Lee’s history, the Playboy piece by David Hochman repeatedly references “Stan the Man” as “the creator” of characters including Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, while co-creators Jack Kirby an Steve Ditko’s contributions are described merely as “working with” Lee, who was a Marvel staffer since the age of 18 (thanks to a familial relation with company boss Martin Goodman). Proponents of both artists have argued for decades to the contrary; that it was Lee whose contributions were the more meager of the partnerships. But here Lee comes off as almost contrite as he explains in unusually stark terms, free of pizzazz or superfluous alliteration, his view of the enduring questions about his role in Marvel’s storied history, from character creation to Disney acquisition to his own monetary wealth.

On Lee’s current role at Marvel:

“I have no standing at Marvel where I decide what projects get made or who gets hired, and certainly none at Disney, which now owns Marvel.  I’m a guy they hire as a writer or producer and also to go to conventions and do things like that.  Mostly I’m just a pretty face they keep for the public.”

 

On whether or not Lee owns rights to the characters he created: 

 “I never did.  I was always a Marvel employee, a writer for hire and, later, part of management.  My role at Marvel is strictly honorary.  Marvel always owned the rights to these characters.  If I owned them, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you now.”

 

On Lee’s net worth:

“My daughter was looking at the internet the other day and read that Stan Lee has an estimated $250 million.  I mean, that’s ridiculous!  I don’t have $200 million.  I don’t have $150 million.  I don’t have $100 million or anywhere near that.”

 

On Lee’s not profiting (directly) from the Disney acquisition of Marvel :

“You have to understand, growing up during the Depression, I saw my parents struggling to pay the rent.  I was happy enough to get a nice paycheck and be treated well.  I always got the highest rate; whatever Martin paid another writer, I got a least that much.  It was a very good job.  I was able to buy a house on Long Island.  I never dreamed I should have $100 million or $250 million or whatever that crazy number is.  All I know is I created a lot of characters and enjoyed the work I did.”

 

On the lingering controversy surrounding Lee’s work with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko:  

“There was never a time when it just said ‘by Stan Lee.’  It was always ‘by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’ or ‘by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.’  I made sure their names were always as big as mine.  As far as what they were paid, I had nothing to do with that.  They were hired as freelance artists, and they worked as freelance artists.  At some point they apparently felt they should be getting more money.  Fine, it was up to them to talk to the publisher.  It had nothing to do with me.  I would have liked to have gotten more money too.  And twice, not once, I offered a job to Jack Kirby.  I said to him, ‘Jack, why don’t you work for Marvel with me?’  I was the art director at the time.  I said, ‘You be the art director.  I’ll just be the editor and head writer, and you’ll have that security.’ He wouldn’t do it.  He didn’t want a staff job.  With him, as with Ditko, I don’t see where they were unfairly treated.  Jack was a great guy and so is Steve.  I’m sorry anybody feels there’s any acrimony.  I loved them both.”

 

It’s worth noting here that for his part, Kirby did feel mistreated. “The King” passed away in 1994, but his heirs would later attempt to reclaim copyright to the Marvel characters he co-created in a lawsuit that was ultimately — and always destined to be, our legal consultants tell us — unsuccessful. Last year Deadline confirmed what had been rumored but discussed only off-the-record for some time; that Marvel attempted to settle with the Kirby estate, but that “attempts to strike a deal faltered.” To the best of our knowledge, the court battle has effectively ended but situation remains unresolved.

As for the rest of Lee’s Playboy interview, where things get sort of, well, horrifying is Lee’s discussion of original artwork not returned to his freelancers.

“In those days we didn’t think of it.  We were in a small office.  After the book was printed, the printer would send the original pages of artwork and all the color proofs back to us.  We had no room for them.  We gave everything away.  Some kid would come up to deliver sandwiches form the drugstore and we’d say, ‘Hey, kid, on your way out, take these pages and throw them somewhere.’  If one of those guys had brains enough to save some stuff, he’d be a very lucky man right now.”

That such artwork was not properly returned to artists like Kirby and Ditko remains one American comics’ most egregious… if the word isn’t actually “crimes,” then it’s something very close to it. Much has been written about this topic, such as this piece by Michael Dean from The Comics Journal. In it, Dean explains how original artwork was “held hostage” by Marvel until artists signed a release characterizing “the art return as ‘a gift’ from Marvel to the creators. By signing the form, the creators agreed that the art had been work for hire and that Marvel was ‘the exclusive worldwide owner of all copyright’ related to the art. Creators were required to grant Marvel the right to use the artists’ name and likeness in promotions.”

Kirby was willing to sign such a release in exchange for the ownership of what would turn out to be his extremely valuable original work, but Marvel had a special document prepared just for him that mitigated the nature of the “gift,” describing Kirby as, legally, merely a custodian of only a portion of the physical material on behalf of Marvel. Meaning that if Kirby accepted the terms, he could not sell it, reproduce it, display it, anything. The document was imbued with other dubious implications that caused Kirby great concern. Ultimately a compromise was reached with respect to the legalese of the release, but even then, in 1987, only a fraction of Kirby’s more than 8,000 pages of Marvel artwork was returned.

As Lee remarks in the Playboy interview, if “one of those guys had brains enough to save [some artwork], he’d be a very lucky man right now.”

Well, there is some reason to believe it is Lee himself who may be in possession of that very material. In an episode of Hollywood Treasures, a 2010 SyFy series spotlighting lost relics from the entertainment industry, host Joe Maddalena presented Lee with the complete original artwork for Fantastic Four #12, the first Marvel Comics crossover, in which the FF encounter the Hulk. The footage is essential viewing, depicting a genuinely awestruck Lee inspecting the stunning Jack Kirby pages for the first time in nearly 50 years. But the most astonishing moment of the episode is an alleged exchange between Maddalena and an unidentified Lee associate, recounted by Maddalena as follows:

I said, “Does he have any artwork?” [Stan Lee's associate] goes, “Boxes and boxes in the garage.” I said, “What do you mean, garage?” He goes, “Storage units full.” I said, “Well, supposedly I’ve heard him say he doesn’t have anything.” The guy said, “Storage units full of artwork.” He goes, “He has no idea what he has. He’s never looked at it.”

Jack Kirby spoke at length about his history with Stan Lee in a must-read interview with Gary Groth for The Comics Reporter. The Lee remarks begin here, on page five.

You can read the entire Stan Lee Playboy interview at this link (it is safe-for-work).

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