Stan Lee, the Marvel Comics legend who created Spider-Man, The Avengers, The Hulk, Thor, and most of the other iconic superheroes of the Marvel stable. Or did he? Lee’s major claim to fame is just one of the many ambiguities, inconsistencies, and dark secrets that pepper his long career.
What we see on the outside is the smiling, bespectacled man who, regardless of the controversies that have dogged his public image, has undoubtedly done more to popularize Marvel comics and the art of making comic books itself than anyone else. He’s been a tireless promoter of the genre, and the wealth of superhero depictions we see today — including groundbreaking movies like Black Panther — is due in no small part to his influence.
But, behind the image, there is a lot that doesn’t quite gibe with the ever-smiling ambassador of comic book goodwill. Here are 15 dark secrets, from dodgy business dealings to sad facts coming to light, about the comic book legend known as Stan Lee.
We’re not crying — you’re crying! At the age of 95, it turns out Stan Lee’s eyesight has deteriorated. That’s not so surprising, really. In 2016, he told a British media outlet all about his fading vision.
"Not only a comic book, but I can’t read the newspaper or a novel or anything,” he said. “I miss reading 100 percent. It’s my biggest miss in the world. It's awful to feel a thousand years old."
The interview was a rare departure for the comic book legend. Stan has been known as the smiling salesman of Marvel Comics for years, and is notorious for his relentlessly promotional approach to interviews.
Nowadays, people tend to forget that, back in the 1950s, when television was the brand new consumer medium, the comic book industry was on a downward slide. That happened when Stan Lee was in his 20s and early 30s. By the time it picked back up in the 1960s, he was already middle-aged. And, apparently, at the time he felt like he should be writing for something other than comic books. All along, he’d felt that way, as he told a British newspaper.
“When I was young, I was embarrassed to tell people that I wrote comic books. I even changed my name because people hated them so much.
My name used to be Stanley Martin Lieber.”
Underneath all the showmanship and cameos in Marvel movies, Stan Lee’s main claim to comic book legend status is the role he played in creating The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, and so many other iconic comic book characters. But from the main collaborators on those characters, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko — comic legends in their own right — comes a very different story. In fact, Jack Kirby insisted that Stan played no role at all in creating the superhero groups The Avengers, The X-Men, and The Fantastic Four, and any of the other major characters for which he’s credited along with Kirby. It turns out Marvel’s policy was for the editor — Stan at the time — to provide a brief outline of a character, and then give it to the artists — Jack and Steve—– to flesh out as they saw fit, including the storyboards and plot.
The problem is, too, that Lee is fond of saying publicly that he created those characters all by himself, without giving any credit to the artists.
“Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything,” Kirby told an interviewer in 1989. He left Marvel for DC in 1970 because of his dispute with Lee over credits.
Stan Lee is known for a kind of character he created for himself once Marvel Comics began to take off again in the 1960s. You know it — the glasses, the gray hair, the mustache, the sports jacket, the attitude. According to most reports, he never stops the hard sell, and
after so many years of “the next biggest hit of the year” and “it’s going to be like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” a lot of the buzz has drained from his announcements and public appearances.
These days, at 95, we can understand why he’s cut back on personal appearances, but even before his semi-retirement, industry insiders were growing cool to his constant over the top announcements.
While he’s remained involved with Marvel in various ways, Stan Lee launched his own company, called POW! Entertainment. With POW!, he’s initiated a string of projects, one after the other, and many of them didn’t get off the ground.
At one point, he announced that he was collaborating with Ringo Starr in making a cartoon where the Beatles’ drummer became a superhero.
There were a couple of Disney movies that got to various stages of development and then fizzled into the great black hole of Hollywood non-starters. Stan Lee's Mighty 7 was a comic series he launched in 2012 that folded abruptly after only three issues.
With Marvel restored to glory, Stan and Peter F. Paul, an associate, launched Stan Lee Media in 1998. The company was to develop both internet and animated movie projects, with the emphasis on web-based productions. By 2000, unfortunately, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. What went wrong? Lots!
Through 1999 and into 2000, the company merged with a publicly traded company, and, put simply, ran out of cash during the infamous dot-com meltdown.
But, by that time, the company was already under investigation for stock fraud, and Peter Paul was sentenced to ten years in jail. While the Chapter 11 proceedings were going on, Stan Lee was creating POW! Entertainment — but he forgot to tell the bankruptcy court. Years later, a court investigation would show that Lee and a new partner failed to disclose the gem of the deal — the Rights Assignment Lee had made to the company when he founded it. POW! and Marvel were sued, but the litigation eventually fell apart in 2010.
Stan Lee’s own media company, POW! Entertainment, has been owned by a Camsing International of China since 2017. In May 2017, Camsing International announced that it had acquired the company Lee founded. Camsing International is based in Hong Kong, and primarily handles licensing deals.
In getting their hands on the company’s library, which includes movies, TV, gaming, VR, animation, comics, and more, Camsing said it was looking to create “another Marvel” in Asia.
Stan is still Chief Creative Officer of the company, but there is a new US-based CEO and President. There seems to be a slight — if significant — difference in the way the two parties are characterizing the deal, however. Lee called it a merger, where Camsing clearly calls it an acquisition.
Insecure? Stan Lee? The guy who is full of hyperbole and bombast and the comic book industry’s biggest salesman and booster? The comment comes from Mark Evanier, who was Jack Kirby’s assistant, and has also worked with Lee periodically for decades. He’s quoted in an online magazine, “
When you talk to Stan Lee, when he turns the Stan Lee act off, he’s a very decent human being who is chronically obsessed with himself. He’s very insecure.
Those of us who have trouble being angry for some of the things that happened, it's because we saw the real human being there at times.”
Sure, we know it’s easy to pick on anybody’s early gigs, but we couldn’t help but notice how uninspiring Stan’s early career seems to have been. Just like the rest of us after all! Lee, known as Lieber back in the day, grew up in a poor section of the Bronx. It was in high school that he adopted the name Lee. That’s when he also began his writing career. Among his mundane gigs were writing publicity materials for a hospital, and a brief stint as an actor in the New Deal’s WPA Federal Theatre Project. He also wrote what are called antemortem obituaries. That means obituaries that are written before someone dies, and it is a common practice in the newspaper biz in the case of ailing celebrities and VIPs. Lee quit after a time, calling the work depressing.
It was family ties that drew a young Stan Lee into the world of comics. There was no money for him to go to college, but a cousin had married a publisher by the name of Martin Goodman. Martin was eager to get into what was then the booming world of comic books — a form that had only been invented in 1933.
In 1940, at the age of 18, Stan became the lowest rung on the editorial ladder at Goodman’s Timely Publications.
He was soon writing scripts, and in a remarkable turn of career longevity, he’s been collecting income from the company that would become Marvel for about 78 years now.
In January 2018, 95 year-old Stan Lee was accused of harassment by the caregivers working in his home in Los Angeles. Specifically, the nurses caring for him accused Lee of groping and otherwise harassing them. The nurses say he'd ask them to join in the shower, and then make other suggestions about what they could do in his bedroom. The complaints come from multiple nurses. The incidents were said to date from 2016.
After the nurses filed complaints, the owner of the company told reporters that he stopped working with the comic book icon.
Lee's wife passed away in 2017. There were no further complaints by the nursing company that took over.
Stan Lee is a case study in how, no matter how revolutionary in scope you may begin, if you hang around long enough, someone else will overtake you as the new cutting edge. Whatever his role was in the creation of Marvel’s roster of superheroes, in the early 1960s when The Fantastic Four debuted, Lee delivered characters like none that had been seen in the comic book world. They fought with each other, and they weren’t always motivated by what was altruistic. Flash forward about a dozen years, and there’s a new kid on the block — the underground comix movement. Lee put together an underground-style series called Comix Book for Marvel with Kitchen Sink Press and publisher Denis Kitchen. The series never caught on, and Lee canceled it after three issues, although another two, which had already been in production, were eventually also published.
Since about 2016, Stan has been on his "last Comic Con" appearance tour, and his agents were milking it for as much as it was worth. In November 2016, for example, he made an appearance at Rhode Island Comic Con that was billed as the last time Stan would ever make such an appearance in New England. In the summer of 2017, however, he appeared at a Hasbro sponsored event at the same Rhode Island venue. There was a legal dispute that came of it, since Lee's contract had stipulated that the RI Comic Con would indeed be his last New England appearance. He also appeared at Boston Comic Con the same year.
Those "last of" appearances generated autograph signing sessions that fans paid $100 or more for.
They waited hours for their one-on-one with the legend, only to be briskly moved along after a few seconds by staff. Lee was observed to snap at his handlers for not moving along the people fast enough at the 2016 NYCC — also billed as his last area appearance.
When Stan Lee first created his own company in 1998, he signed a contract with Marvel to be its chairman emeritus. The largely promotional role involved about 15 hours of work a week, and came with a salary of $1 million a year along with many perks. In 1998, however, Marvel's movie output consisted of gems like Howard the Duck, 1994's first The Fantastic Four attempt, and Blade. The latter was promising, but nothing like the movie juggernaut that Marvel has come to be. By 2002, there was X-Men and Spider-Man, and Lee had received nada for the movie versions of characters he says he created. Lee went on the CBS program 60 Minutes, where a sympathetic host went so far as to imply that Stan was being “screwed” by Marvel.
Lee eventually won his lawsuit for an amount Marvel claimed was in the $10 million range, but many observers pointed out the continued injustice to people like Bob Kirby and Stan Ditko, who never received a penny for the films generated by their creations.
The lawsuit led Marvel to assume control of making its own superhero movies, which had been arranged by licensing to that point. The rest, as they say, is history.
In 2015, a former assistant sued Stan Lee for emotional abuse they said was inflicted by both Lee and his family members. Lee’s ex-personal assistant claimed they had been subjected to profanity-laced rants and tirades even over the smallest errors by Lee, his wife, and daughter. He also said he had not been paid for working extra hours for the comic book legend. In papers filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court, the complainant said they’d been sent by Lee’s daughter to deliver some paperwork to Lee at his home. When he got there, he says Lee answered his intercom, saying, “Get the f-out and never ring my damn doorbell again.”
The papers talk about multiple incidents where Lee would fly into a rage and insult him.
He also claimed Lee smoked pot constantly in his car, making him drive around the block to get rid of the smell. The assistant was paid $40 an hour for what was supposed to be a 40 hour work week, but was on call 24/7. When he complained about the hours, he says Lee’s daughter fired him, leaving him stranded in San Francisco.