With the release of “Black Widow” postponed until next May, 2020 marks the first year in over a decade without a new film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That remarkable streak can, in many ways, be traced back to Stanley Martin Lieber, better known to the world as Stan Lee. He gained renown for co-writing and promoting the Marvel line of comic books in the 1960s, then went on to sell himself as a brand and media personality until the day he died, just shy of his 96th birthday. But as beloved as he is, his life and work are often poorly understood.
Lee created the Marvel Universe.
Lee has long been credited as the driving force behind the pantheon of Marvel superheroes that took the world by storm: Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men, Black Panther and so on. His obituaries from news outlets such as NBC News and Reuters all characterized him as the comics’ “creator.” Others (such as the Guardian) that are a little less expansive with bestowing credit on him will say he co-created the characters with writer/artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.
There is actually zero evidence that Lee had the initial ideas for any of these characters, other than his own claims. In his 2002 memoir, for instance, he said of Ditko: “I really think I’m being very generous in giving him ‘co-creator’ credit, because I’m the guy who dreamed up the title, the concept, and the characters.” The world has generally accepted that Lee had the initial notions for the characters, only then passing them off to Kirby or Ditko. But over the course of legal cases, painstaking historical debate and my own archival research, nothing has ever been turned up that proves — or even suggests — that Lee was the driving creative force. No presentation boards, no contemporary notes, no diary entries, no supporting accounts from anyone other than his wife. Nothing.
Meanwhile, Kirby and his defenders have asserted that Kirby was the characters’ sole creator, accurately pointing out that he had a far longer history of creating successful characters on his own. Same goes for Ditko. Because of the fly-by-night record-keeping practices of the mid-century comic-book industry, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever have a firm answer. But companies, journalists and historians can’t say with any certainty that Lee created (or even co-created) Marvel’s dramatis personae.
Lee loved comics and superheroes.
Countless people take for granted that Lee was personally enthusiastic about comics. Geekdom and conventional wisdom assumed so; even the Library of Congress has characterized him as “Comics’ Champion.” He did perpetually talk up the power of comics, probably bolstering the perception that he was a fan: “Superhero movies are like fairy tales for older people,” he told The Washington Post in 2011. “I don’t think they'll ever go out of vogue.”
According to private accounts from his archives and the words of those who knew him, Lee really couldn't stand — and didn’t read — comic books. In conversations with creatives such as Alain Resnais and Francis Ford Coppola, in his memoir and even in speeches to his colleagues, he spoke at length about how he had no innate love for the medium and had merely taken it up through happenstance. It was just a hustle for him, one he repeatedly tried to escape through schemes to make it big in movies, poetry, even encyclopedias. He spent much of his post-’60s career trying to pitch non-superhero ideas in various non-comics formats. According to his former manager and his former bodyguard, he loathed superhero movies and probably saw only about two of them in his life. (He typically left their premieres after walking the red carpet.)
Lee wrote the comics he published at Marvel.
Lee was nearly always credited as “writer” in the credits of his comics, with his writer/artists listed as “artist.” Examples abound of the public accepting this categorization, including in serious-minded outlets such as the Economist and New York magazine.
But the publishing company produced comics through a strange process now known as “the Marvel Method,” whereby, typically, Lee would have a conversation of some kind with his writer/artist to discuss a few ideas. The writer/artist would take that prompt and write the story in visual form by drawing the pages and placing clarifications and dialogue suggestions in the margins. After that, Lee would add the dialogue and narration. He virtually never wrote actual scripts. And tossing around concepts with a writer/artist is the task of an editor, not a writer. Given that the writer/artists — most notably Kirby and Ditko, but also such titans as John Romita, John Buscema, Wally Wood and Don Heck — actually constructed the story, they should be considered the true, primary writers, with Lee doing embellishment (however crucial such embellishment may have been to the work’s success).
He was a political progressive.
Left-leaning Marvel fans have often held Lee up as a hero for those who seek to fight inequality and bigotry, calling him a “progressive genius” and a “true ally for people of color.” Some point to the occasional moments when he would write short editorials vaguely decrying racism. Others offer interpretations of his heroes as underdogs who represent the downtrodden — particularly the X-Men, who have often been taken as allegories for Black or queer people (despite Kirby and Lee both saying they were primarily just a sci-fi concept about mutation).
Lee couldn’t be called right-wing, but his politics had a conservative bent. He often wrote and spoke about how reactionaries and radicals were equally wrong and privately complained about how taxes in America were too high. In the midst of the antiestablishment riots of 1968, he convened a panel for a failed talk-show pilot in which he repeatedly denounced radicalism; asserted that Black people needed to respect the law; and said the Vietnam War may have been immoral, but had to continue for the greater good. These ideas were of a piece of the way he’d depict the hot issues of the day in the comics he co-wrote, particularly in stories about Spider-Man and Captain America confronting campus protests: They always featured good guys on both sides who succeeded by meeting in the middle. And, of course, the vast majority of the characters he wrote for were white and male. All of this should give people pause when they tout him as a champion of the progressive politics of 2020.
Lee made a lot of money from Hollywood.
Given that Marvel film and television adaptations have made tens of billions of dollars and that the company names Lee as one of the co-creators of the intellectual property underlying the franchise, one can be forgiven for assuming — as outlets such as the Daily Star and Playboy have — that Lee took home a huge chunk of that cash. “Did you at least get a [Tony] Stark-like helicopter in the deal?” an interviewer asked, after Disney bought the comics publisher. As a 2014 article in Comics Alliance observed, Lee often “worked hard” to project an image of himself as “a tremendously wealthy comic book mogul primarily responsible for the success of some of Marvel Comics’ most iconic — and profitable — superhero characters.”
But Lee earned only a day rate for filming his cameos. Although Lee died with wealth (we should hesitate to estimate his exact net worth, but he claimed it was well below $100 million), much of it accumulated through various contracts with Marvel over the decades, it didn’t stem from film and television projects. Lee didn’t actually own Marvel Comics — it was created by his cousin-in-law Martin Goodman and went through a long succession of corporate parents, culminating in Disney today. Even more shocking, he didn’t have any ownership of the characters he was credited with creating. One of the great injustices of the comic-book industry is that the biggest publishers, Marvel and DC, treat their writers and artists as freelancers who do work for hire, and thus typically cede all rights for the characters they create to the company. As a result, Lee’s fortune was a microscopic fraction of the revenue that Marvel generated.