Home Culture History Must read: Stan Lee, Hero, villain or a bit of both?

Must read: Stan Lee, Hero, villain or a bit of both?

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Abraham Riesman. New York magazines resident comics expert, has a long and long brewing profile of Stan Lee called Why Is Stan Lee’s Legacy in Question?. It’s a write-around, meaning he never got to talk to Lee personally, but he talked to everyone else, inluding Roy Thomas and Lee biographer Tom Spurgeon. And if you never knew what all the controversy about Lee was about, this piece sums it all up:

All of which should mean there’s never been a better time to be Stan Lee. But watching him over the last year — seeing the way he has to hustle for paid autographs at a convention, watching him announce lackluster new projects, hearing friends and collaborators grudgingly admit his personal failings — it’s hard to avoid the impression that, in what should be his golden period, Lee is actually playing the role of a tragic figure, even a pathetic one. On the one hand, the characters associated with Lee have never been more famous. But as they’ve risen to global prominence, a growing scholarly consensus has concluded that Lee didn’t do everything he said he did. Lee’s biggest credit is the perception that he was the creator of the insanely lucrative Marvel characters that populate your local cineplex every few months, but Lee’s role in their creation is, in reality, profoundly ambiguous. Lee and Marvel demonstrably — and near-unforgivably — diminished the vital contributions of the collaborators who worked with him during Marvel’s creative apogee. That is part of what made Lee a hero in the first place, but he’s lived long enough to see that self-mythologizing turn against him. Over the last few decades, the man who saved comics has become — to some comics lovers, at least — a villain.

Lee’s history from Timely on is recounted as is the famous Lee/Kirby battle, the greatest in comics history:

This is a pattern you run into for nearly every one of the characters that followed: There’s Lee’s charming, witty account of events; there’s Kirby’s dour, workmanlike one; and never the twain shall meet. The men kept few written records from the time, and the debate over how much credit Lee deserves is the single most controversial matter in the history of comics. These matters aren’t just fanboy quibbles either: In 2009, when Marvel began to rake in cash from its film studio, the Kirby family legally declared Jack was co-creator of all those extremely lucrative characters — and that, because work-for-hire standards were so vague in the early ’60s, they were entitled to a share of the copyright on all those properties. The case went on for five years and very nearly made it to the Supreme Court before Marvel settled under terms that are believed to be quite generous. (To be fair, Lee doesn’t hold the copyrights either — he’s just remained employed by the company that does.)

By the end of the piece, Riesman has come to a different attitude about Lee than the one he started with. To find out what exactly you should read the piece, however, it’s one shared by many, myself included. Stan Lee’s legacy remains one of the great unanswered questions of the gospel according to comics.

25 COMMENTS

  1. I thought of writing an essay about Reisman’s own errors (Lee’s superheroines were “pugilistic?” Really?) However, most of those errors are piddling in nature, and don’t detract from the question he raises.

    While I found the essay valuable for the wealth of quotes from industry professionals, I would say that the writer fails to set a proper standard for “legacy.” He remarks, correctly, that Lee’s Marvel success is one of the great second acts in American history. But as he relentlessly chronicles all of the unpopular or unfinished projects Lee did in his later years, it might’ve been proper to note that very few writers, high or low, have much of a “third act” in their careers. I’ve seen critics observe that Jack London was a bad businessman too, but nobody questions his legacy because of that. And how many writers continue to be productive past their 50s?

    Reisman says something about how Lee might’ve been better off had he just rested on his laurels– but without Lee and his corny cameos, how likely is it that the mainstream public would even appreciate the presence of real comics-creators behind the projects that Hollywood tweaks for moviegoers?

    Even if every post-70s project Lee worked on was pure dreck, being the “Walt Disney” of American comics may be a valuable legacy in and of itself.

  2. Gene: “but without Lee and his corny cameos, how likely is it that the mainstream public would even appreciate the presence of real comics-creators behind the projects that Hollywood tweaks for moviegoers?”

    The catch being that the mainstream public appreciates the presence of real comic-creators…if they’re named Stan Lee. His tendency lately to have large cameos in movies whose characters he had fuck all to do with (most recently Deadpool and Big Hero 6) only serves to further lift up the name of Stan Lee, to the detriment of the people who actually created them.

    “And how many writers continue to be productive past their 50s?”

    Bram Stoker did Dracula at 50, Laura Ingalls Wilder did Little House at 64, Raymond Chandler did The Big Sleep at 51, J.R.R. Tolkien did The Lord Of The Rings trilogy in his 60s. Nothing was stopping Stan Lee from finally writing that Great American Novel, except maybe whatever kept him from even being able to write either of his own memoirs.

  3. People often ignore the fact that just like Kirby, Stan doesn’t own any of the Marvel characters he (co-)created either. While that’s no excuse for any false claims he’s made, he had just as much bitterness about the industry as Kirby and Ditko, with the benefit of power (nepotistically granted via cousin Martin Goodman) so as to never fear being axed. Again, this power doesn’t excuse his false claims, but it does demonstrate that even with money and power, Stan still lacked creative ownership and couldn’t even publish the stories he wanted to tell (he was dejected after Silver Surfer was canceled due to low sales).

    People often paint The Man as THE MAN, but he was merely petty, not wicked.

  4. “His tendency lately to have large cameos in movies whose characters he had fuck all to do with (most recently Deadpool and Big Hero 6) only serves to further lift up the name of Stan Lee, to the detriment of the people who actually created them.”

    Er, you do realize Rob Liefeld was in the same scene as Stan in Deadpool, right? And it was Rob and Fabien, and not Stan, who were created at the end of the film? Your claim makes no sense.

  5. Rob and Fabian were listed as “Special Thanks,” not as creators.

    I spotted Rob for 2 seconds (slightly out of focus, walking past the camera) in the Hellhouse after his name was said…was he also in the strip bar? If he was, he must not have been very visible in that scene either, and he definitely didn’t have a speaking line. Stan got a series of speaking lines in both Deadpool and Big Hero 6, on top of his face being clearly seen.

    The average theater-goer recognizes both the name and face of Stan Lee. If you asked the average theater-goer if they know who Rob Liefeld or Fabian Nicieza are, or if they recognized a photo of them, you’d get a lot of “no”s. Likewise Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau. Likewise Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

  6. Or to give another example, a Tumblr user Photoshopped Deadpool and Stan Lee into an image together. What the Photoshopper discovered?:

    “I’ve come to learn that WAY too many people are under the impression that Stan Lee created Deadpool”

    http://artemuscain-gamingandbs.tumblr.com/post/127767987584/the-hoody-geek-thatthinginyourshoe

    It’d make for an interesting survey to see if it’s true, but it does seem that if someone is a Marvel character, the general public assumes Stan Lee created said character.

  7. And when the ‘Dr Strange’ movie comes out, people will assume Lee created him even though Lee said in writing he was Ditko’s idea!

  8. Kate,
    The point IMO is that Stan is there to communicate the fact of authorship at all, as opposed to the days when outsiders never gave a thought as to who created Superman and Batman. Even when Jerry Siegel tried to sue over ownership of Superman in the 70s, it took considerable time for wire services to even bother to cover the story, according to Larry Tye’s findings.

    If you want to believe that Stan stole all the credit for the Marvel works, you’ve got a lot of company, because it’s a familiar knee-jerk response in fandom. But the question of authorship is one that anyone can investigate if they care to do so.I believe that while Lee’s claim to complete authorship is exaggerated, but I believe the claims of Ditko and Kirby are just as exaggerated. But why do fans only attack Lee for his exaggerated claims, but allow Ditko and Kirby to skate on by? (Reisman comes close to this as well; he just barely mentions any questionable aspects of these artists’ outsized claims.)

    I know that mainstream audiences are not likely to investigate anyone’s claims in detail, just as they were willing for many years to think that Walt Disney created all the Disney projects. The important thing is not the masses, who will never remember such details. My concern is that at least some of the intelligentisa– genuine or would-be– can even grasp the fact of comics-book authorship. If THEY don’t do their bloody research, that’s not Lee’s fault.

  9. “Rob and Fabian were listed as “Special Thanks,” not as creators.”

    I wrote a typo. I meant “credited.” And they were.

    “I spotted Rob for 2 seconds”

    There you go.

    “The average theater-goer recognizes both the name and face of Stan Lee. If you asked the average theater-goer if they know who Rob Liefeld or Fabian Nicieza are, or if they recognized a photo of them, you’d get a lot of “no”s. Likewise Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau. Likewise Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.”

    Therefore . . . what? Stan’s been in the public eye since he did the university rounds in the mid-’60s. Your whole “detriment” argument is still baseless.

  10. “If you want to believe that Stan stole all the credit for the Marvel works, you’ve got a lot of company, because it’s a familiar knee-jerk response in fandom.”

    Stan even said he had no intention to appear in GotG because they were not his creations and he never worked on the characters (which is actually not true – he co-created Groot). Is it his fault they people want him in their movies? Is he “taking credit” for anything outside of, you know, cameoing as himself?

  11. I think the issue is more that Stan Lee automatically got 1 millions dollars per year for life and royalties while the Kirby family had to fight to have their rights recognized, and I don’t know if Ditko had nothing at all.

  12. Stan has been wealthy for a long time. When Marvel was sold in the late 1960s, Stan’s deal with the new owners was quite generous while Kirby was treated by them like a wage slave, which is why he quit. Mike Ploog told me the story of how he visited Stan’s office n the 1970s and Stan showed him photos of his Rolls Royce collection. The full size cars, not models.

  13. @Gene:

    “The point IMO is that Stan is there to communicate the fact of authorship at all, as opposed to the days when outsiders never gave a thought as to who created Superman and Batman. Even when Jerry Siegel tried to sue over ownership of Superman in the 70s, it took considerable time for wire services to even bother to cover the story, according to Larry Tye’s findings.”

    So after Stan had been communicating the fact of authorship for a decade — his authorship established in 1966 in a significant New York Herald Tribune piece around the same time he was doing the college circuit, then the college circuit, then a show at Carnagie Hall in 1972, then a book in 1974 that compiled early appearances of Marvel characters with his name (and no one elses) front-and-center on the cover with introductory pieces about how he (and only he) dreamed up with the characters (including Doctor Strange!) — the world of 1975 still didn’t care about creators who weren’t named Stan Lee?

    You’re kind of making my point for me, here.

    “If you want to believe that Stan stole all the credit for the Marvel works, you’ve got a lot of company, because it’s a familiar knee-jerk response in fandom.”

    Are we talking about creator or authorship of the stories? In terms of creation, he did take sole credit in the Origins Of Marvel books. The article also mentions how strongly believe the person who has the first germ of the idea is the sole creator, even if he’s fine giving the artists an honorary “co-credit” mention. It’s not knee-jerk to suggest he stolen the credit for creation, since he did right there.

    If we’re talking about authorship of stories, there are numerous stories on which he’s credited himself as sole writer when they were clearly co-written to some extent (though to what extent) we’ll never know. That is another example of stealing credit. He’s done it. Why are we even arguing about this?

    “But the question of authorship is one that anyone can investigate if they care to do so.I believe that while Lee’s claim to complete authorship is exaggerated, but I believe the claims of Ditko and Kirby are just as exaggerated.”

    I completely agree that many of Kirby’s claims are just as exaggerated as Kirby’s. Lee and Kirby also at times seem to have an equally unreliable memory about many things.

    But Ditko? I don’t recall ever seeing Dikto ever saying he was the sole creator. In fact, most of his statements are about how the concept of a sole creator of Spider-Man is an absurd concept. He’s fighting for co-creatorship. What exactly has Ditko ever said that sounded exaggerated to you?

    “I know that mainstream audiences are not likely to investigate anyone’s claims in detail, just as they were willing for many years to think that Walt Disney created all the Disney projects. The important thing is not the masses, who will never remember such details.”

    I strongly disagree. If Stan Lee and Bob Kane can be known by the masses, there’s no reason Kirby, Ditko, and Finger can’t or shouldn’t be. It’s not like people are incapable of remembering more than one author. If Lennon/McCartney can be a thing, there’s no reason why Lee/Kirby can’t. There’s no reason why every mention of Lee as “creator of x” can’t instead be “co-creator of x.”

  14. @Skottie:

    “I wrote a typo. I meant “credited.” And they were.”

    No they weren’t, they were thanked. If you can’t recognize the very significant difference is between being credited and being thanked, I’m not sure there’s any point in continuing this conversation.

    Also, the difference between a cameo so short I wasn’t sure if it was Rob — which no one in the audience is going to be able to recognize him from — and a series of speaking lines. Not that I particularly want Rob Liefeld to become the only other comic creator the general public can name, but for fuck’s sake.

    “Is it his fault they people want him in their movies? Is he “taking credit” for anything outside of, you know, cameoing as himself?”

    The argument here isn’t even about whether or not it’s Stan’s fault or whether or not he’s doing it intentionally. That’s a whole other long discussion. Gene had claimed that Stan being out there as a creator was lifting all ships, when it’s only ever been lifting Stan’s ship. Nothing either of you has said has convinced me Gene’s point is still any less wrong.

  15. As a person who believes that there would be no Marvel without Kirby and Ditko, I also believe that there would be no Marvel without Stan Lee. Did he have the highest profile? He needed Kirby, Ditko, Heck, Romita, Buscema, and other artists to tell those stories. It’s not like today when many fans refer to comics by the person who writes the book. People will say a “Bendis comic” or an “Ellis comic” or a “Morrison comic”. How many people said that they read “Lee comics”? How much credit did Mark Bagley get for Ultimate Spider-Man? There is a generation out there now who think that he’s just some movie cameo guy who has stolen the credit from everyone at Marvel. It’s easy to look back and say “Lee stole credit for all those Marvel comics” but I think that alot of what is being said and written is being done in 20/20 hindsight with the idea that THIS IS HOW IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN AT MARVEL.

  16. @Shawn:

    I think we’re talking more about creation credit than storytelling credit, or at least I was before it became confused with vague non-specific words like “authorship.”

    The funny thing about discussing Lee/Kirby things on the internet is that I’ve encountered both Stan Lee fans who are angry at me for suggesting he gets too much credit, and Jack Kirby fans who are angry at me for suggesting Stan Lee contributed anything at all.

  17. I do love Kirby and Ditko. But I love Stan too. A pathetic character? He cameos in movies. He’s a household name. He’s hustling for autographs? More like he has hundreds and hundreds of people in line waiting to overpay for his signature. How can I get to be that pathetic? The author doesn’t like Stan and I guess that’s fine. But to paint him as a pathetic hustler hated by everyone in the know? Uh, no. That would not be accurate.

  18. Kate wrote:

    “So after Stan had been communicating the fact of authorship for a decade — his authorship established in 1966 in a significant New York Herald Tribune piece around the same time he was doing the college circuit, then the college circuit, then a show at Carnagie Hall in 1972, then a book in 1974 that compiled early appearances of Marvel characters with his name (and no one elses) front-and-center on the cover with introductory pieces about how he (and only he) dreamed up with the characters (including Doctor Strange!) — the world of 1975 still didn’t care about creators who weren’t named Stan Lee?

    You’re kind of making my point for me, here.”

    Not in the least.

    Lee certainly can’t be claimed for the media’s indifference to the careers of the many people who didn’t work with him in any significant way. Such names would include the aforementioned Jerry Siegel (who just barely contributed a few scripts to Marvel before he left, possibly with the intent of biting Lee’s style with the Archie line of “Mighty Comics”), Joe Kubert, John Broome, Gardner Fox, Alex Toth. The media didn’t care if any of them were doing great work or crappy work, because all comics were crappy by definition. You can blame Lee for his own crappy work, but he didn’t create the dominant prejudice against comics of all kinds.

    Lee was the only one the media paid attention to, and that’s not because he kept all of his employees in obscurity. It was because he knew how to perform in public, how to give audiences what they wanted. He sold his comics as being different from everything that had come before. That was some truth and some falsehood to that, as there was in his claim to have originated everything. I don’t believe that he originated everything, but I do believe that he gave Kirby, Ditko and everyone else who worked under him some degree of guidance, always oriented on what he felt would sell to the public.

    “Are we talking about creator or authorship of the stories? In terms of creation, he did take sole credit in the Origins Of Marvel books. The article also mentions how strongly believe the person who has the first germ of the idea is the sole creator, even if he’s fine giving the artists an honorary “co-credit” mention. It’s not knee-jerk to suggest he stolen the credit for creation, since he did right there.”

    I’m talking about authorship, and have been since I mentioned “the presence of real comics creators” in my first post. I’m sure his position on character-creation is influenced by legal considerations, so that it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Legally, an “honorary co-credit” is all that Lee had the power to bestow in terms of the matter of creation, at least as long as he was a Marvel employee. But because he wanted to sell the personalities behind Marvel Comics as much as he wanted to sell the characters, Lee frequently praised his collaborators to the heavens. That’s one of the big reasons that I credit him with creating much of the debate we have today about authorship. Even the fact that Lee credited Kirby with inventing the Silver Surfer ironically abetted many of Kirby’s later outsized claims that he Kirby did everything.

  19. “I strongly disagree. If Stan Lee and Bob Kane can be known by the masses, there’s no reason Kirby, Ditko, and Finger can’t or shouldn’t be. It’s not like people are incapable of remembering more than one author. If Lennon/McCartney can be a thing, there’s no reason why Lee/Kirby can’t. There’s no reason why every mention of Lee as “creator of x” can’t instead be “co-creator of x.”’

    And I disagree with your disagreement. I think as far as the intelligensia is concerned, anyone who’s willing to investigate ownership in comics is able to find lots of healthy debate about the subject. But the mainstream that enjoys the movies and never reads the comics– that mainstream is going to associate Lee with all comics the way another generation thought of Disney as the only maker of cartoons. What moviegoers in the 1940s knew Chuck Jones or the Fleischer Brothers from a hole in the ground? Even today, I doubt that the majority of people raised on TV cartoon-reruns would know what studio owns Bugs Bunny, if he hadn’t been used as a corporate mascot for a while.

  20. Jerry said:

    “I do love Kirby and Ditko. But I love Stan too. A pathetic character? He cameos in movies. He’s a household name. He’s hustling for autographs? More like he has hundreds and hundreds of people in line waiting to overpay for his signature. How can I get to be that pathetic? The author doesn’t like Stan and I guess that’s fine. But to paint him as a pathetic hustler hated by everyone in the know? Uh, no. That would not be accurate.”

    Yes, I think Reisman’s essay tries too hard to place a negative spin on Lee’s career, and that he didn’t take into account that a lot of authors simply don’t have great “third acts” in their careers.

    As I recall there’s one Lee-project Reisman didn’t mention:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Comic_Book_Greats

    Maybe he left it out because it conflicted with his portrait of Lee as an insecure guy addicted to self-aggrandizement.

  21. Kate said: “The funny thing about discussing Lee/Kirby things on the internet is that I’ve encountered both Stan Lee fans who are angry at me for suggesting he gets too much credit, and Jack Kirby fans who are angry at me for suggesting Stan Lee contributed anything at all.”

    I’ve encountered this too, Kate. That’s why I try to stay out of these Lee vs. Kirby debates.

    Someone at the Comics Journal put it best a few years ago: the Kirby (and Ditko) partisans start with an undeniable argument — that Stan Lee did not create the Marvel Universe all by himself. He had plenty of help from the artists, particularly Kirby and Ditko in the early ’60s.

    But then the Kirby-Ditko partisans want to take it further, to say that Lee had no creative input at all. Which is bullshit.

    I agree with Shawn Kane: there would be no Marvel without Kirby and Ditko, but also no Marvel without Stan Lee. They all contributed mightily. Without all 3 men, Marvel would probably have gone out of business more than 50 years ago.

  22. Stan Lee’s cameo in Deadpool was fine with me, because it was funny to see him and , more importantly, I knew that he had nothing to Deadpool. It must cause a lot of confusion for people who don’t know that he’s in the movie because he’s a Marvel “mascot”

    I don’t think Stan Lee should be called a “villain.” Call him an antagonist, sure, but a villain? That’s bit dramatic.

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