Stan Lee’s Marvel Empire Was Fueled by Creativity—and Complicated From the Start

November 14, 2018, 4:48 PM UTC

Stan Lee’s life in the business of superheroes mirrors the humble origins, unexpected triumphs, and brutal defeats of his greatest creations. The Marvel legend, who died at 95 on Monday, masterminded comic books, films, TV shows, video games, and a few tons of merchandise that became a multi-billion dollar franchise. He also dealt with bankruptcy, alleged stock fraud, embezzlement at the hands of some of his former business partners, and frayed relationships with some of his closest collaborators.

Lee, the son of Romanian immigrants who struggled to find work in the Depression and moved around tenements in New York City, entered the world of comic books following a series of odd jobs that included office gofer, theater usher, and sandwich delivery boy. Thanks to family connections, he got a job at the publishing company Timely. Hustling around the workplace filling inkwells and watching illustrator and future collaborator Jack Kirby work, he graduated to an editor job before he was 20 years old.

Like many success stories, Lee’s dissatisfaction with his job and ambition led to his innovation. Feeling that comics were a lower artform than the literature he hoped to pursue, Lee altered his name from “Stan Lieber” in an early Captain America issue, so nobody would associate him with the genre when he released a novel someday.

Unhappy with the work, along with the declining audience of comic readers, Lee planned to quit. “I was getting sick of doing these one-character-punches-another and says, ‘Take that, you rat,’” he told NPR in 2015. “So my wife said to me, ‘You want to quit. Before you do, why don’t you get one story out of your system? Do one the way you want to do it.”

So in 1961, with Kirby’s help, he created the Fantastic Four, with heroes and villains relatable because of their flaws, complexities, and wisecracks. Now known as Marvel, the company had a hit, and Lee earned nearly free reign over the creative department. Within the next few years, he—along with help from Kirby, his brother Larry Lieber, and artist Steve Ditko—would mine the Cold War, teen angst, civil and racial unrest, and many other anxieties of the day to create the Hulk, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Thor, Black Panther, Ant-Man, and the Avengers.

Part of Lee’s genius was how he, as now the de facto head of Marvel, ran the creative side. Managing an ever-growing staff, plus new animated and later live-action series, not to mention merchandising, his role as hands-on writer diminished. He’d tell his artists his idea for the stories, have them illustrate it, then go back and write the book.

A Complex Web of Business Dealings

Unfortunately, this strategy also led to bitterness with his colleagues. As any diehard Marvel fan will tell you, Kirby and Ditko—who most notably designed Spider-Man—are often overlooked.

Lee and Ditko wound up not speaking for decades. Lee and Kirby had a falling out, with the latter leaving for DC Comics—then returning to Marvel before leaving again over his lack of credit for helping create so many enduring characters. He claimed he was the one who came up with Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk, among others, and sued Marvel for the rights to them. Marvel won the suit because Kirby’s contract, for a freelance artist, said any of his creations were its property.

Kirby died in 1994, though his family continued pursuing lawsuits against Marvel, and later Disney, for years. Lee, outside of a now-memorable cameo in the cult hit Kevin Smith film Mallrats in ‘95, found himself in the news mainly for the financial misdeeds of companies operating under his name.

During the late ‘90s, Stan Lee Media attempted to capitalize on the dot-com boom with online live and animated series, including a show starring the Backstreet Boys. The publicly traded company went bankrupt in 2000, thanks in part to stock fraud by company co-founder Peter Paul who fled the country after double-crossing his partner in the scheme, costing stockholders $25 million. The good guys eventually got Paul from Brazil and he went to jail for 10 years in 2009.

Lee’s luck started to improve around 2000 when the Marvel genre was rejuvenated by the blockbuster success of the initial Spider-Man and X-Men movies. He subsequently had cameos in all the Marvel films that followed—before and after Disney acquired the company for $4 billion in 2009. It’s not clear how much Lee made off that deal, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe netting billions more since then.

His estimated net worth is $50 to 70 million, though pending lawsuits will probably mar that, too. After the complicated issues with Stan Lee Media, he co-founded the production company POW! Entertainment in 2001. He later alleged that two of his business partners, Shane Duffy and Gill Champion, were conspiring to use name and likeness in deals with Chinese companies, using a signature obtained or forged while he going almost completely blind, and sued them for $1 billion.

Meanwhile, another former associate, Keya Morgan, accused Lee’s 68-year-old daughter Joan Celia of elder abuse and called the police. Both father and daughter denied the claims, and Morgan was later arrested for making false reports of an armed robbery at Lee’s house. In the most bizarre twist, Lee sued his ex-manager, Jerardo Olivare, for stealing his blood, which would be used to autograph Black Panther comics.

That late-in-life period is tragic, as are the financial disputes and situations Lee experienced throughout his career. And his professional character will be debated among diehard comic-book fans for eons. Love him or like him, Stan Lee’s intuition about what would resonate with everyday people (not to mention listening to his wife) and willingness to push boundaries in what was a lowly regarded art form created one of the greatest literary careers people would dream to have.