Stan Lee Controversy: Why His Legacy Is More Complicated Than It Seems

The elder statesman of colorful comics leaves behind a legacy that isn't black and white.

Doctor Doom is misunderstood. That’s what Stan Lee told a 14-year-old Leukemia survivor who interviewed the Marvel creator in 2016. “Everybody thinks he’s a criminal, but all he wants is to rule the world,” Lee said.

Doctor Doom, along with many of Lee’s creations, is imperfect. Spider-Man’s hubris allowed his uncle to die. The Fantastic Four would be the world’s greatest team if they stopped bickering. Doctor Strange is an asshole. All those characters were reflected in Lee himself.

But based on how the world reacted to the passing of Lee, you’d think the elder statesman of comics was a saint cast in gold. He wasn’t. He was so much more beautiful than that.

Born in 1922 in Manhattan to Romanian-Jewish immigrants, Stanley Martin Lieber dreamed of writing the next great novel. But at 39, after serving in World War II and grinding at his uncle’s Atlas Comics, Lee was ready to quit.

At the insistence of the publisher, as well as his beloved wife Joan, that they could compete with the red-hot Justice League of America over at DC (the “Distinguished Competition”), Stan Lee (his pen name, as “Stanley Lieber” was reserved for the novel he would never write) worked with Jack Kirby (allegedly) to create the Fantastic Four, the world’s first superheroes who battled first-world problems.

Today, so much of Lee’s legacy, at once both simple and complicated as any superhero mythology, comes down to credit. In an industry plagued by creators routinely robbed of recognition (Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman, weren’t recognized for decades and almost died penniless), it is difficult to plainly parse what Lee actually contributed to the medium.

Here’s what we can say for sure: Stan Lee did create many Marvel characters. He didn’t create all of them, and he never did it alone. If you know Stan Lee but don’t also know Kirby and Steve Ditko (the latter of whom died in June to significantly less tribute), you should. The Wozniaks to Lee’s Steve Jobs, whatever brilliance Lee wielded depended on working in concert with gifted writers and artists who didn’t have half his acumen for brand identity.

As a comic book creator, Lee was good. As the face and voice of a publisher, Lee was a visionary. Before the internet, he used the back of Marvel’s comics to communicate directly to readers, inviting them to a party that was always happening. He awarded tongue-in-cheek “No Prizes” to the most dedicated readers who pointed out inconsistencies in the evolving continuity. At the nascent stages of modern fandom, everyone wanted a No Prize. Everyone wanted to go to the party.

Stan Lee, at a promotional appearance for 'Thor.'

Flickr / pinguino

It was Lee who sought to bring Marvel into TV and films, efforts that seismically reshaped popular culture. Before Disney acquired the comic book-maker for $4 billion, Lee envisioned Marvel as its own entity. Lee’s first producing credit was the direct-to-video Captain America in 1990, an unremarkable start to an unbelievable career that few can ever achieve in the third acts of their lives — especially given that no one other than Lee could file and win a $10 million lawsuit against Marvel.

As a person, Stan Lee had many faces, none flirting with any sort of outright villainy. Those who met Lee, from Hollywood professionals to fans at conventions, will tell you that he was as kind and decent as anyone hoped someone like him would be. He spoke out against bigotry and racism. He supported young artists. Everyone loved him.

Everyone, except Jack Kirby.

“Stan Lee was a pest,” Kirby told The Comics Journal in an infamous 1989 interview. “He liked to irk people and it was one thing I couldn’t take.”

In the wake of Lee’s passing and outpouring of admiration, reading Kirby talk about Lee is jarring, like the juicy, decades-old gossip of your own parents. Four years away from his own death in 1994 and bitter about Marvel’s successes, Kirby insists that Lee was no more than a pivotal office handler who hardly scripted his own comics.

“Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything!” declared Kirby. “I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything. I used to write the stories just like I always did.”

While Lee has described the process of Marvel’s in-house writing as the collaborative “Marvel Method”, Kirby revealed Lee’s strategy in detail, and in a significantly less flattering light:

“I dialogued them. If Stan Lee ever got a thing dialogued, he would get it from someone working in the office. I would write out the whole story on the back of every page. I would write the dialogue on the back or a description of what was going on. Then Stan Lee would hand them to some guy and he would write in the dialogue. In this way Stan Lee made more pay than he did as an editor. This is the way Stan Lee became the writer. Besides collecting the editor’s pay, he collected writer’s pay. I’m not saying Stan Lee had a bad business head on. I think he took advantage of whoever was working for him.”

Kirby wasn’t alone. Even today, while there is nearly unanimous admiration for Lee from comic book pros of every level, there’s also agreement he wasn’t the benevolent nexus of all Marvel creation — despite his best efforts to paint the story that way.

Margaret Loesch (far left), during her tenure as President and CEO of Marvel Productions. She worked closely with Stan Lee (middle) and Marvel CEO Jim Galton (far right) to shop Marvel to TV networks, which Loesch says were unsuccessful except in selling non-Marvel cartoons like 'Transformers.' Circa 1986.

Margaret Loesch

Comic book writer Dave Baker even went so far as to sell “Fuck Stan Lee” enamel pins at conventions, not out of hatred but to encourage conversation around creator’s rights.

“People have this idea of Stan as a kindly old grandpa who ‘created” everything. But that’s simply not true,” Baker told Inverse in a 2016 interview. “I’m not saying that Stan Lee is evil, he just has this sense of avarice and doesn’t like giving other people credit for anything they’ve done.”

Veteran comics writer Gerry Conway echoed that sentiment in a 2016 profile for New York Magazine.

“Stan’s gotten far too much credit,” he said at the time. “People have said Stan was out for No. 1, and to a very large degree, that’s true. He’s a good guy. He’s just not a great guy.”

Marvel’s ongoing worldwide success from Disney and Sony-produced productions hasn’t helped change the narrative. Lee’s cameos, which has found a life all on its own, have extended to characters he didn’t create, like Deadpool (created by Rob Liefeld), Venom (Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie) and Big Hero 6 (Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau).

Stan Lee and Mickey Mouse at D23 EXPO 2017.

Flickr / Disney | ABC Television Group

Meanwhile, Lee’s endeavors separate from Marvel, such as his reality shows, Stan Lee’s Mighty 7, and the Backstreet Boys collab The Backstreet Project, came and went without any fanfare.

While he remained a public figure who invited pros and fans to his home, the exact details of Lee’s personal life began to darken towards the end. “Picked Apart By Vultures,” reads a March 2018 investigative piece by The Daily Beast that paints a grim picture of a well-to-do man who, upon the death of his beloved wife in 2017, lost his center.

In his declining health, Lee allowed himself to be surrounded by enterprising hustlers. When he surfaced at the Silicon Valley Comic Con the month after the Daily Beast story, fans met their hero, silent and detached. In a YouTube video with 52,000 views, Lee is seen signing toys and Captain America shields with eerily automated movement. It’s a dark visual of an otherwise bright personality who seemed to always empower those around him.

Everyone seems to have a Stan Lee story: A time they first read his comics, a time they met him at a convention, a time he said something they’ll never forget. In a career built on eccentric characters readers truly believed in, the greatest character Stan Lee created was himself. He even had his own catchphrase, “Excelsior.” In Latin, it means “higher.” For a man who dreamed of supernatural feats, it was the only direction he hoped to go.

Below are some of Inverse‘s most-read stories about Stan Lee.

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