Sugar Ray Leonard says he’s trying to wean himself off Red Bull. He’s drinking a Red Bull as he says this, a big 16-ouncer he carried into the room. “After five or six,” he says, “I get jittery.” He says he tried a 5-hour Energy the other day. Somebody asks him how it was. “It worked,” Sugar Ray says. He says it with a shrug, like a wine snob acknowledging that, yes, Boone’s Farm will get you drunk if that’s all you care about.
Sugar Ray — black suit, no tie, doll-smooth skin — is here in this hotel conference room in Beverly Hills to do a few photo ops promoting the HD network Epix and his new gig as an Epix boxing announcer, and (presumably) to inspire reporters to cover today’s presentation (look at our premium content, look at the variety of screens on which you can watch it) like it’s news. Come for the free lunch and eat it within sight of a living legend, stay for the press release.
Sugar Ray is not the living legend I’m here to see today, though. I’m here to meet Stan Lee. And I feel weird about it.
It’s April 24, and in a few weeks, The Avengers — directed by Joss Whedon, based on characters Stan co-created for Marvel Comics in the 1960s — will open record-breakingly huge around the world. It’ll surpass even the absurd expectations placed upon it, and what’s more, most people will agree that it’s great. Or at least good. Or at least better than it needed to be, given the extent to which its hugeness was a foregone conclusion. (I think it’s great. Or at least good, given the number of masters it had to serve. You can see the seams a little, where Whedon-doing-Whedon gives way to Whedon supervising CGI punch/’splode activities; that’s not a criticism, just an observation.)
But as of late April the movie’s not out yet, and while a lot of the online chatter about it is the usual fanperson froth about blockbuster-induced self-soiling, there’s also been this ongoing conversation about the ethical issues raised by the movie’s relationship to its source material, and specifically Marvel’s relationship with the estate of artist Jack Kirby. Almost all the main characters in Avengers — including Thor, the Hulk, superspy Nick Fury, and the movie’s primary villain, the trickster-god Loki — were introduced between 1961 and 1964, in comics written and drawn by Lee and Kirby. During that same period — a generative streak basically unparalleled in American comics history before or since — they also introduced the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.
Officially, Lee wrote the books and Kirby drew them. Officially, Stan supplied the realism — his heroes had flaws, they argued among themselves, they were prone to colds and bouts of self-loathing, and sometimes they’d forget to pay the rent and face eviction from their futuristic high-rise HQs, which were in New York, not a made-up metropolis — while Kirby supplied the propulsion, filling the pages with visions of eternity and calamity, along with action sequences that basically invented the visual grammar of modern superhero comics.
As Marvel grew, Stan was writing more and more books for Kirby and other freelance artists to draw. Sometimes, to keep the process moving and his artists busy, he’d just supply them with a rough outline, some plot points, a few ideas for action beats; when the finished art came in, Stan would fill in the words around it, a comics-creation process that became known as the Marvel Method. And — as time went on, especially when Stan worked with Kirby — the collaboration became even more fluid. Lee and Kirby would hash out the details of a story together, kick it back and forth. Or Kirby would come back with pages that departed significantly from Stan’s initial idea and then Stan would adjust his story accordingly. Different stories came together different ways, but essentially they were co-storytellers. And the work they did together during those first few years transformed the American comic-book industry and laid the groundwork for the billion-dollar trademark empire Marvel would eventually become.
The difference between Stan and Jack was that Stan, in addition to being a writer, was management. He was Marvel’s editor-in-chief and de facto art director; later, he was Marvel’s publisher. Finally, around the turn of the ’80s, he left behind the day-to-day business of comics and moved to Los Angeles to get Marvel’s movie and television division up and running. Really, though, he became what we’d now call a brand ambassador. In his comics writing — and his monthly column, Stan’s Soapbox — he’d cultivated a jivey, ironic, hipster-huckster editorial voice; now he applied that voice to a new career as a professional interviewee and talk-show guest. His role at the company became more and more ceremonial. Yet the words “Stan Lee Presents” continued to appear on the title pages of Marvel comic books whose content he’d had no more to do with than Walt Disney (d. 1966) does with Hannah Montana.
Q: People ask, “Is Stan Lee still with Marvel Comics.” Are you still with us?
STAN LEE: Sure! Especially on pay day!
— Marvel Age magazine interview, 1983
Over the years, Marvel changed hands, went bankrupt, reemerged, restructured. Stan stayed in the picture. Each time he renegotiated his deal with the company, he did so from a unique position — half elder god, half mascot. Administration after administration recognized that it was in their best interests PR-wise to keep him on the payroll. For years, he received 10 percent of all revenue generated by the exploitation of his characters on TV and in movies, along with a six-figure salary. This came out in 2002, when Lee sued Marvel, claiming they’d failed to pay him his percentage of the profits from the first Spider-Man movie, a development the Comics Journal compared to Colonel Sanders suing Kentucky Fried Chicken.
It’s unclear if Stan still co-owns any of Marvel’s characters, but the company continues to take care of him. When Disney (which, full disclosure, is also the parent company of ESPN, which owns the website you’re now reading) bought Marvel for $4 billion in 2009, part of the deal involved a Disney subsidiary buying a small piece of POW! Entertainment, a content-farm company Stan co-founded; another Disney-affiliated company currently pays POW! $1.25 million a year to loan out Stan as a consultant “on the exploitation of the assets of Marvel Entertainment.”
Jack Kirby, on the other hand, was a contractor. You could sink a continent in the amount of ink that’s been spilled on the question of whether it was Stan’s voice or Jack’s visuals that ultimately made Marvel what it was, but it’s hard to argue that any of this would have happened had Kirby been hit by a bus in 1960. Yet like most comics creators back then, he was paid by the page and retained no rights to any of the work he did for the company or the characters he helped create; by cashing his paychecks, he signed those rights over to the company. It took him decades just to persuade Marvel to give him back some of his original art, much of which was lost or given away or stolen in the meantime; there are horror stories about original Kirby pages being gifted to the water-delivery guy.
Kirby never sued Marvel, over the art or anything else. But as the years wore on he blasted the company in interviews. He blasted Lee, its avatar. Compared him to Sammy Glick. Referred to him as a mere “office worker” who’d grabbed credit from true idea men. “It wasn’t possible for a man like Stan Lee to come up with new things — or old things, for that matter,” Kirby told the Comics Journal in an infamous 1990 interview. “Stan Lee wasn’t a guy that read or that told stories. Stan Lee was a guy that knew where the papers were or who was coming to visit that day.”
And all this happened back when the comics industry only manufactured and sold comic books. Back when even the medium’s most vocal champions wouldn’t have dreamed of Marvel (which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1996) being worth $4 billion to anybody.
In 2009, after the House of Mouse bought what used to be called the House That Jack Built, an attorney1 representing Kirby’s heirs (Kirby died in 1994) sent notices of copyright termination to Marvel, Disney, and several other film studios involved in the production of movies based on Marvel properties Kirby said he created or co-created. The following year, Kirby’s son and daughters filed suit against Marvel and Disney for a piece of the profits generated by those properties.
A federal judge, Colleen McMahon, ruled against the Kirby estate in July 2011. Near the beginning of her 50-page opinion, she emphasized that the case wasn’t about who really created which Marvel character, or whether Marvel had treated Kirby “(and other freelance artists who created culturally iconic comic book characters for Marvel and other publishers)” fairly. It was about whether or not Kirby’s Marvel output qualified as “work made for hire” under the terms of the Copyright Act. “[N]one of the evidence submitted by Defendants,” McMahon wrote, “makes so much as a dent in the ‘almost irrefutable’ presumption that the Kirby Works were works for hire.”
It was a weirdly galvanizing defeat. The day after the ruling, comics artist, historian, and lecturer Stephen Bissette suggested on his blog that fans loyal to the Kirby Kause stop spending money on Kirby-derived Marvel product, effective immediately. In February of this year, writer/artist James Sturm wrote a piece for Slate about his decision to boycott the Avengers movie in solidarity with Kirby.2 Marvel’s shabby treatment of Kirby has been public knowledge among comics fans for decades, but the buildup to The Avengers — a huge, splashy entertainment product based on Kirby’s work, from which many people who are not Jack Kirby stand to make truckloads of money — gave bloggers and pundits a high-value target to protest.3 A Howard Beale howl swept across the Internet.
And, yes, OK, a Howard Beale howl swept across the Internet when Hasbro changed the name of a My Little Pony, too. The Internet makes protest effortless, and therefore weightless. But the outcry around The Avengers feels like more than the knee-jerk carping of an improperly serviced fan base. For years, loyal readers aware that Marvel is ethically (if not legally) in the wrong when it comes to Kirby and other work-for-hire creators have taken a we-need-the-eggs, “What, and give up X-Men?” attitude toward the whole situation. Comics are both a hobby and a habit; they depend on the deeply ingrained consumption patterns of a core audience, and the fact that some portion of this audience, however small that portion is, is even talking about giving up X-Men is a pretty big deal, culturally speaking.
Obviously, the calls for a boycott didn’t even dent the film at the box office. But that’s sort of the point. The Avengers is the end result of a gradual process of superhero-movie-denerdification that started around the first Iron Man. According to
exit polling, it’s a multi-quadrant hit enjoyed by young and old, male and female. These movies are now mainstream cultural events that happen with or without the support of a niche fan base. And there’s a lot of emotion swirling around this transition. I think the anti-Avengers movement was partly about a target market shooting back, resentful of the notion that they can be bought off with 3-D flash, the hiring of a geek-demigod writer/director, and a few nods to beloved threads of old-school continuity. I think it was about actual comics readers (a demographic that overlaps less and less with comic-book moviegoers) objecting to an emerging paradigm in which comics act as an IP farm for the movies, to the way the medium increasingly contorts itself to catch Hollywood’s eye, and to the notion that movie interest somehow validates the art form.
Comics fans are protective and nostalgic and prone to overidentification with corporate trademarks, and the Marvel Universe is growing into something a lot of them don’t recognize. The emotional undercurrent to the anti-Avengers outcry isn’t rage; it’s loss. Kirby’s case — the story of a man Marvel left behind as it grew — is a convenient emotional focal point for people who feel similarly abandoned by what the company’s become. And his martyrdom depends in part on the demonization of Stan, who doesn’t deserve it, but has made it easy. Working the rope line at every premiere. Smiling and mugging. Acting like nothing has changed, like this was how it was always supposed to be.
So anyway: I’m sitting in a hotel conference room waiting for Stan Lee. Outside, in the spring haze, other reporters and invited guests are enjoying what I’m sure is a really nice luncheon. Not me, man. I feel guilty about covering a Stan-centric meet-and-greet and contributing to the celebration of Stan as the lovable grandpa of the Marvel Universe, and so I’m taking a stand. Waiters come by my table with perfectly formed olives on little silver spoons and I say no thank you. Is anybody bringing Jack Kirby’s heirs perfectly formed olives on little silver spoons? I am reasonably sure that no one is.
And I’m nervous. I’ve been told by the Epix publicist who set this up — and here I’d like to pause to issue a blanket apology to her for all of the foregoing and all that follows, and note that Epix seems like a terrific network about which you should definitely ask your cable provider — that I’m going to get 10 minutes with him. Less than I was expecting. I should make it count. I should ask him something impolitic, broach something uncomfortable, try to make him mad. I should hold him to account, I should really stick it to (Stan) the Man, for Jack and every other onetime Marvel Comics freelancer who died building the pyramids.
On the other hand, I can’t conceive of any scenario in which ambushing and pissing off a man who’ll turn 90 in December will make me feel awesome. Stan has no power. He’s a pensioner whose job is to travel around walking red carpets and telling people he approves of movies other people have made based on comics he wrote in the ’60s. If Stan suing Marvel 10 years ago was like Colonel Sanders suing Kentucky Fried Chicken, confronting Stan in 2012 about the injustice done to Jack Kirby by Marvel would be like grilling Mr. Peanut about the business practices of Kraft Foods.
Plus I know from every Stan interview I’ve ever read that there’s probably nothing I could say that would elicit a response in the You’re damn right I ordered the Code Red! vein. Stan doesn’t go off-message. He’s usually hard-pressed to remember anything but the most boilerplate, print-the-legend details of his early career, which is odd because that phase of his life is the only thing he’s ever asked to talk about. A Stan interview is a transaction in which Stan delivers self-deprecating or winkingly grandiose jokes and anecdotes worn smooth by handling and then someone writes them down.
This is basically what happens in With Great Power, directed by Nikki Frakes, Will Hess, and Terry Dougas; it’s a 80-minute recapitulation of the Stan myth, as Lee (kind of) remembers it.4 The first thing you see is grainy C-Span footage of Stan receiving a National Medal of Arts in 2008, for telling stories “reflecting America’s inherent goodness.” The presenter is George W. Bush. A different kind of movie might have opened with this image — one polarizing figure shaking hands with another — as a way of at least introducing the idea that Stan’s career has not been untouched by controversy, but here it just establishes that Stanley Lieber from the Bronx has come a long way, and that we’re about to see how that happened.
But first, heads talk: Nicolas Cage, Drive Angry blond, possibly wearing the Eye of Agamotto around his neck, calling Stan a giant. Jon Favreau, who directed Stan in Iron Man, and Kevin Smith, who gave him lines to say about Ben Grimm’s wiener in Mallrats. Patrick Stewart with a mustache, looking like Patrick Stewart trying to buy pornography circumspectly. Then quick cuts of other luminaries delivering Stan-related sound bites in what looks like repurposed junket footage: Franco! Ringo! Paris! Chiklis! Brett Ratner! Most of these people are making their first and last appearances in the movie, although Chiklis (who was in The Fantastic Four) and Ratner (who has many gay friends) pop up later.
Marvel-superhero imagery fills the screen — the vast and varied product of Stan’s imagination, we’re supposed to think, although the fact that it’s imagery means we’re actually looking at a bunch of stuff drawn by people who were not Stan — and then it’s on to biography. Stan’s Depression-scarred boyhood, his family’s struggles for rent and bread, the one-bedroom apartment where his parents slept on a fold-out couch. His early admiration of Errol Flynn. The office-boy job he got in 1939, at Magazine Management, run by Martin Goodman; the animated visuals here imply that he answered a want ad, although in reality Goodman’s wife was Stan’s cousin. Goodman’s Timely Comics imprint already employed Jack Kirby and writer/editor Joe Simon, who says of the 17-year-old Lee, “He had a little flute, and he’d sit in the corner and play his flute. It drove Kirby crazy.” We hear about the rule requiring periodicals to publish prose in order to qualify for second-class mailing, which led to Stan’s first assignment for Timely, a two-page text piece called “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge,” published in Captain America Comics no. 3.
Stan decides to use “Stan Lee” for his comics work, saving “Stanley Martin Lieber” in a drawer for the Great American Novel he’d never write. Simon and Kirby defect to National Comics, which would eventually become DC, and Goodman installs Stan as Timely’s editor, art director, and head writer until someone with actual experience can be found to fill the post. Then the United States enters World War II and Stan joins the Army; he’s one of nine men whose official classification is listed as “playwright,” along with William Saroyan, Dr. Seuss, and Frank Capra. He illustrates pamphlets about how to avoid catching venereal disease.
Back in the world in 1946 he meets Joan Boocock, British war bride and hat model, at a cocktail party. She’s married; Stan sees this as a minor inconvenience. “And then six weeks later I was in Reno, spending his money,” says Joan. Joan’s maybe the best part of this movie. Joan’s a pistol, a grown and glamorous Gwen Stacy. Later on she’ll tell a story about fighting with Stan and smashing the Remington Noiseless on which he typed the first Fantastic Four script; we’ll also see her overcome with emotion while reading a poem Stan wrote for her (on Spider-Man stationery!) as an anniversary gift, and forcing a wallflowerish Stan to dance with her to “The Girl From Ipanema” in their living room. Joan says, “You know how lucky we are to be able to move like this at our age? Sweet Jesus.”
Stan talks about how, in the early ’60s, he got fed up with writing trend-chasing junk aimed at children — Westerns one week, romances or monsters or funny animals the next — and expressed to his wife a desire to quit the comic-book business, and Joan told him he should, just once, try writing the kind of book he really wanted to write, a book he could be proud of, because the worst they could do was fire him. So he wrote a story about four ordinary, flawed people who develop extraordinary powers after being bombarded with cosmic rays during a doomed space mission. Stan’s account of how he created the Fantastic Four is one of the cornerstones of the Stan myth. It postulates Stan as the father of the Fantastic Four, and thereby of the whole Marvel age of comics, while implying that it was all Joanie, really, at the end of the day; that he couldn’t have done it without her. It’s a sweet story that takes the focus off of all the other people he couldn’t have done it without.
Fantastic Four no. 1, published in November 1961, is a smash; the hits keep on coming. Lee and his artists come up with more iconic, enduring comic-book characters in a shorter time than anyone before or since. The Hulk. Thor. Daredevil. The X-Men. We hear from Stan’s collaborators (including Joe Simon and Gene Colan, who both died in 2011) about Stan’s energy, how he’d act out fight scenes in his office to show his artists what he wanted, sometimes jumping up on his cluttered desk, always demanding dynamism. We hear about his embrace of topical subject matter and hot-button issues, but not about how equivocal it always was, how infrequently it seemed to stem from any real conviction aside from generic humanism and the belief that zeitgeist-chasing was smart business.
We hear about Stan’s emergence as a big draw on the college-lecture circuit, as kids who’d grown up on early Marvel and gone on to postsecondary education filled halls to hear him do 20 minutes of patter followed by an endless gulping Q&A. Stan admits he always looked at it as market research; he’d come away from the Q&As with a better understanding of what his audience was responding to. Philosophy majors loved the Silver Surfer, forever wandering the lonely spaceways agonizing over man’s inhumanity to man. The college gigs were smart branding. Having sold Marvel’s comics to children, he then sold them to college kids, then took the idea that college kids were into them and sold it to the world at large as proof that what he did wasn’t junk, that comics could punch their weight alongside literature and cinema and modern art and rock and roll. That they might even have something to offer adults. He wasn’t the only person who believed this back then (and he may not have believed it at all).5 But at the time, as spokesman for Marvel and therefore for comics in general, he was basically the only one saying it, with a convivial grin, to Dick Cavett and Rolling Stone and the Washington Post. This is no small legacy.
Then Stan moves out to Los Angeles. Archival footage: Stan, grinning outside the West Coast office, saying, “Welcome to Marvel Productions, near Hollywood, California!” The office was actually in Sherman Oaks; symbolically, that “near” says a lot. Near was as close as Stan ever got to moguldom; With Great Power acknowledges this, montaging through Howard the Duck, the Dolph Lundgren Punisher movie, and the TV movie where David Hasselhoff played Nick Fury. Avi Arad arrives. Blade, based on a relatively obscure character from Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula, puts a reconstituted Marvel Studios on the map. The movie rights to Spider-Man (tied up for years in multiple lawsuits involving five different studios) are sorted out. Stan says, “When Jack Kirby died” — cue violins, literally. The dispute is skated past. Stan says, of Kirby, “He never did less than his best.” Stan says the word “mobisodes.” An animator laid off during the dot-com-bust collapse of Stan’s first Internet-content venture, Stan Lee Media, plays an answering-machine message from a distraught Stan apologizing for how things went down. Stan goes to some movie premieres. Stan does goofy cameos in Marvel movies. Stan works a full-time job as STAN!, subsumed by his own legend.
Subheads listed under “Career” on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stan_Lee:
2.1 Early career
2.2 Marvel revolution
2.3 Later career
2.4 Action figure
Well put, right?
Stan has thick fingers (like the people in Jack Kirby’s drawings do, oddly enough). Stan’s glasses are bi- or possibly trifocals, tinted like the windows of a sports car, and the arms rest high up on his head, well above his ears. He’s wearing a tan cashmere sweater, tan slacks, tan Nikes. His hairline is implausible.
It’s hard to be fully charmed by someone when you know ahead of time that they have a reputation for being charming, but Stan is pretty charming. He asks me to talk a little slower because he doesn’t hear as well as he used to; otherwise, he seems remarkably sharp for 89. He punctuates each answer with a grin, as if smiling is a resting state he’s returning to.
You were almost 40 when Fantastic Four no. 1 came out, I say. Before that happened, were you worried that the window had closed for you, and that you’d missed your chance to do something great?
“No,” Stan says. “I wasn’t thinking of what I meant to do, I was just thinking, I’m bored with my work. I was writing stories to please my publisher, who had no respect for his readers at all. He was sure they were very young children or illiterate older people …. And one day I looked in the mirror, and I said, ‘You’re 40 years old, and you hate what you’re doing,'” and then he tells the story about Joan giving him the best advice anyone could have given him.
A waiter comes by; Stan turns down something on a cracker. He tells another story more or less verbatim from the documentary, about how he came out to California on business in the late ’70s, decided he wanted to live in paradise, and hatched a scheme — “I’m a schemer” — to make that happen, telling the people at Marvel that for the good of the company he’d be willing to uproot his family and move to Los Angeles to set up the movie division. “I wasn’t coming out to make movies,” he says. “I wanted to live out here!”
I ask him if trying to sell Marvel movies to studios back then was a frustrating experience, if the execs he was pitching didn’t get the potential of these characters. He pivots, says the problem was with the people running Marvel at the time.
“I remember, at the time, there was a movie called 10, with a woman — what was her name?”
We both say “Bo Derek,” simultaneously. He says he had convinced Derek “to play the Black Widow, or one of our characters,” but the Marvel people nixed the project, worried that if the movie bombed it might negatively affect comic sales.
(Derek was actually briefly attached to star in a movie about Dazzler, a mutant superheroine/disco singer introduced in the pages of Uncanny X-Men in 1979; former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter’s account of how the film almost happened is an interesting story that mentions Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart, Lenny & Squiggy, and Harlan Ellison, but not Stan Lee.)
We talk about whether comics-reader apps for the iPad and iPhone will ever replace printed comics, how you can’t sell an 8-year-old a comic book to save your life these days, how Stan’s still making comics through POW! but they’re a small part of the company’s business model. He plugs his book Mighty 7, which he thought up but didn’t write. I ask him if he owns the characters.
“Me?” he says. “Oh, no, no. This little company, POW! — I’m just one of the executives of POW! The company owns these things. And we have to hope that they’ll do well.”
I just wondered, I say, because there’s been all this controversy lately6 about the ownership of these iconic characters, and —
“I’ve never been one of these people who worries about [that]. I should have been. I’d be wealthy now, if I had been. I always felt the publisher was the guy investing all his money, and I was working for the publisher, and whatever I did belonged to him. That was the way it was. And I was always treated well, I got a good salary. I was not a businessman. Now, a guy like Bob Kane, who did Batman — the minute he did Batman, he said, ‘I wanna own it,’ and signed a contract with DC. So he became reasonably wealthy. He was the only one who was smart enough to do that. Did you read that the check that Siegel and Shuster got for Superman — I think it was four hundred dollars, or two hundred dollars — just sold at auction for $140,000?”
I murmur something what-a-world/you-never-know-ish. Then I ask him if he feels, in general, that the comic-book industry has been fair to comic-book creators.
“I don’t know,” Stan says. “I haven’t had reason to think about it that much.” Five-second pause. “I think, if somebody creates something, and it becomes highly successful, whoever is reaping the rewards should let the person [who] created it share in it, certainly. But so much of it is — it goes beyond creating. A lot of people put something together, and nobody really knows who created it, they’re just working on it, y’know? But little by little, the artists and the writers now are a different breed than they were, and most of them, if they create anything new, they insist that they be part owners of it. Because they know what happened to Siegel and Shuster, and to me, and to people like that. I don’t think it’s a problem anymore. They make much more money than they used to make, when I was there. Proportionately.
“Everybody thought that I was the only one that was getting paid off, but I never received any royalties from the characters. I made a good living, because I was the editor, the art director, and the head writer. So I got a nice salary. That was all I got. I was a salaried guy. But it was a good salary. And I was happy.”
And you got to live out here, I say, gesturing to the patio, where there is sun. It’s funny — you’re much more tan in photographs taken of you after 1980. You turned into George Hamilton, a little bit.
“That is funny,” Stan says. “The funny thing is, when you live here, you’re not that tan. The only people who get tan are the people who come here on vacation, because they make sure they’re in the sun.”
The room is filling up; it’s time for the presentation, which will involve an Epix functionary demonstrating the way you can stream their content through your Xbox and scroll through menus with a hand wave or a voice command, just like Tony Stark. When it’s over, I’m on my way out. Stan is on the patio, tinted glasses now fully engaged, eating some lunch. He’s in the sun, as he will be, no matter what.