To just about every comic book fan, the late Stan Lee was a true American hero. If you let him tell the story, he built Marvel Comics up with his own two hands while creating unforgettable characters like Spider-Man and the Fantastic 4. But is that the full story?
The Stan Lee controversy began to bubble up in the late '80s when old friends and partners began to whisper about how Lee had given them raw deals in order to cement himself as the father of the comic book industry and make cash hand over fist. But was Stan Lee difficult to work with? Or are these just the kinds of things that jealous artists say when they aren’t as successful as their friends?
If you’ve kept up with Stan the Man you know that there are plenty of weird things Stan Lee has done. Even if his creepy obsession with sex is completely natural, it’s still weird that he continuously tried and failed to create oversexed superheroes later in his career. And is it strange that he couldn't stop inserting himself into Marvel films? Was he trying to live forever in these billion dollar movies? Or is it simply a way for directors to pay respect to the man that essentially gave them some of its greatest characters? It’s likely that the answer lies somewhere in between, but you’ll have to figure that out for yourself. Excelsior!
Stan Lee had a reputation for mining his own personality to create characters like the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man, and he seemingly drew from private thoughts when he created some of his later works. During the height of Lee's fame in 1975, he pitched a comic to Playboy that would be drawn by John Romita, an Eisner Award winning artist who worked on The Amazing Spider-Man among other massive projects. According to Romita the comic would have featured characters named “High Priestess Clitanna” and “Lord Peckerton.”
If that's not enough to turn on your creep alarm, there was the animated one season wonder that Lee created for Spike TV, Stripperella, which starred Pamela Anderson. The series followed a curvaceous woman who was a pole dancer by day and a superhero by night, and the tone and animation leaned towards titillating. In an interview with Vulture, Anderson simply commented, "Stan wanted nudity, I didn’t.”
Despite what Stan Lee and all of his Marvel movie drop ins would have you believe, he's not necessarily the most important figure to Marvel Comics. The prolific artist Jack Kirby has an equally solid claim on that title. Often in conjunction with Lee and sometimes all on his own, Kirby created the heroes and villains who starred in titles like The Fantastic 4, The X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Thor, and The Avengers. Without Kirby around, Marvel wouldn't be the company it is today, but that didn't stop Marvel from freezing out Jack Kirby and other veteran artists.
In the late '70s, Marvel began to take a larger interest in the work that their artists and writers made, having them sign a one page document that essentially signed over all ownership of anything created at the company to Marvel. Kirby received a significantly more in-depth contract that included the forfeiture of his original pages, a major source of income for most artists. After that Kirby's thoughts on Marvel weren't exactly positive. In 1986 he told The Comics Journal, “[T]hey're grabbers. They'll grab a copyright, they'll grab a drawing, they'll grab a script. They're grabbers—that's their policy. They can be as dignified as they like. ... They can act like businessmen. But to me, they're acting like thugs." Meanwhile, Lee went on to earn a lifelong paycheck from Marvel.
Lee admitted that when he created Iron Man (and by extension his alter ego Tony Stark), the character was designed so audiences would hate him. Not only that, but Lee wanted to see if he could market the character so well that audiences would be forced to buy the comic. “I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him.” Basically, Iron Man was a combination of a heat check and weird flex for peak Stan Lee.
One of the best things about comic books is that they're always evolving, and how the same story can be told and retold a million different ways. Many comic book fans believe that also means characters don't always have to be the same race, gender, or sexuality. Stan Lee didn't share that belief.
In a 2015 interview with Newsarama, Lee gave his definitive take on if there could ever be a black Spider-Man. "I wouldn’t mind, if Peter Parker had originally been black, a Latino, an Indian or anything else, that he stay that way. But we originally made him white. I don’t see any reason to change that.”