After 75 years in the comic book business, Stan Lee has picked up his fair share of souvenirs. His handsomely shabby office in Beverly Hills is cluttered with cool superhero swag. There’s a vintage Spider-Man pinball machine in one corner, a life-sized Spidey statue squatting in another, framed photos with multiple presidents (and Beatle Paul McCartney) on the walls and, of course, an army of action figures — Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, a doll that looks vaguely like Stan Lee himself — patrolling the bookshelves.
But propped on the floor, easy to overlook amid all the superhero tchotchkes, is a piece of art that is both jarringly out of place and completely at home. “When I was a kid, my favorite superhero was Robin Hood,” says Lee, 93, nodding at a poster of Errol Flynn in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. “I would leave the theater with an imaginary sword at my side looking for a young girl I could rescue. I still look around for girls who need rescuing.”
Over the past eight decades, Lee has lived out his childhood fantasy on the pages of thousands of comic books, turning his youthful daydreams into a mega-brand that today casts a Hulk-sized shadow over pop culture. When Disney bought Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009 — none of that going to Lee, but more on that later — it acquired the most valuable superhero library on the planet. Films based on Lee’s characters — and he has created or co-created hundreds — have grossed $21.3 billion worldwide, with TV shows, video games and merchandise adding billions more.
“I always wrote for myself,” says the silver-haired nonagenarian in his trademark aviators as he settles into a scruffy club chair in his office. “I figured I’m not that different from other people. If there’s a story I like a lot, there’s got to be others with similar tastes.”
The superhero business is booming now, but when Lee — then Leiber — landed his first job at 17 as a gofer at Timely Publications (his cousin was married to owner Martin Goodman), comics were considered a publishing slum. But Timely’s biggest rival, DC, had launched a comic about a guy in a red cape and, in response, Timely — which later would change its name to Marvel — was creating super characters of its own. Which is how Leiber — under the nom de plume Lee — ended up writing his first superhero story, in Captain America No. 3.
Within two years, Lee was running the place, with Goodman making his 19-year-old cousin-by-marriage editor-in-chief. Those first decades were not easy. When World War II ended, interest in superheroes flagged. In the 1950s, the public’s attitude toward comics turned downright hostile, with anti-comics crusades pushing the medium even further into the gutter. As the 1960s began, a discouraged Lee, nearing his 40th birthday, told his wife, Joan, that he was thinking about leaving his job. She told him that before he quits, why not try to write one story he really liked.
Above: The first episode of ‘Stan Lee’s Cosmic Crusaders,’ a web series about a writer who overcomes writer’s block with the help of a team of superpowered alien.
Along with partner Jack Kirby, he did just that, penning The Fantastic Four, a comic that revolutionized the medium by focusing attention as much on the dysfunctional lives of its characters as on the super battles they fought. Mr. Fantastic was in love with the Invisible Woman, the Thing was a cigar-chomping misanthrope, and the Human Torch was overly obsessed with his hot rod. Over the next half-dozen years — The Marvel Age, it has been called — great characters poured out of Lee’s imagination, all flawed in some way — Spider-Man (teen geek), Daredevil (blind hero), Hulk (anger issues), X-Men (hated for their differences). Lee’s superheroes lived in a real world — the Avengers’ Mansion was on Fifth Avenue, the X-Men’s school in Westchester County, N.Y. And they occupied a shared universe — Spider-Man auditioned for the Fantastic Four, the Thing played poker with Nick Fury. Lee pioneered geek fandom, addressing readers as friends and peppering stories with insider winks. “I wanted to make the readers feel like we’re a little select group,” he says. “The outside world doesn’t know, but we’re having fun.”
In 1967, Marvel finally overtook DC as the No. 1 comic book brand, but Marvel always had been the more fun place to work. “He was The Boss — there was never doubt about that — but he made those of us in the office feel like we were part of a team,” recalls Roy Thomas, who succeeded Lee as editor-in-chief in 1972, after Lee got bumped up to publisher.
No longer an outsider, Lee had become a celebrity, a troubadour of comic books, appearing everywhere from colleges to Carnegie Hall and even endorsing products (he modeled for Hathaway shirts). During the 1980s, he segued from publisher to genial brand ambassador, beginning the most famous series of cameos since Hitchcock’s.
But the one thing he didn’t accomplish during those super-productive years was becoming super rich. “I was stupid in a business way,” he admits. “I should have been greedier.” Throughout all of Marvel’s financial ups and downs over the decades — it has been bought and sold a dozen times — Lee, who never was an owner, failed to cash in, at least in a big way. He concedes he signed deals he shouldn’t have, like the one in 1998 in which he traded away his movie points for a reported $10 million (plus about a million a year for life). There has been some debate about just how much money (and credit) Lee merits for the creation of the Marvel Universe — his former partner Kirby (who had his own financial ax to grind with Marvel, until his estate won an eight-figure settlement from the company in 2015) slammed Lee in a 1990 interview for getting more than he deserved. But Lee is not living like George Lucas (who pocketed $4 billion in the sale of Lucasfilm). He and wife Joan (they have one daughter, Joan Celia) have lived in the same Hollywood Hills house for 35 years (long before it became Leonardo DiCaprio’s neighborhood).
Had Lee kept his points, it’s hard to fathom how much he’d be worth now. The three Iron Man movies alone have made $2.4 billion worldwide. “All we’re doing is trying to replicate the fun of [the comics],” says Kevin Feige, president of Disney’s Marvel Studios. “We want to bring the experience of reading the comics to the movie audience. I always point out that the novelty [of a shared universe] is purely cinematic because Stan and his gang were doing that in the bullpen.”
He’s still doing it today, just under a different banner. For the past 15 years, Lee has been chairman of POW! Entertainment, the media company he started with CEO Gill Champion, which is responsible for SKY TV’s biggest original hit (Stan Lee’s Lucky Man) as well as Stan Lee’s Cosmic Crusaders, a web series about a writer made with producers Genius Brand International — he happens to be named Stan Lee — who overcomes writer’s block with the help of a team of superpowered aliens (it debuted July 19 on THR.com; watch the first episode above and see all of the episodes here).
“For years, kids have been asking me what’s the greatest superpower,” says the man who turned a childhood infatuation with Errol Flynn into an empire. “I always say luck. If you’re lucky, everything works. I’ve been lucky.”
Thanks for photo research help to Sean Howe, John Morrow, Frank Giella, Danny Fingeroth and With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story producers Nikki Frakes, Will Hess and Terry Dougas.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.