This is a really strange time to be a lifelong comic book fan. On the one hand, all your nerd dreams are coming true: geeks are cool and superheroes are mainstream. On the other hand, the success of comic book movies hasn't really trickled down to the comic book industry, which continues to struggle with flagging sales (up slightly this year, but down 13% from five years ago and 31% from fifteen years ago, according to Comichron.com). What's worse, many of the men who made these comics in the first place are seeing no financial reward from their remarkable success. "The Avengers" is now the fastest movie to gross $1 billion in history and exactly none of that goes to the estate of Jack Kirby, the man who co-created "The Avengers" with Stan Lee back in 1963. And while that's not legally wrong — Kirby created "The Avengers" as a freelancer performing a work for hire for Marvel, which means all his artwork and concepts belong to the company and not the artist — it sure doesn't feel too good.
Where exactly Stan Lee himself fits into this equation of creators and corporations is a widely debated matter in comic book fan circles. While Kirby's estate (the artist died in 1994) gets nothing from "The Avengers," Lee remains a well-paid figurehead at Marvel, pulling down something like a million dollars a year to essentially play the role of "Stan Lee," the garrulous, genial face of the company. While Kirby was a freelancer, Lee was a company man, working as a salaried employee and an editor in addition to his duties as a writer. When journalists came to Marvel looking for a story, Stan became the guy who did the interviews, which meant Stan also became the guy people thought of as the creator of Marvel Comics. Indeed, while Lee's cameos in every Marvel movie are cute, they also cast him as the comic book universe's equivalent of Alfred Hitchcock: in other words, the author. These days Lee is quick to remind people that he was the co-creator of all his famous characters (which also include the Fantastic Four and X-Men with Kirby, and Spider-Man with Steve Ditko). But most of his collaborators are dead or reclusive; Lee stands alone as the face of our modern comic book culture.
This makes Lee a complicated and fascinating figure, one given the careful, reasoned analysis he deserves in an excellent feature and interview on Grantland by Alex Pappademas called "The Inquisition of Mr. Marvel." On the occasion of a press tour for the cable channel Epix, which was premiering an entertaining but lightweight documentary on the writer called "With Great Power" (which is now available on VOD and iTunes, if you're curious), Pappademas examined "The Man"'s perplexing legacy and asked some pointed questions of the living legend. Maybe the most interesting exchange came after Pappademas asked Lee whether he thought comic book creators have been treated fairly by the industry they've turned into a multibillion dollar empire (and after Lee took a long pause to think through a response):
"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."
It is interesting that Lee equates himself with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the men who created Superman for DC Comics and sold the company all of their rights to it for a measly $130 in 1938. By the ends of their lives, Siegel and Shuster were near-destitute; Lee, in contrast, has lived a comfortable and privileged life in Los Angeles for decades. If he doesn't have Bill Gates money, he's still doing pretty well for himself. Then again, he doesn't own his creations either, and if he is a wealthy man, it's mostly because he's a better salesman and businessman than some of his less fortunate peers. And in his mind — either because he really believes it or because he needs to convince himself to believe it because he wouldn't be able to live with himself otherwise — that means he's in basically the same boat as Siegel, Shuster, Kirby, and the rest.
By the way, that pitiful check to Siegel and Shuster for the rights to Superman recently sold at auction for a whopping $160,000. The check belonged not to Siegel and Shuster themselves, but to a former DC employee who recognized the possible value of the check and stashed it away when he was ordered to throw it out. What a perfect microcosm of these exciting, depressing times.