Superhero Creator Fights Back

Court Win May Finally Deliver Millions For Comic Legend Stan Lee

When Stan Lee, the creator of some of our most lovable Superheroes, decided to sue Marvel Comics, the company for which he had worked for all his adult life, it made news.

Lee is one of America's legendary comic book geniuses. He created Spider-Man, X-Men, the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk. And his company, Marvel, had reaped astronomical profits from movies based on Lee's characters.

But when Correspondent Bob Simon first interviewed Lee more than two years ago, the comic book legend felt he was being cheated by the company. He was about to sue, and he was angry, even though he tried hard to hide it.

"When I wrote these stories, I wrote them as a write-for-hire, so I don't own the characters," says Lee.

Did that put him in a state of rage? "No, I'm just interested in what I'm doing at the moment, and I don't dwell on it. I try not to," he says.

"Do you feel that you're being screwed," asks Simon.

"I don't want to say that," Lee replied. "After all, I'm still a part of the company. I love the people. I love the company. And, as I say, I try not to think of it."

When Lee created Spider-Man for Marvel Comics more than 40 years ago, he could not have imagined the bonanza it would yield. Each of the two Spider-Man movies has brought in about $800 million in worldwide ticket sales.

Once, before the age of computers, Spider-Man was just a simple pencil drawing, a cartoon figure that changed comic books forever. Lee's creation was not a "Superman" from another planet, but a real, earth-bound person, a human being with super powers.

How was Spider-Man born? "I've told this story so often, and it may even be true. But I was watching a fly crawling on a wall," recalls Lee. "And I was looking for a new superhero. And I figure, 'Wow, wouldn't it be cool if a guy could crawl on a wall?'"

Did he realize at the time that this was a totally new thing? "Not at all. I was just trying to make up some new characters so that I would keep my job, keep eating and paying the rent," says Lee. "And I hoped the books would sell. We didn't think we were doing anything revolutionary."

But Spider-Man was revolutionary. Lee had broken the mold, and he had created something unheard of, an action hero with psychological problems, a slightly neurotic and fragile superhero.

"He can be shot, he can be gassed, he can be hit very hard and knocked down," says Lee. "He's stronger than the average person, but he's incredibly vulnerable."

And Spider-Man's alter ego, Peter Parker, was just a dorky teenager: bullied by boys, rejected by girls, and indifferent about his superpowers. Yet, he struck a nerve.

"As a matter of fact, my publisher hated it and didn't want me to publish it when I told him about it. He didn't like the idea of it being called Spider-Man," says Lee. "He said, 'Stan, people hate spiders. You can't give a book that name.' When I told him I wanted him to be a teenager, he said, 'but teenagers can only be sidekicks.' Then when I said, 'I want him to have a lot of problems.' He said, 'Don't you know what a hero is?'"

Today, Lee is a kind of hero. He's regarded as the comic book industry's grand old man.

On the first visit, he invited 60 Minutes to accompany him to a comic book store in Los Angeles to survey his work — almost the entire Stan Lee collection. Lee is the man responsible for bringing a modern sensibility to the superhero.

"I like to think that what we do is realistic fantasy. We have to suspend disbelief in the sense that our character is gonna have some super power, is super strong, can crawl on walls, can fly in the air, whatever that is," says Lee. "But in order not to make it just a fairy tale, you have to believe in the person. And you have to believe that such a person might exist."

Are comic books the hottest things in Hollywood?

"I think so. I mean, it's very simple. They make money. That's what makes them hot," says Avi Arad, Marvel's chief creative officer. He's the man in charge of converting the comic books into movies.

Arad produced "X-Men," "The Incredible Hulk," and "Daredevil." And he hopes to produce sequels upon sequels of (pardon the pun) Spider-Man spin-offs. Simon spoke with him two years ago.

At the time, how much did Arad think his films were going to be worth? "Well, if you look at the studio that looks at revenues, ticket sales, DVD, disc movies, they're all in the hundreds of millions of dollars," he said.

"So if each movie is in the hundreds of millions, you right now are looking at more than a billion, right," asked Simon.

"Yeah, a billion dollars is not, it wouldn't be unusual," said Arad.

There was so much money made from the movies, but not a penny of it was going to Lee, the man who invented the characters.

Was Lee getting a fair deal? "Sure. Stan created great characters, and obviously, ask him," says Arad. "I think he's getting a fair shake."

But obviously, Stan didn't think so. Because a month after he met with 60 Minutes in 2002, he sued Marvel.

And when 60 Minutes Wednesday caught up with Lee recently in Los Angeles, he spoke for the first time about how he really felt.

"It was very emotional. I guess what happened was I was really hurt," says Lee. "We had always had this great relationship, the company and me. I felt I was a part of it. My contract called for me getting a certain share of the profits - movies, television, licensing and so forth."

"I think when the contract was written, nobody may have expected that those movies would be so successful. And when they were, I naturally felt, 'Oh boy, this is great!' And then when I found out that nobody seemed to want to live up to that clause in the contract," says Lee.

"Don't forget, I've written about superheroes all my life. And they're the good guys. And they always do the right things. And I always thought our company is the good company, and we always did the right thing, and we always tried to treat the artists, and the writers, and the editors well. And suddenly, I felt I wasn't being treated well, and it really hurt."

A federal judge agreed, and awarded Lee 10 percent of the profits Marvel has made on the "Spider-Man" movies, as well as the other movies based on Lee's superheroes. If the ruling holds up, Lee could soon be pocketing tens of millions of Marvel's dollars.

"Don't forget. There's still things to be ironed out," says Lee. "The judge left some things in abeyance."

"You could come into tens of millions," says Simon.

"Wow. That would be nice," says Lee.

What's he going to do with it?

"Honestly, I haven't even thought of it. I mean, I'm happy the way I'm living now," says Lee. "I've never been fabulously wealthy. I said I have no idea what I would do. It will be a whole new experience for me."

Meanwhile, Lee has been doing OK financially, even without a share from the movies. And Marvel told 60 Minutes Wednesday this week that it's provided Lee with arguably the most generous employment contract of any comic book creator -- including a million-dollar salary.

"That is after me having worked there for 60 years. That is after me having really built the company, being the editor, the art director, the publisher," says Lee. "I was even the president for a while. Being the guy who gave the company its look, its feel, its everything … its name."

"I don't like it to sound the way it sounds," adds Lee. "But I only say that because it's not just that somebody is tossing me an amount of money. And you know, boy, I'm lucky. I think I'm lucky, but I think I've earned it."

Lee is anxious to put the lawsuit behind him. At 82, he's got all the money he'll ever need, especially if the court's ruling is upheld.

"I'm not sure what I have won," says Lee. "And the winning is very nebulous because Marvel says they'll appeal."

"You've won the first round, and even if it goes 15 rounds, whether it's a knockout or not, you've won," says Simon. "And you've established that you were right and Marvel was wrong."

"Well that part feels good, I must admit," says Lee. "Yeah. Vindication. Just like every superhero should have a bit of vindication."

  • David Kohn

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