Stan Lee helped create some of the most iconic characters in Western popular culture. Superheroes like Spider-Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men had more than just garish costumes or bonkers superpowers. They had relatable, flawed personalities too. But Lee’s journey from dime-store comic creator to the public face of a $4 billion entertainment juggernaut (the price paid by the Walt Disney Co. for Marvel Comics in 2009) is also an instructive trip through one of the stranger market bubbles. Like tulip bulbs, but with spandex.
As he rose through the ranks of comic publisher Marvel in the 1960s with titles such as The Fantastic Four and The Incredible Hulk, Lee became as recognizable as Alfred Hitchcock, proving one could be a successful auteur within the confines of the comic publishing industry. He also avoided the fate of the unsung corporate hero who fails to get financial recompense for their work. Think of the original creators of Superman, who sold the rights for $130.
Yet the waves of speculation that flooded the comic world in the 1980s and 1990s left even Lee regretting that he’d never got his fair share. In 2016, he said: “I should have been greedier." Lee received credit for his characters, but he never really owned them. He traded away his “movie points" (the percentage he was owed when his creations were filmed) for $10 million in 1998, according to the Hollywood Reporter. That’s a big number but nothing like the $17 billion grossed by Marvel movies worldwide.
The 1990s was really the comic book industry’s decade of excess. A new generation of artists had revitalized well-known superheroes for a new generation of readers. That success in turn led to a publishing frenzy, as a flood of new titles was pumped out to meet demand. Billionaire Ron Perelman bought Marvel, took it public, and the industry became awash in gimmicks designed to stoke speculative frenzy from collectors, running from multiple covers of the same comics to highly-prized trading cards
The bubble burst. Marvel’s stock price went from about $30 in the early 1990s to near-zero as the company filed for bankruptcy in 1996. The flood of collector’s editions and No. 1 issues of new or rebooted characters failed to make any buyer rich. It was around this time, that Lee cashed in his movie percentage.
So it’s somewhat sad that he and his fellow creators didn’t benefit more from what came after this crisis: A new golden age for his characters as merchandise and movie characters, with Disney in the driving seat and pocketing most of the gains. Today, even as the “Marvel Cinematic Universe" grosses billions, comic-book stores are closing and Lee’s own characters are fighting to stay relevant in printed form. Lee was churning out new superheroes right up until his death, but not for big gains.
Just as unfortunate is the tendency to forget the tensions inherent in Lee’s own vision of capitalism. Iron Man’s Tony Stark is a cynical arms dealer and billionaire industrialist, yet also a philanthropist who fights corporate crime. That was a good fit for the Cold War era in which he was born. Today, Stark has been appropriated by the Silicon Valley crowd, feting his technological wizardry and ignoring his darker role in the defense business.
While Lee doesn’t fit the category of the penniless artist chewed up by the corporate machine, his journey through big business clearly proved bittersweet. With Disney reaching the final hurdle of its acquisition of 21st-Century Fox, and presumably yet more large-scale milking of the Marvel franchise to come, it’s the S&P 500 juggernauts that are gaining superpowers.