As The Avengers rakes in millions worldwide, the comics community continues to discuss the treatment of comics creators by corporations like Marvel Comics, both now and in the days of Avengers co-creator Jack Kirby. So what does Marvel icon and former Kirby cohort Stan Lee think about the issue? It turns out, not much.
Fans clamored for months before Earth's Mightiest Heroes hit theaters to get Kirby's name included in the film's credits as co-creator of the characters. As The Avengers raked in a record-breaking weekend box office take a few days ago, fans also began a campaign to get people to donate the price of a movie ticket to comics creators' charity The Hero Initiative in Kirby's name. Even now, the discussion over the ethical implications of Marvel raking in millions from work based on Kirby's creations continues around the web.
The week before The Avengers was released, Lee said he didn't know why or how Kirby would be credited for the film. Lee himself appears in the credits as an executive producer, and with Kirby long dead, he didn't see how his former partner could have had any involvement in the film. But what about creators' rights in general? Lee worked at Marvel for decades, writing hundreds of comics and creating dozens of very, very profitable characters for the company. Did he ever wonder if he was getting a raw deal?
"I've never been one of these people who worries about [that]. I should have been. I'd be wealthy now, if I had been. I always felt the publisher was the guy investing all his money, and I was working for the publisher, and whatever I did belonged to him. That was the way it was. And I was always treated well, I got a good salary. I was not a businessman. Now, a guy like Bob Kane, who did Batman -- the minute he did Batman, he said, 'I wanna own it,' and signed a contract with DC. So he became reasonably wealthy. He was the only one who was smart enough to do that. Did you read that the check that Siegel and Shuster got for Superman -- I think it was four hundred dollars, or two hundred dollars -- just sold at auction for $140,000?"
It's true that a lot of comics creators would be much, much richer these days if they hadn't created these characters on a work-for-hire basis. But what about the way the creators have been treated in general? What about the legal battles that Siegel and Shuster, and the Kirby estate, went through to get even a small piece of the millions made from these characters? In general, does Lee think the industry's been fair to the people who helped build it?
"I don't know," Stan says. "I haven't had reason to think about it that much." Five-second pause. "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."
A lot of creators' rights advocates would contest Lee's claim that creators' rights aren't a problem anymore, particularly those familiar with the recent troubles of Ghost Rider creator Gary Friedrich. But even if he doesn't agree that the problem persists, Lee does make clear that, though he collected a comfortable salary from his various Marvel leadership positions, as a creator he's in the same boat.
"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."