Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Stan "The Company Man" Lee

I like Gerard Jones. And I certainly concede that he has far more experience in the comic book industry than me. But I think his Op-Ed in today's LA Times totally misses the mark.

Jones glosses over Stan Lee's actual legal battle with Marvel, instead focusing on creator rights. Lee's lawsuit against Marvel, however, was not about creator rights - it was about honoring a 1998 contract, which Marvel failed to do. Comicon's the Pulse has a nice little summary of the case over here.

Surely, creator rights is an important issue. But Stan Lee's lawsuit was not about affording creators rights they should have (which is what so many creator rights lawsuits are about); Lee's lawsuit was about a major corporation honoring a contract that guarantees a creator very specific rights.

And I've seen/read/heard enough interviews with Stan Lee in which he quickly credits his collaborators (Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, etc.) to know that whatever happened in the past, Stan's got no problem now giving other creators their rightful due.

The fact is, Stan was a company man. Marvel was his company. He stuck by the company through thick and thin. When his company was screwing his friends, he made some tough decisions, and ultimately, he stuck by his company. Despite the gigantic contributions of all the brilliant artits who helped create Marvel, it was Stan "the Man" Lee who endowed their creations with a vibrant soul, breathing his own hyperbolic life into the characters and stories. He was the front man. He was the face of Marvel, the voice of Marvel, the soul of Marvel. He took the greatest risk, and yielded the greates gain. And in the end, he became so intimately entwined with Marvel that - to this day - you can't think of Marvel without hearing his enthusiastic voice bellowing, "Hey, true believers!"

Why should Stan be blamed for making a smart business move? Certainly, he served Marvel well as the ultimate spokesman - just because he wasn't a schlub doesn't mean that he doesn't deserve what he's earned. In the end, he made a very wise career move. And when Marvel was in trouble in the late 90's, he signed a very unique contrat with them, which was mutually beneficial to both parties. No one could have predicted Marvel's wild success in the new millenium based on close of the 20th Century. But I guarantee - had Stan owed Marvel instead of vice-versa, Marvel would've dragged Stan into court so fast, it would make Matt Murdoch's neck snap.

The bottom line is, business is business. Should other creators get what Stan got? Well, they didn't sign the contract that Stan signed in 1998. Stan's contract clearly states:

f) In addition, you shall be paid participation equal to 10% of the profits derived during your life by Marvel (including subsidiaries and affiliates) from the profits of any live action or animation television or movie (including ancillary rights) productions utilizing Marvel characters. This participation is not to be derived from the fee charged by Marvel for the licensing of the product or of the characters for merchandise or otherwise. Marvel will compute, account and pay to you your participation due, if any, on account of said
profits, for the annual period ending each March 31 during your life, on an annual basis within a reasonable time after the end of each such period.

We should no more villify Stan for collecting on what his contract specifies than we should blame Marvel for capitalizing on the success of the Spider-Man movies. It's business. Marvel is a lot of things, but it's still a company. And who better to win big against a giant company than the ultimate company man.

UPDATED: I will say, however, that Jones' point that even "the face of the company" was not above being screwed is a good one. And he's right. Just think of what the state of the current industry could be like if creators were encouraged to continue creating new characters for the Big 2, instead of strip-mining the past to keep the companies on life support.