The Ghost of Stan Lee Delivers ‘No-Prizes’ From Beyond the Grave

Marvel Comics writer, editor, and iconic impresario Stan Lee died in 2018, but his image will march on, zombie-like.

This week Stan Lee Universe signed a 20-year deal giving Marvel the right to use Lee’s voice and likeness in films, television shows, theme parks, and merchandising.

Some fans have recoiled, worried that this means that Marvel wants to continue the tradition of Lee appearing in cameos in its features, digitally reanimating his likeness for uncanny-valley, post-death digital insertion. The MCU is certainly capable of doing something ghoulish and gauche along those lines. But what’s really disturbing about the deal is the way it’s in many ways a natural extension of the worst parts of Marvel’s legacy of vampiric commodification, which was ambivalently turned on Lee and exploited by him.

From the Bullpen

Lee is best known as the co-creator of a wide array of Marvel’s most famous characters, including the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the Avengers, the X-Men, Dr. Strange, and more. Early adventures were drawn and mostly plotted by the artists and co-creators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Lee added trademark hyper-punchy dialogue which read as a mixture of soap-opera serial, marketing copy, and avuncular wink, reaching an apotheosis in his trippy alliterative catchphrases for Dr. Strange—“the Hoary Hordes of Hoggoth!” “the Dread Dormammu!”

Lee’s asides to readers, in which he enthused about the story they were reading and promised even better to come, positioned him simultaneously as a fellow fan and a master of ceremonies. He was like the frontman of a band—and like many a frontman, his fame eclipsed that of his collaborators, even though they were in most respects more responsible for songwriting and performance.

Lee got invited to speak on college campuses and became so synonymous with Marvel that he was tapped to do jokey cameos in X-Men films and later in the growing MCU empire, ensuring ongoing paydays. Meanwhile, in the 80s Marvel had tried to hold Jack Kirby’s original artwork hostage to force him to sign over all rights to his characters. Even today, Marvel is notorious for its stingy payments to creators like Jim Starlin (Thanos, Gamora) and Ed Brubaker (Winter Soldier).

This kind of disconnect has created a Stan Lee counter-myth; while most fans know him as the benign originator of all things Marvel, fans of Kirby and Ditko have sometimes cast him as a talentless leech who exploited great artists while contributing nothing of his own.

The Man vs The Myth

Both these caricatures are exaggerated. The truth is that Lee contributed important elements to many classic comics. But those contributions have little to do with his pop culture or financial success. Creators in corporate comics and media aren’t generally celebrated. But Lee managed to parlay his visibility and quasi-managerial role into the creation of one final, memorable character—Stan Lee. And it was as that character that he was able to access the capitalist bonanza.

For Disney, Marvel, and entertainment conglomerates in general, creators are a natural resource to mine and exploit. The business model is built on extracting ideas from writers and artists at relatively low cost, and then packaging and repackaging them for millions and billions of dollars.

Part of the joke of the popular Marvel Zombies alternate universe is that it’s a metaphor for the fact that Marvel runs on the power of the undead. The whole system only works because you can separate the image/body from the soul, casting aside the creators so that the dead husks of Captain America or Wolverine can stagger on forever, making jerky, unconvincing imitations of life onscreen and vomiting the green bile of profits.

Lee managed to hack that system. He was the creator of the popular character Stan Lee—a character which, thanks to the peculiarities of IP law and material reality, corporations couldn’t take from him. The only way to get Stan Lee content was to go to Stan Lee.

As a work-for-hire creator, Lee—like Kirby and Ditko—was mostly ripped off; he didn’t die a billionaire. But he received a reported $1 million annual salary from Disney, and several million over the years for his cameos. And now his heirs have inked a deal to continue to capitalize on his likeness. Stan the Man has finally been pried loose from Stan the character, joining all those other corporate corpses shuffling soullessly into the future. Excelsior!

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Featured Image Credit: Unsplash.


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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.