The Reasons Behind Stan Lee Never Getting His Billionaire Status!
In the past 10 years alone, movies in the Marvel Universe have brought in over 21 billion dollars at the global box office. This doesn’t even count the money made from comic book sales, licensing deals, action figures, streaming contracts, or television deals. So surely the man who brought many of the Marvel characters to life must have been a billionaire when he died, right? Wrong.
Actually far from it. Today we’re going to tell the story of why the beloved comic writer Stan Lee never got as rich as you think. By the end of this article, you’ll see what went wrong for Stan and will learn something about how to avoid the same mistakes with your own ideas, but first a little background.
- Who is Stan Lee?
- Early Career
- Comic Revolution
- Lifetime Contract
- Stan Lee vs. Marvel Lawsuit
- The Lesson
- The Qoute
If you’re one of those Aluxers who prefer vibrant visuals over dull texts, here’s the whole story for you covered in our Youtube video:
With that checked out, let’s go back to discussing why Stan Lee never got rich:
Who is Stan Lee?
Stan Lee was a New York-based comic writer, who started out at Timely Comics when he was just 16 years old in 1939. He rose through the ranks to become the editor-in-chief, art director, and ultimately the president of the whole company. He was known for making his superheroes complex characters with human emotions and problems. In 1960, Timely Publications became Marvel Comics.
One of Lee’s first great successes in character development was The Fantastic Four in 1961. The long list of popular characters he created since then includes Spider-Man, the Hulk, Black Panther, Daredevil, the X-Men, and Doctor Strange. But that’s not all. He also created Ant-Man, Groot, Captain Marvel, Nick Fury, Hawkeye, Iron Man, Loki, Thor, the Avengers, and hundreds more.
These are some of the most marketable characters in history, so why did Stan Lee only have a relatively small net worth of 50 million when he died? Let’s go back to the beginning.
In the early years of his career at Timely Comics, Stan Lee was just trying to make ends meet. After a year or so of filling inkwells, erasing stray pencil marks, grabbing lunch for his co-workers and other menial tasks, he was finally given the chance to create his first character, Destroyer, in August 1941. Although he showed that he had a true talent, he was limited by the head of the publishing company, Martin Goodman, who didn’t want his writers to stray from safe, tested storylines.
By the late 1950s, Lee was disappointed in his career writing lowly comic books with no creative freedom when his real dream had been to write the next great American novel. He strongly considered quitting the business altogether.
Since he was planning on quitting anyway, he decided to take some risks with his characters and break away from the typical overused archetypes. He led an artistic revolution that changed the way comics were written and characters were developed. His characters were more human, flawed and complex. Goodman was not happy with his break from tradition, but he couldn’t argue with the sales numbers.
In 1962, Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko created Marvel’s most successful character of all time, Spider-Man. Within the span of a couple of years, Lee co-created the Hulk, Thor, the Avengers, the X-Men, Doctor Strange, and Daredevil.
Throughout this period of creativity, Lee was under contract with his publisher, which had been renamed Marvel Comics. Since he was their employee, they owned every character and storyline he created. Lee said he was paid well during this time and he was happy just to make his paycheck. He never dreamed he could be a millionaire. Meanwhile, even in those days, Marvel was beginning to build an entire empire on the popularity of his characters.
Resource: Most Expensive Comic Book Ever Sold
Lee stopped writing comics monthly in 1972 and became the public face of Marvel Comics. Comic book creators at Marvel didn’t begin earning royalties for their work until 1982. In 1981, Lee moved to California to help develop Marvel’s TV and movie properties. He was even made president of Marvel for a short time, but he didn’t feel like he was well suited for the role. He was paid well for his work, but it was nothing compared to what his creative ideas brought into the company.
When Lee stepped away from his regular duties at Marvel in 1998, he signed a contract that stated he would be employed for life as Chairman Emeritus with a one million dollar per year salary. The contract also stated that he would receive 10 percent of the profits of any television show or movie productions that included Marvel characters.
In return, he surrendered all claims and control he had over all of the ideas, artwork, stories, scripts, comic books, names, etc., that he contributed while working at Marvel. He was 75 when he signed this contract and never dreamed of what would happen with Marvel’s success over the next 20 years of his life.
Stan Lee vs. Marvel Lawsuit
In 2002, Stan Lee sued Marvel for not upholding their end of the contract. He claimed he had not been paid his promised percentage from film productions featuring Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, and others. A settlement was reached where Lee was reportedly given 10 million dollars to satisfy all past and future payments under the contract.
Unfortunately, Lee did not know how profitable his characters would become in the coming years, or else he likely never would have agreed to such a settlement.
In 2009, Disney bought Marvel Entertainment for four billion dollars. In the deal, they received all of Stan Lee’s former intellectual property, but because he did not have a stake in the company, he didn’t receive any financial gain from the sale. In 2012, Marvel began their successful run of blockbuster hits with The Avengers, which brought in over 1.5 billion in revenue globally.
This should have been an amazing payday for Lee, but he didn’t see a dime of it. He wasn’t even paid for his role as Executive Producer of the film as this was just an honorary title. When asked about it, he stated, “I hate to admit this, but I do not share in the movie’s profits. I just share in the interviews, in the glamour, in the people saying, ‘Wow, I love that movie, Stan’ — but I’m not a participant in the profits.”
Make no mistake, Stan Lee lived a comfortable and happy life, but he never received just compensation for his ideas that created multiple billion-dollar franchises. This is a cautionary tale for all creators and entrepreneurs.
There are several clear lessons that we can learn from Stan Lee’s experiences. Number one, know the value of your intellectual property. This includes your ideas, copyrights, trademarks, and patents. Be wary of signing any long-term contract that locks you into terms before the true potential of your ideas is realized. Lee once said:
“One of my lifelong regrets is that I’ve always been too casual about money.”
“It’s been made abundantly clear to me, by friends and others, that I should have realized I was creating a whole kaboodle of characters that became valuable franchises, but I was creating them for others.”
” Don’t allow others to take advantage of you and capitalize on your ideas without giving you fair compensation.”
If you want to get a more in-depth look at Stan Lee’s career and personal life, you’ll want to check out A Marvelous Life, The Amazing Story of Stan Lee. Author Danny Fingeroth gives a comprehensive biography of Stan Lee, who was his longtime friend and colleague. He follows his story from the time he was a poor kid in New York to his status today as an international legend.
This book will not be released until November, but you can pre-order it on Audible now for $31. An even better option is to go to alux.com/freebook and sign up so that you can get the audiobook version for free thanks to our partnership with Audible!
Resource: Most Expensive Comic Books of All Time
While researching his story, we’ve come across this incredible quote from Stan Lee we’d like to share with you that goes like this:
“I’ve been very lucky. All I wanted was to pay the rent. Then these characters took off and suddenly there were Hulk coffee mugs and Iron Man lunchboxes and The Avengers sweatshirts everywhere. Money’s okay, but what I really like is working.”
Stan Lee reminds us how vital it is to find what we are passionate about, and if you can find a way to embrace your passion while also bringing in income, you’ve really reached the sweet spot in life.