Still Smilin'?

Stan Lee, for better or worse the most recognizable face in the history of the comic book, insists he has no love for rehashing his past. He claims to take no great joy from talking about long-ago yesterdays spent in smoky rooms co-creating the likes of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, X-Men and Dr. Strange--the flawed, hung-up heroes of the Marvel Universe, of which the brightest star was and always will be Stan Lee. "Maybe I would if I were retired, if I were sitting in a rocking chair on a porch somewhere," Lee says. "I might say, 'Oh, those were the good old days, I remember this and that.'"

But at 80 Lee is not retired, not even close. He calls from his office at the Los Angeles-based POW! Entertainment. The wounds are still fresh from the colossal and embarrassing failure of Stan Lee Media, the Internet company destroyed in 2001 by swindlers and con men eventually prosecuted and punished by the government. Lee wasn't to blame, but his investors lost millions, and he remains shamefaced by its demise. "If I ever can strike it rich in any way, I'm going to pay them back," he says. "Oh, boy, it was a nightmare. The breath was knocked out of me."

Maybe that is why he still works, 63 years after first getting into the comic-book business: to make money enough to buy away the guilt. Two weeks ago, his latest creation, the Pamela Anderson cartoon Striperella ("Stripper by night, superhero later that night"), debuted on the New TNN network, and Lee says he is working with, among others, Pierce Brosnan on a future project. He is also lending his voice to the new Spider-Man animated series debuting this week on MTV, as well as introducing older Marvel cartoons being rolled out on DVD. Lee, it would seem, has caught his breath.

But Stan Lee, like all comic-book characters, would be nothing without his past--the moment when a man became an immortal and a life story acquired the power of mythology. He may not like talking about all those yesterdays, but he has done nothing but expound on them since he stopped writing comic books 30 years ago and became the comic-book publisher who became the medium's biggest promoter.

Look around each time a Marvel property suits up for a multimillion-dollar film, and there you will find Lee reminiscing about how his Fantastic Four saved his cousin-in-law Martin Goodman's Marvel Comics from extinction in 1961, how he created Spider-Man because he wanted to see a neurotic teen-ager in a superhero's tights or how he imagined the Hulk as Frankenstein's monster with a heart and a scientist's brilliant mind. Just last year, the man who hates history saw publication of his autobiography Excelsior!--one of several he's written since the release of 1974's Origin of Marvel Comics. He even granted several interviews to Tom Spurgeon and Jordan Raphael for their unauthorized biography, Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, due out in September.

Yet, slowly, he purges the past--and, perhaps more poignantly, risks severing the ties that have bound Lee to Marvel since 1940, when it was known as Timely and he was a 17-year-old kid running errands for the relative who owned the company.

On November 12, 2002, Lee filed a lawsuit against Marvel, claiming the company owes him more than $20 million made from the X-Men and Spider-Man films. Though Lee insists he hopes "this will be the friendliest lawsuit on record, because I really love the guys at Marvel and I love the company," the language of the suit, filed in New York, suggests otherwise: Marvel, it reads, has "embarked upon a shameful scheme to keep Mr. Lee from participating in the commercial success of his creations." Marvel insists the suit is without merit.

According to his 1998 contract with Marvel, Lee makes $1 million a year for working "10 to 15 hours a week" for the company, serving "as a spokesman for Marvel" in interviews, lectures and convention appearances. (Lee's suit contends he gave 50 interviews in conjunction with the Spider-Man film.) If Lee dies before his wife, Joan, she'll get $500,000 a year till she passes; his daughter will get an additional $100,000 a year for five years. The contract also allows Lee to serve as Marvel's publisher, though he long ago ceased being involved in the company's business dealings; gives him an additional $125,000 annually to write the syndicated Spider-Man newspaper strip; and gives him 10 percent in profits from movies and TV shows made using Marvel's characters. It's the last bit of language Lee feels needs some clearing up.

"Actually, I was sort of talked into it," Lee says of the suit. "People have written it's like the Colonel suing Kentucky Fried Chicken. It feels funny, but I don't see it as a lawsuit as much as trying to get to the bottom of what the contract really means, what those words mean."