Stan Lee is as much of an icon as the superheroes he helped bring to life. Though the co-creator of the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk hasn’t written Marvel books since 1972, he’s the public face of Marvel Comics, having appeared at countless conventions, voiced himself on The Simpsons, narrated Marvel’s first forays into animation and made cameos in nearly every Marvel movie (including both of this year’s billion-dollar hits, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War).
Lee is such an industry titan that it’s easy to forget he’s a regular guy, born in Manhattan as Stanley Lieber, the son of struggling Romanian immigrants, and now, a 95-year-old widower with a fortune to his name. The past few months have been a brutal reminder of Lee’s humanity, with a whirlwind of allegations made by and against the people closest to Lee, which stretch from claims of fraudulent signatures to the theft of his blood.
The sad stories of comics’ most important creators
The situation surrounding Stan Lee is complex, but not unusual for a personality who laid foundational stones in the American comics industry.
Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster spent nearly 40 years in legal battles with DC Comics trying to receive royalties or even credit for the character they’d sold for $130 in 1938. Bob Kane, who drew Batman’s first appearance, negotiated a credit for himself but left co-creator Bill Finger in the dust — a situation that was only rectified in 2015, long after Finger’s death. Bill Mantlo, creator of Rocket Racoon, spent two decades in a nursing home after a hit-and-run accident, eventually negotiating a compensation package with Marvel in 2014, following the release of Guardians of the Galaxy.
And Lee’s artistic partner Jack Kirby — who created Black Panther, Iron Man and the Hulk with him — never struck any comparable deal before his death in 1994. The Kirby estate sued Marvel multiple times after that point, before finally reaching an out-of-court settlement in 2014.
Decades after the creation of these characters, there are still many aging comics creators struggling to pay their bills, while adaptations of their work make billions at the box office. Crowdfunding campaigns to pay medical bills or just help a creator get by are a frequent sight — frequent enough that The Hero Initiative was set up in 2000, a charity organization with the sole purpose of aiding the writers and artists who helped lay the foundations of American comics.
Disputes over credit and royalties riddle the history of superhero comics — something that applies, albeit to a lesser extent, to Lee himself, who doesn’t hold the rights to the characters he co-created. As Lee told CNN upon the debut of The Avengers in 2012, “I hate to admit this, but I do not share in the movie’s profits.” His position as executive producer on Marvel’s films, according to the same interview, is “just an honorary title.” Lee signed away any film rights in a 1998 deal, according to The Hollywood Reporter, meaning that he won’t receive any of the millions that Infinity War has made, and will make. However, in this aspect at least, Lee has actually been unusually lucky. The 1998 deal landed him a reported $10 million, and a lifetime salary of $1 million from Marvel.
The accusations surrounding Lee, his close associates and his assets are complex, often confusing and in some cases contradictory, but the reports contain enough salient facts to put together a portrait of what the legend faces in this late stage of his life.
The initial allegations
The story begins last July, with the death of Joanie Lee, Stan’s wife of nearly 70 years, who was often credited with pushing him to create the Fantastic Four. Her passing left Lee with a single living family member: their 68-year-old daughter, Joan C. Lee, generally referred to as J.C.
The first signs that people might be taking advantage of Lee’s widower situation came at the tail end of last year, when TMZ reported that Lee had filed a police report over money taken from him. A $300,000 check was reportedly written out in Lee’s name to Hands of Respect, a merchandising company that Lee now says he helped found after being led to believe it was a nonprofit charity.
Then, in early February, Lee was briefly hospitalized after suffering “shortness of breath and irregular heartbeat,” according to TMZ). A few days later, on Feb. 13, his attorney, Tom Lallas, filed a legal declaration. This document, purportedly from Lee himself, accuses J.C. of “continuing attempts to control my life and exercise undue influence over my property, assets and business affairs.” It also identifies three men in his and J.C.’s life who he believes are “not trustworthy” and “bad actors with bad intentions.”
The three men in question are Jerry Olivarez, Keya Morgan and Kirk Schenck. Olivarez is a co-founder of Hands of Respect, and was granted power of attorney by Lee after Joanie’s death, but had been removed from the inner circle by the end of 2017, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Morgan is a memorabilia dealer, reportedly trying to produce a biopic based on Lee’s life. Schenck is J.C.’s attorney, and is accused in the declaration of turning up at Lee’s home uninvited along with J.C. in an attempt to convince him to transfer ownership of the house to his daughter.
The declaration forbids these men, and J.C. herself, from being named Lee’s guardian, executor or trustee, or “having any involvement in the administration of my money, property, assets including but not limited to my intellectual property.”
Lee refutes the claims
The story became national news in April, when The Hollywood Reporter caught wind of the legal battle and summed up the situation with a quote from a onetime associate of Lee’s: “He finds himself in need of a superhero himself.”
But before this report was even published, Keya Morgan — one of the alleged “bad actors” — sent The Hollywood Reporter videos of Lee disputing the legitimacy of the February declaration. In the videos, Lee dismisses the claims made in the legal document as “totally incorrect, inaccurate, misleading, insulting,” and says that “my relationship with my daughter has never been better.” He named Morgan, who shot the videos, as a trustworthy “friend.” Lee doesn’t deny signing the declaration, but claims that he wasn’t aware of its contents, possibly due to the eye condition, macular degeneration, that renders him “almost blind.”
Tom Lallas, the attorney, disputed this claim, telling People that he “read the declaration to Mr. Lee word for word, line by line, sentence by sentence, from beginning to end.”
It’s surprisingly common in these cases to have conflicting accounts of who has power of attorney, according to Vivian Lee Thoreen, a partner at Los Angeles law firm Holland & Knight who has worked on similar high-profile cases, including actor Mickey Rooney’s 2011 elder abuse case and the matter of Prince’s estate after his death in 2016.
“It happens a lot more frequently than you would think, where you have competing estate planning documents or power of attorney documents,” Thoreen tells Polygon. It can be hard to tell whether these kinds of legal changes are instances the elderly person genuinely changing their mind, or result from being coerced, she adds.
“Let’s say I’m an unsuspecting estate planning attorney, and the son brings in the parent to have new documents prepared,” says Thoreen. “I don’t know how many conversations the son and the parent have had about these new documents that they want me to compare. Maybe I ask a lot of questions to really understand why the parent wants to make these changes — but maybe I don’t. Maybe I ask a few perfunctory questions and I am perfectly comfortable preparing these documents.”
Was dealing with my own health scare but now I’m extremely worried about my hero @TheRealStanLee. His buddy/caretaker Max has been his Alfred/Jarvis for years, taking the absolute best care of Stan. I join these comics pros in expressing concern for Stan: https://t.co/FOLlUkBbV5
— KevinSmith (@ThatKevinSmith) March 7, 2018
Regardless of whether the contents of the declaration were accurate, the document’s release reportedly triggered a changing of the guard around Lee. Unsurprisingly, Lallas was replaced. But according to The Hollywood Reporter, Lee’s accountant, housekeeper and gardener were also all fired, and Mike Kelly — who had served as Lee’s assistant for over two decades — was limited to supervised visits.
The biggest change, however, came on Feb. 16, when Max Anderson, Lee’s longtime tour manager, was ousted. As reported by the Daily Mail, Keya Morgan, named in the February declaration, reported Anderson to the police for aggressive behavior, and accused him of stealing items and money from Lee — claims Anderson denies, but which led to his removal.
Several comics creators spoke out in favor of Anderson at the time. Bleeding Cool published statements of concern from comics artists Neal Adams and J. Scott Campbell and writer Peter David, while Kevin Smith tweeted that Anderson was Lee’s “Alfred/Jarvis, taking the absolute best care of Stan.”
“A diabolical and ghoulish scheme”
The publication of the Hollywood Reporter article in April was followed by a further development, as Lee filed a lawsuit accusing Jerry Olivarez — another of the “bad actors” named in the disputed declaration from February — of numerous charges, including fraud, misappropriation of name and likeness, and financial abuse of an elder.
“Upon [Joanie’s] death, Lee became the target of various unscrupulous businessmen, sycophants and opportunists who saw a chance to take advantage of Lee’s despondent state of mind, kind heart and devotion to his craft,” the complaint reads. However, unlike the declaration, this lawsuit only names Olivarez.
The allegations laid out in the lawsuit are a grim read, restating the charge of Olivarez’s unauthorized $300,000 check and adding a claim that he bought himself property with $850,000 worth of Lee’s funds. “Nearly $1.4 million disappeared from Lee’s accounts through a series of complicated wire-transfers all initiated and ultimately received by Olivarez,” it says.
The lawsuit also describes “a diabolical and ghoulish scheme” in which Lee’s blood was extracted by a nurse to be sold as a collectible item. According to the lawsuit, the blood was then mixed with ink and used to create stamps of Lee’s autograph, enabling Olivarez to sell collectible comics signed in Lee’s own blood.
Olivarez hasn’t denied selling this blood, but does claim that he had the consent of Lee and his physician to extract it. He told The Hollywood Reporter that it was part of a “smear campaign” by Keya Morgan to make a “cool” merchandising idea sound like something sinister.
Though Olivarez is the only person specifically named in the lawsuit, the list of accused also includes 25 anonymous people each referred to as “Doe.”
“What that means is, X is suing Y because there are facts to attribute responsibility or liability to Y,” Thoreen explains. “And X is saying: ‘Look, there are other people who are involved. I don’t know who they are at this moment in time, so this is a placeholder. As soon as I figure out who those people are, I’m going to substitute Doe 1, 2, 3 with the specific names of the responsible parties.’
“So my guess is that, as the lawsuit proceeds — if it does — other people will be ‘invited to the party.’”
A second lawsuit emerges
The scope of the accusations has indeed widened since, with a second lawsuit filed by Lee’s attorney on May 15 — this time against POW! Entertainment, a production company he co-founded in 2001.
The lawsuit, obtained by CNN, accuses POW! CEO Shane Duffy and co-founder Gill Champion of misleading Lee about a 2017 acquisition deal with Hong Kong-based holding firm Camsing International. The pair, along with Jerry Olivarez — who is not named as a defendant, but who was Lee’s business manager at the time — allegedly manufactured a “fraudulent” intellectual property agreement granting POW! “the exclusive right to use Lee’s name, identity, image and likeness on a worldwide basis in perpetuity.”
The suit claims that Lee has no recollection of having the document read to him, and could not have read it himself due to his macular degeneration, meaning that either the signature was forged or that Lee was deceived about the nature of what he was signing. This is markedly similar to Lee’s account of how the February declaration — which originally named Olivarez, Morgan and Schenck as “bad actors” — came to be.
Lee’s involvement with POW! seems to have been a long-standing point of contention between those in his inner circle. Back in April, Olivarez claimed that Keya Morgan wanted Lee to cut ties with POW! and enter into an arrangement with a business contact of his own, and that Olivarez’s resistance to this led Morgan to try and discredit him.
POW! denied the charges in a statement: “The allegations are completely without merit. The notion that Mr. Lee did not knowingly grant POW! exclusive rights to his creative works or his identity is so preposterous that we have to wonder whether Mr. Lee is personally behind this lawsuit.”
This lawsuit was preceded by a series of tweets from Lee’s verified account on May 13 claiming that he hadn’t been in control of the account, and that he still lacked access to his Facebook and Instagram accounts. “I want everyone to know whoever is writing them is a fraud and is impersonating me,” one of the tweets said of the Facebook and Instagram posts, which are still being used to link to content on TheRealStanLee.com, a site owned by POW! Entertainment.
The same tweet asked fans to advise Lee on how to get his accounts back, with another directly tagging Facebook, and other seemingly out-of-character tweets from Lee’s account have not gone unnoticed among the comics press lately. Most recently, the account tweeted in support of business magnate Elon Musk, after Musk tweeted about “fake news” criticism of his company, Tesla Inc. Lee’s tweet accused the Hollywood Reporter of “spreading lies.”
The current ownership of the Twitter account may not be as simple as it appears. Gary Baum, the writer of the Hollywood Reporter article on Lee and his caretakers, said on Twitter that Keya Morgan — who also “now screens [Lee’s] calls, writes his emails & decides who he visits,” according to Baum — had “taken control of [Lee’s] Twitter & blocked me,” after Lee told Baum in February that Morgan had “bad intentions.”
Accusations against Stan Lee
It’s worth noting, meanwhile, that Lee is also facing accusations himself, over a separate — though certainly no less grave — matter.
In January, the Daily Mail reported that Lee was accused of sexually harassing and assaulting his home care nurses from provider Concierge Nursing Care. Lee’s attorney at the time, Tom Lallas — the same lawyer responsible for the disputed declaration — sent out a statement saying Lee “categorically denies these false and despicable allegations.”
However, those weren’t the only allegations of this nature reported around that time — and the other allegation has now led to legal action. Earlier this month, a massage therapist filed a lawsuit in Cook County circuit court accusing Lee of unwanted sexual contact at a Chicago hotel during the C2E2 2017 expo last April. In the lawsuit, the therapist alleges that Lee began fondling himself while she was massaging him, and that during a later massage, Lee touched her foot to his genitals. The case is currently under investigation, after a complaint was filed with the Chicago police this past March.
The lawsuit also accuses Max Anderson, the since-ousted tour manager, of arranging the massages. Anderson hasn’t publicly commented on the lawsuit, but the Hollywood Reporter article quotes him accusing Keya Morgan of having “planted” this story in order to make Anderson look bad — a claim Morgan has denied.
As for whether this could impact the outcome of the elder abuse case, Thoreen tells Polygon, “I don’t know that it does, because on the one hand, the sexual harassment is an innocent victim claiming that Stan is the bad guy, whereas the elder case is that Stan is the victim. So in my mind, they’re apples and oranges.”
Where things stand now
With multiple cases yet to make it to court, let alone reach a verdict, it’s impossible to say which of the many involved parties is truly a perpetrator in this story. As of publication, most of the allegations circle around Jerry Olivarez, who stands accused of withdrawing not only funds from Lee’s account but blood from his body without consent, and conspiring with POW! to steal the rights to Lee’s likeness.
Olivarez — who is, unsurprisingly, no longer affiliated with Lee — has denied all of these claims. He instead characterizes them as part of a scheme by Keya Morgan, who is still close with Lee and seems to be involved in his recent online posts, including the videos refuting the February declaration and the recent reclamation of his Twitter account. According to Olivarez, Morgan wanted him out of the way so Morgan could push his own agenda, including decoupling Lee from POW! Entertainment.
Neither account, however, makes sense of the February declaration that first raised suspicions, given that it names both men among the “bad actors” trying to take advantage of Lee. Whether or not that document is truthful, its existence seems to indicate that multiple parties have been taking advantage of Stan Lee — who, despite his larger-than-life status, is ultimately an old man who lost his wife last year.
And this, sadly, is a common state of affairs. “Any celebrity who has this public image, great wealth and perceived assets, there are always unscrupulous third parties out there who are going to try and capitalize on the situation,” says Thoreen. But elder abuse is “tremendously, overwhelmingly under-reported,” she says, and Thoreen hopes that one good thing might emerge from this tangled web of cases, regardless of its eventual outcome: raising the profile of elder abuse as a potential threat, and helping to convince other affected parties to come forward.
Alex Spencer is a writer about comics, games, technology, pop music and his dog, based in London. You can find him wrestling Twitter’s character limit @AlexJaySpencer.
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