As the writer and co-creator of a staggering number of the original Marvel Comics superheroes, Stan Lee is credited as the brains behind what are now some of the most powerful intellectual-properties in existence. However, while he remains affiliated with Marvel, he has not actively worked at the company for decades and has spent many of the intervening years developing new properties and characters of his own – to varying success. In 1998, “Stan Lee Media” was launched as a startup to manage many of these original IPs, but it folded in 2000 (Lee has long since cut his ties) and has been the subject of lawsuits and other legal wrangling ever since.
Amazingly, the defunct company had unsuccessfully sued Disney over what it claimed were rights to Lee’s Marvel characters, and now the Mouse House is striking back – revealing a web of corporate intrigue that involves everyone from convicted drug dealers to a United States President.
Stan Lee Media Inc was originally set up primarily to handle a web-based animated venture that would have featured Lee’s first wholly-original superhero team of characters in many years in a series called The 7th Portal, in which a multiethnic team of heroes called “Data Raiders” battled villains called “Nullifiers.” Other projects (some co-created by Howard The Duck progenitor Steve Gerber) included titles like Accuser, The Drifter and The Backstreet Project – which would have featured musical group The Backstreet Boys as cyber-themed superheroes.
One of the most infamously-overblown corporate launches of the “internet startup boom,” SLMI debuted 7th Portal at a $1 million gala celebration hosted by Dick Clark, wooed the president of Sony Digital Studios away to become its CEO, made huge deals with anime and theme park companies in Japan and purchased the rights to the Conan The Barbarian franchise; but by 2000 it was all over. The company ran out of capital in the “dotcom meltdown” and was hit with a series of legal investigations over funding. Lee transferred the rights to his original characters to his new venture, Pow! Media. What remained of the company began a series of lawsuits over the various Marvel Studios movies and the Spider-Man: Turn off The Dark musical, claiming that Lee’s deal with them made them owners of his Marvel creations as well, but the cases were resoundingly dismissed.
When the courts decided against SLMI (now called TAP-SLMI) in the Disney/Marvel lawsuits, the company was ordered to pay out court costs of $500,000. But as Disney has moved to collect on the costs, another wrinkle emerged: “Mr. Wolk,” a largely unknown figure who supposed owns TAP-SLMI and funded the lawsuits in the first place, is nowhere to be found – supposedly, he has been “sick” – and the company’s funds have apparently been drained to the point of only $2000, having apparently paid the rest in legal fees to Wolk – who, as of this writing, is still sought by Disney’s lawyers.
The ongoing issue has come up again largely because of old political connections involving Stan Lee Media co-founder Peter F. Paul, a businessman and former convicted drug-dealer notorious for a series of allegedly illegal international political dealings. Paul fled the country during the initial SLMI investigation for Sao Paulo, which became a mini-scandal in United States politics when it was uncovered that Paul had been a major financial backer of Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate Campaign and had even lobbied for former president Bill Clinton to join Stan Lee Media’s board of directors. Paul at one point produced videos supposedly showing Stan Lee himself participating in campaign-finance calls with the Clintons as proof of his (Lee’s) complicity in the company’s bad dealings (Lee counter-sued over the matter). However, it didn’t stop Paul from being convicted to a ten year prison term in 2009 for fraud.
Comic book news site Bleeding Cool has reported that the Paul case is now coming up in political chatter once again because of Hillary Clinton’s current bid for the Democratic Party U.S. Presidential nomination. However, for the time being, it is unclear whether any serious new traction has been gained, one way or another.