Stanley Martin Lieber never did write the Great American Novel.
But Stan Lee did create an entire universe.
The two men are one and the same. The man we all know as Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber, but he put that name aside to dabble in comic book writing. He was saving “Lieber” for his serious writing pursuits. Over time, though, he simply became Stan Lee and inhabited that identity for all he was worth.
Stan Lee built the Marvel universe, a multimedia empire now worth an estimated $50 billion dollars. It takes moxie to go from starting out as a “go-fer” in a two-bit kiddie comic book operation to presiding over blockbuster movies that bring characters you created from the page to the silver screen, and Stan Lee had it. When Lee passed away Monday at the age of 95, he left behind legions of fans whose lives were enriched by characters who, like Lee, managed to be both larger than life and down to earth at the same time. Characters like Spiderman, the Hulk, Thor, Captain America and many more.
What can we learn from Stan Lee? Plenty.
People with moxie build communities.
One of the key differentiators between Lee’s Marvel Comics and archrival DC was the community of fans Lee so intentionally built. The pages of Marvel were filled with insider language and sign posts. Readers were invited into more than the world of the characters; they were invited into the world of the people creating the world for the characters. Not surprisingly, many of the fans whose names were first published in the pages of Marvel comics as letters to the editor ended up working for Marvel later as adults.
The Marvel community had theme songs and inside jokes. That sense of community carried over into warm, enthusiastic meet and greet sessions at comic book conventions and beyond.
Decades before the internet and social networks enabled fans to create their own communities around a shared passion, Lee found a way to connect fans in print and in person.
People with moxie care about their customers.
Marvel fans were more than just customers to Lee. He and the Marvel team created complex characters that grew along with the audience. Marvel heroes, despite their super powers, were far from perfect. They had egos, doubts, big feelings and character flaws. The made mistakes and had to live with the consequences.
The characters were perfectly relatable to Marvel’s core audience of teens and young adults who had grown up with less sophisticated comics and were ready for more challenging fare.
At the behest of government agencies, Marvel tacked the issue of drug abuse, despite the fact that even talking about drugs violated strictly held industry standards.
“We can’t keep our heads in the sand,” explained Lee at the time. “I said that if this story would help one kid anywhere in the world not to try drugs or to lay off drugs one day earlier, then it’s worth it rather than waiting for the code authority to give permission.”
In the midst of the civil rights struggle, Marvel brought together the X-Men, who were a metaphor for the Civil Rights movement. Marvel also introduced black superheroes like Black Panther, Falcon, Luke Cage, Blade and Storm.
“Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today,” he wrote in ‘Stan’s Soapbox’ in an issue in December 1968. “[I]t’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race—to despise an entire nation—to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if a man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance.”
It took a lot of moxie to take that stand in the late 60s, and Lee had it.
Moxie pulls together the best teams and lets them do their magic.
Most comics start with a script written by a writer. The script includes descriptions of the action on each page, along with the dialog.
Lee pioneered a new approach. He held story sessions with his team of artists, giving them the arc of the story. The artists were then determined the layout of the pages, and Lee wrote in the dialog. Everyone who made any contribution to the final product was credited, as was Lee.
The process was messier and more complicated, both in terms of product and relationships. The “Marvel Method” led to a lot of rewrites, and a lot of conflict over who actually created what.
Moxie leads to pioneering new approaches, but it doesn’t always perfect the process.
Lee, like the characters and universe he had a hand in creating, was far from perfect. He was a tireless and sometimes exhausting promoter of himself and his products. His version of events was sometimes at odds with those around him. But overall, the trajectory of his life fit with his favorite way catchphrase – “Excelsior!” – a word that means “ever upward.” Lee’s life was always directed onward, and upward, and he brought all of his fans along with him, too.
Who is your favorite Marvel superhero?