As the figurehead of Marvel’s ascendance from small publishing house to the entertainment behemoth it is today, the late Stan Lee knew something or other about creative success. Game Of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin once said of the man: “Maybe Stan Lee is the greatest literary influence on me, even more than Shakespeare or Tolkien.”
Not bad company to be keeping for the son of Roman-born Jewish immigrants. Yet there were failures along the way too.
“One of my lifelong regrets is that I’ve always been too casual with money,” Stan shared in his 2002 autobiography Excelsior! regarding the lack of foresight he showed in not realising the financial value of the stable of characters he and his team were creating. In said book, he also lists an endless number of business opportunities he royally messed up. “Embarrassing lunkheadedness,” as he memorably described it.
But just like the great Japanese proverb that talks of ‘falling down seven times and standing up eight’, Stan showed perseverance throughout all of his career. He knew the value of not giving up and of plotting your own path. Looking to launch a comic book empire? Or just find the motivation to do the ironing? Here are Stan Lee’s top five tips to success.
Fight for the Ideas You Believe In
In an interview with the American talk show host Larry King, Stan recalls the first time he pitched Spider-Man to his publisher: “He said, ‘First thing Stan, people hate spiders. He can’t be a teenager, teenagers are just sidekicks. Finally, he can’t have personal problems. Don’t you know what a superhero is?’ So he wouldn’t let me do it.”
As chance would have it, Stan was working on a book called Amazing Fantasy, which was about to be discontinued. He decided to include Spider-Man within its pages, “just to get it out of my system”. The book became a best seller. “My publisher called me in the office a few weeks later and said, ‘Stan, remember that character we both liked so much, Spider-Man? Why don’t you do a series of it…’
Now, listen closely dear reader, we’re not calling for your subordination. And if you lose your job on account of reading this, then FANDOM cannot be held responsible. But sometimes – sometimes – there are ideas worth going out on a limb for, there really are.
Know Your Strengths
There’s a great article on The Globe And Mail website, published in 2013, before his appearance at the Toronto Fan Expo, where Stan shares a variety of lessons he learned within his career with the writer Courtney Shea. Of them all, the one that follows, about understanding what you’re good at, and what you’re not, appears to be the most useful.
“When they made me the president of Marvel [in 1972], I was suddenly involved in the business end,” Stan recalled. “All sorts of financial decisions. I realized pretty quickly that it really wasn’t my thing, and I wasn’t any good at it. I was asked to provide a five-year plan for where the company was heading. Hell, I don’t even know what I’m going to have for dinner tonight! I decided to step down. It was a lesson in knowing your strengths.”
What Stan knew he was good at was being a cheerleader for the things he was passionate about. A role crucial in elevating Marvel to the entertainment colossus it is today.
Nothing Is More Important Than the Reader
Stan believed a huge reason for the popularity of Marvel comics was that where the letters pages in competing comics were few and far between, as well as tonally detached, Marvel’s were warm, inclusive and welcomed readers to join their club. Even Stan’s editorials were designed to let readers know that everyone was welcome to come inside, as his widely shared 1968 anti-racism text illustrates.
“Let’s lay it right on the line,” he wrote. “Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them — to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.”
Stan later said of his relationship with Marvel fans: “I wanted to them to feel part of Marvel. If they wrote me a letter saying, ‘Dear Editor’, I would change it to ‘Dear Stan’. If their name was, say, ‘Charles’, I would reply saying something like ‘Hey, thanks a lot, Charlie!’ I tried to keep the tone friendly, as if I were a guy they knew and we were just talking together. It became natural. And before long the readers started addressing their letters, ‘Dear Stan’.”
Spoken like a true champion of fandom.
Value Your Art and Your Contribution
He would wince when he recalled the memory later, but for a time there, Stan was embarrassed he made his living by writing comic book stories. He had, after all, dreamed of writing ‘The Great American Novel’.
“There are men building bridges, and working in laboratories on cures for illness,” he said in an interview with Hop Media, furrowing his brow as he spoke, “and I’m writing comic books.”
Yet as time passed, he became aware of the joy said comics were bringing to their readership. He said he became proud he could offer, if not an antidote, then some respite from people’s problems and strife. It was then, he said, that he began to value the role he played as an entertainer. And how we did value him.
Don’t Follow the Rules
“My publisher had learned that DC Comics, which was then called National Comics, had a book called The Justice League and it was selling very well,” recalls Stan in an interview with Batmite’s Superhero Channel. “He asked me to do the same. At the time, I wanted to quit. I’d been doing these comics for about twenty years and I had the same instructions from my publisher all the time. ‘Don’t use words with more than two syllables, the readers get bored reading dialogue’. And so my wife said to me, ‘If you want to quit anyway Stan, why don’t you do the next book how you want to do it. The worst that can happen is that you’ll be fired!’ So I did. They had no secret identity. The girl was going to be as much a valuable member of the team as the other guys. And instead of the girl not knowing the alter-ego of the guy, like Superman and Lois Lane, I’ll have them engaged. The brother-in-law will be the other member. And there’ll be a character that is part-man-part-monster. I based the leader, Reed Richards on me. A bit of a bore.”
The lesson here? Risks will always result in a higher ascendency than following the rules. What Stan did here was create Marvel’s first family, The Fantastic Four, who offered a new level of realism to comics, changing the medium forever.