Stan Lee was the co-creator of Spiderman, the X-Men, Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Ant Man and the Wasp, Nick Fury and more Marvel household names. He was born in 1922 and started work at 17 as an assistant at Timely Comics. The interesting point of his career came in the early 1960s, a time when most of the characters that are famous household names now came into existence.
Until this point comics were highly disposable and aimed at seven-year-old boys; this was the standard and profitable business model.
Lee spent years churning them out, and didn’t really love them or believe in them.
No-one in the business wanted comics the way that Lee wanted to write them, with flawed characters who were far from all-American perfect heroes. And nobody wanted comics drawn as the peerless artist Jack Kirby wanted to draw them (he had been fired from DC for not sticking to its traditional vision).
Lee had had enough. He was on the point of quitting a job that was increasingly boring and mind-numbing and deep down he still thought he was going to write the great American novel (an ambition since childhood). (He certainly did write great human stories, just not in novel form.)
His wife said to him: “If you’re going to quit anyway, why don’t you first do what you really want to do with the comics. What is the worst that can happen? They can only fire you, and you are on the point of quitting anyway.”
Stan burned his bridges. He developed a comic series like no other. A comic series that broke all the rules of the existing genre and business model. The first creation with Kirby was the Fantastic Four. It wasn’t aimed at seven-year olds, it was aimed at anyone who had ever suffered, ever struggled, ever needed hope. Spiderman soon followed, a character whose owned selfish mistake (trying to exploit his powers for financial gain) led to his uncle’s murder. He might have had super powers, but he also had guilt, remorse and teenage impulses. He was not an all-American hero.
My personal favourite comic series, X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga, is one of the best descriptions of teenage girl turmoil I have ever read. When I met Lee, in the 1990s over dinner, I was proud to thank him for that work, which had helped me through difficult times. Again, the lead character was far from perfect. Flawed characters, real consequences, and team members that fought with each other before coming together to work against a common enemy.
Sometimes at work, you can become very pragmatic about your career. You may reach a point where it is easier to second guess what the client wants from you rather than challenge the brief or push the boundaries of creativity. You only need to look at most of the advertising and comms that surrounds us to see a sea of conformity.
Where all the advertisers in a sector all follow one route to market (TV ads showing cars driving down a mountain road or through a cityscape) and the only distinguishing feature is the logo at the end. Our role in agencies is to drive competitive advantage. If you follow the crowd this is not what you get.
Sometimes you should go with the flow, sometimes (more often than most people do) you should burn your bridges and follow your heart. Excelsior! (as Lee himself was fond of saying)
That was the second of the 48 ways to transform creativity. The others I will come back to in future blogs.
Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom