Stanley Lieber, at the age of 17, had no idea what to do with his life. His uncle owned a comic book company and installed the young man in the offices as an assistant in 1939. A couple of decades later, he was running the place—only there wasn’t much left to run. In the glory days of comics, Stanley had been supervising over 20 people—now he was down to having only three or four staffers working fulltime. But DC Comics, the perennial industry leader, had just had some success with a new superhero group title, The Justice League of America—so, in 1961, Stanley’s uncle suggested that he create a do-gooder group as well.
Stanley thought about it and finally decided, why not? He didn’t have anything to lose – he might as well go for it. So, using his pen name of Stan Lee, he created The Fantastic Four with artist Jack Kirby—and was as shocked as anybody when the sales figures came in a few months later; kids were buying up the new comic like crazy. His uncle quickly ordered him to make more superhero comics, so Stan did. In short order came an incredible creative burst that produced Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The X-Men, Iron Man, The Mighty Thor and The Avengers—it was like something inside Stanley had been finally unleashed. Stan rebranded the whole line, calling it “Marvel Comics.”
The world at large took notice of the big Marvel movement. Stan “the Man” Lee suddenly found that he had become a comics legend by creating an entirely new narrative for the industry. By the mid-70’s, he had made his mark and, finally, was ready to move on. And he did—to Hollywood.
The Logline that Changed a Business
Here’s what’s really interesting about Stan’s story; the idea to create a new superhero comic wasn’t his, it was his boss’s. What was his idea? The StorySelling.
If we were to actually put down on paper the logline he had in his head, it would be worded like this: “An upstart with no money and few resources challenges the world’s biggest comic company on their own turf. Through humor, intelligence and innovation, that upstart creates an entirely new approach to comics that brings in a whole new audience.”
Now, we’re not saying Stan ever consciously articulated this—for him, it was a simple matter of doing things the way he wanted to do things. But, being a natural-born storyteller and promoter (the combination is crucial), he instinctively understood how to put this story into action, so he could stop blindly reacting to the competition and create his own narrative—which is precisely what StorySelling is all about.
With that in mind, let’s examine those “Marvelous Steps” Stan Lee took to make his StorySelling a vital part of the Marvel mythos – and how you should think about doing the same for yourself.
Marvelous Step #1: Start Subtle
Stan Lee never came out and said he was going to change the face of comic books. Instead, he quietly created a new kind of superhero group. In other words, he let the work itself do the talking and attract the attention.
When you begin your StorySelling efforts, concentrate on bringing your logline to life in your actual Celebrity Brand before you make claims you might not deliver on. When you see something is starting to work, you can then exploit that successful narrative.
Marvelous Step #2: Be Bold When It’s Time
Stan didn’t know he had a hit on his hands until he was ready to go to press with the third issue of The Fantastic Four. At that point, he decided it was time to go full throttle—and he boldly put across the top of the comic cover, “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine,” a claim that continued to stay put for decades. When you’ve got proof of your greatness, go with it. Until then, wait it out until your StorySelling is recognized in one way or another.
Marvelous Step #3: StorySell Everywhere
Stan Lee decided to look for StorySelling possibilities in every inch of his comic books. Stan gave the letters pages hilarious names (Iron Man’s was Sock It to Shellhead), he filled a page in each comic with what he called Bullpen Bulletins, spotlighting and cross-promoting other Marvel comics, and he started a wacky fan club, The Merry Marvel Marching Society (or MMMS), that was a huge success. He took what other comic books saw as obligations and approached them as opportunities—creating an incredible bond between it and its readers.
Marvelous Step #4: Don’t Forget the Faces
There was something else Stan Lee did that was unprecedented in his industry—he began to give the artists and other writers funny nicknames in the story credits—in a business where nobody had even put credits on stories before. The men and women behind Marvel Comics became almost as important as the superheroes were to the readership, creating an even stronger bond to it. Stan, of course, put himself the furthest out front, with his own regular column in the Bullpen Bulletins and regularly commenting on his own stories with goofy footnotes.
The lesson? Always make sure to have some kind of strong personality involved with your StorySelling efforts; people identify, of course, with people and create the emotional involvement you want to create with your narrative.
Marvelous Step #5: Always Engage
You’ll note a very strong element to everything Stan Lee did that we’ve discussed so far—he engaged comic book readers on a level than had never happened before. For instance, the Marvel Universe grew so complicated that readers began writing in to complain when a story got something wrong or contradicted an earlier story. Stan decided that every reader who correctly identified a mistake would win a “No-Prize.” What was a No-Prize? Well, the winner would receive an envelope in the mail with a big announcement printed on it that their No-Prize was inside.
What was in the envelope? Nothing.
Marvelous Step #6: Continue to Evolve
In the late ‘60’s, Marvel became the first major comic book company to break the Comics Code Authority’s long list of rules (the Code had been instituted in the 50’s to self-police comics and reassure parents). The Code had it that you couldn’t portray drug use in any comic story—but, as addiction was becoming a serious problem with teens in the late 60’s, the only way Stan Lee could take on the problem in Spider-Man was disregarding the Code – so he did, and created a very memorable series of issues. End result? The revolutionary comic won awards and the Code loosened its rules.
Stan Lee’s big mistake during his first twenty years in the comic book business was seeing it as a job and not an opportunity. When he finally saw that he had the power to make something completely new happen with his comics, he used that power—and found out that it packed a lot more punch than any that The Hulk ever threw.
When you develop a strong StorySelling narrative and implement it correctly, it feeds on itself, it grows stronger and stronger, and it opens up more and more layers of opportunity as you move forward with it. Stanley Lieber took that business and transformed it in such a dynamic way through StorySelling that, a half-century later, it’s paying its biggest dividends ever.
And for that, we salute Stan with the one word he uses as a sign-off in whatever he writes: “Excelsior!”