6 storytelling and PR lessons from Stan Lee

The icon of Marvel Comics and the co-creator of popular characters such as Iron Man, Spider-Man and Daredevil has died at age 95. Here’s what writers can derive from his legacy.

The prevailing voice of the aptly named Marvel franchise has been stilled.

The escapades of roguish superheroes including The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Doctor Strange and Spider-Man have been thrilling audiences in print and on the screen for years. Marvel Studios, the film company that puts out movie adaptations of the Marvel stories, has created four of the top-grossing films of all time with its “Avengers” series.

Stan Lee, the man behind these immensely popular characters and their astounding adventures, has died in Los Angeles at age 95.

Many have taken to social media to mourn the loss and celebrate his extraordinary contributions:

Lee was a singular force in the comic book world, a prolific creator behind many fan favorites for Marvel. He is being remembered by many for his creativity, his contribution to comics and storytelling, and his unique brand of salesmanship that made Marvel a behemoth.

Here are some lessons from this maverick storyteller that writers and brand managers can take to heart as they write their own adventures:

1. Don’t ignore your flaws.

Good storytelling is about increasing and then releasing tension. Conflict is the heartbeat of a narrative, replete with protagonists and antagonists. However, Lee knew that unflawed protagonists felt inhuman—and were harder to love.

Lee famously made his characters more human, something previously unseen in the superhero genre.

The New York Times wrote:

In humanizing his heroes, giving them character flaws and insecurities that belied their supernatural strengths, Mr. Lee tried “to make them real flesh-and-blood characters with personality,” he told The Washington Post in 1992.

“That’s what any story should have, but comics didn’t have until that point,” he said. “They were all cardboard figures.”

Spider-Man was one of the first superheroes to struggle with self-doubt and unhappiness. Lee knew that by allowing his characters to have flaws, they would be more sympathetic to readers.

PR pros and brand managers should avoid sanitizing their messages. Acknowledge mistakes, and show how you plan to overcome them. Don’t be in such a rush to make yourself look good that you miss an opportunity to tell a great story about your organization.

2. Speak out on things that matter.

Lee wrote about racism and social injustice, unafraid to look at controversial topics. This honesty won his company fans and made his characters more authentic.

NPR reported:

Robert Scott, owner of Comickaze, a San Diego comic book store, says Lee put the human in superhuman.

“He would talk about prejudice, racism,” Scott says. “I mean the X-Men, here was a group of people who were only trying to do good things and only trying to help and they were constantly ostracized by being mutants.”

For Lee, having compelling, thought-provoking subject matter was crucial to his business.

“The person viewing the cartoon or reading the book should have something to think about, not just look at mindless pages of running around,” Lee said.

Brand managers should also be prepared to speak out on issues that are important to them. According to a Sprout Social study, 86 percent of consumers say transparency is more important than ever before. Other studies report heavy benefits for executives who take stands on issues that matter to consumers.

Or, as Lee’s “Spider-Man” comics made famous, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

3. Collaborate openly—but be sure to give credit.

Lee was known for a unique collaboration style when developing comic books.

The New York Times:

Mr. Lee practiced what he called the Marvel method: Instead of handing artists scripts to illustrate, he summarized stories and let the artists draw them and fill in plot details as they chose. He then added sound effects and dialogue. Sometimes he would discover on penciled pages that new characters had been added to the narrative. Such surprises (like the Silver Surfer, a Kirby creation and a Lee favorite) would lead to questions of character ownership.

However, Lee’s failure to sometimes give vocal, unapologetic credit to his collaborators would ding his reputation.

The Times continued:

Mr. Lee was often faulted for not adequately acknowledging the contributions of his illustrators, especially Mr. Kirby. Spider-Man became Marvel’s best-known property, but Mr. Ditko, its co-creator, quit Marvel in bitterness in 1966. Mr. Kirby, who visually designed countless characters, left in 1969. Though he reunited with Mr. Lee for a Silver Surfer graphic novel in 1978, their heyday had ended.

Make sure you give credit where credit is due. If your blog post uses someone else’s images, link back to the original. If you don’t have the rights to content, don’t use it. Better to err on the side of caution and give too much credit than to suffer damaging accusations later.

4. Cross-promote your content.

One of Marvel’s biggest innovations under Lee’s guidance was the development of interconnected stories, where all of Marvel’s biggest heroes lived in the same universe and could appear in any story at any time.

NPR wrote:

Lee’s larger vision was to create a shared Marvel universe in which characters from one series would crossover into another. He cited one example at a 2008 fan convention: “There was one I loved, I think it was the Fantastic Four, and they were at a ball game at Yankee Stadium and there were a lot of press photographers there. So I told [comic book artist] Jack Kirby to draw Peter Parker in the background with a camera. And we made no mention of it, he was just in the panel, and we got about a million letters saying, ‘We saw Peter Parker at the game. That’s terrific.’ And it made it seem like these were real characters who live in the same world and occasionally they get together. And that was something I got a big kick out of.”

PR pros and marketers should also cross-promote their content. Remember to change your format for each platform or channel.

5. Read good writers.

Content creators are influenced by what they read and consume. Lee was influenced from an early age by some of the English language’s greatest authors.

The New York Times wrote:

Stanley began reading Shakespeare at 10 while also devouring pulp magazines, the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Mark Twain, and the swashbuckler movies of Errol Flynn.

If you plan to make a living as a writer—no matter what you write about—make sure you read works by master wordsmiths to improve your own creative efforts.

6. Build your personal brand.

Lee would become almost as famous as some of his creations with a carefully curated public presence. He wrote directly to fans with his Stan’s Soapbox column, which he signed with “‘Nuff said.” He also made cameo appearances in many of the film adaptations of Marvel characters for movies and TV.

Communicators must focus on their audience and tell a good story—but don’t forget about your personal brand. Curate your public profile with a professional social media presence, and don’t take on work that doesn’t meet your standards.

How will you remember the legacy of this exceptional storyteller?

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