The Fantastic Five – A few marvelous business tips inspired by Stan Lee

Over the years I’ve had my share of fanboy moments. I’ve interviewed GeorgeTakei, a.k.a Mr. Sulu, of Star Trek fame, Rock’n’roll legend Sam Phillips, and hard-boiled crime fiction writer Mickey Spillane. But I never felt my fanboy pulse race quite the way it did when I got to talk to Stan “The Man” Lee, creator of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, The Avengers, The X-Men, and the architect of the entertainment powerhouse that grew out of his work at mighty Marvel Comics.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought the Star Spangled Avenger out of retirement in 1964

It was 1992, and at the time, an Alabama native named TerryStewartwas running Marvel. Stan, who you can now see in a cameo appearance in nearly every Marvel movie, was then chairman of the board of Marvel Films. Stan was kind enough to give me some quotes for my article in the Birmingham Post-Herald, and to spend a few minutes talking to me – legend to unabashed (but trying to stay professional) fan. Then he wrote me a nice note, which I have still.

At nearly 90, Stan is a consummate showman, but he’s also an incredible success in multiple businesses because he’s an innovator with a proven track record. That record includes changing the course of an industry, transforming it from the source of derided, dismissed “funny books,” to a well spring generating billions in entertainment dollars worldwide each year.

In case you don’t know, there was a time when, for all intents and purposes, Stanwas Marvel Comics. His personality energized everything the company did starting in early Sixties. It wasStan’s take on the superhero – that he could be flawed, have personal issues, struggle with bad attitude, and still be heroic – that revolutionized the comics field. It was the existential angst of Stan’s Silver Surfer that made comics cool with college kids. It was his simple but brilliant idea to make the Big Apple and all its landmarks the setting for Marvel’s epic battles between good and evil. He took Marvel from number 2 behind DC Comics, to number 1 in the market.

So it’s just possible thatStanLeecan teach anybody a few things about running a business. Here, True Believer, here are a Fantastic Five things I picked up watching his career:

Market like you mean it! You might think that a business based around the exploits of super-powered heroes and villains, gods, androids, alien soldiers, and other mythological warriors, would be exciting enough. But not for Stan, a writer who never met an exclamation point he didn’t like, or an adjective he wouldn’t exploit.Stan was the first to transport breathless carnival barker-style marketing into the realm of comics.

Thus Stancould not just name the group the Fantastic Four, he had to call their comic book “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” Witness too, the power of The Amazing Spider-Man! The Invincible Iron Man! The Incredible Hulk! The Mighty Avengers! The Uncanny X-Men! At the time he came up with those colorful titles, onlyStan had the guts to go all-out like that. Hey – it’s worth noting that over at DC, there was no Spectacular Superman! Bombastic Batman! or Mighty Wonder Woman! Nobody marketed comics likeStan. The man had no shame! That’s one of the things people love about him. He became famous enough for it that Jack Kirby’s DC character Funky Flashman, was clearly modeled on Stan.

Maybe you don’t want to festoon your brand with multiple exclamation points and superfluous adjectives (at least on a regular basis), but should you do more to exclaim the superlatives of your product?  Does your packaging make what you offer obviously better than the competition? Should you spend some time strategizing how to lure more customers in?

Cross Promote! Stan Lee had a great advantage in the early 60s in that he was writing most of Marvel’s comics himself. That allowed him to cross promote relentlessly. Again, with most of his characters based in New York, as opposed to a collection of fictional cities, he made sure they crossed each other’s paths, frequently guest starring in each other’s books. So when Sue Storm and Reed Richards got married in Fantastic Four Annual #3, Spidey, Daredevil, members of the Avengers, and hordes of other Marvel characters were there. Marvel characters regularly interacted with each other; every time Tony Stark or Nick Fury showed up in someone else’s comic book story – even if only a cameo appearance – it bound the Marvel universe together tighter, and served to promote other product.

So you don’t have characters, you say? Do you have more than one product or service that you offer? Are they tied together by graphic design or titling? Do you use the success of one to launch another, the strength of one to boost the popularity of the other? Is there a coupon or an insert or special offer inside the package of your most popular product to get people to try your less-popular ones? Cross promotions work for Google,Hearst, Proctor and Gamble, and certainly Marvel Comics. Can it work for you?

Promote talent! Like many a creative genius,Stan had his disagreements with other highly talented people he dealt with, includingSteveDitko, with whom he created Spidey, andJackKirby – who co-fathered the most important characters at Marvel before taking off for rival DC. Stan himself famously sued Marvel not too many years back.

ButStandid a lot to make the names of his staff members known and to shine a light on the talents they brought to the table. In the early days of comics – the Golden Age – writers or artists could be easily overlooked – which was why people have to be told that Bill Finger was nearly as important in the development of Batman as Bob Kane.

In the early Silver Age, just before Marvel became dominant, the writer and the pencil artist would get credit, but the inker, the colorist, the letterer all labored in obscurity, untilStan’s Marvel began listing the names of those stalwarts upon whom many super-adventures depended.

Beyond that, however, Stanpioneered highlighting the work of Marvel’s creative team (the “Marvel Bullpen”) through the monthly Bullpen Bulletins column. He promoted himself and the company, butStan relentlessly promoted the members of his team with public praise. That was good for business.

If you’re the boss, or the owner of the company, do you publicly acknowledge the hard work and the accomplishments of your staff? Do you sing their praises? Or do you just take the credit yourself, or just talk about what the company collectively achieves?

Get on Your Soapbox! Every month, even after he stopped being Marvel’s most important writer, Stan told the fans in Marveldom (that’s what he called us) what he’d been up to in his column Stan’s Soapbox. Sometimes he wrote about lectures he’d been giving, or new company ventures, or questions he’d been asked, or who was getting promoted at Marvel or how they did in the softball game against the Distinguished Competition (Marvel slang for their friends and rivals at DC).

Can you see the advantage of letting your staff know what you’re doing or letting them share when you accept recognition for your team effort? Do you see good in letting your loyal customers –whether they own stock or just follow you on Facebook – know when positive things happen that they might otherwise miss? I can tell you that Stan Lee engendered a huge amount of loyalty among Marvel readers by doing just that. What does your company stand to gain by following a similar course?

With great power comes great responsibility! 

Captain America in an early Marvel Age appearance

Stan’s well-known Spider-Man credo applies in many ways to companies taking social responsibility. Stan himself has created a foundation to promote literacy, arts, education, and culture, so he sets an example there. But this time, I’m thinking of something a little different: the responsibility you have as a leader to the people who make up your team. Are you preparing them to take the reins in the future? Stan Lee also did that.

At one point in 1972, Stan’s Soapbox was about how he would be writing less and concentrating more on developing new business for Marvel on multiple platforms, including television and movies. In that same Soapbox, he talked about how Roy Thomas had been promoted as editor.Roy had been writing great stories for years, and he had taken what Stan started, particularly in books like Avengers, to new heights. His name had become synonymous with good, literary-minded writing in comics; and his writing inspired great writers who would come later. The payoff for Marvel? Their comics made big money, spurred the development of valuable television properties, licensed merchandise, and of course, massively successful blockbuster motion pictures. The fortune is still rolling in.

What awaits your company if you take the time to nurture the talents on your staff? Doesn’t it make sense to invest in the development of their skills and to encourage their growth? Who knows what such well-nourished employees can build on the foundation you’ve laid at your company? When it comes to your company, you’ve got the power to shape the future you want. Use it responsibly. To quote Stan Lee, “ ‘Nuff said.”


Author: nickpattersonfreelance

I'm a professional reporter, writer, editor, teacher, storyteller. A former travel and features editor for Southern Living, I started Velleity because people keep offering me travel stuff and you may as well benefit from it.

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