Lessons for non-superheros...quick keys to Stan Lee's prolific creativity
America has lost one of its most prolific and well known creators, Stan Lee. As we enjoy the continuing fruits of his creativity and innovation, let's consider what lessons we can learn from his decades of work.
1. While Stan Lee worked as a writer for much of his early professional life, he did not begin to truly create until the release of Fantastic Four #1 when he was nearly 40 years old. Tired of re-hashing and imitating old plot lines and clichés, he considered leaving the comic business. His wife encouraged him to publish one comic in his own style. Concluding that the worst outcome was being fired from a job he was ready to leave anyway, he took a risk that paid off. Fantastic Four was wildly successful and created a new type of superhero, one with human foibles and problems.
Lesson: Creativity cannot thrive when there is no space to think and work. Google famously encourages its employees to spend time on work of their own choosing—Gmail was born from this approach. Stan Lee’s creativity was always inside him; it just needed the space to grow. As a leader, do you have a person on your team whose creativity just needs space?
2. Stan Lee’s innovative approach to developing comics focused on collaboration rather than control. Now called the “Marvel method,” he eschewed the typical highly-controlled approach employed in the industry. Rather than handing off completed text to the illustrator, he crafted the broadest outlines of the villain and the story before sitting down with the illustrator to work. Together, as a 2-person team, they refined the story, shared ideas, and crafted a unique work better than either of them could have produced alone.
Lesson: Stan Lee allowed other creators with other expertise to be a full participant in the creation. Fantastic Four was a co-collaboration of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and Stan was careful to ensure everyone knew it was a joint enterprise. Other famous teams of two have been wildly successful….Pierre and Marie Curie, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. Finding the right mix of talent and personality can enable a terrific twosome.
3. Stan Lee left room for improvisation. Some writers describe their creative process as a flash of fully formed prose gushing from their minds. They hurriedly write to capture the thoughts out of fear they may pass them by, never to be seen again. Stan, on the other hand, liked to let the story develop itself as he and his co-collaborator went through each frame. “The simpler the original idea, the more opportunity it gave me to come up with all kinds of interesting angles.”
Lesson: You don’t have to have a finished product in your mind before you sit down to “start creating.” Getting to work with a partially formed idea leaves space for new connections…or to allow a new creation. Stan Lee produced in volume during his days at Marvel. He could not have produced so many varied works without trust in his instinct and skill. Allow yourself to improvise along the way.
For more on Stan Lee and his creativity, check out Stan Lee and the Rise and fall of the American Comic Book by Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon.