#72 Stan Lee Marvel

Summary Notes


Stan Lee, the iconic comic book writer who once felt embarrassed about his profession, ultimately became the celebrated mastermind behind Marvel Comics. In his autobiography "Excelsior: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee," he shares the evolution of his career, from his self-doubt and struggles during the Depression to his rise as a creative powerhouse. Lee's wife, Joan, played a pivotal role in encouraging him to infuse his superhero creations with depth, personality, and realism, leading to the birth of the Marvel Universe. Despite facing exploitation and a lack of recognition from his boss, Martin Goodman, Lee persisted and transformed Marvel into a cultural phenomenon, underscoring the importance of nurturing a passionate fan base and the power of direct sales. Lee's relentless promotion and innovative strategies, like publishing exclusive content for comic book stores, significantly boosted Marvel's sales. His story is one of perseverance, creativity, and the pursuit of doing what one loves, culminating in a refusal to retire from a life's work that brought him immense fulfillment.

Summary Notes

Early Career and Personal Struggles

  • Stan Lee began as a fantasy writer and later became a comic book writer.
  • He experienced embarrassment for being a comic book writer early in his career.
  • Lee felt a moral could be drawn from his journey from embarrassment to being celebrated for the same work.

"During those strange, struggling early years, I wallowed in embarrassment because I was a mere comic book writer."

This quote highlights Lee's initial feelings of shame about his profession, which contrasts with his later success and recognition in the field.

Philosophy and View on Marvel Comics

  • Stan Lee describes Marvel as a "cornucopia of fantasy" and an "escape from the humdrum."
  • He sees Marvel as embodying creativity, rebellion, and a challenge to conventional norms.
  • Lee's description serves as a reflection of his own philosophy and approach to life and work.

"Marvel is a cornucopia of fantasy, a wild idea, a swash buckling attitude, an escape from the humdrum and the prosaic."

The quote summarizes Lee's perception of Marvel Comics as a platform for imaginative storytelling and his broader creative philosophy.

The Concept of "Excelsior"

  • "Excelsior" is a term meaning "ever upward," which Stan Lee adopted as his life motto.
  • The notion of having a life motto is presented as a positive and potentially transformative idea.

"And he decided to make the word Excelsior, which means ever upward, his life motto."

This quote explains the significance of the word "Excelsior" for Stan Lee and introduces the concept of having a guiding principle or motto in life.

Impact of Early Life and Family

  • Stan Lee's early life during the Great Depression influenced his work ethic.
  • He sympathized with his father's unemployment and its demoralizing effect.
  • Lee's drive to work and be busy was rooted in his desire to feel needed and fulfilled.

"It's a feeling that the most important thing for a man, and I would also add person, is to have work to do, to be busy, to be needed."

Lee reflects on the importance of having purposeful work as a source of fulfillment, which was instilled in him from observing his father's struggles.

Early Love for Reading

  • Reading provided an escape for Stan Lee from the difficulties of his home life.
  • His passion for reading and writing was evident from a young age.
  • Lee's academic success was driven by his love for literature.

"I can't remember when I first learned to read, nor can I remember a time when I wasn't reading."

This quote emphasizes Lee's lifelong passion for reading and its role as a constant and comforting presence throughout his life.

Being an Outsider and Learning Through Humor

  • Stan Lee felt like an outsider in school due to being younger than his classmates.
  • His experiences with a favorite teacher, Mr. Ginsburg, taught him the value of using humor in teaching and communication.

"It was Mr. Ginsburg who first made me realize that learning could be fun, that it was easier to reach people, to hold their attention, to get points across with humor than any other way."

Lee credits his teacher with showing him the effectiveness of humor as a tool for engagement and learning, a lesson he applied throughout his career.

Early Jobs and Career Path

  • Stan Lee held various part-time jobs, including writing obituaries and working at a tuberculosis hospital.
  • His uncle helped him get a job at a publishing company, which led to his career in comics.
  • Lee's writing talent was recognized, leading to more responsibilities and eventually a significant role at Marvel.

"I began working as a gopher for $8 a week at this small company located in the McGraw Hill building at 42nd Street, 9th Avenue in Manhattan."

The quote marks the humble beginnings of Lee's career in the publishing industry, which would eventually lead to his legendary status in the comic book world.

Reflections on Life's Work and Value

  • Stan Lee reflects on the value he created through his creative work at Marvel.
  • Despite his significant contributions, he often felt undervalued by business executives.
  • Lee's recognition as the face of Marvel Comics came despite not being a founder.

"He talks about several times in the book that he was a creative person, he was really good at making stories and writing and doing that. But he constantly got ripped off by better or taken advantage of by better businessmen."

This quote discusses the tension between Lee's creative contributions and the business side of Marvel, highlighting the challenges he faced in being fairly compensated and recognized for his work.

Early Career and Optimism

  • Stan Lee began his career in comic books right out of high school.
  • His first story appeared in Captain America #3, dated May 1941.
  • His first actual comic book script was in Captain America #5, dated August 1941.
  • Stan Lee is a pen name; his real name is Stan Lieber.
  • He chose the pen name to save his real name for when he writes the great American novel, reflecting his optimism and belief in his future success.
  • Stan Lee's optimism is highlighted as a positive trait for entrepreneurs and creatives.
  • Optimism is contrasted with negativity, which is seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.

"My first story appeared in Captain America number three, which was dated May 1941. My first actual comic book script, which came two issues later in Captain America number five, which was dated in August 1941."

This quote outlines the beginning of Stan Lee's career in the comic book industry, marking his early achievements and entry into the field.

"I had decided that nothing would stop me from one day writing the great American novel."

Stan Lee's ambition and optimism are evident here, as he sets a high goal for himself while still in the early stages of his career.

Perception of Comic Books in the 1940s

  • Comic books were not prestigious during the 1940s.
  • People working in the comic book industry would often hide their profession due to the lack of prestige.
  • Despite low prestige, comic books sold in large numbers, with 25 million copies sold a month during World War II.
  • Stan Lee was embarrassed to use his real name for comic strips due to the cultural perception of comic books at the time.
  • He used a pen name to reserve his real name for more prestigious literary work.

"I somehow felt it would not be seemly to take my name, which was certain to one day win a Pulitzer, and sign it to a mere humble comic strip."

Stan Lee's decision to use a pen name reflects the cultural stigma of working in the comic book industry and his hopes for future literary prestige.

Career During World War II

  • Stan Lee was drafted into the army during World War II.
  • He was classified as a playwright/screenwriter due to the scarcity of such roles in the military.
  • Instead of fighting, he was tasked with creating training films and instruction manuals.
  • He continued to write comic book scripts for Timely Comics (later known as Marvel Comics) while in the army.
  • His ability to work quickly allowed him to produce material efficiently for both the army and Timely Comics.

"If there wasn't enough military work for me, I decided to outmaneuver the army by doing freelance scripts for time in the comics."

Stan Lee's initiative to continue his comic book work during his military service demonstrates his dedication to his craft and his adaptability in different circumstances.

  • Stan Lee was critical of the fact that his company, led by Martin Goodman, followed trends rather than setting them.
  • He felt creatively unfulfilled because the company would switch genres based on what was selling, rather than creating original content.
  • Despite his frustrations, he recognized it was a stable job and he was good at it.
  • Stan Lee's desire for creative fulfillment would later lead to the creation of iconic characters and stories.

"We were always following the trends, never setting them."

This quote captures Stan Lee's dissatisfaction with the lack of originality in his work at the time and foreshadows his later contributions to setting new trends in the comic book industry.

Stan Lee's Writing Advice and Self-Confidence

  • Stan Lee provided advice for writers, which includes having a provocative beginning, smooth continuity, realistic dialogue, maintaining suspense, and providing a satisfying ending.
  • He studied the work of great writers to improve his craft.
  • Stan Lee's confidence in his own writing meant that he required little editing, contributing to his fast work pace.
  • He believed in being his own biggest fan, a mindset that helped him persevere and innovate in his field.

"Since I liked everything I wrote, there wasn't that much editing needed."

Stan Lee's self-confidence in his writing is evident in this quote, suggesting that his personal satisfaction with his work contributed to his efficiency and productivity.

Self-Doubt and the Human Condition

  • Stan Lee experienced significant self-doubt and questioned the value of his work, which is a common aspect of the human condition.
  • Despite his later success, he struggled with feelings of being a "moderately successful hack" and the fear of not getting ahead.
  • The idea that such feelings are a natural part of being human and have been experienced throughout history is highlighted.
  • The host, David, empathizes with these feelings and suggests writing out one's feelings to manage them.

"because he's his own biggest fan, and at the same time, simultaneously, he's doubtful that his life's work means anything."

This quote shows the duality of Stan Lee's feelings about his work and life, representing the complex nature of self-perception and ambition.

"It's perfectly normal to have doubts. Stan Lee had doubts for four decades."

This quote normalizes the experience of self-doubt, extending it over a significant portion of Stan Lee's life and suggesting that it is a common, long-term experience.

"The two things I didn't love about my life were the 1 hour commute and the feeling that I wasn't getting ahead the way I should be. The haunting feeling that I was only a moderately successful hack."

Stan Lee's own words reveal his personal dissatisfaction with aspects of his life, including his career progress and self-worth.

The Role of Comics in Stan Lee's Life

  • Stan Lee initially saw comics as a stepping stone to "the real world" but later realized that comics were his real world.
  • He faced a turning point in his life when he considered leaving the comic industry before creating his most iconic work.
  • His wife, Joni, played a crucial role in encouraging him to create a new group of superheroes in a way that was true to his vision.

"Waiting for some elusive big break and the chance to get out of comics and into the real world. What I didn't understand at that point in my life was that comics were the real world to me."

Stan Lee's realization that comics were his true passion and not just a temporary phase is a significant moment of self-awareness.

"I was almost 40 years old and still doing comic books. Was that what a grown man, a husband, and father, should seriously be doing?"

This quote captures Stan Lee's internal conflict about his career in comics and societal expectations about adulthood and professional success.

The Impact of Self-Doubt and Regret

  • Stan Lee's experience of self-doubt and the fear of wasting his life is shared by many people, both historically and in the present.
  • The host discusses the importance of understanding that feelings of self-doubt are not unique and can be managed by gaining perspective and learning from history.
  • The podcast emphasizes the value of autobiographies in providing insights into the regrets and reflections of successful individuals.

"I've felt that way, and I'm sure I will in the future. But it's not real. That is not actually happening."

David offers a perspective that self-doubt is a mental construct that can be overcome by stepping back and reassessing one's situation.

"They all talk about the regrets they had, the stuff they wish they could have done differently."

This quote highlights the common theme of regret in autobiographies, suggesting that reflecting on past mistakes is a universal experience.

Stan Lee's Creative Process and Marketing Genius

  • Stan Lee's creative process involved a mix of optimism, rebellion, and a desire to create something unique.
  • He was known for his marketing skills and innovative ideas, such as creating fan clubs and engaging with his audience in a personal way.
  • The podcast discusses how Stan Lee's language and promotional tactics were often imitated by others, leading him to adopt unique phrases like "Excelsior."

"Marvel is a cornucopia fantasy, a wild idea, a swashbuckling attitude, an escape from the humdrum and the prosaic."

Stan Lee's description of Marvel comics showcases his flair for language and his vision of comics as an imaginative and exciting escape from the ordinary.

"Sometimes mediocrity can be as disappointing as failure."

This quote from Stan Lee reflects his dissatisfaction with producing work that did not align with his creative passion or standards.

The Turning Point in Stan Lee's Career

  • The turning point in Stan Lee's career was prompted by a chance golf game that led to the creation of the Avengers.
  • Stan Lee was close to leaving the comic book industry before this pivotal moment, which was influenced by a resurgence of interest in superhero teams.
  • His wife's advice to take a risk and do the book his way was instrumental in the creation of the Marvel universe and the birth of relatable superheroes.

"You've got nothing to lose by doing the book your way. The worst that can happen is that Martin will get mad and fire you, but you want to quit anyway, so what's the risk?"

Joni's advice to Stan Lee encapsulates the idea of embracing risk when there is nothing left to lose, which ultimately led to his groundbreaking approach to creating superheroes.

"I was determined never to try to create something according to somebody else's lights if I didn't feel comfortable doing it."

This quote reflects Stan Lee's resolve to stay true to his own creative vision, regardless of external pressures or expectations.

Confidence and Humility in Creativity

  • The podcast explores the balance between confidence and humility, particularly in creative endeavors.
  • Stan Lee's self-confidence and optimism are highlighted as key factors in his success, despite his earlier self-doubt.
  • The discussion includes the importance of being open to learning from others while maintaining confidence in one's own abilities.

"Stan was a bundle of optimism. After launching his new group of superheroes, he started telling everyone who'd listen that the Fantastic Four was going to be known as the best superhero comic book ever produced."

Stan Lee's optimism and confidence in his work are evident in his promotion of the Fantastic Four, showcasing his belief in his creations.

"I understand that most people prefer modesty, but I'm not necessarily sure if I believe that's the best advice for entrepreneurs or people that are being creative."

David questions the conventional wisdom around modesty, suggesting that confidence can be a valuable trait for creative individuals and entrepreneurs.

Concept of Greatness and Subjectivity

  • Greatness is subjective and varies based on individual perspectives.
  • Stan Lee believes in confidently promoting one's work as great if one believes in its quality.
  • The practice of labeling products as "the world's greatest" is common and effective marketing, despite its subjective nature.

"There are no hard and fast rules concerning greatness, a condition which is generally in the eye of the beholder."

This quote emphasizes that greatness is not an absolute measure but rather a personal opinion or judgment.

Value of Non-Tangible Elements in Business

  • Stan Lee recognized the importance of community and fan engagement for business growth.
  • He compared Marvel's potential for a fan club to Disney's Mickey Mouse Club.
  • Stan Lee believed in investing in non-immediate return elements, such as fan clubs, which he felt would pay off in the long term.

"Humans score in the abstract, and there's a weird value in things that are not just numbers."

This quote reflects Stan Lee's understanding that not all valuable aspects of a business can be quantified or immediately apparent.

Marvel's Fan Clubs and Executive Misunderstanding

  • Marvel had fan clubs like the "MMMS" and "FOOM" to cultivate a passionate community.
  • These initiatives were not seen as profit centers by Marvel's number crunchers and were eventually canceled.
  • Stan Lee felt that the executive team lacked vision in recognizing the long-term value of nurturing a fan base.

"It's a shame. I always felt that Marvel could have and should have one day rivaled Disney."

Stan Lee expresses regret that Marvel's executives did not understand the importance of promotion and public relations in leveraging their fan base.

The Importance of Building and Maintaining Fan Loyalty

  • Stan Lee believed in the necessity of maintaining contact with fans to keep their loyalty.
  • He criticized the Marvel executives for not knowing how to use their fan following to the company's advantage.
  • The concept of nurturing fans is likened to the compound interest effect in business success.

"Fans can be the most elusive, ephemeral group in the world, and the suits didn't get it."

This quote criticizes the Marvel executives for not appreciating the importance of actively engaging with and nurturing their fan community.

The Use of Established Characters and Team Creation

  • Stan Lee created the Avengers by bringing together existing popular characters instead of inventing new ones.
  • This approach was partly due to "laziness" but also reflects a deeper understanding of human relationships and storytelling.

"Instead of dreaming up a whole new caboodle of new characters, I simply took our already established and popular characters and had them form a team called the Avengers."

Stan Lee explains his strategy for creating the Avengers, highlighting his creative approach to storytelling.

Betrayal and Business Acumen

  • Stan Lee was advised to leverage his essential role in Marvel's sale to negotiate a better deal for himself.
  • Despite his friend's advice, Stan Lee trusted Martin Goodman to be fair without a formal agreement.
  • Goodman's subsequent betrayal teaches a harsh lesson in business and personal relationships.

"Martin told me that perfect film was offering him between twelve and 15 million in cash for Marvel."

This quote sets the stage for the story of Goodman's sale of Marvel and Stan Lee's misplaced trust in fair compensation.

Stan Lee's Promotion and Conflict with Martin Goodman

  • Stan Lee was promoted to publisher, a role previously held by Martin Goodman.
  • Goodman attempted to block Stan's promotion to give the position to his son and accused Stan of disloyalty.
  • Stan Lee used his new position to promote Marvel as he had always envisioned.

"Martin actually had the gall to accuse me of disloyalty, of betraying him after all he had done for me."

Stan Lee recounts the accusation of disloyalty from Goodman, illustrating the personal conflicts within the business.

Direct Sales and Marvel's Strategic Focus

  • The popularity of comic books led to the rise of specialized comic book stores.
  • Marvel capitalized on this by focusing on direct sales and publishing exclusive content for comic book stores.
  • This strategy led to increased sales and a symbiotic relationship with store owners.

"Increased Marvel sales by an additional 420,000 books a month."

Stan Lee quantifies the significant impact of Marvel's direct sales strategy on their sales figures.

Stan Lee's Legacy and Philosophy on Retirement

  • Stan Lee reflects on his career and the difficulty of deciding when to end his story.
  • He questions the concept of retirement, as he is already engaged in work that he loves.
  • Stan Lee's passion for his work and creative projects is what drives him, with no desire to retire.

"Most people retire in order to finally do the things they really want to do. But I'm already doing them."

Stan Lee expresses his contentment with his work and sees no reason to retire from doing what he loves.

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