|By Pete Barlas--invester's buisness daily
Stan Lee knows how much it pays to be honest when dealing with the public. Several years ago Lee--the creator of Spider-man and other comic book heroes-- was editor of Marvel Comics. While looking through the month's scheduled publications, Lee came across a book he felt was substandard.
With deadline fast approaching and no time for a revisoin, Lee decided to mix honesty with a little showmanship. "On the cover, I wrote a blurb saying something like, 'We realize this is far from the best story we have ever given you, but we think that we have given you enough good ones in the past that you kind of owe it to us to buy this one also'" he said.
With a few days, Lee's candor began to pay dividends.
"I got more fan mail saying how much they loved that, and that book sold better than anything else we put out that year. I think they just enjoyed the honesty," he said.
Today, Lee, 76, is regarded as an icon in comic book publishing. In a career of 59 years, he helped create roughly 100 characters and served as a writer, editor, publisher and more recently, chairman emeritus for New York-based Marvel Enterprised Inc. Over the years, many of Lee's charactes have sprung to life on television and other media.
Since the 1960's, Marvel has controlled at least 50% of the comic book market, according to Comics Buyers Guide, an industy magazine based in Iola, Wis. In the 1960's and 1970's under Lee's guidance, Marvel produced about 75 comic books a month. Most were superhero adventures. Each book had roughly 150,000 readers.
Lee's achievements have surpassed many others in the entertainment field, says Paul Levitz, publisher of DC Comics Inc.
"Here's a guy who co-created a list of figures that are part of our pop culture, and it's an extraordinarily long list," Levitz said. "when you look at movies and TV, nobody else even comes close to developing that many recognizable characters," he said. Besides Spider-man, they include the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, Ironman and Dr. Strange.
Lee still writes the Spider-man comic strip for the newspapers and also pens a column for Marvel. But he spends most of his time working on new characters for his own Internet company, publicly held Stan Lee Media Inc. of Encino, Calif.
Lee, who was born (in) Stanley Lieber, began his career in publishing by accident. At 17, he entered a contest held by the New York Heral-Tribune to write a 500-word essay about the biggest news event of the week. Lee signed up three weeks in a row and won all three times, much to the editor's chagrin.
"The editor called me down there and asked me to stop entering and give someone else a chance, " Lee said.
The editor also advised Lee to look for a job in publishing. Lee took his advice. In 1940, he got a job as an assistant for the Magazine Management Co., a New York publishing company that later became Marvel. Lee was assigned to the comics department.
"I didn't know they published comics, but I figured I'd stay there a while, get some experience and then get into the real world," he said.
Although Lee started getting coffee for superiors, he saw an opportunity to work his way up. Lee, who has never drawn proffessionally, volunteered to write copy. He showed he had talent for creating characters, and began moving up. Lee was promoted to editor and then art director. In 1970, he was named publisher.
Much of Lee's success comes from his innovations.
Lee was the first to show that superheroes could have human feelings. For example, Spider-man might come down with an allergy in the middle of a showdown with the Green Goblin, says George Mair, whos is writing a biography about Lee.
"Lee's superheroes might get a cold; they would get headaches; they had problems with friends. The had very human characteristics. Lee was the first one to do that," Mair said.
Lee was unafraid to try something different. For example, early in his career, Lee revised the process for producing comis. Until the early 1960's most comic book writers would write complete scripts, including dialogue, and hand them to artists, who then completed the books.
instead, Lee discussed sotry lines with artists and then gave them a story outline for each book. The artist drew the book and gave it back to Lee, who then added the text. The approach worked on two fronts: It gave the artists more freedon and aslo helped Lee publish more books under tight deadlines.
"I didn't have time to write the scripts in complete script form for all of the artists, but this way I was able to keep a few dozen artists busy at the same time,"he said.
Lee was also the first to write stories that allowed villains to win once in a while, which helped Marvel's sales, says M. Thomas Inge, professor of humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.
"If you know ahead of time that every story is going to end up the same way, it gets boring," he said.
Lee says he didn't want to copy his rivals. "its' har to succeed by merely replication what others are doing," he said.
To caputre readers' attention, Lee knew he needed a hook that no one else had. Before him, superheroes were overwhelmingly serious. So Leeinserted humor into the books, even in seemigly diastrous situations.
Suppose Spider-maninterceptd a giant monster threatening a city. Leewould have him say, "Whos the nut inthe Halloween costume? I wonder what he's advertising?"
"I find that you can get any message across so much better by pitching it with humor instead of being dull, dry and pedantic," Lee said.
Lee understood that to keep readers, he needed to make them feel as if they were a part of a larger group. He wrote columns and editorials about the characters or other topics, addressing readers as friends.
"We tried to get the felling that we were all sharing a little secret together," he said.
Even as Marvel began to seize the lion's share of comic book readership, Lee was wary of getting complacent.
"The more successful you become, the more others will try to imitate you and surpass what you've done, so you must always try to remain ahead of the pack," he said.
Lee kept his stories fresh by reading constantly. He never finshed college, but that didn't stop him from deving into an English major's curriculum says biographer Mair.
"Shakespeare, Twain, every classic-- he's read them all, and he can recite passeges from memory," Mair said. "He has a classics education but not a classical education."
Lee kept Marvel strong by recruiting the best artists and writers. He uses the same formula for his new Internet company.
"If your employees are the best and well paid, they will come up with the ideas that you need," he said.
Even today, Lee says, many executives often forget that workers need praise to remain productive.
"If you take two employees of equal talent, the happy, motivated one will be far more valuable than the one who feels he's merely doing a job," Lee said.