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Everything I know about storytelling I learned from Stan Lee

12. November 2018

Jon Meakin, Grayling’s global head of strategic services, mourns the passing of a pop culture icon.

I was deeply saddened today to learn of the passing of Stan ‘The Man’ Lee, founder of Marvel Comics and creator of such iconic figures as Spider-ManThe Incredible Hulk and The X-Men. Lee was 95 years old, so his death was probably not a shock to anyone, but it nevertheless affected me greatly, since his work was a major part of my childhood and – it turns out – had a major influence on my career.  

Growing up, I was never the sporty one. I was more comfortable with books than boots, with stories than sports. And comic books were a major part of that. Specifically, Marvel Comics. I was what Lee called a 'True Believer', heading to the newsagent each week to pick up my reserved copy of the latest Spider-Man or Fantastic Fourpublication, and losing myself in their pages. I loved the characters, the fantastical storylines, the artwork… everything. And 40 years later, a whole new generation is as hooked as I was, with those same characters now comprising one of the most successful movie franchises in history and spawning an endless array of merchandise.

But reflecting on Stan Lee’s legacy, I realize that reading those comic books had a much greater impact on my life than I previously appreciated. You see, I have built my career in a profession that is all about storytelling – and Stan was the consummate storyteller. It’s fair to say that everything I know about storytelling, I learned from Stan Lee:

  • Keep it simple: We talk about the elevator pitch, and the need for simplicity of ideas, but Stan Lee understood this better than most. While it could be argued he broke the mould by creating multi-layered, complex characters, there was always an immediacy to his ideas and his characters. Take Spider-Man, for example: His alter ego, Peter Parker, is a flawed teenager, wracked with guilt over the death of his uncle, with an inability to form strong relationships for fear of endangering those he loves… but it boils down to this: He’s a kid who has the powers of a spider and uses them to fight crime. Got it. Simple. In communications, if your idea needs more explanation than that, it’s probably not a very good idea.
  • Show, don’t tell: Comics wouldn’t be comics if they weren’t visual, of course. And Stan understood the possibilities of advancing a narrative without dialogue or description. If PR used to be all about the press release, social media has unlocked the ability to do what Stan Lee did for decades – use pictures to tell a story. Thank you, Instagram. Thank you, Stan.  
  • Create conflict: Spider-Man was nothing without the Green Goblin, Professor X nothing without Magneto, The Fantastic Four nothing without Doctor Doom. Stories are engaging if there is conflict at the heart of them. Stan Lee knew that, which is why he spent as much time creating super villains as he did heroes. And in PR terms, it is conflict that creates the reason for people to care about whatever it is we are trying to promote – the conflict of an unmet need, for example. Every hero (client) needs a villain (reason to exist).
  • Keep ’em hanging: It was Stan Lee’s mastery of the cliff-hanger that kept me heading back to the newsagent week after week. Each Fantastic Four adventure could stand on its own, yes, but it was also part of a much longer story arc. That’s what kept me engaged. And in PR, each campaign we create must be considered as part of a longer, broader narrative, in order for audiences to engage with our clients, our ‘heroes’.
  • Be bold: If you’ve not seen Avengers: Infinity War, stop reading now. But if you have, you’ll know that half of the characters were seemingly killed off at the end. What you might not know is that the source material for that plot was a storyline from a Marvel comic strip (published long after I stopped reading them). Master storytellers like Stan Lee, like Alfred Hitchcock, know the importance of being bold. Being bold grabs people’s attention, and keeps it. And in the age of The Attention Economy, that’s what we need to do.

So while I pour one out for Stan Lee, I’ll also be thanking him for keeping me entertained, and for what he taught me along the way.



Photo: Stan Lee  at the Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Arizona - ©Gage Skidmore

Grayling Team

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