Friday, November 16, 2018

What Stan Lee Taught Me About Writing


Within minutes of the announcement that Stan Lee, co-creator of the Marvel Universe and its countless heroes, passed away at the age of 95, my Facebook feed flooded over with tributes and comments about people’s favorite characters, plot lines, and so forth. Many people left a simple “Excelsior!” because it was Stan Lee’s personal catch phrase. As for me, I started thinking about what made Mr. Lee such a stand-out in the comic universe. In my opinion, it was not the creativity or the illustrations. It was the writing.

Stan Lee, co-creator of the Marvel Universe
For those who have little interest in the world of superheroes, trust me that there is still valuable information within this post. And as for those Marvel fanatics, I am sure you will agree with parts of this as well. What made the Marvel Universe so fascinating was where superheroes were not about the “super” part, but rather the “hero” part.

When superheroes first appeared, the fascination was with their exceptional qualities – in the comics and on radio, the attention was on Superman’s many powers, The Shadow’s ability to cloud men’s minds, or whatever their particular ability was. They were super – that’s what counted. And yes, that was an amazing and fascinating attraction on its own. But then someone changed the focus – Stan Lee wrote about who these people were, not about what their powers were.

When we write any story, we need the usual components – a hero, the call to action, the adventure, the challenges and obstacles, the culmination of all this conflict, and the resolving conclusion. Superheroes originally made this all external adventure – outside forces pulled all of these levers, and our hero went straight toward the challenge. It was all fine and good, but at the end, the conclusion was that the bad guy was defeated, safety was restored, and all was right with the world. Very tidy, very neat, and kind of boring.

Stan Lee changed that focus. He said that when he thought about a superhero, he did not think about how these special powers would be put to use, but how a person would go about their life and use these powers. Some would resist using their gift, some would be corrupted by the sudden power they gained over others, and the rare few would take that difficult journey of balancing power with responsibility. These would become the core heroes of the Marvel Universe – not because of their powers, but because of their humanity and vulnerability when confronted with such a challenge.

The first thing that drew me to these heroes was that very premise. Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) gained his power by accident, but as a teenager he did not understand what responsibility came with them. I could relate to that not because I also could shoot webs and had spider senses, but because I also felt that conflict between my desires and my responsibilities. Peter failed that test and in a twist of fate, his Uncle Ben was killed. Peter now had to live with this, and held himself accountable for his actions from that point forward. That is a human story. That point of conflict can carry its own in a non-superhero story, and is not the exclusive property of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

One of Stan Lee’s most popular themes within the Marvel Universe was a simple one: “With great power comes great responsibility.” In the comics, this was demonstrated by the superheroes who followed that code and the villains who broke it. However, it was expressed through their humanity, not in their powers, and in this regard, there are plenty of examples of this in literature. Heroes face the internal conflict of binding themselves to the responsibility, villains (and anti-heroes) take the power to its furthest lengths.

I like to think that Stan Lee’s genius was not in making a world of superheroes, but in creating a world of relatable humans who just happened to have some powers. Whether or not you can buy in to Dr. Bruce Banner occasionally turning into a huge green rage monster is not as important as understanding how Dr. Banner lived with shaping his existence around controlling his inner demon (or inner Hulk in this case). These are, at their core, human stories. Internal conflict, flawed heroes and thoughtful villains, no easy answers and often regrettable conclusions – all parts of the human situation, and the key components of good storytelling. And Stan Lee showed me how those can make any story, genre, or character an interesting read.

Excelsior!

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