The genius of superhero comics is how they take some real-world thing, figure out what a few of the interesting variables are, and then creatively manipulate them. As professionals who regularly have to make sense of the world for our clients, this process of thinking in variables is very familiar. It’s especially helpful when we consider how we also have to take our clients’ perceptions and perspectives into account. Stan Lee was a master of this art form. Consider some of his genius:
Teenagers have to balance being a kid with taking responsibility for their own lives. What if that responsibility included special powers and protecting an entire city from bad guys – on top of cleaning one’s room, navigating the lunchroom, and figuring out romance? That’s Spider-Man.
Racism is one of the ugliest aspects of society. What if the minority group had powers that actually made them somehow “better” than the majority? How would a tiered society work or fall apart? How can we talk about Civil Rights outside of strictly the historical examples to weigh counterfactuals in our minds? That’s X-Men.
Stan Lee also made it OK for generations of kids (and adults) to explore what it meant to be different. In characters, frames and word bubbles he captured the human condition. He showed us, with great humanity, how to dissect the variables and consider how different can also mean special. His characters were always relatable, but their circumstances offered a powerful change of perspective.
As professionals, our attitude towards understanding the variables at play, creating scenarios in our minds, and teasing out a persuasive story is all part of the job. Like Stan Lee, we have to be students of the world around us, always looking for new and interesting ways to communicate our message in a positive light. We are never just interpreting current events. We are always narrating and curating a story around our clients as smart and relatable heroes making forward progress despite the struggles. It really is an art form.
When Stan Lee ended an appearance with “Excelsior!” he begged us to remember that positivity. Translated from Latin, Excelsior means “ever upward.” We all can strive to tell our best stories and use our powers for good. Like Stan Lee, we can all be a force for moving humanity ever upward through communication. He will be missed.