Before Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, Thor, Hulk, and all the others, there was “VD? Not Me,” Stan Lee (chairman emeritus of Marvel Enterprises, Inc., writer, and former instructional designer for the U.S. military) said during his keynote address American Library Association (ALA) 2014 Annual Conference here in Las Vegas.
“I had a funny career in the army,” he explained as he retold a story documented elsewhere. “Just before being shipped off [during the second world], I was taken into the training division in Long Island to write training manuals and films for the troops.”
The challenge, he recalled, was to create materials “in clear language” so that the time required for training could be decreased. He and his colleagues, for example, prepared materials teaching soldiers how to disassemble and reassemble guns: “We were able to increase the speed of the training by about 30%…I never told you, but I practically won the war [single-handedly]… Everybody knew how a gun works because of me!” he said with the obvious sense of hyperbole that made his presentation so engaging.
And then there was “VD? Not me!” Responding to the need for training on how to avoid or recover from sexually-transmitted diseases, Lee and others worked on training films and campaigns to attract soldiers to prophylactic stations where they could be treated, and one of the posters, he recalled, used that “VD? Not me” slogan to foster more awareness of resources available. A comic character he created was part of the overall training in what appears to have been a very early use of gamification in training: learners followed the comic character from one place to another in the training materials by answering questions correctly.
For those of us who grew up reading the stories that Lee and others cranked out with amazing regularity, watching Lee in action here in Las Vegas was a wonderful combination of hearing the recollections of someone who did much to entertain us while encouraging our reading habits and, at the same time, making us aware of how much we could learn from him as a fellow teacher-trainer-learner-presenter.
His awareness and mastery of how to address and draw members of his audience into what he was doing was obvious from the moment he walked up to the microphone and looked out at all of us in that huge, packed conference-center ballroom: “I was asked to talk to you about reading,” he began. “That would be like going to a banker’s conference to talk about money. What the hell can I tell you?”
Then, as if having second thoughts and wanting to live up to his obligation to address the assigned topic, he relented by giving the topic all of four words: “Reading is very good.” But not quite done with that mock revelation, he added one more thought: “…and you can quote me!”
There was plenty more said about the relevancy of comic books to reading, the importance of creating individual characters—the heroes and the villains—to draw readers into the narratives so many of us loved and continue to love; and how people at parties used to turn and flee when they learned he wrote comics, but now would rather talk to him at a party than be caught talking to the president of the United States.
But what was most striking to me was the example he set for all of us as trainer-teacher-learners. Regardless of how serious he allowed himself to become in responding to questions during the presentation, he routinely and continually peppered his comments with amusing asides and the sort of self-effacing comments that made us feel as if we were insiders—partners rather than observers in the presentation. And those of us who gave in to the invitation to laugh with him while also remaining aware of what he was doing to keep us engaged walked away not only with cherished memories of spending a bit of our conference time with a wonderful trainer-teacher-learner-presenter, but stronger for the reminders of what it means to incorporate engaging narrative into the presentation and learning process.