NEW YORK — When I heard that a new book about Stan Lee was nearing publication, I admit, I kinda shrugged. The late P.T. Barnum-esque head of Marvel Comics spent decades telling his story in interviews, penned an autobiography, had his “Stan’s Soapbox” columns anthologized, was the subject documentaries and DVD features, and continues to get plenty of ink in any volume about the art or business of comic books. Then I saw who was writing this new one — and for what series — and couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. The book, “Stan Lee: A Life in Comics,” was released on April 21.
Few are better suited to look at Stan Lee’s life for Yale University Press’s ongoing Jewish Lives collection than Liel Leibovitz. The Tablet Magazine writer and co-host of their popular Unorthodox and Daf Yomi podcasts (and, I should probably disclose, friend of mine) exudes a “comic book guy” essence, which, I can not stress enough, I mean as a compliment. He also has a profound knowledge about Jewish texts, and loves nothing more than to ascribe rabbinical significance to what others might consider a piece of pop culture ephemera.
Leibovitz describes the pivotal moment when Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber) and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzburg) argue their way into crafting the first flawed, human superheroes (later known as the Fantastic Four) by drawing a direct line to the origin of the Talmud. This singularity of Jewish history and modern popular myth-making is a colorful wash of energy worthy of Kirby’s bold images and Lee’s patented patter.
While this slim volume has all the necessary biographical details, like Lee’s childhood during the Depression, his war years working on anti-venereal disease material for the Army, and his many great collaborators, the meat of this book is the well-researched and effectively argued analysis of comic book heroes in a Jewish context. The Silver Surfer as Rabbi Eliezer? I may not have bought it before, but now I’m sold.
Liebovitz earns his challah talking and talking and talking some more, and when you get him going about comic books he’s got a lot to say. As such, what follows is a greatly abridged transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity.
Liel, your new book sits on a righteous shelf, part of the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series. Who else from that group is Stan Lee most like? Is it Moses Mendelssohn? Spinoza? Someone else?
I’ll say Harry Houdini. These are two men had an innate understanding that in the world of American arts, letters and entertainment the persona was the essential product. They turned their own lives into a work of art, which was exhausting and, ultimately, consumed both of them. Houdini, of course, died tragically young and Stan Lee, you can say, died tragically old — in that from 1972 onward his art was mostly “being Stan Lee.”
Also, they both came of age in an era of great transition. As American mores and economic structures were changing, they both announced the death of their medium and the rebirth. Comic books were completely washed-up when Stan Lee took that last shot as a 40-year-old creating “Fantastic Four,” which reinvigorated the industry and changed American culture forever.
You explain how the 1961 publication of the “Fantastic Four #1” is a sea change moment, and compare it to “Citizen Kane” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Do you think that this eureka event in comics would have happened otherwise? Some artistic movements, you know… you can’t pin Romanticism in music solely on Beethoven. Would this have happened without Stan Lee?
No, and I’ll give you a long answer why.
Stan Lee grows up hating comic books. He considered them a cheap form of entertainment, but he’s in this industry because it’s the only job he can get. But he recognizes that comics are imprisoned by a dueling paradigm created by first generation American Jews who very eagerly want to emulate gentiles.
As such, comics play into the major American Protestant conflict of the head and the heart; fundamentalism and modernism. Superman is Jesus Christ, the alien from outer space come to redeem humankind by his good grace. Then there is Batman, proof that industriousness, the modern tools of science and a good work ethic are all you need. And Stan is bored to tears by this story. Not only are these infallible heroes uninteresting, this flat conflict is foreign to his profoundly Jewish sensibilities.
So he creates a new breed of superhero, animated by this very Jewish way of seeing the world. Many of Stan’s contemporaries had similar backgrounds, but it took his singular moment of artistic awakening to bring about that change. Once that happened, all of these very talented people then worked in the new stream.
You describe the creation of that first “Fantastic Four” like the origin of the Talmud. This is, in fact, the secret sauce of your book, putting Stan’s work in a Jewish context. Some are obvious — like Ben Grimm/The Thing as a Golem — some less so, like Spider-Man as Cain. Did some come to you easier than others?
Well, my “nerd-dom” began when I was seven, first reading American comics to help learn English. As I got older I noticed that the Marvel heroes offered more than a cheap thrill; they grappled with moral conundrums I recognized from my Torah education. So when Yale University Press came to me for a Stan Lee biography, the first thing I said was that Stan Lee didn’t really have an interesting life!
Most of his creations, as with the Beatles, were conceived in a short streak of intense creativity; after that it was mostly Stan making guest appearances. Most of the action for him is sitting at a desk. It’s the characters that are interesting. I wanted to explore their DNA, to see why they became the new American pantheon that completely dominates popular culture. So you can only imagine the fun I had researching this, holding Rabbi [Joseph B.] Soloveitchik’s “Lonely Man of Faith” in one hand and an issue of “The Incredible Hulk” in the other.
Well, as someone who is into this sort of thing, it’s very enjoyable to dig into what about the Silver Surfer reverberates in a Jewish framework, rather than the typical discussion of “is Peter Parker Jewish?” Which, of course, he totally is —
Peter Parker’s story: always lamenting that he is on the outside, watching the cool kids Flash Thompson and Mary Jane, while he’s doing his homework. But the genius of Stan Lee is that even with his powers, this never changes! The powers do not cure him of his existential woes, which is such a Jewish insight to me.
You detail how Stan Lee was idolized by the counter-culture of the 1960s. DC Comics never connected in this way, did they?
Even though so many of the creators at DC were Jewish, it had gentilic roots. This made the characters somewhat unapproachable. They inhabited, literally, a different universe. Where does Superman live? Metropolis. Where does Batman live? Gotham. Where does Spider-Man live? Queens! He’s recognizable, he has real world problems.
Stan never hid he was Jewish, but was loathe to call attention to it in his work. When I interviewed him, I gave him what I thought was a softball. I pointed out that so many of the great comics creators were Jewish, hoping he’d take that and go with it. All he said — and I can still hear his voice — was “you’re right!” He wasn’t being condescending, but he laid it out in a “gee, whiz, I guess that’s true!” kind of way.
I have another long response to this.
My whole book is a tightrope walk in which I argue that these ubiquitous comic book characters have a far greater depth to them, and this depth comes from a connection to Jewish narratives and classic Jewish texts. And to be honest, there were times I doubted myself. There were moments where I asked “am I making all this up? Is this just some kind of feverish fantasy?”
There is, however, something of a smoking gun. Stan had elevated to become the boss of Marvel. He’s created The Avengers, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Black Panther, everything, so the corporation wants to celebrate this. They rent Carnegie Hall for An Evening with Stan Lee, built around his persona. There are circus freaks, celebrities, poets; it’s a very hippy thing. At the end they tell Stan he has 15 minutes to do whatever he wants. Anything.
So this great showman, who for so long inflated his own myth, goes on stage accompanied, importantly, by his wife and his daughter, and reads a long poem he wrote called “God Woke.”
It’s from God’s point of view, looking at Man’s cruelty, lamenting the moral decay of His creation. It is a profound work of theological thinking, and is proof to me of what was in Stan’s mind.
I take his bashfulness, his ongoing refusal to acknowledge any of these issues, as basically the key strategy every good artist must take if he or she wants to have the freedom to operate. It’s a smokescreen, similar to what Bob Dylan does.
Do you feel some of the current superhero movies, or comics in general, have lost some of their Jewish roots?
Yes, but that’s not a bad thing.
Part of me, the observant Jew in me, wants to shake my fist and shout, “You can’t make the X-Men with a different Magneto, this erases our history!” But then I think better of it.
Part of the magic is that despite the extreme particularity of these characters — I mean, Magneto as a Holocaust survivor, Peter Parker as a kid from Queens; there’s no way to read them without seeing they are Jewish — yet out of that specificity comes its universal appeal. I mean, “Fiddler on the Roof” was a tremendous hit in Japan, and accepted as “very Japanese” because it was about family. Stan Lee has done a similar thing.
The new generation of creators are taking the same DNA into different settings in that spirit. The recent “Into the Spider-Verse” film gave me profound joy, because I don’t need to be stuck with Peter Parker, the anxious Jewish kid from Queens because, you know, thankfully, Jewish kids from Queens aren’t that anxious anymore! I want to see Miles Morales [a black-Latino kid as a parallel-world Spider-Man] explore his surroundings, his problems, his challenges, his biases and uncertainties.
That is the real power, and doesn’t take anything away from Spider-Man’s Jewishness at all. If anything, it is a “Mission Accomplished” sign. If there is anything to the Jewish tradition of leaning into our texts in order to hold the world up to a better standard, that’s exactly what Stan Lee did.