With last week’s passing of Stan Lee at the age of 95, the world lost the central player in the rise of the comic book industry as we know it today. In the 1960s, under the leadership of Lee and the late Jack Kirby, Marvel Comics launched a slew of titles including the Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor, Daredevil, Avengers, Iron Man X-Men and many, many others. Between the comics, the conventions, the juggernaut movie industry, the merchandising, and most of all, the millions of imaginations stirred each week, by any metric, Stan Lee was one of the towering generators of American culture in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Appreciation of Lee’s legacy would do well to note the Jewish roots of the comic industry. Lee’s given name was Stanley Lieber; his parents Romanian Jewish immigrants who settled in the Bronx. Lee was a graduate of DeWitt Clinton High School, a setting that gave rise to people like Lee, Richard Rodgers, and Ralph Lauren – some of the most remarkable Jewish shapers of an aspirational and imagined American dream. The aforementioned Jack Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg to a family of Austrian Jews who settled on the Lower East Side. Kirby and Lee collaborated with Joe Simon, the creator of Captain America, born Hymie Simon, also to immigrant parents. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both sons of Jewish immigrants gave life to Action Comics’ Superman. The Jewish role in the American comic book industry is undeniable and cannot be overstated.
Why is it that so many Jews found their home in this world of heroes and villains, superpowers and secret identities, alter egos and alternate realities? Some of the connections are more obvious than others and many predate Lee himself. As Brian Klotz notes, in 1938 when Siegel and Shuster created Superman, they did so in response to “hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany.” What is the story of Superman if not the story of a baby Moses – Kal-El sent away in a vessel from a world facing annihilation only to be discovered in a rural setting, raised with a hidden identity, until that fateful day when a stuttering gentile, Clark Kent, goes to the metropolis to discover the fate of civilization resting on his shoulders. The superhero plot lines are also reminiscent of the mythical Golem creature from Jewish literature – precedent for a legendary figure of superhuman strength capable of saving the Jewish people time and again in crisis. So too the backdrop of World War II is omnipresent in these early years.
The 1941 debut issue of Kirby’s Captain America features our red-white-and-blue hero, surrounded by an ethnically diverse platoon, delivering a right hook to Hitler’s jaw – not an insignificant statement given the isolationist sentiments of many of our countrymen who were then actively discouraging America’s entry into the war.
Lee’s significance is that he did not just receive the literary tropes established by his predecessors but developed them to reflect the changing sensibilities of his era. The stiff gentility of Superman’s Clark Kent was replaced by the schlimazel quality of Spider-Man’s Peter Parker. So too, the comic patter of Spider-Man’s crime fighting, Daredevil’s vigilantism, and the Hulk’s uncontrollable rage reflected altogether different notions of what constitutes heroic behavior. Lee’s story lines shared not only the success or failure of any one mission, but also the ongoing struggle of that superhero to fulfill said mission while balancing the tug-of-war of his hyphenated identity. The implicit drama of Stan Lee’s universe is that the humanity-saving deeds of our heroes can only be performed when the marginalized (Jewish) citizen dons a mask, thus enabling his or her chosen superpowers to come to the fore.
The implicit drama of Stan Lee’s universe is that the humanity-saving deeds of our heroes can only be performed when the marginalized (Jewish) citizen dons a mask, thus enabling his or her chosen superpowers to come to the fore.
The Jewish undercurrent of Lee’s work is perhaps most evident in the most commercially viable of his creations: the X-Men. In 1963, Lee and Kirby developed the premise of the X-Men, a category of human beings endowed with a variety of abilities that manifest themselves right around the time of bar mitzvah. The subtext of the entire series is the degree to which these uncanny outsiders – who save humanity time and time again – will ever be accepted by the very host society that depends on their heroics. Could these themes have been developed by non-Jews? Perhaps. Certainly their wide and warm reception by the general public suggests that there is nothing necessarily Jewish about them. As with all great art, the lines are not always clear and the subtexts not always explicit. But even the most conservative reader would have to concede that the nature of these storylines seems to run parallel to the very anxieties of the American Jewish experience in a post-Holocaust America.
In fact, one could even go so far as to suggest that Lee’s vision reflects a typological struggle that long predates the ‘60s and ‘70s. Ever since the wrestling match within the biblical matriarch Rebecca’s womb, competing notions for our people’s identity have been present: Jacob, a Peter-Parker-like dweller of tents, and Esau, a muscular outdoorsman. Ever since Jacob’s tenure in the house of Laban, Jews have wondered just how long we can exist as a minority before either losing our distinctiveness or having our hosts turn on us. And as long as Jews have been Jews, we have imagined that decisive wrestling match between the competing notions of our self-understanding with one side emerging victorious – limping but shalem (whole), renamed as Israel, proudly unmasked in the fullness of our being.
Why is it that so many Jews found their home in this world of heroes and villains, superpowers and secret identities?
The ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s were fascinating years of transition for an upwardly mobile and increasingly accepted post-Holocaust American Jewry, contending with issues of hyphenated-identities, a sovereign state, and power in new, fascinating, and sometimes uncomfortable ways. Lee’s oeuvre draws on the most traditional tropes of our people in the medium of a comic book, a modern midrash on the transformations he witnessed in American Jewish life.
The world and Jewish world have changed since Lee and Kirby founded Marvel Comics decades ago. The comic book industry is no longer the Jewish dominated industry it once was. Jews are no longer “the other,” but “just another” in the symphony of American life. There are now other “others” seeking entry into the American dream. So too the identity politics for being a superhero have changed. A hero’s superpowers are no longer contingent on his or her willingness to put on a mask. In fact, the contemporary superhero is expected to save the world with both powers and identity on full display.
And yet for all that has changed, there is far more that has stayed the same. None of us need look far to see a world in need of being saved, a world in need of tikkun, repair. Ours is an era desperate for heroes capable of fighting for truth and justice. Perhaps more than anything, ours is an era in search of hope, which – when all is said and done – is what comic books are really all about. For as long as Jews have been Jews, our calling card has been that hope – to be an exemplar and a light unto nations, and here in America we have the wherewithal to exercise that power openly. As Uncle Ben once said to his nephew Peter Parker, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” In those days as in ours, it is a call to action to which we must pay heed. And may the memory of Stan Lee be for an eternal blessing.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is senior rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.