Nathan Abrams reviews a new biography of Stan Lee.
‘This is a particular pleasure — or frustration, depending on one’s point of view — for Jewish critics, who have spent decades and spun a small cottage industry arguing about just what the new mythology is constructed by American Jewish artists owe to the old ideas of their ancient religion.’
This particular line in Liel Leibovitz’s Stan Lee: A Life in Comics, the latest entry in Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, really hit home for me because I am precisely one of those Jewish critics who has spent decades now contributing to that small cottage industry (is it still only a small cottage industry by now?) both in terms of comics (Mad magazine) but film and media more widely (see any of my contributions for JewThink!) and especially in my more recent work on Stanley Kubrick.
Pleasurably or frustratingly, depending on your point of view, this ‘biography’ – I use the speech marks because it’s not strictly an account of Stan Lee’s life – does precisely that: mine Marvel Comics for its indebtedness to Judaism. And it does so wonderfully, making the book one of the better entries in the series that I have read – I have read many but by no means all of them.
Born Stanley Martin Lieber on 28 December 1922, Lee was raised in Manhattan and later the Bronx (a place that nurtured so many Jewish talents, Kubrick included) before entering the comic books industry to produce a rival to DC Comics. And what a rival! Where DC had Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Marvel came up with Captain America, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, The X-Men, Black Panther, Silver Surfer and more. The significance and reach of his characters have now been perpetuated and extended through the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, respecting Lee’s vision.
Lee, Leibovitz argues, left us a legacy in the form of a ‘vast cultural canvas’ but one which he left up to his readers to interpret. In a passage worth quoting at length, he writes:
It didn’t help much that the master himself was, as ever, playfully elusive: whenever he was asked about the real meaning of this character or that plotline, Lee — taking a page from another gnomic Jewish artist, Bob Dylan — mirthlessly shrugged off any attempt to earnestness leaving his readers to offer theories of their own.
While frustrating for anyone trying to write a biography of Lee, say, this constant flight from anything concrete has served to make leaves work infinitely more interesting: his comic books, like Dylan songs, have become vast cultural canvases onto which anyone interested in the art form can paint her or his own interpretations, and ongoing dialogue with the artist that mirrors the ancient Talmudic logic of constant conversation and disputation. This, in part, may explain why the staying power of Lee’s work: the pleasure offers lies not in attempting to empirically prove that a certain character ought to be read only in a certain way, but him reaching into the cornucopia of culture and pulling out all the pieces that seem to fit into Lees expansive universe.
As is clear from the quote, Leibovitz then applies his own Jewish interpretations to the text and each of the chapters offers a fruitful and fulfilling reading of the Marvel Universe in terms of Jewish scripture.
And along the way, I learned more about both comics and Judaism. For example, in the discussion of the Hulk, Leibovitz cites the work of the influential Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and his 1965 essay, The Lonely Man of Faith, that discussed Adam the First and Adam the Second. The biblical story of Cain and Abel enters the analysis of Spiderman. The famous Talmudic parable about the Oven of Akhnai comes into play vis-à-vis the Silver Surfer. And so on. It’s brilliant stuff and now has me motivated to watch all the MCU films (previously dismissed as ‘being for kids’) so I can perform my own Jewish, Midrashic interpretation.
In the final analysis, Leibovitz’s Stan Lee: A Life in Comics forms a cracking primer for anyone wanting to join the cottage industry of Jewish critics spinning ancient meaning from new material.
Liel Leibovitz’s Stan Lee: A Life in Comics is published by Yale University Press, priced £16.98.