Like all great spiritual teachers, Stan Lee, who left us this week at 95 for more astral planes, was the last person you’d expect to pick up the mantle of conveying to us mortals the goings-on in higher spheres.
A child of the Great Depression who took refuge in the movie theater and dreamed of being Errol Flynn, Lee got his start in comics at 17, fetching sandwiches and filling up inkpots. The company he worked for, Timely Comics, eventually changed its name to Marvel, and, under Lee’s leadership, it radically transformed American culture. The characters he created—Spider-Man and Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Doctor Strange, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four—occupy Hollywood’s imagination and production schedules, with $21 billion in ticket sales so far and a long list of sequels crowding every summer for the foreseeable future. Throw in the television shows, video games, digital applications, and all other imaginable forms of storytelling, and you can make a good case that, by any measure of significance at our disposal, few artists have had as much of an impact on American popular culture as Lee.
So entrenched is Lee’s legacy that he was credited, when receiving the National Medal of the Arts from President George W. Bush in 2008, for creating nothing short of a new American mythology, a universe rich not only with thrilling characters but also with timeless moral lessons. “His complex plots and humane super heroes,” read the medal’s citation, “celebrate courage, honesty, and the importance of helping the less fortunate, reflecting America’s inherent goodness.”
The citation’s religious overtones are not hyperbole. Having spent the last few years at work on a book about Lee, I’ve had the privilege of revisiting his sprawling canon. Considered not with the teen’s plot-hungry eye but with the melancholy of middle age and the necessary critical distance, Lee’s project emerges as what it clearly is: a new Great Awakening.
By the time Lee, then 39, was talked back from the brink of quitting the comics business and into creating his first masterwork—the Fantastic Four, first published in November of 1961—the furious godly spirit that has animated America from the moment the Puritans first washed on its shores was in crisis. New social movements, new ideas, and new technologies all drove Americans away from their traditional churches and synagogues, but the national thirst for the transcendent remained as great as ever. Because energy, spiritual or otherwise, never diminishes but is merely recycled, the same adoration once practiced in pews was now observed primarily in two new and quintessentially American art forms: rock n’ roll and comic books. The first captured the undulating vibrations of any religious ritual worth its salt; the second stepped up to retell the same ancient stories people have been sharing for moral instruction since more or less the dawn of time.
If this view of comics as a new page in the scriptures strikes you as blasphemous or just plain silly, consider the Silver Surfer. A gloomy, lonely, intergalactic intellectual, the Surfer belongs to an ancient alien race obsessed with its mythical past and fearful for its perilous future. When a godlike entity named Galactus arrives and threatens destruction, the Surfer is moved to leave his home and wander the world in Galactus’ service, struggling to find balance between his innate desire for peace and harmony and the violent Galactus’s frequent feats of annihilation.
Put crudely, the Surfer is the cosmic twin of the biblical Abraham. The ancient patriarch, as the philosopher Susan Neiman noted, is also the progenitor of a moral tradition we still hold dear, one she calls “resolute universalism.” Informed that God is about to devastate Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham, incredibly, stands up to the Almighty, pleading for the lives of people he had never met, demanding mercy. “The Abraham who risked God’s wrath to argue for the lives of unknown innocents,” Neiman writes, “is the kind of man who would face down injustice anywhere.” The Surfer is that man: When his wanderings lead him to Earth, he refuses to let Galactus consume the beautiful blue planet, standing up to his master and wrestling with the divine. Thankfully, unlike Abraham, he succeeds.
Having made his first appearance as the enemy of the Fantastic Four, the Surfer, now gifted with a human love interest—a blind sculptress named Alicia who senses his innate goodness—soon became a favorite of the antiwar movement, whose zines and other publications were often peppered with morality tales featuring the pensive alien. These activists believed they were citing Stan Lee, now a popular lecturer on campuses nationwide; in fact, they were honoring a deeply Jewish ethical tradition, one on which Lee frequently drew for the Surfer and his other creations. He needed all the courage he could summon: Giving birth to an unhealthy second daughter, Joan, his wife, and Stan lost the newborn seven days after her birth. Eager for another child, they tried to adopt, but were turned away by numerous agencies who didn’t take kindly to interfaith couples. Lee was particularly incensed with the Jewish agencies he had contacted, who refused to serve the couple unless Joan converted. Amidst this emotional turmoil, Lee’s work became darker and more contemplative even as it grew more and more popular.
Which, perhaps, helps explain Lee’s other great creation, Spider-Man. Unlike any of his predecessors in the pantheon of comic book greats, the beloved semi-arachnoid, nee Peter Parker, is not only ordinary but underwhelming. He is not an astronaut like the Fantastic Four, an otherworldly figure like Superman, or a suave billionaire like Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter ego. He’s a scrawny teenager from the wrong side of the subway tracks, looking on at the swells inheriting the world as he himself is doomed to irrelevance. One bite from a radioactive arachnoid changes all that; the thin kid can now fight, climb walls, and perform other feats of strength. But just why was he chosen to receive such powers? And just what is he supposed to do with them now?
These, of course, are the central questions at the heart of Jewish theology. Standing at the foothills of Mount Sinai, the Israelites—the Peter Parker of nations—are waiting to hear from God. It’s the height of the biblical drama, the moment they’ve all been waiting for, and yet when the Divine finally appears, He’s in a cryptic mood. “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests,” He says, “and a holy nation.” The Jews, then, have been chosen, but why? And for what? Might they be unchosen? Are their children chosen automatically and in perpetuity? God doesn’t say. Divine election, when you think about it, is a splendid joke: To have been chosen means spending the rest of eternity wondering what it means to have been chosen. It’s true for the Jews, whose constant cosmic questioning, rather than the certainty of one steely answer, has led them to so desperately explore ideas like justice, mercy, and doubt. And it’s true of Spider-Man, the most Jewish of all superheroes, a sullen teen constantly grappling with his supernatural gifts and wondering just what it is he was put on this earth to do.
He’s hardly alone. Max Eisenhardt, another of Lee’s memorable creations, survives his time as a sonderkommando in Auschwitz, in part because of strange powers he doesn’t fully understand or control; he’ll go on to become the mighty Magneto, the vengeful scourge of the X-Men. Bruce Banner, the Hulk, has his Yom Kippur moment when his own nemesis, Emil Blonsky, the Abomination, kills Banner’s wife. Everywhere you turn in Lee’s work, difficult moral questions abound, often accompanied by answers that those of us familiar with the Torah and the Talmud would easily recognize.
Sometimes, these difficult questions applied to Lee’s own life. His relationship with his most accomplished co-creator, Jack Kirby, was painfully imperfect, with some, including Kirby himself, alleging that Lee could’ve done more to guarantee that Kirby received the credit and the compensation he deserved. And several female nurses accused Lee of sexual misconduct earlier this year, accusations that he had firmly denied. But if you’re looking to understand what makes Judaism’s edicts eternal, what makes American popular culture so widely resonant, and how the two intersect, you could do much worse than picking up a Stan Lee comic book and following it into a world where good and evil still do battle, even if down here they’ve settled into a dance of mutual convenience. We’ve had great comics masters before Lee and since; what we’ve never had is one so adept at breathing new life into old ideas, so attuned to the ancient stories and so wise to realize how much they still matter.
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