Liel Leibovitz Expertly Explores Superheroes’ Jewish Roots and Stan Lee in New Biography

March 24, 2020

Is Spider-Man’s story a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel? Is the dynamic tension within the supergroup the Fantastic Four meant to be modeled after the Talmud’s constant passionate disagreements? And how do Bruce Banner and his alter-ego, the Hulk, embody the religious ethos at the heart of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s most famous work?

In his new biography of Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber in Manhattan on Dec. 28, 1922), Liel Leibovitz offers a historical and theological reflection on the man who forever changed popular culture before dying on Nov. 12, 2018, in Los Angeles. Leibovitz is a master storyteller in multiple media. He is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine, offering passionate and well-argued takes on American and Israeli politics, Jewish thought, movies and books, and hosts two wildly popular podcasts, “Unorthodox” (a weekly show about Jewish news and culture co-hosted by Tablet’s Stephanie Butnick and Mark Oppenheimer); and “Take One,” a five-days-a-week series on the Daf Yomi cycle that has featured guests including Chabad rabbis, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine), character actor Kurt Fuller, and Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics. Leibovitz’s characteristically creative take on Lee, it should come as no surprise, surpasses the usual biographical fare (there are at least six previous biographies of Lee, as well as a graphic novel memoir).

The stories of Lee’s early struggles and eventual creative successes sit alongside tales of competition with colleagues and late-in-life challenges. The Jewish background of the creators of rival DC Comics’ Superman and Batman are reviewed, and the later-stage Jewish “secret identities” of some his creations, including the X-Men’s arch nemesis Magneto and the Fantastic Four’s heroic the Thing, a natural evolution of the Judaic origins of so much of the comics industry, are recounted. (Jewish writer Chris Claremont gave the former an origin story as a Holocaust survivor who changed his name to Erik Lehnsherr and set out to punish evil humans for their wickedness, and the latter, a Hulk-like creature whose skin is made of rocks, is depicted in a 2002 issue responding to a character who questioned why the Thing’s never told the media that he’s a Jew, “Anyone on the Internet can find out, if they want. It’s just … I don’t talk it up, is all. Figure there’s enough trouble in this world without people thinkin’ ‘Jews are all monsters like me.’”)

It is in the theological possibilities that Leibovitz’s work is truly unique (one of the author’s previous books was a religious meditation on the music of Leonard Cohen and another is on video games and spirituality, the topic of Leibovitz’s Columbia University doctoral dissertation). He brings into thoughtful comparison Lee’s classic heroes alongside the classic works of the Jewish tradition. Leibovitz posits that Bruce Banner, the ambitious scientist who “struggle[s] for recognition, respect, status, power …  toil[ing] to find balance between competition and collaboration, an alienating pursuit if there ever was one” is Adam the First, a typology described in the seminal essay on the dual aspects of the Bible’s first man by Soloveitchik, “The Lonely Man of Faith.” Banner’s smashing green (originally gray, as Leibovitz notes) alter-ego, the Hulk, on the other hand, is Adam the Second, “vying for the sort of redemption that comes only when you spend every waking hour trying to get closer to the mysteries of your creation.”

The Silver Surfer, in Leibovitz’s analysis, is an Abraham-like defender of the innocent, arguing against his master, the world-destroying Galactus, for the preservation of Earth, just as the Patriarch had fought to preserve the righteous citizens of Sodom. And Peter Parker, so enamored with his newfound physical abilities after being bitten by a radioactive spider that he neglects to stop the robber who ends up murdering his beloved Uncle Ben, is, in this biographer’s eyes, a retelling of the story of Cain, who neglected God’s warnings to keep his evil inclination crouching at the door. As Leibowitz writes of Parker, “His aunt and uncle had argued him to stay humble, study hard, and follow his dreams, but his innate resentment — all those years of being laughed at by classmates who were more beautiful and more beloved — led him to succumb to the temptations of might, and, like Cain, suffer the consequences. His real struggle, then, would be not with a gallery of fantastic villains, but with himself, the spiritual wanderer straining to hear and answer that holy calling.”

Although the full flowering of Lee’s creations took place after his professional golden age (in 1981 he moved his family to California to oversee what amounted to numerous failed television and film projects based on his characters), the decades before his death saw Lee enter the pantheon of American cultural icons, alongside his now world-famous characters. Iron Man, created by Lee in 1963, led the charge into the ubiquitous Marvel Cinematic Universe with the release of his first film in 2008. Countless cameos by Lee throughout the dozens of movies since present him as a winking, zayde-like presence, America’s wise grandfather smiling in satisfaction at the legacy he gifted the world.

As Leibowitz’s brilliant account shows, Lee’s legacy can best be encapsulated by the talmudic-style mantra of Spider-Man, having learned the importance of utilizing his talents for good, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Lee’s imaginative mind offered countless readers — and now viewers — across the globe a reminder that although some fictional heroes wear capes and come from outer space, the ones we more easily relate to are the ones like you and me, struggling with very human foibles, who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, and use their abilities to make a difference.

Stan Lee: A Life in Comics is available on Amazon.

Rabbi Stuart Halpern is the senior adviser to the provost and senior program officer of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University in New York.

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