By Cass R. SunsteinSeptember 21, 2020
Stan Lee by Liel Leibovitz
DC was Dwight Eisenhower; Marvel was John F. Kennedy. DC was Bing Crosby; Marvel was the Rolling Stones. DC was Apollo; Marvel was Dionysus.
Marvel’s guiding spirit, and its most important writer, was Stan Lee, who died in 2018 at the age of 95. Lee helped create many of the company’s iconic figures — not only Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and the X-Men, but also the Black Panther, the Avengers, Thor, Daredevil (Daredevil!), Doctor Strange, the Silver Surfer, and Ant-Man. There were many others. Lee defined the Marvel brand. He gave readers a sense that they were in the cool kids’ club — knowing, winking, rebellious, with their own private language: “Face Forward!” “Excelsior!” “’Nuff said!”
Aside from their superpowers, Lee’s characters were vulnerable. One of them was blind; another was confined to a wheelchair. By creating superheroes who faced real-world problems (romantic and otherwise), Lee channeled the insecurities of his young readers. As he put it: “The idea I had, the underlying theme, was that just because somebody is different doesn’t make them better.” He gave that theme a political twist: “That seems to be the worst thing in human nature: We tend to dislike people who are different than we are.” DC felt like the past, and Marvel felt like the future, above all because of Marvel’s exuberance, sense of fun, and subversive energy.
A personal confession: Stan Lee taught me to read. When I was a young boy in the early 1960s, I read every Marvel comic I could get. Many parents banned their children from reading comics, on the ground that they weren’t “real books.” But mine thought that so long as their son was reading, it didn’t much matter what it was. My mother, in particular, encouraged my habit. The arrival of the first issue of Daredevil — The Man Without Fear! — was a highlight of my childhood.
In terms of cultural impact, was Lee the most important writer of the last 60 years? You could make the argument. His characters have given rise to countless movies, television shows, and novels. As Liel Leibovitz puts it in his sharp and engaging new book, “Lee’s creations redefined America’s sense of itself.” Countless children, and not a few adults, have identified with Bruce Banner, alter ego of the Hulk, who warned: “Mr. McGee, don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” And whatever our role in life, many of us have never forgotten Lee’s line from the first Spider-Man story: “With great power there must also come — great responsibility!” If, as Shelley said, “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” then Lee, the poet, was responsible for more than a few laws.
As Leibovitz tells the tale, it all started, really, in the summer of 1961. Born in 1922, Lee was not a young man; he had been with the company that would become Marvel since 1939. The comic book industry was struggling. Lee was told he could stay on as editor-in-chief of what was then called Atlas Comics, but he would have to fire his entire staff. He told a colleague, “It’s like a ship sinking, and we’re the rats. And we’ve got to get off.” The problem was that Lee couldn’t afford unemployment. One afternoon his boss, Martin Goodman, told him that he had a new idea: Lee should create a new team of superheroes, just mimicking what DC was doing, which was to put Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Flash into a new series called Justice League. Goodman even suggested a name: the Righteous League.
Lee hated the idea and told his wife Joanie that he wanted to quit. She suggested that he should think big. “If Martin wants you to create a new group of superheroes, this could be the chance for you to do it the way you’ve always wanted to.” She continued: “You could dream up plots that have more depth and substance to them, and create characters that have interesting personalities, who speak like real people.” She added, “[Y]ou want to quit anyway, so what’s the risk?”
Lee took the bait. He never much liked Superman, and he didn’t want to create superheroes who were “uniform in their bland goodness.” He disliked lead characters who “had only one, simple setting: swoop down, save day, retreat, repeat.” He also thought that women should be featured — not as anomalies like Wonder Woman, but as part of the team. He decided to create “a team such as comicdom had never known.” His goal was to “[t]ake extraordinary people, put them in extraordinary circumstances, and then have them behave like ordinary people. No audience of ordinary people could resist.” He enlisted Jack Kirby, one of his best artists, to help him to create a new kind of comic book, with flawed heroes, internal squabbles, and plenty of banter.
The result was the Fantastic Four: Reed Richards, the too-talkative scientist, also known as Mr. Fantastic, who could elongate himself; the wise-cracking Ben Grimm, also known as the Thing, made out of stone, ugly, and absurdly strong; Susan Storm, sharp and sensible, also known as Invisible Girl because she could disappear; and Johnny Storm, Sue’s impetuous brother, also known as the Human Torch, who could turn himself into fire. On the cover of the first issue, Lee’s callout box announced, “Together for the first time in one mighty magazine!”
Still, Lee didn’t have high hopes. After writing it, he thought, “Okay, that’s it. I’m going to get fired. I got that out of my system.” But the team immediately found a large, enraptured audience, with fan mail arriving in an avalanche. On the cover of the third issue, Lee decided to place a characteristically triumphant tagline: “The Greatest Comic Magazine in the World!!”
Because of the spectacular sales, Goodman asked Lee for more. What followed was a period of astonishing creativity, with an assortment of now-iconic figures, most of them created in 1962 and 1963. After the success of the Fantastic Four, Goodman wanted another team of bickering but lovable heroes. But Lee didn’t like to repeat himself. He responded with the Hulk, a variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with the superhero turning out to be a monster. (His motto? “HULK SMASH!”) The source of the character’s appeal is simple: every human being has a Hulk inside, and it can be a real struggle to keep the monster repressed.
When Lee pitched the idea of Spider-Man, a teenager bitten by a radioactive spider, he got a firm veto. Goodman insisted that people hate bugs. He added that superheroes have to be adults, not teenagers. Lee persisted and, without Goodman’s approval, featured Spider-Man as a possible one-off in a series called Amazing Fantasy. Steve Ditko was the artist, and Lee introduced the character with a wink: “Like costume heroes? Confidentially, we in the comic mag business refer to them as ‘long underwear characters’! And as you know, they’re a dime a dozen! But we think you may find our Spiderman just a bit … different!” Spider-Man’s debut did not merely do well. It was the best-selling comic book of the decade. Seeing the sales figures, Goodman burst into Lee’s office, saying, “Stan, remember that Spider-Man idea of yours I liked so much? Why don’t we turn it into a series?”
Lee also helped create the X-Men: a group of young adults whose mutated genes gave them special powers. Lee’s story was explicitly about a minority group, despised because it was “different.” Professor Charles Xavier, the leader of the X-Men, sought peace and mutual understanding with ordinary human beings. His nemesis was Magneto, leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, the villain of the series. Or was he? In Lee’s telling, Magneto “was just trying to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist. He was trying to defend mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly, he decided to teach society a lesson. […] I never thought of him as a villain.” Leibovitz makes a plausible argument that Professor Xavier can be seen as a comic version of Martin Luther King Jr., and that Magneto channeled Malcolm X.
You could easily understand Lee’s career, and especially his spectacular creativity in the 1960s, in generational terms. He was able to capture some of the decade’s political commitments and ambitions. In an editorial in one of his comics, he wrote:
Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed supervillains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them — to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater — one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately.
In response to skeptics of political messages in comic books, Lee added, “It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul. In fact, even the most escapist literature of all — old-time fairy tales and heroic legends — contained moral and philosophical points of view.”
Beyond politics, Lee captured the era’s distrust of platitudes, its dynamism, its sense of defiance, its sheer exuberance. But Leibovitz doesn’t focus so much on that. Offering a brisk and engaging overview of Lee’s life and work, he also adds, intriguingly and not heavy-handedly, that Lee’s heroes can be seen “as characters formed by the anxieties of first-generation American Jews who had fought in World War II, witnessed the Holocaust, and reflected — consciously or otherwise — on the moral obligations and complications of life after Auschwitz.” More generally, and consistent with the Jewish Lives series at Yale University Press of which his book is a part, Leibovitz tries “to understand Lee’s creations by planting them in a Jewish context and seeing whether they fit.”
It’s challenging to understand Lee’s work this way, but Leibovitz does not lack material. Lee’s birth name was Stanley Lieber. His father lost his job during the Depression and spent a lot of time out of work. At the age of 17, Stanley obtained an interview with Goodman, also Jewish, and a fifth-grade dropout who ran a company called Timely Comics. Lee obtained work as an errand boy. Most of the artists and writers there were Jews, hired because they couldn’t find employment elsewhere, and because most of the comic book publishers were Jewish, too. Jack Kirby, born Jacob Kurtzberg, helped create Captain America in 1941, a superhero who was obsessed with defeating the Nazis. In 1942, Lee himself enlisted in the Army. There is no question that the war against Hitler loomed large in his imagination.
Leibovitz also contends that many of Lee’s characters and themes have distinctly Jewish origins. He suggests, for example, that if we want to understand The Fantastic Four, “an entirely new kind of comic book, one that contained multitudes an and could explore new emotional and moral depths,” we should “look at the Talmud,” which emphasizes “not invocations but conversations.” As a result, newcomers to the Talmud are partisans “in an argument spanning two millennia.” The very first pages of Fantastic Four similarly display the “earthbound logic of contentious coexistence,” as Lee’s diverse characters “routinely offer up divergent ways of looking at the world,” and “[t]he reader’s pleasure derives, in large part, from trying to figure out with whom to side.”
Extending his allegorical reading of Lee’s work, Leibovitz also thinks that Spider-Man can be seen as “a direct descendent” of Cain, who struggles with the question of “how to be human.” Jealous of Abel, his brother, Cain strikes and kills him. God punishes him by condemning him to a life of restless wandering. Leibovitz says that “[t]he same is true of Peter Parker.” After obtaining his powers, Parker was led “to succumb to the temptations of might.” In the defining scenes in the first Spider-Man story, Parker failed to apprehend a common criminal, who ended up killing his beloved Uncle Ben. In Leibovitz’s account, “you can read Peter Parker’s tale as an Ur-narrative of moral awakening: the child who succumbed to pride and resentment must learn to control his emotions and live up to his responsibilities to others. That, of course, is Cain’s story too.”
In my view, all this is a stretch. There’s not a lot of evidence that Lee’s tales were much influenced by his Jewish heritage, or that he drew on that heritage in creating his characters and plots. True, his family attended synagogue, and he had a bar mitzvah ceremony. But every religious tradition offers large and enduring themes, involving divergent ways of looking at the world, moral awakening, personal responsibility, the good and evil inside all of us, temptation, and redemption. Lee was able to tap into those themes, which helps give his characters their lasting appeal.
In that respect, Lee had something in common with George Lucas, architect of the Star Wars story, who was also able to offer variations on universals. Lucas was self-conscious about his use of often-used tropes. He was greatly influenced by Joseph Campbell and his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which argued that many heroes, in many myths and religions, followed a similar arc (“the monomyth”). The arc had many ingredients, but as Campbell summarized it:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that Lee read Campbell, but the lives of many of Marvel’s superheroes included important features of the monomyth, offering them enduring and cross-cultural appeal, and evidently tapping into something in the human spirit. It helped, of course, that Lee was also a terrific, inventive storyteller, with a pathbreaking insistence on seeing vulnerability, neediness, and sweetness in superheroes (Spider-Man was just a teenager who felt shy and awkward around girls).
But that wasn’t Lee’s secret sauce. It was his exuberance — contagious, joyful, defiant, and impossible to resist. When Peter Parker first meets the gorgeous Mary Jane Watson, the love of his life, her first words to him are these: “Face it, tiger … You just hit the jackpot!” For decades, one of Lee’s favorite words was “Excelsior!” In 2010, he offered a definition (on Twitter no less): “Upward and onward to greater glory!”
In the 1960s, Lee added a little column to his comic books, called “Stan’s Soapbox.” Here’s a glimpse: “Many of you unsung heroes have written to ask how we really feel about our own mags. You inquired whether we take them seriously, or just treat them as a patently pointless put on.” His answer: “Well, just for the record, Charlie, we BELIEVE in our swingin’ superheroes!”
That they did. And for the record, Charlie, so do we.
The Robert Walmsley University Professor of Harvard University, Cass R. Sunstein is the founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy. He is the author of many articles and books.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Chris Yogerst on Bob Batchelor's recent biography of the comic book legend....
Ta-Nehisi Coates sacrifices the imaginative joys of the genre in order to avoid erasure of historical and political reality....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.