Stan Lee: A Life in Comics by Liel Leibovitz

Back in August, I reviewed another Stan Lee biography, A Marvelous Life (read my review here). I thought it was good, but still left me wanting to know more. When NetGalley offered me Stan Lee: A Life in Comics, I jumped at the chance. All opinions in this review are my own.

From the publisher:

This illuminating biography focuses as much on Lee’s ideas as it does on his unlikely rise to stardom. It surveys his cultural and religious upbringing and draws surprising connections between celebrated comic book heroes and the ancient tales of the Bible, the Talmud, and Jewish mysticism. Was Spider-Man just a reincarnation of Cain? Is the Incredible Hulk simply Adam by another name? From close readings of Lee’s work to little-known anecdotes from Marvel’s history, the book paints a portrait of Lee that goes much deeper than one of his signature onscreen cameos.

About Jewish Lives:

Jewish Lives is a prizewinning series of interpretative biography designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity. Individual volumes illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences. Subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of the Jewish experience from antiquity to the present.

Stan Lee: A Life in Comics is part of the Jewish Lives series. While Lee’s Marvel characters are explored, they are compared and contrasted with the tenants of Jewish faith. During the early days of comic books, the majority of artists, inkers and writers were Jewish. Why? Because they couldn’t get a job in advertising or marketing or newspapers because of discrimination. “We couldn’t get into newspaper strips or advertising,” Al Jaffee recalled (he would later find fame with MAD magazine. “Ad agencies wouldn’t hire a Jew. One of the reasons Jews drifted into the comic-book business is that most of the comic-book publishers were Jewish. So there was no discrimination there.”

Stan Lee refused to talk much about his faith or how it shaped him and the characters he created. When asked about it, he talked in circles. He once told a radio reporter during an interview “You know, I have no idea. I never really thought of it. It is strange when you mention it that the best-known characters were done by Jewish writers.”

For example, Lee himself attended DeWitt Clinton High School in New York. Two other Jewish students that were several years ahead of him were Will Eisner and Robert Kahn, who later changed his name to Bob Kane. Eisner and Kane were responsible for The Spirit, one of the most influential comics ever created, and Batman.

All one has to do is look over the Stan Lee creations to see that he thought differently than other comic book creators: Iron Man, Thor, Incredible Hulk, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the X-Men. All his characters weren’t perfect like Superman, they all had flaws, and struggled with their abilities. Those struggles are what made Marvel Comics so important to teens and college-aged kids who were going through some of those same struggles.

One thing I appreciated in Stan Lee: A Life in Comics that was missing from A Marvelous Life was a little more detail about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, beginning in 2008’s Iron Man, which I very much appreciated since I don’t actually read many comics.

Stan Lee was ahead of his time, until time caught up to him in the 1960’s. He wrote an editorial in November 1968 that could be used to describe culture in America today: “Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest of 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. If his hang-up is black men, he hates all black men. If a redhead once offended him, he hates all redheads. If some foreigner beat him to a job, he’d down on all foreigners. He hates people he’s never seen–people he’s never known–with equal intensity–with equal venom. Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another. But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race–to despise an entire nation–to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God–a God who calls us all–His children. Pax et Justitia, Stan.”

Stan Lee, you will be missed, but your legacy lives large in our society’s popular culture.

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