A Review of
Stan Lee: A Life in Comics
Reviewed by Dan Pyke
Liel Leibovitz has written a compelling biography of Stan Lee, drawing attention to the Jewish social imagination that influenced Lee’s creation of iconic characters. Like many books published in 2020, it was written before the events of this year, and yet this is a book that invites significant reflections on this year and our response to it.
As with many individuals within the Hebrew Scriptures, Lee’s characters are presented with their strengths and flaws; we see their successes and failures. Like Abraham who is credited for his faith, yet offers up his wife to Pharaoh; like David who is a man after God’s own heart, yet murders his mighty warrior Uriah to cover up infidelity with Bathsheba, Lee’s characters are shown to be fully human – caught in the tensions of making decisions that are rooted in human emotion.
Leibovitz invites the reader to pay careful to the social forces at work in Lee’s life. Coming of age in the Great Depression, and into the Second World War, Lee inherited a culture that was experiencing significant upheaval, and one in which communities of faith struggled to help people find meaning within (like many of us in 2020!). Writing in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and the discriminatory treatment of the Jewish people, Stan Lee, as a young Jew, was given opportunity to weave himself into the national narrative. Despite his larger-than-life presence and over-confidence, Lee still could not have envisioned the cultural influence his creations would come to have.
As a Marvel comics reader, I was struck by the themes Lee wrote into his universe; their continued presence in the comics I read today. As a leader in a Christian denomination, I was impressed by their continued relevance, and the invitation people of faith have to contribute to our world.
Lee’s first family, the Fantastic Four, arrived on the scene in 1961. An initial experiment, Lee’s new characters were significantly flawed compared to the distinguished competition’s heroes, and thereby, they were fully human. Committed to being a family, the Fantastic Four were like most of our families in that they were frequently in conflict. Leibovitz’s biography points out the similarities that Lee’s creations had to character of Jewish lore. Respectively compared to the Golem and the Dybbuk, the Thing and Mr. Fantastic represented competing ideologies, and thus were frequently in conflict. This clash between two different ideals became a theme in Marvel comics, and is a plot device often used to divide the heroes of Lee’s universe. In recent decades, Captain America and Iron Man are close allies with very different ways of viewing the world. From the first Civil War event to Hickman’s run on the Avengers, their competing ideologies led to conflict across the heroes. Unlike in Lee’s writing, where the clashing ideals ended up resolved through an agreed co-existence, Hickman pushed the theme to its extreme. This may be a reflection of the growing divides in our current world, in which the extremes of Right and Left ideologies are polarizing society. If the two extremes cannot find a mutual existence (as in Lee’s writing), will the result mirror Hickman’s conclusion? As Leibovitz demonstrated in his biography, social awareness is a significant theme of Lee’s universe. This is a value that has been maintained, recognizing the opportunity that comics continue to have to present a mirror to their world.
Unlike much of the current evangelical Christian population, who are compelled to ignore the conditions of the world (pandemic, racial injustice, climate change) while they await the arrival of a Messiah who will whisk them away, Lee’s heroes are embedded in a very Jewish ideal (and in line with other Christian traditions) that maintains that hard, communal work will improve life. While Christians do wait for the return of their Messiah, many of us believe that we are being invited to participate now with God in his actions to redeem the world. Lee’s characters showed a strong commitment to helping those around them. As Lee’s characters have entered the twenty-first century, and other writers have expanded Lee’s universe, this theme continues to resonate in current books. Jason Aaron’s Thor run was celebrated for seeing a new iteration of the character, with the long-supporting Jane Foster taking up the Thor mantle. Her motivation was that the people needed a god who would bleed for them. Her time as Thor was marked by her own battle with breast cancer; her compulsion to respond to the needs around her actually deteriorated her health condition. Jane Foster was committed to Lee’s ideal that hard, communal work would improve life. Not marked by the arrogance that characterized Thor Odinson, Jane Foster was frequently working with people, meeting them in their current situations. Aaron’s run on Thor is a compelling reflection on divinity, a reflection that Lee himself entered into with the creation of Galactus.
Liel Leibovitz carefully demonstrates how Stan Lee’s social concern and awareness contributed to the creation of his characters. As he witnessed the civil unrest in his country during the sixties, Lee drew the parallels and created a new team of heroes. This team of heroes was unique in that they did not receive their powers due to scientific experiments gone awry – they were born with their abilities. As a result, this group, dubbed mutants, experienced persecution due to factors they could not control. This did not minimize their humanity, but they served to demonstrate Lee’s conviction that oppressed people could not remain oppressed forever. In the same decade, Lee’s social awareness also gave birth to the Black Panther, the first black hero who was not introduced as a sidekick. Ta-Nahesi Coates would pick up the Black Panther series in the last decade, moving the character from a monarch, to a constitution-limiting authority, and finally to a slave within a Wakandan empire in the far reaches of the galaxy. Demonstrating Lee’s goals to see the end of oppression, Coates is crafting a galactic uprising in which the oppressed and conquered people are staging a rebellion against the Wakandan empire. Coates’s run is a fascinating take on Afrofuturism, as the peaceful kingdom evolved to become a hostile empire. Lee’s founding principle remains: an oppressed people will not remain oppressed forever.
As a Christian leader, I have found Leibovitz’s account of Stan Lee’s life to be a mirror as I think on the role of churches and other faith communities in what has so far been a tumultuous year. Lee was inspired to create characters, and by extension, an entire universe, that have become a dominant narrative in Western culture. The birth of this universe was rooted in the failure of faith communities to engage with the unrest of their time. As a faith leader, I have lessons to learn. I need to learn from the actions of my predecessors, recognizing my place to uphold a theology that recognizes the actions of God in our world.
We need to incorporate Lee’s principles into our world. We are still being invited to participate in the remaking of our world, and to recognize and collaborate with the diversity of voices. We must relinquish the conflicts that stem from competing ideologies and recognize how our shared humanity invites us to collaborate. We must stand in solidarity with our neighbors who are oppressed. As this year has reminded us in North America, oppression is not something that simply happens “over there,” but through systemic racism and injustice, it is happening among us. Liel Leibovitz portrays Stan Lee’s life in a way that invites the reader to be aware of their own social reality, and make steps to create content that imagines a better way forward.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com