July 13, 2000
Stan Lee, the man behind Marvel Comics, ranks among the Jewish pioneers of the comic book industry.
Siegel. Shuster. Kane. Just a few names of Jewish storytellers whose restless imaginations fueled a multimillion dollar entertainment business that boomed throughout the 1940s and 1950s, when America was at war and television was in its infancy.
We're not talking about the movie industry but the Golden Age of comic books - specifically, superhero comics. These men were the Warners, Mayers, Zanucks and Cohns of their field. As in cinema, these Jews built a popular and lucrative business around a visual storytelling medium.
Before Superman arrived in 1938, the superhero idiom didn't exist. It took Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jewish teens from Cleveland, to dream up the Man of Steel for D.C. Comics. In 1939, D.C. struck gold again when another pair of Jews, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, created Batman. Publishers flooded the market with scores of characters cut from the same costumed cloth - Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, the Flash. The superhero craze even paved the way for other genres - horror, humor, romance, westerns.
But by the 1960s, interest in superheroes had waned. The genre had become clichéd. What no one could have predicted at the time was that this moribund industry was ripe for a renaissance. Nor that one writer-creator would lead it - Stan Lee.
"With great power comes great responsibility."
No, the above is not a quotation from Talmud; it's the lesson that Spider-Man learns after an act of arrogance leads to a loved one's death. Yet this morality lesson is not the only instance in Stan Lee's Marvel Comics universe bearing Judaic resonance. Allusions to Jewish literature and ethics were commonplace at Marvel. Look no further than the Silver Surfer's Moses-like struggle with his maker, the planet-devouring Galactus; or the Hulk - a gamma-ray golem.
It all started by accident. Nearly 40 years ago, Timely Comics - a company best known for some marginal monster titles - was losing readers fast. So editor-writer Lee rolled the dice in 1962, using the last issue of a canceled monster mag to debut a bold, avant-garde superhero. That character was Spider-Man; the issue - "Amazing Fantasy" No. 15 - was the web slung around the world. It became, along with "The Fantastic Four," the flagship of the renamed Marvel Comics Group, an empire that dominates the comic book industry to this day.
Moreover, "Spider-Man" ushered in what is now referred to as the Silver Age of comics. With the unbridled visual virtuosity of artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee challenged the clichés of an inherently silly genre - supermen in tights - and reinvented the superhero by humanizing comic book characters with angst, vulnerability, fear, failure; in other words, traits we mere mortals could identify with. Lee not only served as the company's premier wordsmith but as the engine behind the "House of Ideas" - ostensibly, its ultimate PR machine.