Dan­ny Fingeroth

Decem­ber 28, 2022 would have been Stan Lee’s one hun­dredth birth­day. In his hon­or, Roy Schwartz spoke with Dan­ny Fin­geroth, author of A Mar­velous Life: The Amaz­ing Sto­ry of Stan Lee, the first biog­ra­phy pub­lished after Lee’s death. Fin­geroth is a com­ic book his­to­ri­an who was a writer and edi­tor at Mar­vel from 1977 to 1995, where he over­saw the Spi­der-Man division.

Roy Schwartz: Stan Lee is prob­a­bly the most famous man in comics, and one of the most influ­en­tial writ­ers of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. He cre­at­ed the Fan­tas­tic Four, Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man, Iron Man, Avengers, X‑Men and Black Pan­ther with Jack Kir­by, Spi­der-Man and Doc­tor Strange with Steve Ditko, and Dare­dev­il with Bill Everett, to name just the big ones. He was also Jew­ish, born Stan­ley Mar­tin Lieber. Do you see any Jew­ish influ­ences in his work?

Dan­ny Fin­geroth: Stan was a prod­uct of New York immi­grant Jew­ish cul­ture. He was born here, but his par­ents came as refugees from Roma­nia. I think Stan was so steeped in sec­u­lar Jew­ish cul­ture, the way Lenny Bruce and Mel Brooks were, that he didn’t even real­ize it.

Jack Kir­by [born Jacob Kurtzberg] came from a sim­i­lar back­ground, and I think the two of them brought it to the comics. It informed what peo­ple call a New York sen­si­bil­i­ty,” which, for both bet­ter and worse, is usu­al­ly code for a Jew­ish sensibility.

RS: Was Lee aware of that sensibility?

DF: I once asked Stan point blank, You know, the Mar­vel books came out at the same time that Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Bernard Mala­mud, and Saul Bel­low were hav­ing their hey­day … any influ­ence?” He denied it. But I find it hard to believe.

RS: Peo­ple have point­ed to var­i­ous Jew­ish themes in his work. Did he put some of him­self into any of these characters?

DF: Yes. Spi­der-Man spoke very much in Stan’s voice. I think a lot of the self-doubt expressed by Spi­der-Man reflect­ed Lee’s own. I think Ben Grimm [the Thing] was part of him too — the wiseass Stan.

RS: Wasn’t the Thing based on Kir­by? They had the same look and tem­pera­ment, even the same name as Kir­by and his father, Ben­jamin Jacob.

DF: Part of what makes those comics great is that Stan and Jack believed they were both Reed and Ben. They both saw them­selves as hav­ing a seri­ous, intel­lec­tu­al side, and they both also saw them­selves as hav­ing a Borscht Belt com­ic side.

I think Stan was so steeped in sec­u­lar Jew­ish cul­ture, the way Lenny Bruce and Mel Brooks were, that he didn’t even real­ize it.

RS: Huh. So is Spi­der-Man Jewish?

DF: I think Spi­der-Man was always a hybrid. When he was with [artist Steve] Ditko, he was Jew­ish and Slav­ic. When he was with [John] Romi­ta, he was Jew­ish and Italian.

RS: Any oth­er Lee char­ac­ters or sto­ries that you see as Jewish?

DF: My favorite is the sto­ry of Thor being in love with Jane Fos­ter. Thor wants to mar­ry this mor­tal woman, who’s not an Asgar­dian. It’s an ongo­ing sublot, where for months and months, Thor pleads with his father Odin — who’s basi­cal­ly drawn like a beard­ed rab­bi — to let him mar­ry her, but he won’t because she’s not a goddess.

This is, to me, clear­ly a debate between the Old World immi­grant Jew­ish father and the son who wants to mar­ry a non-Jew­ish woman. The metaphor is so appar­ent. To me, that’s the most bla­tant­ly rab­binic dis­course Lee and Kir­by ever had in their comics. I don’t think peo­ple who aren’t Jew­ish would have writ­ten that sto­ry, or con­tin­ued with that sub­plot for more than one issue. And it even made its way into the Thor: Love and Thun­der movie.

RS: Lee wasn’t a prac­tic­ing Jew, but were there any Jew­ish ele­ments to his per­son­al­i­ty, pub­licly or privately?

DF: Depend­ing on the audi­ence, he would be more or less Jew­ish. But a lot of peo­ple com­pared him to an old-school, Borscht Belt com­ic. He was a Jew­ish come­di­an. That was his per­sona, espe­cial­ly as he got older.

Stan was a huge Mel Brooks fan. He and I would occa­sion­al­ly bond over his stuff, exchang­ing punch­lines from his com­e­dy rou­tines from The 2000 Year Old Man.

He claimed to be an athe­ist, but he wrote an epic poem called God Woke.” As a doc­tor of mine who’s a comics fan observed, some­body who has no inter­est in reli­gion doesn’t write an epic poem called God Woke.”

RS: What was the mag­ic alche­my between Lee and Kir­by in those years? Arguably, nei­ther was as bril­liant before or after.

DF: They brought out the best in each oth­er, at least when it came to cre­at­ing char­ac­ters and sto­ries that peo­ple loved. That doesn’t mean their rela­tion­ship was nec­es­sar­i­ly fair or equi­table, or that they even always liked each other.

RS: Which brings me to my next ques­tion. Lee was unde­ni­ably bril­liant, but he did take, or at least allow oth­ers to give him, sole cred­it for char­ac­ters and sto­ries he cre­at­ed col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly. That debate can be found in great length and depth else­where, whether han­dled fair­ly or not — but do you have any thoughts?

DF: We can argue for­ev­er about who cre­at­ed what and in what per­cent­ages, but the fact is that the books that came out were a syn­the­sis of these guys’ sen­si­bil­i­ties. Stan and his cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tors, espe­cial­ly Kir­by and Ditko, were essen­tial to the cre­ation of the Mar­vel Uni­verse. Remove any of them, includ­ing pub­lish­er Mar­tin Good­man, and there is no Marvel.

You have to remem­ber: no one thought these char­ac­ters would last for more than a few years. Goodman’s comics divi­sion had almost dis­ap­peared a cou­ple of years ear­li­er. Stan, at least, was grate­ful that it had sur­vived at all.

He liked to work with peo­ple he trust­ed to get the work done but who would also fol­low his edi­to­r­i­al direc­tion. What that work required changed from sto­ry to sto­ry; every­one pitched in to get the comics out the door. That he was the co-plot­ter and scripter, as well as the edi­tor and the artists’ boss, makes eval­u­at­ing the way the books were pro­duced six­ty years ago vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble. And, as suc­cess­ful as he was, he didn’t own those char­ac­ters any more than you or I do. He made a nice liv­ing, but Mar­vel didn’t become the big suc­cess that it is now until after he’d giv­en up the reins.

You have to remem­ber: no one thought these char­ac­ters would last for more than a few years. Goodman’s comics divi­sion had almost dis­ap­peared a cou­ple of years ear­li­er. Stan, at least, was grate­ful that it had sur­vived at all.

RS: Much has been said about Lee’s tal­ent and accom­plish­ments as a writer. But as a com­ic book pro­fes­sion­al, what do you think about him as an edi­tor, edi­tor in chief, and publisher?

DF: He’s prob­a­bly the best edi­tor in the his­to­ry of comics. As edi­tor in chief (a title he nev­er took, by the way) — mean­ing a per­son who super­vised teams of edi­tors in addi­tion to edit­ing his own comics — many peo­ple seemed to like work­ing for and with him and found him inspir­ing and car­ing. I’m sure not every­one loved him or loved work­ing for him, but over­all, he seemed to bring out the best in a lot of people.

As pub­lish­er, he was quite inno­v­a­tive, branch­ing out into gen­res and pub­li­ca­tion for­mats that Good­man hadn’t want­ed to. Of course, comics were in cri­sis when Stan became pub­lish­er [in 1972], so, in a way, he had no choice. I think he was bored with the minu­ti­ae of this role, but the title did give him more clout in the industry.

I think it was all just part of his plan to get the hell out of comics, which in many ways he’d want­ed to do since the late fifties. In 1980, when he had the chance to move to Hol­ly­wood, while still draw­ing a Mar­vel salary, he took it. I think he would have loved to achieve huge suc­cess in movies or TV ven­tures out­side Mar­vel, but that nev­er hap­pened like he’d hoped.

RS: How did you like him as a boss?

DF: Actu­al­ly, I nev­er worked for Stan. I worked with him as a col­league or as his edi­tor [when he wrote]. Of course, on a Mar­vel orga­ni­za­tion­al chart he out­ranked me, and almost every­body, though he nev­er pulled rank.

He did have a side that could be gruff and impa­tient, and he was capa­ble of mak­ing cut­ting, sar­cas­tic remarks à la Don Rick­les. But he got over his anger quick­ly, rarely held grudges, and apol­o­gized if he real­ized he’d hurt someone’s feel­ings. And even peo­ple who didn’t like his style usu­al­ly under­stood that his crit­i­cisms and sug­ges­tions improved the comics.

RS: Any good Stan anecdotes?

DF: My favorite is a sto­ry that Stan Gold­berg [the col­orist who designed the col­or scheme for most of the main Mar­vel char­ac­ters and an artist on Mil­lie the Mod­el] liked to tell. He and Stan used to go out on walks togeth­er dur­ing their lunch hour. One day, Stan had on a new suit that he was very proud of — which of course was when a pigeon pooped on him. As the pigeon flew away, Stan waved his fist at it and shout­ed, For the gen­tiles, you sing!”

Roy Schwartz writes about pop cul­ture for The For­ward and CNN​.com. His work has appeared in New York Dai­ly News, Phi­los­o­phy Now, and IGN, among oth­ers. He has taught at CUNY and is a for­mer writer-in-res­i­dence fel­low at the New York Pub­lic Library. His lat­est book is the Dia­gram Prize-win­ning Is Super­man Cir­cum­cised? The Com­plete Jew­ish His­to­ry of the World’s Great­est Hero.