Stan Lee on God

(COMMENTARY) Marvel Comics’ creative genius Stan Lee, who died Monday at age 95, revolutionized the comic book world with super-heroes who were flawed, insecure and prone to evil forces— in other words, relatable humans. He helped bring comic book heroes from niche nerd stockpiles to mainstream pop culture.

What’s lesser known or asked is where Lee’s storytelling perspective came from and how his mix of religious beliefs informed the Marvel universe. Perhaps central to his characters is an idea that God, if he exists, struggles with and sometimes bends to evil just like humans do.

Lee was the son of Romanian-Jewish immigrants to New York, on the Upper West Side then Washington Heights and finally, the Bronx, where he spent his teen years making up stories with friends. Before he turned 18, he had written obituaries for the Associated Press, publicity for a hospital, and then in 1939, landed as an assistant at Timely Comics, a comic book publisher which later became Marvel.

By the 1960’s, Lee had reignited the entire comics industry with Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, and the Fantastic Four series, and the hype never really died down. His legacy is now known for the many Marvel films Hollywood keeps churning out, some with brief cameos of Lee.

Spider-Man, arguably the most successful character, is an average nerdy high school kid who has allergies and shakes asking a girl on a date. The Hulk underneath is a physically weak, emotionally handicapped physicist and transforms into his strong alter ego, too often, by losing control of his anger. Marvel fans relish the galaxy of interlocking plots and characters with extensive backstories and personal dramas, contrasting earlier comic book heroes like the original Batman and Superman, who were too busy saving the world to seem relatable and accessible.

The underlying theme in Marvel comics is that heroes, like God in Lee’s eyes, are like shooting stars—magnificent, and yet, just as likely as us humans to fall and fail.

“Stan saw God not as perfect, but as a flawed being, just like man,” the writer Jim McLauchlin, who lunched with Lee for decades, wrote recently in Wired Magazine, in one of the rare mentions of Lee’s beliefs.

“Stan loved to quote Omar Khayyám’s Rubaiyat line, “Did the hand then of the potter shake?” To Stan, it meant that just as the hand of a potter could make an imperfect jug because the potter is flawed, so too is God flawed in his creation of an imperfect man... Stan believed in God, but thoroughly enjoyed the notion that God was far from perfect.”

Clearly, Lee veered off from orthodox Judaism and Christianity, which teach that God is a perfect being, capable of and tempted to error theoretically but able to maintain perfect goodness. Lee was skeptical of dogmatic beliefs and picked and chose various strengths and weaknesses of religions without sticking to one, according to McLauchlin. He would have likely pointed to instances of God’s anger in the Old Testament, a holy literature shared by Jews and Christians, as a sign of God’s weakness or humanness. For example, at one period, God decides his creation has mostly gone afoul and floods the entire world to start over.

And yet, Lee believed that imperfect humans could accomplish a lot. His comics began tackling all kinds of moral and social issues plaguing American youth, from the Vietnam War to drug addiction.

And in the midst of the Civil Rights era, Lee had enough faith in the good of the public to introduce characters from racial minorities. Some of those comics, like the Fantastic Four (No. 52) with Black Panther, became best-sellers.

In Black Panther, which became hugely popular after the film release in January, an African prince ascends the throne in his small East African country, Wakanda, home to an advanced society of scientist-warriors. Wakanda is actually a Native American term for God, seen as a mysterious supreme being, and also a term for the source and destination of goodness, as noted by the Washington Post.

So in Lee’s interpretation, Wakanda wasn’t a perfect heaven like imagined. Its inhabitants had to wrestle with failures and conflict like the rest of us.

Thor, based on a Norse deity and the god of thunder, uses a magical hammer to fly and change the weather. He too, of course, is flawed and prone to angry fits, kind of like Jesus’s righteous indignation at greed in a temple that prompted him to throw a table. Thor’s story parallels Jesus possibly because the Bible preceded Norse mythology. Both Thor and Jesus fight an epic good versus evil battle at the end of the world. All kinds of obscure details parallel too, like three roosters crowing at the beginning of Christ’s crucifixion as well as before the final battle in the Norse myth. The most striking parallel is that both Thor and Jesus kill a serpent (Jörmungandr and an ancient symbol of Satan) that kills them (through venom and the cross), though they can return to life.

Lee even wrote in a reference to a higher God than Thor. In one issue of the comic, a child accuses Thor of lying in his claim to be god when there can only be one god. Thor replies that he’s a higher being, but there is an even higher being than him.

It would be a tall claim that Lee had a religious agenda beneath his stories. He didn’t, and admitted off and on in his life to being agnostic. But his insistence that superheroes fail sometimes, behind the success of his career and so different than other god-like comic characters, could be traced to his view of God—mysterious and good, but far from perfect.