That’s Irving Spiderman to You!

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Around 2002 when the first Spider-Man movie came out, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart joked that now that Spidey was a big celebrity, he should probably make an effort to fit in more with the many Jews in Hollywood by changing his name to “Irving Spiderman.� It was a great bit, but it begs the question: Is the Amazing Spider-Man really Jewish?

comicbook.jpgAt first blush, that might seen like a stupid question: of course he isn’t! But around the time that Spider-Man 2 came out, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon (author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) stated that Spider-Man is a crypto-Jew. (And he should know; he co-wrote Spider-Man 2.)

To Chabon, the Spider-Man story is rife with Jewish signifiers. He’s from Queens, and he’s raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. I guess the implication here is that he’s very working-class Noo Yawk, in an old-school Jewish way. To me, eh, I tend to disagree…Well, I disagree and agree at the same time. Let me explain.

See, I guess my problem with Chabon’s theory is that it supposes that Jews have a monopoly on the whole working-class Noo Yawk thing. I mean, I live in Queens, and there are precious few Jews in my neighborhood. But you can’t swing a dead cat around here without hitting a Greek immigrant. So is Spidey Greek? I don’t think so.

But maybe Chabon is also responding to the fact that in his secret identity of Peter Parker, Spidey seems suspiciously like an amalgam of every Jewish stereotype; he’s studious, physically weak, and he’s really guilty all the time. But again, is that particularly a Jewish thing? I know plenty of Catholics who fit that bill.

Spider-Man’s co-creator Stan Lee has this theory as to why the web-slinger is so damn popular with so many people. Lee believes that Spidey’s universal appeal lies in the fact that his entire face is covered by a mask. So that, if you’re an African-American comics fan, you could imagine that it was your face underneath the mask. And if you were Jewish, you could envision your visage beneath the mask. Okay, makes sense, on a pretty basic psychological level.

But Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) is Jewish. Ah-ha! Maybe Lee was subconsciously layering all these Jewish signifiers into Spider-Man as a way to grapple with his feelings as a young urban Jew.

I think it’s simpler than that. I think Lee’s savvy enough to understand – on a conscious level – how much Spidey’s teenage fanbase would identify with such a flawed character. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spider-Man is the ultimate teen identification character.

So, here’s where I stand: Spider-Man isn’t a crypto-Jew, so much as he’s a crypto-minority. He’s a stand-in for Jewish people, yeah. But he’s also a stand-in for African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, women, homosexuals, nerds, teenagers, overweight people, skinny people, short people, and everyone in between. And that’s what makes him truly Amazing.

Arie Kaplan is a writer for MAD Magazine who also writes for film, TV, and comics. Arie’s first book, Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed!, is in bookstores now. His second book, chronicling the history of Jews in comic books, will be published in fall 2008 from JPS. Check out his website, www.ariekaplan.com.

Posted on November 12, 2007

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One thought on “That’s Irving Spiderman to You!

  1. bk1949

    Arie,

    You’re probably right. Still, isn’t it interesting that Jews pretty much created the comic book superhero — everything from Superman (Kal-El, the authors, etc.) and Batman to the Marvel pantheon. To a minority that feels invisible, powerless, less than fully enfranchised, the superhero is a kind of alter ego, a wish projection. (Of course, I do recall an issue of Marvel’s “Dracula” from way back in the late 60s where the Count was forced to back off from a potential victim not by a crucifix but by a Magen David. Good to know, if I ever run into a Jewish vampire.)

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