Earlier this month, Andrew Garfield, star of Amazing Spider-Man 2, told Time Out that Spider-Man is Jewish. “He ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ about his future because he’s neurotic. He’s Jewish. It’s a defining feature,” Garfield explained, quickly adding, “I hope Jewish people won’t mind the cliché, because my father’s Jewish. I have that in me for sure.”
Apparently, Garfield sees Peter Parker as Woody Allen in superhero drag. But he doesn’t make much of an argument: Jews hardly have a monopoly on neurosis. And yet …
Though Peter Parker is usually depicted in the comic books as Protestant, Garfield is hardly the first person to assert that the character, created in 1962 by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, is a Jew. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, who co-wrote the 2004 film Spider-Man 2, voiced a similar sentiment, calling the web-slinger a “crypto-Jew” in a 2004 interview with Newsweek. He offered up as proof the fact that Peter Parker lives in Queens with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Chabon sees all of the italicized words as subtextual Jewish signifiers. And perhaps he’s right. Peter, after all, doesn’t just live in Queens. He lives in Forest Hills, traditionally home to a large Jewish population.
Avi Arad, Israeli-born producer of the Amazing Spider-Man movies, made a more specific case to the Times of Israel in 2012. “These are practically shtetl Jews living in Queens,” he observed. “You look at Aunt May—she is tough as anything, tough as nails. She is a defender of the family … This is like a shtetl play.” He’s not wrong. Whether in the movies or in the comics, Aunt May frets over her family’s safety like a stereotypical Jewish mother in a Yiddish melodrama. In the new film, there’s a scene where Peter Parker talks about his laundry with Aunt May (Sally Field), who has no idea that he’s a superhero. They talk about the fact that Aunt May has been forced to take a second job—“Gives me a little extra in the cookie jar,” she shrugs—and she wonders aloud why Peter’s boss, newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson, doesn’t give her nephew a fair wage. “Jameson pays me a fair wage,” he chuckles ruefully before adding, “If it was 1961, it’d be a fair wage.” Touching and funny, it is one of the best scenes in the movie. And it wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Clifford Odets play.
Whenever Peter talks to his aunt, in fact, it’s about how his father was unfairly scapegoated by a corporate conspiracy; or how neither Peter nor May is earning anything approaching a decent income, given the hard work they both put in; or how Peter’s deceased parents aren’t there to see their son achieve what they never could. There are echoes here of the sort of leftist kitchen-sink drama written by Jewish playwrights in 1930s New York.
But this is nothing. If we pop open the hood and examine Spider-Man’s inner workings, we can find plenty more that’s Jewish about Peter Parker.
Most of what’s been written about the “Is Spidey Jewish?” question ignores an essential part of Stan Lee’s background. Not his background as a Jew—born Stanley Martin Lieber, Lee is the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants—but as a humorist. His whole generation of comic-book writers and artists were, by default, humorists. Back in 1939, when Lee began working in the comic-book industry, humor comics were just something you did, alongside superhero, romance, horror, and western comics. And from the late 1930s through the late 1960s, even superhero comics were usually created with a light touch. Their creators knew to never take their stories too seriously, and a certain jokiness came standard. In the early 1960s, when Lee co-created characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the X-Men, he quickly developed a reputation for witty dialogue, sharp characterization, and clever one-liners.
Though no one would have described them as such at the time, the early Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Spider-Man comics were a literary mash-up: part superhero comic, part romance comic, and part humor comic. While fighting criminals, Spidey has always made jokes, often at a rapid-fire pace, psychologically disarming foes with his lighthearted patter. As the co-creator, Lee established a template for what Spider-Man dialogue should be: fast-paced, character-revealing, self-deprecating, and rat-a-tat funny. And what’s interesting about the Lee-scripted Spidey stories is the type of humor Lee employed. Like Jack Benny and Don Rickles, Stan Lee put a certain Borscht Belt flavor into his work.