Superman Is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way

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9781416595304: Superman Is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way

As brilliant as it is witty, Harry Brod’s surprisingly insightful exposé delves into the secret identities of the world’s most famous superheroes.

Many of us know that the superheroes at the heart of the American comic book industry were created by Jews. But we’d be surprised to learn how much these beloved characters were shaped by the cultural and religious traditions of their makers. Superman Is Jewish? follows the “people of the book” as they become the people of the comic book. Harry Brod reveals the links between Jews and superheroes in a penetrating investigation of iconic comic book figures.

With great wit and compelling arguments, Brod situates superheroes within the course of Jewish- American history: they are aliens in a foreign land, like Superman; figures plagued by guilt for not having saved their families, like Spider-Man; outsiders persecuted for being different, like the X-Men; nice, smart people afraid that nobody will like them when they’re angry, like the Hulk. Brod blends humor with sharp observation as he considers the overt and discreet Jewish characteristics of these well-known figures and explores how their creators—including Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby— integrated their Jewish identities and their creativity.

Brod makes a strong case that these pioneering Jews created New World superheroes using models from Old World traditions. He demonstrates how contemporary characters were inspired by the golem, the mystically created artificial superhuman of Jewish lore. And before Superman was first drawn by Joe Shuster, there were those Jews flying through the air drawn by Marc Chagall. As poignant as it is fascinating, this lively guided tour travels from the Passover Haggadah’s exciting action scenes of Moses’s superpowers through the Yiddish humor of Mad to two Pulitzer Prizes awarded in one decade to Jewish comic book guys Art Spiegelman and Michael Chabon.

Superman Is Jewish? explores the deeper story of how an immigrant group can use popular entertainment media to influence the larger culture and in the process see itself in new, more empowering ways. Not just for Jewish readers or comic book fans, Superman Is Jewish? is a story of America, and is as poignant as it is fascinating.

 

***

 

A surprising question, one that takes a certain amount of chutzpah to even raise. To add even a bit more chutzpah, this book considers questions about the Jewishness of more superheroes than just Superman, and offers answers that will surprise many. You mean Spider-Man is Jewish too? Well, actually, yes, but in a very different way than Superman is. And, as we’ll see, the shift between them reflects the evolution of Jewish life in America itself in the generation between the two, the generation that gets us from World War II and the “Golden Age” of comics to the 1960s and the “Silver Age” of comics. The historical turning points of those tumultuous years and others, like the powerful 1950s crusade against comics for supposedly causing juvenile delinquency, turn out to be central to our story because these events, and their great impact on American Jews, appear on comic book pages themselves, and behind the scenes in their production. For it turns out that the history of Jews and comic book superheroes, that very American invention, is the history of Jews and America, particularly the history of Jewish assimilation into the mainstream of American culture.

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About the Author:

Harry Brod is a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa. He has appeared on CNN, Today, Geraldo, and other TV and radio programs, and his articles have been published in many journals and popular magazines. He is the father of two children and still has his old comic book collection.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

SUPERMAN AS SUPERMENTSH

How the Ultimate Alien Became the Iconic All-American

Superman is one of the most well-known fictional figures in the world. We all know who he is. Or at least we think we do. In the timeless words of the 1950s TV series, he’s “a strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.” But those who are used to the current scope of Superman’s powers—where he’s capable of performing such feats as flying into a blazing sun, freezing a lake with his super breath or lifting mountains—may be surprised to learn that in his original comic book incarnation his powers were much less expansive: “He could hurdle skyscrapers, leap an eighth of a mile, raise tremendous weights, run faster than a streamline engine, and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin.”

For those reading comics in 1938, Superman was much more than just a new super character. He inaugurated the entire genre of comic book superheroes. Prior to this, heroes of adventure comic strips or books had been detectives, cops, cowboys, pirates, magicians, soldiers, etc. No one had seen a costumed figure with superpowers before.

At the time, “comics” meant the comic strips found in newspapers. Comic books, to the extent they existed at all, were mostly just reprints of the newspaper strips bound together. But all that changed when magazine distributor and publisher Jack Liebowitz was looking for a lead player for a different type of comic book that would feature stories that appeared first in this bound form.

These new comic books were part of a new fusion of words and pictures that was in the air in the 1930s. “Talking pictures” (instead of silent films) had just appeared, with The Jazz Singer premiering in 1927. Steamboat Willie, Disney’s first cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse, came out the next year, and was the first animated short film with a sound track that was entirely synchronized. Life magazine, with its new and distinctive brand of photojournalism, premiered in 1936, and was a great success—appearing in Life became synonymous with having made it into the American cultural mainstream. Advertising was taking off, with ever more elaborate illustrations in magazines and roadside billboards.

In that context, comic books are clearly the runt of the litter. The comics industry came out of the streets of Lower Manhattan, mostly from Jews and Italians who were one step away from the immigrant experience and two steps away from social respectability. Poor Jews from immigrant backgrounds ended up finding their way into this ragged end of publishing, what we might call rag, or shmate, publishing, since the Yiddish word shmate has the same dual meaning as the English word rag, meaning, literally, a throwaway piece of cloth and, by extension, a junky, throwaway publication. Businessmen like Liebowitz and Harry Donnenfeld, who came to be behind Superman’s publication, also published girlie magazines and pulp fiction with names like Spicy Detective Stories. And more than a few of them had mob connections.

As Al Jaffee, later of Mad magazine fame, put it, “We couldn’t get into newspaper strips or advertising; ad agencies wouldn’t hire a Jew. One of the reasons we Jews drifted into the comic-book business is that most of the comic-book publishers were Jewish. So there was no discrimination there.”

Comics historians offer other theories linking the predominance of Jews in the early comics industry to the Jewish attraction to communicative media more generally. Gerald Jones notes that of all the immigrant cultures of the period, the Jews were the most literate population. Trina Robbins attributes Jewish communicative skills to the need to be able to talk yourself out of getting beaten up. Journalist Jay Schwartz writes of the founding generation of comics creators: “They came from homes where Yiddish was shouted across the dining room table, along with at least one other language. That—plus English lessons outside the home and Hebrew to boot—made for multilingual youngsters keen on the Sock! Zoom! Bam! power of language.”

These Jewish comic book creators forged a road into American culture in much the same way the Jewish immigrants who became the founding moguls of the American film industry did, with Lower Manhattan as their Hollywood. Motion pictures came out of cheap nickelodeon and peep show entertainments whose primary audience was single men, mostly working class, and largely immigrants. A good deal of the content was pretty lurid for its time—not unlike the girlie magazines or the pulps. It was primarily the Jewish entrepreneurs who became the movie moguls—men like Adolph Zukor, William Fox, Carl Laemmle, and Samuel Goldwyn—who had a vision of the greater commercial possibilities if it could be transformed into more socially acceptable mass family entertainment. Likewise with the comics. Personally marginalized out of the mainstream by their foreign backgrounds, the publishers and artists created an alternate, idealized version of America, with larger-than-life idols soaring above the audiences below on the movie screen, on the comics page, and above all in their imaginations. Their strategy of assimilation by idealization worked. As audiences accepted the idealized images these Jews created, these new cultural icons became the vehicles through which these marginalized Jews were able to enter the cultural mainstream. Shut out of the centers of American culture, they created new cultural forms to bring America to them.

In this period of the birth of comic books, the team of Jerry Siegel as writer and Joe Shuster as artist had been working together on trying to create successful comic strips since they met at Glenville High School in Cleveland, a school with a large Jewish population, reflecting the surrounding neighborhood. Now twenty-three, they’d had earlier success placing some strips, most notably one chronicling the adventures of their character Slam Bradley, who, as his name suggests, was a tough slugger of a detective, as well as others including Federal Men, Henri Duval, Radio Squad, Spy, and Dr. Mystic: The Occult Detective. The strip they were peddling now was just too different from what any newspaper was running to find any takers. But it turned out to be just the thing for this new idea of a comic book with new stories.

Among their new hero’s powers, the notion of being impervious to bullets had a powerful personal dimension for Jerry Siegel. Jerry’s father, Mitchell (originally Mikhel Segalovich of Lithuania), had worked as a sign painter for a time, and encouraged his son’s artistic interests. But eventually Mitchell had to give up his more artistic side for the more secure living of running a secondhand-clothing store. Mitchell Siegel died as a result of a nighttime robbery at his store, although stories vary as to whether his death was caused directly by the bullets that were fired or as a result of a heart attack brought on by the event. Whatever the actual facts, the story that many in the family were told and believed was that he was murdered and died from a gunshot wound. Siegel never spoke about it publicly, but the earliest version of Superman that we know about appeared shortly thereafter, illustrated with a drawing of Superman swooping in to stop an armed robbery.

Joe Shuster’s father, meanwhile, had arrived in Toronto from Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where the family had had a cinema and hotel. In Toronto he found work as a movie theater projectionist. The family then moved to Cleveland when Joe was nine. Of the two, Jerry was the more outgoing and assertive, while Joe was more shy and retiring. Both were physically small, and uninterested in physically rough competitive sports. Joe was severely nearsighted, and tried to make up for being physically slight by getting into the bodybuilding fad that was popular at the time. They met while working on their school newspaper, The Torch. But the school paper wasn’t enough for them, and they became active in the new world of the mimeographed and then mailed pages that came to be called the “fanzines” of the science-fiction pulp magazines. Through this they first met other science-fiction fans, some of them later becoming men who would play major roles in the early comics field.

It was in one sense natural to find Jews making illustrated books. The biblical admonition against making graven images or idols had caused a lack of much of a real visual arts tradition among European Jews. In contrast to literature and music, the visual arts were relatively underdeveloped. One of the few outlets for Jewish visual artists was the illustrated book, which was deemed kosher in the culture of the people of the book. This art had thrived particularly in illustrating the Passover Haggadah, the book that guides the service at the celebratory, highly ritualized Passover meal. The Haggadah, what I’ll call in this context the first “graphic novel,” tells a story in both words and pictures, so that those sitting at the table who are too young to read can follow along. The story is the tale of Moses, sent off in a small vessel by his parents to save him from the death and destruction facing his people. He is then raised among people to whom he really is an alien, but who do not suspect his secret identity, and he grows up to become a liberator and champion of the oppressed, with the aid of miraculous superpowers displayed in some truly memorable action scenes. Sound at all familiar?

Who knows what lurked in the memories of young Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster when they created their tale of immigrant refugee baby Kal-El’s arrival on Earth? Can it really be coincidental that Kal-El’s original Kryptonian name spoken with a Hebrew pronunciation sounds like the Hebrew words for “all is God” or “all for God”? Is it just chance that he is sent from an old world, Krypton, that is about to explode, to a new one, Earth (which could readily be seen as standing for Europe, on the verge of self-destruction, and America, with its promise of new life, especially in those 1930s)? And is the name of his home planet really a secret invitation to decode Superman’s encrypted secret identity as a crypto-Jew (Jews who, since the days of the Spanish Inquisition, have publicly given up their faith to escape persecution, but who remain Jews in their private lives and personal allegiance)?

Traditional comics lore gives the major credit for Siegel and Shuster’s finally securing publication for Superman to an ex-schoolteacher named Maxwell Charles Ginsberg, who changed his name to Gaines when he went into business as a salesman peddling cheap goods in various and sundry enterprises because Gaines sounded better than Ginsberg, meaning it sounded less Jewish. Among other things, Gaines became a comics packager and producer, obtaining material from writers and artists and selling it to publishers. He had Siegel and Shuster’s submission of their Superman strip, but it was editor Sheldon (Shelly) Mayer, himself even younger than Siegel and Shuster, who saw its potential and selected it.

The boys had mixed feelings when they received the offer. After multiple rejections, they were pleased that this work was finally being accepted. But they were disappointed that it was appearing in a mere comic book, not being placed with a syndicate for newspaper distribution, the holy grail for aspiring artists like themselves, because that was how you acquired both artistic recognition and financial reward. To fit the new format, Siegel and Shuster literally cut up the strips they had drawn for the newspapers and pasted their work into the page format of the new comic book. The comics page format was so new then that when the layout departed from the linear strip format to even a small degree, some artists inserted arrows leading from one panel to the next or even numbered the panels because they didn’t think the reader would be able to follow the sequence. If you scan the sequence of those panels today you’ll find they still embody the rhythm of a strip: four panels per day, with the fourth stopping at the best mini-cliffhanger they could muster. Then restart at that point the next day, count four, stop. The rhythm broke on Sundays, when there was more space. But then it was back to the same rhythm. Repeat until done.

Siegel and Shuster worked frantically on a tight deadline, cutting and pasting their strips into a book. And so in June 1938 the cover of the first issue of Action Comics came to feature a man wearing a blue costume with a red and yellow emblem on his chest and a red cape flowing behind him, heaving a car over his head and smashing it into a hillside. Thus was the world introduced to the adventures of Superman.

But Superman was far more than this superpowered character. Once inside the comic book, the reader discovered another, less heroic character, Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, a mild-mannered and timid reporter. And here is the question that brings us to the heart of our examination of these Jewish men and the comic book superheroes they created: Why? What in the logic of the story or, as we shall come to see, in the psyches of its creators, motivated the introduction of the Clark Kent role?

In contrast to most of the other costumed superheroes who were to follow in Superman’s wake, in the Superman saga it is the superman who is real, and the alter ego, Clark Kent, who is fictitious. Think for a moment of other familiar superheroes: Batman, for example, also has a secret identity, Bruce Wayne, who is a real person who existed long before the costumed Batman came into being. Likewise for Spider-Man and Peter Parker. Superman is the inverse of what would later become that standard model. Especially when one considers the nerdy nature of Clark Kent’s personality, one has to ask, Why on Earth would Superman want to perpetrate this masquerade?

The answer is that the psychology of Siegel and Shuster’s imaginary world only worked if, at the same time that we the readers knew who Superman really was, we also knew that in the world of the story people saw him only as Clark—a timid, socially inept, physically weak, clumsy, sexually ineffectual quasi intellectual who wore glasses and apparently owned only one blue suit. In other words, the classic Jewish nebbish (roughly: “nerd”). But little did they know! Jewish men had only to tear off their clothes and glasses to reveal the surging superman underneath, physique fully revealed by those skintight blue leotards, and flaunted by that billowing cape. Listen to Jerry Siegel describe his early inspirations:

As a high school student, I thought that someday I might become a newspaper reporter and I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care I existed. It occurred to me: What if I was real terrific? What if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that? Then maybe they would notice me.

But why does Superman want Lois Lane to fall in love with his false self, nebbish Clark, rather than with who he really is, a Superman? Renowned Jewish cartoonist Jules Feiffer had an answer. Feiffer writes that this is Superman’s joke on the rest of us. Superman sees “mortal men” as the world sees Clark, which is essentially how the anti-Semitic world sees Jewish men. His wish for Lois to fall in love with Clark is then the revenge of the Jewish nerd for the world’s anti-Semitism. I would add that it also reflects the same verdict on humanity found in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer-Night’s Dream,...

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