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Just Plain Super

Two books scratch too hard at superheroes’ identities

Douglas Wolk
January 15, 2008

Believe it or not, there actually are Jewish superheroes. A few cartoonists started giving their spandex-clad characters Stars of David, yahrzeit candles, and menorahs in the Seventies; the list, as it stands right now, includes Moon Knight, Colossal Boy from Legion of Super-Heroes, Kitty Pryde from X-Men, the recently introduced Batwoman, and . . .

that’s about it for characters most comics readers have ever heard of. Oh, and the Thing from Fantastic Four, who was outed as Jewish six years ago, in a story that was promptly forgotten.

But superheroes are loaded with subtext—that’s sort of the point of them—and Simcha Weinstein and Danny Fingeroth have both recently published books arguing that most of the best-known superhero characters are expressions of their creators’ Jewish heritage. Weinstein’s Up, Up, and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero and Fingeroth’s Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero both recount the Jewish origins of the superhero tradition. Both authors pick out Jewish themes and allusions in 70 years’ worth of brightly colored comic books, but neither accounts for the possibility that superheroes might mean as much as they do not because their themes are Jewish but because their themes are universal—and neither has much to say about what the connections he draws might imply about superheroes, Judaism, or American culture in general.

The facts on which both books rest are undeniable. The cartoonists and editors who created or co-created Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Spirit, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, and virtually every other famous costumed character were not just disproportionately but overwhelmingly Jewish. Without Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Will Eisner, Joe Simon, Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber), Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), and Bob Kane (born Robert Kahn), it would be impossible to imagine the superhero genre existing at all. Inconveniently, none of them have ever had much to say about the connection Fingeroth and Weinstein are trying to establish—Fingeroth notes that “to a man, none of the founders and creators of the superheroes that I interviewed in researching this book thought, when first asked about it, that there was anything particularly Jewish about superheroes in general or any superhero in particular.”

That doesn’t stop either author for digging for any connections they can find between the cape-and-cowl set and the tallith-and-yarmulke crew. Weinstein’s book, in particular, indulges in far-fetched exegesis, beginning when he posits the debut of Superman (published in the spring of 1938, and created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster several years earlier) as a response to Kristallnacht (November of 1938). He goes on to claim that the destruction of Krypton could symbolically represent shevirat ha-Kelim, “the destruction of the vessels”: “It’s as if Siegel and Shuster had subconsciously tapped into Kabbalah, the very core of Jewish spirituality!” Captain America? He’s got a shield with a star on it—which, to Weinstein, recalls the Shield and Star of David. (Funny, he doesn’t look Jewish, as gratifying as it was to see him walloping Hitler on the cover of the first issue of his comic book.) “Of course, a more literal reading of the costume is that it is the American flag brought to life,” Weinstein admits, though he still maintains that “the flag-as-costume notion reinforces the ideal of assimilation.” Or, alternately, Captain America might not be particularly Jewish.

Up, Up, and Oy Vey! reaches its peak of unintentional hilarity when Weinstein argues that the Fantastic Four reflect Jewish themes because they have a family dynamic (“the family is the very heart of the Jewish community”) and there are four of them (“the number four is also a recurring symbol in Judaism. Examples include the story of the four sons, the four cups of wine, and the four questions, all from the Passover service”). You would be hard-pressed to find any human community whose heart isn’t the family, and as anyone who’s sat through a Passover service involving “Who Knows One?” may recall, pretty much every number is a recurring symbol in Judaism.

The problem with this approach is that its results aren’t falsifiable. Jewishness, the theory runs, is automatically encoded into every Jewish creator’s work. If there’s a direct correlation between the work and anything in Jewish tradition, it’s about Judaism; if there’s not, then it’s about assimilation, and therefore about Judaism. Reading the work, then, becomes a scavenger hunt or word search for anything that can be construed as Jewish; there’s not much room for the idea that artists might be able to invent something outside their own experience of cultural tradition.

Fingeroth, at least, notes that the themes he’s hunting for are mostly “unconscious and subconscious” on the part of comics creators. A longtime writer and editor at Marvel Comics, he’s got deep knowledge of the business and its history, which gives him some welcome perspective. The inhabitants of the alternate universe Qward in Green Lantern in the early ’60s, he quips, look “like stereotypical bald, Jewish men”—and specifically like Green Lantern’s editor in those years, Julius Schwartz. And he reads more carefully than Weinstein, who notes that Batman creator Bob Kane never mentions being Jewish in his autobiography. Well, yes, Fingeroth says, although he points out that Kane does mention his father playing “Santa Claus” during an exhausting Friday-night-before-Christmas deadline by bringing him a home-cooked meal: “chicken soup with matzo balls, roasted chicken with potatoes and vegetables, and, of course, chopped liver.”

Superman on the Couch

The strongest chapter of Disguised as Clark Kent is a close examination of the X-Men: super-powered “mutants,” more evolved than the ordinary humans who despise them, and stand-ins for any kind of Other you care to name. Their arch-enemy Magneto is a mutant separatist who lost his (Jewish) family in Auschwitz, and their battles are loaded with subtext concerning the struggles of identity politics, which Fingeroth gracefully unpacks: not just assimilation but genocide, forgiveness, and sanctuary.

But Fingeroth, too, ends up scraping a little too hard in his search for Jewish content. The Stan Lee/Jack Kirby version of Thor—not just blond and blue-eyed but literally a Norse god—turns out to reflect Jewish themes, Fingeroth argues, because Thor’s father, Odin, forbids him to marry a mortal woman, and intermarriage is a fraught issue in Judaism. (Lee, in his introduction to the book, is gently amused: “Even I never suspected that the Mighty Thor…had Jewish aspects to his story. Who knew? Danny does.”)

The question remains: Why should that matter? Why should the Jewishness of the superhero genre be important to demonstrate? Neither Fingeroth nor Weinstein quite explains, and neither of them suggests that Judaism might also involve some stories involving colorful characters that are meant to be understood as fables and parables, rather than as literal history. But another possibility turns up in an interview with the late, revered cartoonist Will Eisner, whose final books were overwhelmingly concerned with Judaism and Jewish culture. Fingeroth quotes Eisner: “I’ve read The Adventures of Augie March. . . . Bellow is doing nothing more than what I’m doing. . . . He got a Nobel Prize from that. I’ve been selling the same pretzel on the same street corner.”

Eisner was discussing his later, “literary” comics, not his superhero work. But what he was hinting at (wrongly) was that addressing Jewish themes had won Saul Bellow his Nobel, and that the execution of the work itself was just gravy. By extension, it would follow that merely referring to Jewish tradition, however obliquely or accidentally, would make superheroes somehow more reputable—a sort of “good for the capes” scenario. That sort of craving for validation has plagued superhero fandom for decades. (You want cultural self-loathing? Check out a superhero-comic message board sometime.) And it’s hard to shake the sense that both Weinstein and Fingeroth are searching for something that will legitimate their love for their favorite comics and characters.

In his introduction to Disguised as Clark Kent, Stan Lee mentions (as Fingeroth and Weinstein both do in passing) that he was one of many early American comics creators who attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, among them Will Eisner, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Irwin Hasen, and Mac Raboy. Now, that really is an improbable cluster of talent. Is the history of American comics rife with conscious or unconscious references to that school, or a particular teacher? It’s possible—and a particularly vague kind of reading, the same sort Fingeroth and Weinstein use in their books, would probably tease it out. That still doesn’t mean such a reading would add anything to the meaning of those cartoonists’ work. It might, as both writers too often do, reach the conclusion it seeks while skipping over the real complexity and surprise of the art itself.

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