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Panel Discussion

As advocacy groups increasingly use comic books in efforts to reach young minds, an art form created by immigrant Jews working out identity issues has instead become a ham-fisted tool for indoctrination

Liel Leibovitz
August 04, 2011
A panel from Foreskin Man vs. Captain Israel.(Arlen Schumer)
A panel from Foreskin Man vs. Captain Israel.(Arlen Schumer)

It’s summer, which means that the season of superheroes is long upon us, and everywhere in popular culture men and women in masks and skin-tight suits are fighting for the greater good, protecting, for example, innocent newborns from a maniacal mohel and defending Israeli settlements against those dastardly Europeans who dare label them illegal.

If you don’t immediately think of Foreskin Man and Captain Israel, no worries; the former, after all, was created by anti-circumcision activist Matthew Hess, while the latter is the brainchild of Stand With Us, a conservative pro-Israel group. They are not alone: Jewish children in search of wholesome heroics could get their thrills from the adventures of the Dreidel Maidel, Minyan Man, and the rest of the members of the Jewish Hero Corps, follow the illustrated foibles of rabbis Elfassi, Peretz, and Lavi as they travel the perilous path from Morocco to Palestine, and curl up with any number of recently published comic books more interested in edification than in entertainment.

Call it the third waveof comics: Originally created by writers and illustrators seeking a way to grapple with their own bifurcated identities as American Jews, comic books bloomed into mainstream artifacts and were often forced to sacrifice their complexities on the altar of popularity. Now, with the medium enjoying a Hollywood-driven new golden age, it is only natural, perhaps, that comics would return full circle to their primordial obsession with identity. A host of advocacy organizations, operating everywhere from Kuwait to Los Angeles and promoting a host of ideologies and religious convictions, have taken to using comic books to capture the imaginations of young readers and drive them into the folds of faith. Many of these organizations are Jewish; whether they hope to convince American college kids to stand with Israel or Israeli youth to revere ancient rabbis, they rely on old-fashioned penciled-and-inked superheroes to deliver the message.

To understand just how far comic books have come since their inception, it’s worth recalling the moment of their birth. Writing in Men of Tomorrow, his account of the medium’s early years, comic-book writer and scholar Gerard Jones neatly captured the cultural and ethnic affinities shared by its founding fathers: “Jerry Siegel, Jack Liebowitz, Joe Shuster, Harry Donenfeld, Charlie Gaines, Bob Kahn, Stanley Lieber, Jake Kurtzberg, Mort Weisinger: all born in the course of a generation, all acquainted with each other, all Jewish kids, the sons of immigrants, many of them misfits in their own communities. They were all two or three steps removed from the American mainstream but were more poignantly in touch with the desires and agonies of that mainstream than those in the middle of it.”

But what was originally experienced as an exercise in sublimation has turned, six decades later, into a contact sport. With identity politics now a trenchant feature of culture, the Siegels and Shusters of the new millennium needn’t mask their anxieties in fabricated tales of faraway planets and secret identities. Arlen Schumer, for example, an award-winning illustrator, found his inspiration for Captain Israel in the all-too-real biblical kingdom of Judea, where his scale-armor-clad hero was born. In eight densely packed pages, aimed primarily at American college students, the Captain introduces his readers to Mark Twain, Theodor Herzl, Lord Balfour, and a bevy of boldly colored maps, all illustrating Israel’s unimpeachable moral uprightness and right on its divinely promised land. When the Captain himself speaks, it’s only to deliver punchy lines like “For almost two thousand years, no other state of unique national group developed in Palestine; instead, different empires and peoples came, colonized, ruled, and disappeared—but Jewish communities remained throughout the ages.” Even ignoring the gross historical inaccuracies and racist overtones packed into this lumbering sentence, it’s hard to imagine any actual young person finding the Captain remotely compelling.

And yet, the Captain soldiers on. A second issue—the first one was published this January—was slated for publication earlier this month but was postponed following a spat between Schumer and Stand With Us over the inclusion of some anti-Semitic writings by Martin Luther. An advertisement for the second issue shows the muscular hero battling an enormous serpent, identified as “The Venomous Snake Charmer BDS,” a reference to the international movement pursuing boycotts against Israel. Until he can do battle with the evil reptile (which, as some critics have rightly mentioned, bares a troubling resemblance to imagery used in the anti-Semitic cartoons of early last century), the Captain has taken on Foreskin Man in a single-panel illustration that maintains all of the schoolmarmishness of his original adventures. Not that Foreskin Man should mind—the blond avenger of mutilated penile flesh is currently on the third issue of his adventures.

American Jews, however, are not the only ones enjoying this new surge of didactic entertainment. Those Moroccan rabbis, for example, are the heroes of a recurring storyline in Or, a popular comic book published in Israel and aimed at ultra-Orthodox children. Since its debut in September 2009, Or has released 40 issues, most of which feature illustrated stories about biblical heroes and Jewish sages. It’s one of a number of fervently religiouscomic books published in the last two years. On the other end of the monotheistic spectrum, Muslim kids can now dig The 99, a gorgeous series created by Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, a psychologist and entrepreneur. Named for the 99 attributes of Allah, the series features, among other superheroes, a burqa-wearing heroine and a hulk-like Muslim giant with abs of stone and a heart of gold. While more sleek and sophisticated than Captain Israel’s verbose historical narratives or Or’s Torah lessons, The 99 is hardly bereft of long lectures or characters whose only virtue is their virtue.

How, then, are readers reared on more traditional—and less preachy—superheroes to approach this new crop of caped educators? The answer may not be simple. Seen from a strictly evolutionary perspective, there can be little doubt that the text-heavy panels, the simplistic characters, and the message-driven plot lines represent a regression from the peaks the medium has scaled in the past three decades. A wider cultural lens, however, may allow for a more forgiving view; compared with the current, and wilted, crop of mainstream superheroes, even the more loquacious among the new slew of advocacy-based he-men feel closer to the medium’s origins than their computer-generated Hollywood counterparts. After all, when the minders of an icon like the Green Lantern—a comic book that once featured a race of omnipotent blue men modeled after David Ben Gurion—put more effort into Doritos tie-ins than in coming up with a script intelligible to anyone older than 6, the ramblings of Captain Israel become all the more appealing by comparison.

Of course, one may still wonder why the new pioneers of advocacy comics can’t feature heroes who are both educational and engrossing. It’s a task, perhaps, that requires superhuman strengths.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.