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Whither the Israeli Superhero?

A new documentary traces the history of Israeli comics

Liel Leibovitz
November 02, 2015
Courtesy of Antenna Productions
Zeev Engelmayer with ShoshkaCourtesy of Antenna Productions
Courtesy of Antenna Productions
Zeev Engelmayer with ShoshkaCourtesy of Antenna Productions
Sabraman in English by Uri Fink, 1978. (Courtesy of Antenna Productions)
Sabraman in English by Uri Fink, 1978. (Courtesy of Antenna Productions)

When I was young and my mind was thick with video games and comic books and the other preoccupations of prepubescence, I spent hours dreaming up my very own superhero: Maccabee Man. His adventures, poorly illustrated in my middle-school notebooks, soon consumed all my waking hours; by the time eighth grade was over, not even a superhero could save me from my disastrous report card. Still, I doodled on. I wanted there to be a hero who spoke my language, who saved not Gotham but Herzliya, who was both glowingly otherworldly and thoroughly Israeli.

As The Hebrew Superhero, a supremely entertaining new documentary directed by Asaf Galay and Shaul Betzer and currently making the rounds on the Jewish film-festival circuit, shows, other budding Israeli artists had the same impulse. And while they, thankfully, were far more talented than I, they encountered the same challenges: struggling to fit a fantastic genre into a reality that was always just a little bit too real. What, for one thing, would the Israeli Super Man wear? Tights in Tel Aviv in August are nothing if not an exercise in excessive moisture. And being a caped crusader in a nation where even your grocer knows all of your secrets is a bother. And try meting out justice in a small and nervous place where every bus rider with a pair of nunchucksand a dream is likely to emerge as a self-appointed avenger whenever opportunity knocks. As the documentary gingerly shows, Israel’s budding comic book industry, an enterprise constantly reinventing itself, has dealt with these problems with in ways both obvious and wild.

In the beginning, there was Uri-Muri. Created in 1936, this plucky kid, complete with short shorts and the iconic mushroom-shaped tembel hat associated with kibbutzniks of the period, was the brainchild of the artist Aryeh Navon and the celebrated poet Leah Goldberg and the protagonist of a daily comic strip published in the back pages of a popular socialist newspaper. Searching for a visual metaphor that would capture the essence of his hero, Navon, in one of his earliest strips, drew Uri-Muri as that ubiquitous local specimen of flora, thorny on the outside but bearing sweet fruits, the sabra. The term stuck, becoming a catchall term for Israeli-born children for whom Uri-Muri served as an ideal. In a nation on the cusp of independence, that was a big responsibility, and Uri-Muri spent strip after strip using his powers—which were considerable if not exactly super—doing things like inventing better milking techniques or helping plow the fields, all in the service of the struggling yishuv.

Others followed. Gidi Gezer, for example, was a kibbutznik who displayed Popeye-like strength any time he bit into a freshly plucked carrot, while Yoav Ben-Chalav was energized by the wholesome power of milk. These comics were charming, sharing both an aesthetic adherence to minimalistic line-drawings and an ideological commitment to creating paragons of helpful youth. But to a new generation of Israelis, coming of age in the 1950s and reared on American comic books sent piecemeal by relatives abroad, that wasn’t enough. These sabras, the first generation in modern history to grow up in a strong and sovereign Jewish state, wanted something more rich and complex, something that captured the monumental sense of destiny that bubbled all around them.

Enter Pinchas Sadeh. The lion-maned poet published his seminal work, an autobiographical novel of sexual and spiritual awakenings, in 1958, when he was 29. It was titled Life as a Parable, and it became the sort of work that made young people, particularly young women, swoon with a sense of endless possibilities. To make ends meet, Sadeh, working under a series of pseudonyms, wrote comic strips for children’s dailies and weeklies. He was ashamed of this pursuit—so ashamed he refused to meet the illustrators who would bring his work to life—but decided that as long as he had to write these silly stories, he would take the opportunity to explore issues that truly intrigued him.

Like the reactor in Dimona: By far the country’s worst-kept secret, this crucible where nuclear weapons are reportedly forged has excited Israelis from the very moment, in the early 1960s, it was rumored to come to life. Imagining what nuclear capabilities might do for a small and struggling country, and reading too much Kafka, Sadeh launched a new illustrated series called “The Fateful Discovery of Dr. Joseph K.” In it, a nuclear leak in Dimona produces giant radioactive ants whose flesh, the eponymous Dr. K. discovers, cures cancer when consumed. The crafty Israeli scientist uses his knowledge to force the United States and the Soviet Union into ending the Cold War and then makes peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors. This outrageous premise, and the singularly frank discussion of nuclear research, flew right under the military censor’s radar; comic strips, the army believed, were such a lowly art form there was hardly any point in scrutinizing them as one would newspaper articles or radio reports.

Taking their cues from Sadeh, although lacking his inflamed imagination, other artists in the 1960s and 1970s strove to tell stories that dealt with Israel’s existential struggles. The comic book heroes of that period are partisans fighting the Nazis or pioneers fighting the British or brave soldiers fighting the Arabs, all in a rich visual style that crowded each panel with glorious detail. It was a step up from Uri-Muri, but what it wasn’t was fun. You don’t have to be a comic book nerd to know that chief among the genre’s pleasures is the opportunity to escape the drudgeries of everyday life, and reading strip after strip of Jewish bravery and tragedy is hardly as satisfying as imagining someone from a faraway planet coming to earth to fight operatically evil villains.

It took a 15-year-old to introduce a desperately needed over-the-top man of steel, a true superhero, Sabraman. Created by Uri Fink, then still a high-school student and now one of Israel’s most celebrated comic book artists, Sabraman was not entirely free of the shackles of his tradition: He was a Holocaust survivor implanted with an atomic brain and, now able to fly and shoot laser beams out of his eyes, dispatched back to Europe to fight the Nazis. By his creator’s own admission, Sabraman was a pale facsimile of the real heroes from across the sea, and trying to merely recreate an Israeli Superman provided barely enough material for four or five issues. But Sabraman was a liberating presence regardless, proof that larger-than-life characters could fly around speaking Hebrew. It liberated other artists to pursue divergent visions and, collectively, turn Israel into a miniature comics empire.

Most of The Hebrew Superhero is dedicated to these stellar artists. Some, like the late, great Dudu Geva, used gallows humor to highlight the tension between the grandeur of Israel’s tragically heroic history and the crushingly ordinary nature of life in the contemporary Jewish state. Others realized that you could do no better in search of superheroes than the Bible, a book dense with bloody and thrilling plot lines. Even the Mishna inspires: One of the documentary’s most fascinating figures is the young religious artist Shai Cherka, who hilariously illustrates different Talmudic disputations. Even Fink himself outgrew the mask and cape, finding fame with an oversexed local take on Archie that inducted generations of young Israelis into the order of comic books fanatics.

Shedding light on the intricate history and diverse present of Israeli comics, the documentary tells an important story too often ignored. The Jewish origins of the American superhero industry are well-known, from Superman’s Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel to Marvel’s Stan Lee. And while their Israeli counterparts are far less celebrated, the stories they told were typical of the art form: the emergence of great strength out of dismal tragedy, the use of fantasy to address political and military concerns that were all too real, the ever-delicate balance between the extraordinary and the mundane. These are tensions that Israeli history and comic book history share. To paraphrase David Ben-Gurion, in Israel, like in comic books, being a realist means always believing in miracles.

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The Hebrew Superhero will have its US premiere on Saturday, November 7, at the Boston Jewish Film Festival.

Asaf Hanuka and Etgar Keret. (Courtesy of Antenna Productions)
Asaf Hanuka and Etgar Keret. (Courtesy of Antenna Productions)

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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.