Comic Proportions: When Moses Meets Superman

Itay Stern
Itay Stern
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The book cover of Will Eisner’s 'A Contract with God.'Credit: Courtesy
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

“Comic book artists love the Bible, because it’s not ashamed: it has everything, from violence to sex,” says Miriam Katin, whose graphic novel, “We Are on Our Own,” is on display in a new exhibition at the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon. It’s titled “Women of Valor and Superheroes: Bible Stories in Comics,” and Katin adds, “People hope to find in the Bible answers to the biggest, most existential questions. The combination of comics and the Bible is a winning one, because young people have less patience for reading long, complex texts.”

In her graphic novel, Katin, a Holocaust survivor based in New York, tells the story of her family’s survival, beginning with the Nazis’ ascent to power, through the biblical text about the creation of the world. Whereas the biblical story talks about the triumph of light over darkness, in Katin’s account darkness is triumphant, and as dark falls the Nazi flag is shown in glaring colors of red, black and white.

Katin was involved in the MTV animated sitcom “Beavis and Butt-head” and worked as an animator in the Disney studios. She grew up in an atheistic home in Hungary, she relates. “In 1957 we moved to Israel, and there, in Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, I studied Bible for the first time. Only when I came across Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ did I realize that I too had an opportunity to tell my personal rescue story by means of a graphic novel.”

The exhibition in Holon (curator: Assaf Gamzu) presents comics and cartoons that tell Bible stories by alternative means. For example, in the hands of the cartoonist and comic book artist Robert Crumb, the Book of Genesis becomes a graphic novel (published in 2009 in English, Hebrew edition 2011) in which God is pictured as a muscular, bearded white man. Crumb does not sidestep the problematic aspects of the Genesis stories, such as incest, but his representation remains relatively traditional, recalling the approach of Renaissance artists to biblical heroes. In contrast, Chris Ware, one of the most decorated and spunkiest of comic book artists in recent decades, depicts God as a plump, half-naked man in a superhero mask.

A long and winding road

A frame taken from Robert Crumb’s graphic novel 'The Book of Genesis Illustrated.'Credit: Courtesy

The exhibition also spotlights the patriarch Abraham. In “A Contract with God,” which can be viewed in the exhibition, the late Jewish-American cartoonist and writer Will Eisner, a pioneer of the graphic novel, offers his ultra-Orthodox treatment of the Abraham saga. The story unfolds in a shtetl-like tenement in the Bronx, where Abraham, aka the Russian-born Hasidic Jew Frimme Hersh, signs a contract with God. However, unlike the biblical tale, the contract is breached, and Hersh embarks on a long and winding road.

“This book presents the modern patriarch Abraham,” Gamzu says. “Hersh is the one who chooses God, he doesn’t wait for God to choose him. 
Afterward, he adopts a daughter – in contrast to the Bible story, where there are only sons – and when the daughter dies he accuses God of violating their contract and cancels it. The story makes a statement about the mutual responsibility between man and God. It’s not the one-way relationship we are familiar with.

“Once the contract is dissolved,” Gamzu continues, “Hersh goes and does what he wants, lending money with interest, and becomes wealthy and successful. He is about to sign a new contract with God, but at the moment of signing he dies, raising the question of who toyed with whom.”

The exhibition draws a link between superheroes and biblical heroes. Whereas in comic books, biblical heroes such as Samson and David sprang into life over the years, not least because of the gory battles that characterized their era, the first significant superhero to emerge from the Scriptures is Moses. According to Gamzu, a former teacher of Jewish thought, the heritage of Moses as a heroic savior of the Jewish people dovetails well with the story of the rise of Superman, the first superhero.

“Both Moses and Superman experience an identical initial event,” Gamzu explains. “A little boy is in danger, his parents grasp the situation and send him to a place far from home. And precisely because of that distance, the individual in each case grows stronger and becomes a rescuing figure. Just like Moses, who is both an Egyptian prince and the offspring of slaves, Superman is the son of farmers in Kansas but possesses powers far 
beyond those of mortal men.

“The heroism of these figures resides in their ability to take a precarious situation and render it positive. There are also other connections between the two. Superman was created in 1938 by two young Jews in Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Freud published his psychoanalytic essay on Moses in 1939, and in 1945, Martin 
Buber published his philosophical essay on Moses. Freud and Buber emphasize that Moses followed the principles of truth and justice, exactly like Superman.”

Samson, too, holds a place of honor in the ranks of the superheroes. He is associated with wildness and impulse. Alon Rosenblum, whose Multiverse website specializes in the worlds of comic books, says, “Samson’s immediate parallel is Hercules, who also appears frequently in the comics. Both of them possess some form of higher power. Samson is known from the literature of DC Comics, where he often fights the god Thor, while Marvel Comics is the patron of Hercules. It’s almost the same character.”

The world of comic books, which conducts a love-hate relationship with American mainstream culture, uses the Bible to kick Hollywood’s commercial bottom. For example, in 2006, Image Comics, the third largest comic book publisher after DC and Marvel, released an issue in its “Elephantmen” series about a dystopian world where soldiers underwent mutations and are now animals fighting one another, against a backdrop of verses from the Book of Job. Excerpts from that series are also on view in the exhibition.

“At present, rather oddly,” Rosenblum says, “it’s considered subversive to make use of Bible heroes, because it’s clear that they will not appear in Superman or Batman series. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to shatter taboos.”