Why Are There No Israeli Superheroes?

Israeli artists seem to treat superheroes like kryptonite. Is it society, socialism or do we just have no need of a flying man in a latex suit?

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
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Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

Around 30 years ago, the cartoonist and illustrator Uri Fink appeared in People magazine. Fink, who was just 15 at the time, earned this mention thanks to his comic book superhero, Sabraman.

"It was at the time of the upbeat Camp David days," recalls Fink, "and the item about the whiz kid and his Hebrew superhero got a lot of feedback. News agencies interviewed me and that's how I made it into newspapers around the world. I even got into the nudist paper, 'Gallery' which I peeked at in my mother's newspaper shop on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv."

Waiting for Superman

In the comic books Fink released, Sabraman is drawn carelessly. His body was not muscular, as would be expected of a superhero, but a Star of David was perched on his chest. According to Fink, "Sabraman is an immature attempt to cope with the issue of superheroes."

Like American superheroes such as Superman or Spiderman, the first Hebrew superhero also had a regular alter ego. He went off on various heroic adventures, fought Nazis and operated in the service of the Israel Defense Forces. Despite the considerable interest Sabraman sparked at his onset, the character hung on for around two years and then disappeared. But in the history of Israeli comics, Sabraman still holds a place of honor as the first character that attempted to deal with the illustrious American tradition of comic book superheroes.

When it comes to comics, superheroes rule all. The genre requires realistic illustration and complex plots, where the good guys and the bad guys are clearly distinguished.

Most comic book artists in Israel make like supervillians and stay away from superheroes, perhaps because it is an unfair contest, says Fink, given the popularity and professionalism of American comic book artists. Another reason is the local artists' choice of a more carefree line, consciously subversive, along the lines of Dudu Geva.

Fink, however, who is actually more known for Zbeng!, a series noted for its antiheroes and a humor, says he never stopped trying to work on superheroes, even though he know the whole business is "an embarrassing matter," as he put it.

"At the heart of the yearning for a superhero there is something infantile," he says, "we basically wish for someone to rescue us from all the bad guys."

According to Fink, most of the superheroes, such as Superman, Spiderman and others, were created by Jewish comic book artists. "There is apparently something Jewish in the desire for a savior from above," he says.

Israelis are too cynical, he thinks, to delve into a fantasy where an ordinary person is graced with supernatural powers. "On the other hand," he adds, "there is a constant yearning to create such a hero and I admit that I also err in this regard."

Socialists, not heroes

Superheroes are one of the subjects to be broached at the Animix international festival of animation, comics and caricature that will take place August 17-21 at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

Fink will speak there on the subject and will also give comics workshops.

Beyond considering superheroes in comics, the conference will focus on issues such as how to create an Israeli superhero and why, actually, despite the influence of American comic books on Israeli comic book, a similar culture did not evolve here.

Pop culture researcher Eli Eshed thinks efforts to create an Israeli superhero never stopped. According to him, the Gidi Gezer comic strip, which appeared in the children's newspaper Haaretz Shelanu in the 1950s, is a work in this genre. The comic strip, written by the editor Yaakov Aschman and illustrated by Elisheva Nadel focused on a militia fighter who by eating carrots acquires superpowers to battle the British and the Arabs. Yet, very soon the creators withdrew from the challenge and in the following stories the superpowers he had were buried and he remained with just his human strengths. In the 1960s, the comic strip featured Oz Yaoz, a daring undercover agent, sort of like an Israeli James Bond with no superpowers.

Israeli literature created a fairly successful superhero Eshed believes: Dani Din, a creation of On Sarig (the pen name of the writer, Shraga Gafni ). "Dani Din could do things for the benefit of the country that ordinary people could not," says Eshed. "This is a boy who doesn't grow up over the years and fights against the Syrian, Iraqi and other enemies."

Eshed speculates that the reason why the genre did not develop is that Israeli society was too socialist.

"It was not acceptable to highlight one fighter who outdid everyone else. Everybody was good." It is no coincidence that Hasamba, a group of heroes with no superpowers, is considered a more representative and better Israeli work than Dani Din.

"For many years I tried to create superheroes, until I realized that it can't work in Israel," says Fink. According to him, a socialist culture with origins in the Soviet Union took root here and "dominated the shape of children's papers in the early years of the state and later on as well. This culture did not have room for larger-than-life, Hollywood-like superheroes."

Furthermore, our intense, day-to-day reality did not leave much room for fantasy.

Golem to the rescue

Despite these conclusions, in 2003, he and Eshed released their book, "The Golem," which was an interesting attempt to address the genre and its complexity. It is a book that focuses on the history of a fictitious comic books series that supposedly appeared in Israel starting in the pre-state era and starred a superhero called, "the Golem."

"Our bluff was so successful to the point that we stirred childhood recollections in one critic, who was convinced that this was a book of genuine research," says Fink. Fink's Golem is gray, made of clay and has no face or expression. In front he wears a chain with a Star of David and he can fight Arabs. To a large extent the Golem symbolized the unidentified and uncharacterized Israeli superhero.

According to Dr. Gilad Padva of Tel Aviv University, the difficulty in creating a superhero in Israel actually stemmed from the difficulty in characterizing him. A superhero is a character supported by a consensus, he says, whereas Israeli society is divided.

"It is hard for an artist to decide which sector and which character he represents, if he will be secular or religious, leftist or rightist, young or old."

According to him, "a superhero is a social compass but he operates based on the justness of the path, and if he has doubts he will be perceived as too human."

Therefore, to a large extent, he is also a kind of declaration. The one-dimensional nature and the patriotism inherent in him transform him into a popular hero who speaks to the hearts of many. According to Padva, he is almost happy that no local superhero emerged here, because he would certainly have been a right-wing extremist.

"It will take years before we are able to create a hero who will act motivated by social causes, in the service of the weak and the weakened in society," he says.

Comic book artists of the new generation have tried in recent years to cope with the classic genre of superheroes in a more personal way. For example, Dorit Maya-Gur created a humorous character called Falafelman, a superhero created accidentally in a falafel ball fryer and other have also taken a personal tack.

According to him, "Israeli comic book artists are moving away from the genre as if it were fire, because it feels a bit like a cliche."

But perhaps there is something deeper going on here. Zanzuri feels that the ethos in Israeli society was such that "we are able to do this without superpowers; the IDF can reach any place, and the proof is the Entebbe operation. Up until the Yom Kippur War, we turned our generals into superheroes. Ariel Sharon is a superhero in a khaki uniform. What do you need a latex suit for?"