Supermensches: Comic Books' Secret Jewish History

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Captain America was born to fight the Nazis.
Captain America was born to fight the Nazis. Credit: Courtesy
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

One day in 1933, as he was cleaning his office, an idea came to Charlie Gaines: He would publish a magazine that would put together all the comic strips that had been published earlier in the dailies. A year later Gaines – a Jew who was born Maxwell Ginsburg – published the first-ever comic book, called “Famous Funnies.” Success was instant.

Within a few years Gaines’ initiative spawned a flourishing industry, and by the mid-1930s there were increasingly growing numbers of comic book publishers. The undisputed kings of the genre were a few superheroes who fought to rid the world of evil. Behind them stood mainly Jewish immigrants – not only the publishers but also the creative artists, the writers and illustrators who were in charge of the creative aspects of this industry. They were responsible for the fact that Jewish content seeped – consciously or otherwise – into the characters, plots and illustrated worlds on display.

In fact, nearly all the great superheroes were created by Jews: Jerry Siegel and Joe (Joseph) Shuster created Superman, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) created Captain America, Bob Kane (Robert Kahn) and Bill Finger invented Batman, while Kirby, together with Stan Lee (Stanley Martin Lieber) produced a particularly impressive line of heroes such as Spider-Man, The Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Ironman, the X-men, Thor and the Avengers.

The first Batman cover from 1940 by Bill Finger and Bob Kane (Robert Kahn)Credit: Courtesy

What was it that led Jews to take such a prominent role in the movie and comics industries?

“I don’t think that the central role played by Jews in film and comics from the outset was due to special abilities or talents in these areas,” says Dr. Ben Baruch Blich, a senior lecturer in the department of history and theory at the Bezalel Academy of Arts. “What caused it was the open and latent anti-Semitism that prevailed in the United States at the time. Since daily newspapers [in the U.S.] refused to accept illustrations or comic books made by Jews, they had no other choice. For example, Siegel and Shuster, who were only youths then, could not find jobs at mainstream comic book networks, so they joined Gaines. The same was true for cinema. This was a restriction that forced Jews to develop a new approach.”

The comic book writer Arie Kaplan, who wrote the book “From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and comic books,” explains that in contrast to the advertising industry, the comic book industry was free of anti-Semitism since many of the publishers were Jews, and no expensive academic degrees were required.

Danny Fingeroth, an American writer of comics and a former editor at Marvel Comics, who wrote the book “Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the creation of the Superhero,” further explains the central role Jews played in the early decades of the film and comic book industries: “Many factors went into Jews being prominent in storytelling media. It has to do with, it seems to me, Jews’ connection to a tradition of storytelling, as well as Talmudic analysis, plus the status of the children of Jewish immigrants – like all immigrants – having an outsider status in America. This led some of them to analyze what history and myths fueled the American imagination, and how to reflect that self-image back at Americans in stories that had universal appeal.

“What comics and film have in common is they were considered schlock, not-respectable media that were looked down upon, and hence there was an opportunity for Jews to get into these fields – in the creative and business ends – which were open to them, whereas other fields, like most mainstream publishing and advertising, were not.”

Superman in a basket

Spiderman circa 1962, by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee (Stanley Martin Lieber)Credit: Courtesy

Shuster and Siegel’s Superman was launched in 1938, published by Gaines. Over the last decade comic book aficionados have argued and debated whether Superman himself was also Jewish, and whether he and subsequent superheroes were created in order to fulfill a hidden Jewish desire to deliver a decisive victory over Nazi Germany. Surprisingly, upon reading the veteran superhero’s life story one encounters several elements that derive from traditional Jewish culture. The first of these is the name Kal-El he receives from his parents. Kaplan says that there is a lively ongoing debate around the question of whether Siegel and Shuster planted these Jewish signs in Superman deliberately or not. He notes the name Kal-El as an example, which sounds like a Hebrew name that could mean “all of God” or “God’s voice.” He adds that Siegel and Shuster received a Jewish education.

Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, author of “Up Up and Oy Vey,” which also deals with Jews and comic books in America, concurs in the belief that the Jewish elements in Superman’s story derive from the Jewish identity of his creators. “These are all creators who themselves had bar mitzvahs, spent time at the synagogue. I think about how natural it is that Superman has this parallel with Moses. The creators probably had a Passover Seder, and we write about what we know about. It makes sense that Superman would be so close to Moses. Moses had this double life – he was raised in a foreign culture, a foreign land, and as a child was put in a basket and sent away. He also had a double identity. And Moses was the voice of God, like ‘Kal-El’; it’s the Moses story,” explains Weinstein in a telephone interview.

Blich mentions a possible source of inspiration – the 16th century Jewish legend of the Golem of Prague. The Golem, who was a superhero before the term was coined, was created, according to the legend, by the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Levai (Loew). He sent the Golem out to terrorize those who spread blood libels against Jews.

“Will Eisner [one of America’s greatest comic book cartoonists, who was also Jewish] wrote that the Golem was perceived in the 1930s as a mythological character, an early superhero,” says Blich. “The comic book creators were obviously secular, but the story of the Golem was imprinted in ‘Jewish genes’ searching for salvation. There are numerous conceptions of Superman as a mythological hero, a modern embodiment of ancient mythology, a hero with supernatural powers who can save civilization from the forces of nature or the evils of human society.”

Early superhero: the 16th century Jewish Golem of Prague.Credit: Courtesy

The amusing debate around Superman’s Jewishness was never settled, since many others saw in his character elements taken from Christianity and a likeness to Jesus. It’s interesting to note, however, that someone who skipped over all the lengthy arguments around this issue was none other than the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who declared in 1940 that Superman was Jewish. This happened after one of the comic books that came out that year included a story in which the superhero destroys the military defense line put up by Germany on its border with France, whereupon he captures the surprised Fuhrer. “Superman is Jewish” declared Goebbels after the comic book came his way. He then instructed that Shuster and Siegel’s popular comic book be removed from all bookshelves.

Captain America – created by Jews as well – also set out to fight Nazis. He did so in the very first issue that was published in March 1941, completing what Superman didn’t finish the year before. The front page of the first issue of Captain America, published six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, shows him punching Hitler in the face and knocking him down.

The first MAD magazine, 1952.Credit: Courtesy

Is it by chance that Jews were the ones who created these superheroes? Is there something Jewish about the whole concept?

Fingeroth: “I think the idea of a being who wields great power wisely and justly would be very appealing to people whose history involves frequently being the victim of power wielded brutally and unjustly. In retrospect, we can see coded, disguised content that could be interpreted as Jewish in the stories of the superheroes. For instance, Superman, Batman and Spider-Man’s origins are about sudden, traumatic, violent loss – which could be seen to echo the loss of stability that eastern European Jews had regularly experienced.

“The superhero stories were about power wielded wisely and about dealing with traumatic loss. These are major themes, as is the secret (or dual) identity – also of interest to all immigrants, but especially attractive to Jews who, in that era, felt that they could succeed in America only if they disguised their identities as Jews. One might speak Yiddish at home, but that was the language of your embarrassing immigrant parents and grandparents. You speak English in public so you can fit in with your friends at school. But which is the real you? So just as Superman would disguise himself as Clark Kent in order to fit in with non-super people, so would Jews change their names or ‘fix’ their noses to assimilate.”

Jews break out of the confines of comic books

After World War II, when the comic book industry started dealing with new content, appealing to a new readership, Jews still retained key roles. Mad Magazine, founded in 1952 but to this day the most famous and influential comic magazine, was created by two Jews, publisher William Gaines (the son of Charlie Gaines) and editor Harvey Kurtzman.

Comic book writer Arie Kaplan says that while researching his book on Jews and comic books he discovered that Mad Magazine had been using Yiddish phrases for years. In fact, the very first story in its first issue, written by Kurtzman and illustrated by Will Elder – both of whom are Jewish – was about two Jewish thieves. The story is called “Ganefs” (thieves in Yiddish).

“Most of the people in the audience, most of the readers who were kids probably thought it’s a silly nonsense word, they probably thought there was no significance to it. And again you get the question: Are they writing code for the Jewish readers? In that case they actually might have been, because it’s not a science fiction story. ‘Ganefs’ is a humorous story about two bank robbers, about two criminals,” says Kaplan.

Eisner is considered to this day one of the most respected artists in the medium and one of the greatest contributors to its advancement. The American comics industry has an Eisner Award, similar to the Oscar award in the film industry. Eisner is considered by many people to be the “father of the illustrated novel” due to the novels he published from the late 1970s, in a genre he made popular.

In contrast to the superhero comic book, Eisner’s illustrated novels, like that first story in Mad Magazine, no longer hide their Jewish aspects. Writers no longer feel it necessary to demonstrate their patriotism in a manner that squelches and conceals their Jewish identity. In all the stories that make up Eisner’s first illustrated novel “A Contract with God” (1978), there are Jewish protagonists. This is true for his other works as well. In his last book, called “The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” Eisner used a comic book style to investigate the twisted history of that infamous anti-Semitic tract.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster Credit: Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

Over time other Jewish characters started emerging from the closet in the mainstream comic book industry. Benjamin “Ben” Grimm, known as “The Thing,” was one of the Fantastic Four, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961. These two Jewish artists decided up front that this protagonist would be Jewish, giving him a name that revealed him as such. The unwritten law that forbade mentioning the religion of comic book characters (as in other entertainment media) prevented them from expressly mentioning this fact. Only after four decades was the Jewish identity of The Thing exposed unambiguously.

Other prominent Jewish characters in American comics were Kitty Pryde, a Jewish mutant with supernatural powers, who appeared in 1980 in the X-Men series. A year later it turned out that Magento, a mutant with supernatural powers and who is the main enemy of the X-Men, is a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Batwoman Kathy Kane has also joined the list of Jewish superheroes over the last decade. Besides being a lesbian she takes care to celebrate Jewish holidays.

Later Jewish artists include Daniel Clowes who wrote “Ghost World,” an illustrated novel that was turned into a well-received movie in 2001, as well as Harvey Pekar, a filing clerk at a hospital who transformed his daily routine into an acclaimed autobiographic comic book called “American Splendor” (also turned into a successful movie). He continued writing original comic books until his death in 2010.

Michael Chabon is a novelist, not a comic book writer, but he too takes a place of honor on this list due to his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which tells the story of two Jewish youngsters who arrive in the United States penniless from Europe and manage to become leading artists in the American comic book industry. The novel revealed to millions of readers the Jewish element that was common to many artists in this industry during its early stages.

Art Spiegelman wrote the illustrated novel “Maus” 30 years ago. Many people see it as one of the crowning achievements in the world of comics. “Maus” proved that a comic book-style story can weave a personal story into difficult and sensitive historical topics such as the Holocaust, and do so in a manner that is not only unique, effective, impressive and excellent, but also amazingly communicative.

In 1992, “Maus” became the first comic strip to win the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. In light of the central role played by Jews at the outset of the American comic book industry, it was symbolic that a work by a Jewish writer that deals with Jewish identity and the heavy price those holding this identity paid in the 1930s and 1940s in Europe – the years in which the American comic book industry was taking its first steps – was the work that managed to break through the medium’s confines, garnering sweeping admiration outside the industry.

Art Spiegelman’s illustrated novel “Maus”Credit: AFP

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