Marvel's Israeli Superheroine, Who Brought the Hulk Into the Conflict, Turns 40

From meeting the Incredible Hulk in Tel Aviv to seeing a Palestinian boy die in a terror attack, Sabra represented the Israeli angle in American comics

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Sabra on the cover of "The Incredible Hulk," issue 386, October 1991
Sabra on the cover of 'The Incredible Hulk,' October 1991.Credit: Marvel
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

She appeared for the first time in August 1980, 40 years ago. It was in a single frame in “The Incredible Hulk” #250. Her black hair had a bluish sheen, her tight-fitting bodysuit glowed blue and white, and she sported a large Star of David on her chest.

Sabra, the first Israeli superheroine, made her debut appearance in the Marvel Universe gazing at the horizon with determined look; a note on the margins of the page promised readers that they would meet her again in one of the upcoming issues.

'The storyline was truly revolutionary. Very left-wing, not pro-Israeli'

Exactly six months later it happened. In February 1981 the Israeli superheroine starred on the cover of “The Incredible Hulk.” She is in the midst of a battle with the Hulk, hovering above him and launching sharp metal quills at him – he’s on the defense and she’s on the offense. “Power in the Promised Land!” promises the title. Those with sharp eyes can discern the body of a Palestinian boy sprawled on the ground – an unusual approach to the bloody Middle East conflict by the American comics giant.

It’s hard to believe that Sabra will soon be starring in one of the Marvel studio’s Hollywood blockbusters. Although she didn’t capture a place for herself in the first rank of Marvel’s superheroes, she did nevertheless register several dozen appearances over the years in its comic books. She starred alongside superheroes such as the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and the X Men, surrounded herself with a patriotic Zionist aura, and repeatedly represented the Jewish angle in American comics – which were so successful largely thanks to Jewish immigrants.

After the Hulk meets the Palestinian boy the boy enters a nearby café and is killed in an explosion caused by Palestinian terrorists

Although there were several attempts to create local superheroes in Israel – for example Sabraman, Super Shlumper and Falafel Man – none of them managed to survive for long. The only ones who succeeded in this mission, even going one step further and creating a female superhero rather than a male one, were the guys from Marvel.

A new approach

Now that Sabra is celebrating her 40th anniversary, it’s time for Israelis to get to know the person who represents them in the most famous superhero universe, which has long since become an integral part of international popular culture. Sabra is quite a marginal figure in this universe, one of a long series of international superheroes, each of whom lives in a different country. But the online comics magazine CBR recently said of Sabra that “she’s carved out one of the most fascinating histories of any of Marvel’s international heroes.”

Like any self-respecting superhero, Sabra also has an alter ego. Ruth Bat-Seraph (who in her first appearance is called Ruth Ben-Sira) is an officer in the Israel Police, and when the situation calls for it, she sheds her blue uniform and turns into Sabra.

The Hulk was visiting various places around the world, and in each country he met with the local superhero. In issue #256 he arrives to the Tel Aviv Port

She’s a mutant whose superpowers were discovered when she was a child, at which point she was moved to a special kibbutz run by the government. There she was trained to be the first superheroine to serve as a Mossad agent. As Sabra she wears a blue and white bodysuit decorated with an elegant Star of David and a thick cape with paralyzing quills, which she can fire through her special gauntlets.

“When this character appeared, it was a very strange coincidence with my Sabraman, a character I created when I was 15 years old,” says comics artist Uri Fink. “At the time Israel was very popular worldwide, the year was 1978, a moment after the peace with Egypt, and my crappy comic book with Sabraman went quite far. I remember that they wrote about it in People magazine and in the Associated Press. And then suddenly, two years later, Marvel came up with Sabra.”

The publisher of “Sabraman” at the time, David Herman, was very angry, says Fink. He was determined to sue Marvel for copyright violation. “I told him, ‘Listen, it doesn’t pay to get embroiled in that.’ Because really, would we have confronted a battery of Marvel lawyers? It seemed a little exaggerated to me. But after the fact, we may actually have had a case. Maybe it was a mistake on our part not to sue them,” laughs Fink.

Hulk helps a Palestinian child who stole a watermelon. The boy soon gives him a quick lesson in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It is very hard to be an Arab in Israel,” he says

Fink, who was an enthusiastic reader of American superhero comics at the time, bought every comic book that was issued – but when he got his hands on the issue of “The Incredible Hulk” in which Sabra appeared for the first time, he wasn’t very impressed. “Her powers were very low-level, with those quills that she fires, and she had a kind of fur made of quills on her back,” he says. But issue #256, in which Sabra appeared as a main character, amazed Fink.

The Hulk was visiting various places around the world, and in each country he met with the local superhero. In issue #256 he arrives to the Tel Aviv Port on a cargo ship as a stowaway, after escaping from the American security forces. When a crane lifts the cargo – together with him – from the hold of the ship, he get scared, panics and causes an explosion that shakes the entire port. An Israel Defense Forces unit that arrives on the scene fires at him wildly. An attractive policewoman who’s at the port watches the incident from the sidelines.

Uri Fink's Sabraman. The publisher of his comics was determined to sue Marvel for copyright violation.Credit: Uri Fink

“The military are in no shape to go after the Hulk,” she says. “That leaves ME to stop the monster before he menaces the rest of Tel Aviv! Not as policewoman Ruth Ben-Sera, of course... But as Sabra, super heroine of the State of Israel!” She then assumes the character of Sabra. A short text explains the double meaning of the word sabra in Hebrew (a native-born Israeli and a prickly pear).

Meanwhile Bruce Banner, the alter ego of the Incredible Hulk, flees from the scene. He arrives at the marketplace, where he helps a Palestinian child who stole a watermelon flee from the vendors who are pursuing him. The boy soon gives his new friend a quick lesson in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It is very hard to be an Arab in Israel,” he says. “Both my people and the Israelis say that this land is theirs. They could share it, but two very old books tell them they must kill each other over it.” The boy then enters a nearby café and is killed in an explosion caused by Palestinian terrorists.

When Sabra arrives, she thinks that the Incredible Hulk helped the terrorists and starts fighting him. He flees to the desert, near the Jordanian border, grief-stricken and carrying the child’s body, she pursues him. Sabra accuses him of murdering the child, and the Hulk replies: “Boy died because boy’s people and yours both want to own land. Boy died because you wouldn’t share!”

Sabra on the cover of 'The Incredible Hulk,' 1981. On the bottom is a Palestinian boy who is killed in an explosion caused by terrorists.Credit: Marvel

Sabra freezes. “For an instant, Sabra prepares to give chase. She is, after all, an Israeli super-agent... a soldier,” explains the text. And then the superheroine kneels next to the child’s body. “But she is also a woman, capable of feeling, capable of caring. It has taken the Hulk to make her see this dead Arab boy as a human being. It has taken a monster to awaken her own sense of humanity,” reads the story’s final sentence.

“I was really amazed,” says Fink. “That was a truly revolutionary story. Very dramatic, very left-wing, not pro-Israeli – a new approach in that context. It was the first time that they covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a story about superheroes. And at the time a comic book was far more important culturally. I remember that I waited for the next issue, for the Letters page, to see how people would react to that. In the end there was no Letters page in the next issue...”

Capable of caring

Superheroes from other countries have a national affiliation, but Sabra is a more official figure. She is “the superheroine of the State of Israel,” explains Prof. Danny Filk of the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He says that the story in issue #256 is very ambivalent.

“On the one hand there’s incisive criticism of the national-religious concept of Greater Israel. And on the other hand, they explain that it’s a symmetry that isn’t a symmetry, because one national group has a state and the other doesn’t,” he says. “On the one hand, the child’s statement that it’s not easy to be an Arab in Israel was considered quite radical in 1980, and on the other, he dies not from an Israel soldier’s bullet but as a result of Palestinian terror.”

As Sabra she wears a blue and white bodysuit decorated with an elegant Star of David and a thick cape with paralyzing quills, which she can fire through her special gauntlets

Filk also sees the end of the comic as a hint at Sabra’s official status. “At the end of the story, when she connects with the pain over the death of the boy, it says that in addition to being a superheroine and a Mossad agent, she’s also a woman who is capable of caring. On the one hand it’s the usual gender stereotype. But on the other hand, years later, this stereotype has served as the basis for the politics of gender-based opposition, as in the Four Mothers and Women Wage Peace movements. So in the case of Sabra, when the story ends with showing that she is a woman who feels compassion for the boy, that points to the possibility of opposition, the possibility that she is something more than a weapon,” he explains.

“Comics have the power to emphasize complex political situations for teenagers in a simple and perhaps sometimes simplistic way, because they work on the emotional (and ethical) experience that can’t be found in others types of media, such as the press, op-eds, speeches by elected officials and so on,” says comics researcher Dr. Ben Baruch Blich. “In addition to the place of the female figure in this story, the lesson of the complicated drama is that only a higher power, external and independent, can in the final analysis open the eyes of both sides, who are quarreling endlessly only due to a promise written in two books that apparently no one has read with the necessary caution.”

The Israeli superhero group Hayoth on the cover of DC Comics' 'Suicide Squad.'Credit: DC Comics

Sabra appeared several dozen more times in Marvel comic books, and often clashed with Arab superheroes. In one intriguing story, which appears in a “New Warriors” comic book from April 1995, she accompanied Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to New York for peace talks between Israel and Syria.

On their way there, they are attacked by super-terrorists. Sabra manages to defeat them with the help of several superheroes, but when she finally arrived in New York with Rabin, she is overcome by a mysterious force, which distorted her awareness and caused her to attack the Syrian superhero and members of the delegation. Sabra sabotages the peace talks, and the nature of the mysterious distortion is never explained.

DC Comics, Marvel’s competitor, also made sure to include Israeli superheroes. Seraph, who had mystical powers he received from biblical characters, appeared in 1977, and a group of Israeli superheroes called Hayoth came into the world in 1990. It included four Mossad agents with superpowers and was led by a superhero named Ramban. However, Sabra remains the only Israeli superheroine in American comics.

She last appeared in a Marvel comic book in 2014. According to CBR: “Sabra stands out as a powerful and potent symbol of female and Jewish empowerment who too often goes underutilized. There is very little present in the Marvel canon fleshing out what the Israeli government is like in a world filled with superhumans, and most everything that does exist was provided through Sabra stories that deserve to be followed up on.” 

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