Many of us know that the superheroes at the heart of the American comic book industry were created by Jews. But you’d be surprised to learn how much these beloved characters were shaped by the cultural and religious traditions of their makers. Superman Is Jewish? follows the “people of the book” as they become the people of the comic book.
With great wit and compelling arguments, Harry Brod situates superheroes within the course of Jewish-American history: they are aliens in a foreign land, like Superman; figures plagued by guilt for abandoning their families, like Spider-Man; and outsiders persecuted for being different, like the X-Men. Brod blends humor and sharp observation as he considers the overt and discreet Jewish characteristics of these well-known figures and explores how their creators integrated their Jewish identities and their creativity.
Captivating, poignant, and packed with historical insights, this guided tour travels from the Passover Haggadah’s exciting action scenes of Moses’s superpowers through the Yiddish humor of Mad magazine to two Pulitzer Prizes awarded in one decade to Jewish comic book guys Art Spiegelman and Michael Chabon. “A witty, insightful exposé” (Publisher’s Weekly), Superman Is Jewish? is an endlessly fascinating American saga about an immigrant group that used comic books to see itself in new, empowering—and laughable—ways. You don’t even have to be Jewish to get a kick out of it.
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SUPERMAN AS SUPERMENTSH
How the Ultimate Alien Became the Iconic All-American
Superman is one of the most well-known fictional figures in the world. We all know who he is. Or at least we think we do. In the timeless words of the 1950s TV series, he’s “a strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.” But those who are used to the current scope of Superman’s powers—where he’s capable of performing such feats as flying into a blazing sun, freezing a lake with his super breath or lifting mountains—may be surprised to learn that in his original comic book incarnation his powers were much less expansive: “He could hurdle skyscrapers, leap an eighth of a mile, raise tremendous weights, run faster than a streamline engine, and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin.”
For those reading comics in 1938, Superman was much more than just a new super character. He inaugurated the entire genre of comic book superheroes. Prior to this, heroes of adventure comic strips or books had been detectives, cops, cowboys, pirates, magicians, soldiers, etc. No one had seen a costumed figure with superpowers before.
At the time, “comics” meant the comic strips found in newspapers. Comic books, to the extent they existed at all, were mostly just reprints of the newspaper strips bound together. But all that changed when magazine distributor and publisher Jack Liebowitz was looking for a lead player for a different type of comic book that would feature stories that appeared first in this bound form.
These new comic books were part of a new fusion of words and pictures that was in the air in the 1930s. “Talking pictures” (instead of silent films) had just appeared, with The Jazz Singer premiering in 1927. Steamboat Willie, Disney’s first cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse, came out the next year, and was the first animated short film with a sound track that was entirely synchronized. Life magazine, with its new and distinctive brand of photojournalism, premiered in 1936, and was a great success—appearing in Life became synonymous with having made it into the American cultural mainstream. Advertising was taking off, with ever more elaborate illustrations in magazines and roadside billboards.
In that context, comic books are clearly the runt of the litter. The comics industry came out of the streets of Lower Manhattan, mostly from Jews and Italians who were one step away from the immigrant experience and two steps away from social respectability. Poor Jews from immigrant backgrounds ended up finding their way into this ragged end of publishing, what we might call rag, or shmate, publishing, since the Yiddish word shmate has the same dual meaning as the English word rag, meaning, literally, a throwaway piece of cloth and, by extension, a junky, throwaway publication. Businessmen like Liebowitz and Harry Donnenfeld, who came to be behind Superman’s publication, also published girlie magazines and pulp fiction with names like Spicy Detective Stories. And more than a few of them had mob connections.
As Al Jaffee, later of Mad magazine fame, put it, “We couldn’t get into newspaper strips or advertising; ad agencies wouldn’t hire a Jew. One of the reasons we Jews drifted into the comic-book business is that most of the comic-book publishers were Jewish. So there was no discrimination there.”
Comics historians offer other theories linking the predominance of Jews in the early comics industry to the Jewish attraction to communicative media more generally. Gerald Jones notes that of all the immigrant cultures of the period, the Jews were the most literate population. Trina Robbins attributes Jewish communicative skills to the need to be able to talk yourself out of getting beaten up. Journalist Jay Schwartz writes of the founding generation of comics creators: “They came from homes where Yiddish was shouted across the dining room table, along with at least one other language. That—plus English lessons outside the home and Hebrew to boot—made for multilingual youngsters keen on the Sock! Zoom! Bam! power of language.”
These Jewish comic book creators forged a road into American culture in much the same way the Jewish immigrants who became the founding moguls of the American film industry did, with Lower Manhattan as their Hollywood. Motion pictures came out of cheap nickelodeon and peep show entertainments whose primary audience was single men, mostly working class, and largely immigrants. A good deal of the content was pretty lurid for its time—not unlike the girlie magazines or the pulps. It was primarily the Jewish entrepreneurs who became the movie moguls—men like Adolph Zukor, William Fox, Carl Laemmle, and Samuel Goldwyn—who had a vision of the greater commercial possibilities if it could be transformed into more socially acceptable mass family entertainment. Likewise with the comics. Personally marginalized out of the mainstream by their foreign backgrounds, the publishers and artists created an alternate, idealized version of America, with larger-than-life idols soaring above the audiences below on the movie screen, on the comics page, and above all in their imaginations. Their strategy of assimilation by idealization worked. As audiences accepted the idealized images these Jews created, these new cultural icons became the vehicles through which these marginalized Jews were able to enter the cultural mainstream. Shut out of the centers of American culture, they created new cultural forms to bring America to them.
In this period of the birth of comic books, the team of Jerry Siegel as writer and Joe Shuster as artist had been working together on trying to create successful comic strips since they met at Glenville High School in Cleveland, a school with a large Jewish population, reflecting the surrounding neighborhood. Now twenty-three, they’d had earlier success placing some strips, most notably one chronicling the adventures of their character Slam Bradley, who, as his name suggests, was a tough slugger of a detective, as well as others including Federal Men, Henri Duval, Radio Squad, Spy, and Dr. Mystic: The Occult Detective. The strip they were peddling now was just too different from what any newspaper was running to find any takers. But it turned out to be just the thing for this new idea of a comic book with new stories.
Among their new hero’s powers, the notion of being impervious to bullets had a powerful personal dimension for Jerry Siegel. Jerry’s father, Mitchell (originally Mikhel Segalovich of Lithuania), had worked as a sign painter for a time, and encouraged his son’s artistic interests. But eventually Mitchell had to give up his more artistic side for the more secure living of running a secondhand-clothing store. Mitchell Siegel died as a result of a nighttime robbery at his store, although stories vary as to whether his death was caused directly by the bullets that were fired or as a result of a heart attack brought on by the event. Whatever the actual facts, the story that many in the family were told and believed was that he was murdered and died from a gunshot wound. Siegel never spoke about it publicly, but the earliest version of Superman that we know about appeared shortly thereafter, illustrated with a drawing of Superman swooping in to stop an armed robbery.
Joe Shuster’s father, meanwhile, had arrived in Toronto from Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where the family had had a cinema and hotel. In Toronto he found work as a movie theater projectionist. The family then moved to Cleveland when Joe was nine. Of the two, Jerry was the more outgoing and assertive, while Joe was more shy and retiring. Both were physically small, and uninterested in physically rough competitive sports. Joe was severely nearsighted, and tried to make up for being physically slight by getting into the bodybuilding fad that was popular at the time. They met while working on their school newspaper, The Torch. But the school paper wasn’t enough for them, and they became active in the new world of the mimeographed and then mailed pages that came to be called the “fanzines” of the science-fiction pulp magazines. Through this they first met other science-fiction fans, some of them later becoming men who would play major roles in the early comics field.
It was in one sense natural to find Jews making illustrated books. The biblical admonition against making graven images or idols had caused a lack of much of a real visual arts tradition among European Jews. In contrast to literature and music, the visual arts were relatively underdeveloped. One of the few outlets for Jewish visual artists was the illustrated book, which was deemed kosher in the culture of the people of the book. This art had thrived particularly in illustrating the Passover Haggadah, the book that guides the service at the celebratory, highly ritualized Passover meal. The Haggadah, what I’ll call in this context the first “graphic novel,” tells a story in both words and pictures, so that those sitting at the table who are too young to read can follow along. The story is the tale of Moses, sent off in a small vessel by his parents to save him from the death and destruction facing his people. He is then raised among people to whom he really is an alien, but who do not suspect his secret identity, and he grows up to become a liberator and champion of the oppressed, with the aid of miraculous superpowers displayed in some truly memorable action scenes. Sound at all familiar?
Who knows what lurked in the memories of young Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster when they created their tale of immigrant refugee baby Kal-El’s arrival on Earth? Can it really be coincidental that Kal-El’s original Kryptonian name spoken with a Hebrew pronunciation sounds like the Hebrew words for “all is God” or “all for God”? Is it just chance that he is sent from an old world, Krypton, that is about to explode, to a new one, Earth (which could readily be seen as standing for Europe, on the verge of self-destruction, and America, with its promise of new life, especially in those 1930s)? And is the name of his home planet really a secret invitation to decode Superman’s encrypted secret identity as a crypto-Jew (Jews who, since the days of the Spanish Inquisition, have publicly given up their faith to escape persecution, but who remain Jews in their private lives and personal allegiance)?
Traditional comics lore gives the major credit for Siegel and Shuster’s finally securing publication for Superman to an ex-schoolteacher named Maxwell Charles Ginsberg, who changed his name to Gaines when he went into business as a salesman peddling cheap goods in various and sundry enterprises because Gaines sounded better than Ginsberg, meaning it sounded less Jewish. Among other things, Gaines became a comics packager and producer, obtaining material from writers and artists and selling it to publishers. He had Siegel and Shuster’s submission of their Superman strip, but it was editor Sheldon (Shelly) Mayer, himself even younger than Siegel and Shuster, who saw its potential and selected it.
The boys had mixed feelings when they received the offer. After multiple rejections, they were pleased that this work was finally being accepted. But they were disappointed that it was appearing in a mere comic book, not being placed with a syndicate for newspaper distribution, the holy grail for aspiring artists like themselves, because that was how you acquired both artistic recognition and financial reward. To fit the new format, Siegel and Shuster literally cut up the strips they had drawn for the newspapers and pasted their work into the page format of the new comic book. The comics page format was so new then that when the layout departed from the linear strip format to even a small degree, some artists inserted arrows leading from one panel to the next or even numbered the panels because they didn’t think the reader would be able to follow the sequence. If you scan the sequence of those panels today you’ll find they still embody the rhythm of a strip: four panels per day, with the fourth stopping at the best mini-cliffhanger they could muster. Then restart at that point the next day, count four, stop. The rhythm broke on Sundays, when there was more space. But then it was back to the same rhythm. Repeat until done.
Siegel and Shuster worked frantically on a tight deadline, cutting and pasting their strips into a book. And so in June 1938 the cover of the first issue of Action Comics came to feature a man wearing a blue costume with a red and yellow emblem on his chest and a red cape flowing behind him, heaving a car over his head and smashing it into a hillside. Thus was the world introduced to the adventures of Superman.
But Superman was far more than this superpowered character. Once inside the comic book, the reader discovered another, less heroic character, Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, a mild-mannered and timid reporter. And here is the question that brings us to the heart of our examination of these Jewish men and the comic book superheroes they created: Why? What in the logic of the story or, as we shall come to see, in the psyches of its creators, motivated the introduction of the Clark Kent role?
In contrast to most of the other costumed superheroes who were to follow in Superman’s wake, in the Superman saga it is the superman who is real, and the alter ego, Clark Kent, who is fictitious. Think for a moment of other familiar superheroes: Batman, for example, also has a secret identity, Bruce Wayne, who is a real person who existed long before the costumed Batman came into being. Likewise for Spider-Man and Peter Parker. Superman is the inverse of what would later become that standard model. Especially when one considers the nerdy nature of Clark Kent’s personality, one has to ask, Why on Earth would Superman want to perpetrate this masquerade?
The answer is that the psychology of Siegel and Shuster’s imaginary world only worked if, at the same time that we the readers knew who Superman really was, we also knew that in the world of the story people saw him only as Clark—a timid, socially inept, physically weak, clumsy, sexually ineffectual quasi intellectual who wore glasses and apparently owned only one blue suit. In other words, the classic Jewish nebbish (roughly: “nerd”). But little did they know! Jewish men had only to tear off their clothes and glasses to reveal the surging superman underneath, physique fully revealed by those skintight blue leotards, and flaunted by that billowing cape. Listen to Jerry Siegel describe his early inspirations:
As a high school student, I thought that someday I might become a newspaper reporter and I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn’t know I existed or didn’t care I existed. It occurred to me: What if I was real terrific? What if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that? Then maybe they would notice me.
But why does Superman want Lois Lane to fall in love with his false self, nebbish Clark, rather than with who he really is, a Superman? Renowned Jewish cartoonist Jules Feiffer had an answer. Feiffer writes that this is Superman’s joke on the rest of us. Superman sees “mortal men” as the world sees Clark, which is essentially how the anti-Semitic world sees Jewish men. His wish for Lois to fall in love with Clark is then the revenge of the Jewish nerd for the world’s anti-Semitism. I would add that it also reflects the same verdict on humanity found in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, wherein faerie King Oberon shows his contempt for, and power over, Queen Titania by having her fall in love with an ass, Bottom. The Superman–Lois Lane–Clark Kent triad conveys the same message that the Oberon-Titania-Bottom relationship does, delivered in the play by chief faerie Puck: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” So say Shakespeare, Siegel, Shuster, and Superman.
The reference to Jules Feiffer above is from his 1965 book The Great Comic Book Heroes, the first book on the subject. Feiffer, a longtime cartoonist for the Village Voice and other publications, is an appropriate commentator not only on account of his affinity for comics but also because he has deep insight into the psychology of human nature, in particular the childishness of much adult behavior. It is worth quoting from Feiffer’s essay “The Minsk Theory of Krypton,” written about Jerry Siegel in 1996 for the annual issue of the New York Times Magazine in which prominent figures write about other prominent figures who have passed away in the previous year.
There he was, a first-generation Jewish boy of Russian stock, planted in the Midwest during the birth of native American fascism, the rise of anti-Semitism, the radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin. . . . Superman was the ultimate assimilationist fantasy. . . . Jerry Siegel’s accomplishment was to chronicle the smart Jewish boy’s American dream. . . . It wasn’t Krypton that Superman really came from; it was the planet Minsk or Lodz or Vilna or Warsaw.
It is hard to resist—too hard for me, in fact—quoting Zeddy Lawrence here: “It may not be true in all cases, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb. If the word ‘man’ appears at the end of someone’s name you can draw one of two conclusions: a) they’re Jewish, as in Goldman, Feldman, or Lipman; or b) they’re a superhero, as in Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man.”
Superman is “the hero from Ellis Island, personified as an (undocumented) alien who had been naturalized by the ultimate American couple, Eben and Sarah Kent.” Immigrant refugee baby Kal-El had been sent to Earth by his parents when they, along with his entire culture, were annihilated in the great holocaust of the destruction of his home planet, populated by what were said to be “highly evolved inhabitants.” In the context of the time, his story echoes that of the “Kindertransports” of Europe, via which Jewish children were evacuated to safe countries to escape the Nazis, leaving their parents behind.
Set adrift in a very advanced version of a basket of bulrushes, Kal-El undertook a journey recalling that of Moses, adrift on the Nile. The change from his native Kryptonian name Kal-El to the adoptive and adaptive Clark Kent (like the change of Siegel’s family name, and those of millions of Jews, at Ellis Island), and his later movement from the small town of Smallville to the big city of Metropolis, mirrored Jewish immigration patterns. American Jews and American superheroes share an urban environment—how would we know of Superman’s powers if he didn’t have those tall buildings to leap over in a single bound? From what looming shadows would Batman emerge, and from where would Spider-Man swing on his webbing were they not citizens of the cities? The plains and prairies were okay for cowboys, and pirates could sail the open seas, but the natural habitat of the superheroes created by urban Jews is the streets of the cities.
The ridiculed personality that Clark Kent sheds when he casts off his street clothes is a gendered stereotype of Jewish inferiority. Superman exists to counter the notion that strength or manliness and Jewishness are incompatible. One example: In the movie Outbreak, Dustin Hoffman plays a military doctor who saves humanity from a deadly virus. During the filming, when Hoffman complained about being uncomfortable in the biohazard suit he had to wear, director Arnold Kopelson told him that was the price of being turned into an action-adventure hero. Hoffman’s immediate response was, “There’s no such thing as a Jewish action-adventure hero.” Though said humorously, this reflects a deeply held stereotype defining Jewish men as non-heroic, weak, overly intellectual, and effeminate, a stereotype from which Jewish men, as well as women, have long suffered. These conceptions have been used as weapons against Jewish men and culture for many centuries. Writer Arthur Koestler was a member of a Jewish fraternity, a Burschenshaft, in Vienna in the early part of the twentieth century. He wrote that its members felt they needed to prove that “Jews could hold their own in dueling, brawling, drinking, and singing, just like other people. According to the laws of inferiority and overcompensation, they were soon . . . becoming the most feared and aggressive swordsmen at the University.”
It is the combination of Superman’s invincibleness and the nebbish-like characterization of Clark Kent that makes Superman such a Jewish character. The two contrasting types are deeply ingrained in Jewish culture. In Eastern Europe, the ideal of Jewish masculinity emphasized brain not brawn, scholarly rather than athletic abilities and pursuits. From this emerged one stereotype of Jewish culture, a people dedicated to education but detached from physical labor—the guy you’d hire to do your accounting but not to fix your car. In the Old Country of Eastern Europe, the gentle ideal of Jewish masculinity came into being in the same breath as its opposing counterpart. In his book Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, Daniel Boyarin writes of how this idea of “a gentle, timid, and studious male” (Edelkayt in Yiddish) gave rise within Jewish culture to its counterimage: “Jewish society needed an image against which to define itself and produced the ‘goy’—the hypermale—as its countertype, as a reverse of its social norm.” The goy came to be understood as the Gentile male. Thus the counterintuitiveness of thinking of Superman as Jewish, the very way we resist the thought, is precisely the point. Clark’s Jewish-seeming nerdiness and Superman’s non-Jewish-seeming hypermasculinity are two sides of the same coin, the accentuated Jewish male stereotype and its exaggerated stereotypical counterpart.
Siegel and Shuster’s intuitive stroke of genius was to combine the superman and the super nerd into a single character, and let the result play itself out in the media of American mass culture. It is the polarization of the Superman/Clark Kent personas, the fusion into one character of these two extremes, the superhero and the super nebbish, that distinguished Superman from other figures in the superhero genre.
The choice to make Superman so nearly invincible also relates compellingly to Jewish history, in ways that reveal themselves if we contrast Superman and Batman. Unlike most other superheroes, Batman actually has no superpowers. Rather, Bruce Wayne, Batman’s secret identity, witnesses his parents being killed in a robbery in the streets of Gotham City when he is a small child. Vowing to avenge their deaths, he strengthens his mind and body with the aim of becoming a great crime fighter, and takes on the identity of Batman as a symbol to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. Again we turn to Jules Feiffer to capture the difference between the two, particularly as it relates to his own Jewish psyche:
Superman’s superiority lay in the offense, Batman’s lay in the rebound. . . . The Batman school preferred a vulnerable hero to an invulnerable one; preferred a hero who was able to take punishment and triumph in the end to a hero who took comparatively little punishment. . . . My own observations led me to believe that the only triumph most people eked out of adversity was to manage to stay alive as it swept by. With me, I didn’t think it would be any different. I preferred to play it safe and be Superman.
Having been persecuted for millennia, the Jews needed a hero who was really above the fray. Their experience told them that if you had to engage in combat with adversity on a level playing field you’d probably lose. To feel safe required having overwhelming superiority on your side. Hence, Superman.
While Jews were at the heart of the comics publishing industry, their creations were certainly not all Jewish. Again, a contrast between Superman and Batman makes this essential point clear. Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Both were Jews, but that does not make Batman Jewish. In fact, Batman’s secret identity, that of Bruce Wayne, makes him practically a villain in Jewish iconography. Years ago I happened to be in the Harvard University Library when they had an exhibit of historical Haggadoth. Many of them were opened to the page that illustrates the four sons of the Passover Seder with their characteristic questions: the wise, the wicked, the foolish, and the one unable to ask. In older Haggadoth, the wicked son was most often depicted as a soldier, but as one moved into the modern period another motif emerged: Over and over again, the wicked son was depicted as whatever the image of the non-Jewish wealthy playboy was in that time and place—in other words, the Bruce Waynes of their day. While Clark Kent worked for a living and was even a writer—a good Jewish boy, in other words—Bruce Wayne was a Jewish parent’s ultimate assimilationist nightmare. If shorn of their superhero identities, Clark could easily be imagined as Jewish, but Bruce was definitely a WASP, literally to the manor born.
While Batman pursued his personal vendetta, Superman was a “champion of the helpless and oppressed.” In his first full-length adventure, Superman saves an innocent man from a lynch mob, finds the real murderer, rescues a woman from her wife-beating husband, saves Lois Lane from a hoodlum, exposes a corrupt U.S. senator and a munitions manufacturer, and halts the South American war they have engineered. The villains in those early stories were very much whom you’d expect a progressive urban reformer or crusading reporter to go after. Superman didn’t just beat up commonplace hoodlums; his adventures typically had him exposing corrupt politicians, thwarting the schemes of exploitive landlords and wealthy businessmen, and generally fighting for the little guy. This is a mundane list by the standards of what we now expect superheroes to face, but the idea that costumed superheroes fight against costumed, maniacal villains originated in Batman comics, in the character of the Joker. If one distinguishes crimes against persons from crimes against property, Superman was more likely to be rescuing persons or saving humanity while Batman was more likely to be foiling thefts of jewels from people who moved in Bruce Wayne’s elite circles.
Superman’s values would have been recognized at the time of his debut as very much those of a New Dealer. The Jewish-American, Yiddish-English joke of Siegel and Shuster’s generation was that Jews believed in three “worlds”: die velt (“this world”), yenne velt (“the other world”), and Roosevelt. That generation recognized in the New Deal what they saw as traditional Jewish ethical values, and Superman’s costume was cut from that same cloth. Superman and Batman defined the poles of the comic book superhero universe. Superman was a sky god, Batman a creature of the night; Superman motivated by his high ideals, Batman driven by his inner demons; the super cop versus the vigilante, justice dispensed with a lofty glow from above versus vengeance delivered in the dark. True, each character was tempered in the direction of the other—Batman had his own strict moral code, and Superman too, at least originally, operated outside the law and showed a mischievous “bad boy” streak, enjoying taunting authority and flaunting his powers, scaring people out of their wits by threatening to drop them from the heights if they didn’t cooperate with his plans—but the two were nonetheless marked by clearly distinct sensibilities.
Despite their differences, DC paired Superman and Batman in a series of adventures in the early days, for obvious marketing purposes. In the 1980s writer Frank Miller reinvented Batman, returning him to the darker roots of the original 1939 conception of the character. Here he got the Superman-Batman relationship right. Even when united against common enemies, the alien immigrant and the native scion of wealth “would never have been friends.”
Miller’s retelling not only made Batman darker but also more firmly cemented Superman in place as Batman’s antithesis, as the representative of the establishment, removing any last vestiges of his earlier slightly scampish and outsider status. Since then, Superman has been increasingly whitewashed, and his mischievous streak erased. The steady and persistent sanitizing amounts to a de-Jewification, and Superman’s ascension to sainthood brought with it an even more miraculous transformation in Clark Kent, moving him from sideshow performer to center-ring star. As we have seen, in Siegel and Schuster’s conception it was clear that the real man in the story was the superman, and the puny human called Clark Kent was a complete fabrication. But in the 1990s and the first decade of this century, episodes were published that made it seem like Clark was the real person and Superman a costumed identity he assumed. His heroic persona and values appeared to be rooted not so much in his Kryptonian heritage as in the values imparted to him by his adoptive parents and their family farm home in Smallville. DC even created a heroic lineage for the Kent family, whom it turns out had met and aided Harriet Tubman in freeing slaves, and were even originally brought to their farm in Kansas by ancestor Silas Kent as part of the pre–Civil War antislavery struggle. This was all part of the process of wrapping Superman ever more tightly in the American flag.
One can see the different ways of relating to heroic idols when students discuss the stories they encounter in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, what Christians call the Old and New Testaments. Christian students are accustomed to reading biblical figures as saints, and they typically want to interpret Hebrew Bible/Old Testament characters in this same way, seeing whatever they did as somehow morally exemplary. But Jews typically don’t regard biblical figures this way. Indeed, upper-class Englishman Duff Cooper famously quipped that most of the stories of King David must be true, for no people would ever invent such a deeply flawed figure to be their national hero. The Book of Genesis, for example, is an extended tale of a multigenerational, highly dysfunctional family, complete with the crimes they commit against each other, including murder, rape, incest, lying, and stealing. And that’s not to mention what they do to others! Treating Superman’s biography as the life of a saint, as the life of a squeaky-clean do-gooder, sacrifices the original Jewish sensibility that created a more human hero to a Christian sensibility of saintliness. (There’s actually a name for the whole genre of such sanitized biographies—“hagiography”—and it’s a profoundly non-Jewish approach to life).
With each wrapping of the flag, the Superman/Clark Kent character moved up a level in what medieval Christian thinkers called the Great Chain of Being, the hierarchical order of the cosmos. Over the years, as Superman’s powers increased so that he came to achieve near divinity, Clark became more humanized, even allowed to be heroic in his own right, gaining greater humanity. Over the long term a Pinocchio-like transformation turned Clark from a wooden figure of ridicule into a “real boy.” (I really want to invent the word Pinocchic at this point, but I just don’t think that will fly.)
Turning Clark into the foundational figure in the story as well as an adventure hero in his own right is central to both of his recent TV incarnations, in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Smallville. The latter series deals with his teen years and has Clark gradually growing into his powers. But the first page of Siegel and Shuster’s Superman origin story shows the super baby still in diapers while smilingly holding up heavy furniture in one hand, those around him “astounded at his feats of strength.” The complications of how his identity was kept secret for all those years given such displays were never addressed. Siegel and Shuster lived in a pre-Internet world, and they seemed to assume that when someone arrived in the big Metropolis from the rural world of small-town life, they really could be swallowed up by the anonymity of the city and leave their earlier origins entirely behind them. Another classic immigrant’s wishful fantasy.
While later writers came to address the problem extensively, Siegel and Shuster weren’t much bothered at all by all the obvious difficulties in Superman’s maintaining his secret identity. Here’s an interesting take on the disguise by one of Superman’s later editors, E. Nelson Bridwell:
It may surprise the sophisticate of today that she [Lois Lane] took so long to penetrate the simple disguise of a pair of glasses. But in a day when people accepted the old chestnut about the girl whose attractions are never noticed until she is seen without her glasses, Superman’s camouflage worked.
Note that Dorothy Parker’s line that men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses specifically applies to women, so to the extent this works for Clark it also marks him as feminized, as less than a “real man.”
In recent years there have been some ingenious explanations of how he’s been able to keep his secret. It turns out that in public appearances Superman is vibrating in place at super speed, so in any photo of him his facial features appear blurred. Then he also changes his body language (posture, gait) as well as his voice when he switches from Clark to Superman, some of this under the tutelage of a book on acting given to him by Ma Kent. The voice-changing trick isn’t new but dates back to the old radio show, which gave birth to much of the Superman lore. The audience learned to visualize Superman taking flight when they heard the now iconic phrase “Up, up, and away” accompanied by a “whoosh” sound effect, as the show came up with many ways to verbally communicate what could be shown visually in other media.
Superman was played on radio by actor Bud Collyer, who became known to a later generation on TV as the host of game shows To Tell the Truth and I’ve Got a Secret. One listener reports:
As Kent, Collyer always sounded as if the blue tights beneath his red shorts beneath his gray flannel trousers were too snug. When at last he found a convenient phone booth and he could cry, “Off with these clothes—this looks like a job for [Sigh] Superman!” the voice dropped an octave in relief.
By the time we reached the 2006 Superman Returns film that brought Superman back to the big screen after a long hiatus, Superman’s de-Jewification had proceeded so far that he was not only the ultimate all-American, he was even being claimed as a Christ figure. Another nice Jewish boy was being resurrected as a Christian god. The Warner Brothers/DC Comics publicity machine launched a two-pronged campaign before the film’s release, one aimed at the usual action-adventure crowd, and the other aimed at conservative Evangelical Christians and flying under the general cultural radar, specifically positioning Superman Returns as the next Christian blockbuster, hoping to cash in on the trend following The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia.
In addition to basic plot elements, verbal and visual cues to see Superman as Jesus appear throughout the film, ranging from repetition of the film’s guiding mantra that “the father becomes the son and the son becomes the father,” to Superman in countless Christlike poses, to him receiving a piercing stab wound that replicates Jesus’s wound on the cross.
Superman’s voyage from Krypton to Earth was originally a tale of an infant’s rescue from his world, which was about to perish in a great conflagration. This film reverses that Jewish contrast between Krypton and Earth. Now we hear his father telling Kal-El that he sent his “only son” to Earth to save us, rather than the other way around. This is language right out of the Gospel of John, including a declaration that these humans “lack the light to show the way.”
That Jewish understanding of Krypton as the Old World (Europe about to self-destruct) and Earth as the New World (America with its promise of new life) is replaced in this film by Christian coding of Krypton as a lost Paradise (in all its crystalline purity) and Earth as the scene of life after the Fall, or even worse—his fall to Earth has never before been depicted as such a hellish voyage. I suppose it’s just a coincidence that his mother here is played by an actress named (Eva Marie!) Saint, and that his earthly father is absent from the scene.
However you track Superman’s path, it’s been a long journey: from Krypton to Earth, from immigrant refugee to adopted iconic son, from Cleveland to Hollywood, from pencil to pixel, from Jewish ideals to Christian symbolism. We’ll shortly meet Superman’s supernatural ancestor in Jewish lore, the golem, a powerful figure made of clay, humanlike in shape but large and devoid of speech, who was said to have been brought to life by a ritual involving writing the Hebrew word emeth, “truth,” on either its forehead or a piece of paper (versions differ). It is returned to inanimate clay by erasing the first letter, leaving meth, “corpse.” The golem was thus animated by truth to serve the cause of justice. These two principles of truth and justice were in fact originally the principles Superman was said to uphold; “the American way” was added by the radio show in the wartime 1940s. The line from the golem to Superman is thus the path through which all the other comic book superheroes who were to follow came to serve truth, justice, and the Jewish-American way. In the rest of this book we will follow this path.
So the next time someone tells you to look at Superman as a Christ figure, tell them that for the real meaning of Superman they need to look elsewhere. Look, up in the sky! It’s a man! It’s a Jew! It’s Supermentsh!
As to the further adventures of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel personally, they enjoyed a degree of fame as Superman’s creators for some years, but reaped little financial reward. When they accepted the initial offer to publish Superman, they sold all their rights to their character for $130, at the time the going rate of $10 per page for that first story. This came to haunt them (and a whole bunch of other people too) for the rest of their lives. A long campaign to get Siegel and Shuster compensation for Superman, led by some leading figures in the comics industry, finally got some positive results decades later. It was nowhere near enough money to make up for the fortune they had lost, but at least since 1976 every Superman story once again says “Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster,” a credit line that had been absent since 1948, when a first lawsuit failed to restore their rights. The impetus to reach a deal at that time was the corporation’s fear of negative publicity spoiling the pending launch of the new Superman movie franchise. As of this writing, litigation reopened by Siegel’s heirs over the Superman rights continues. There is in place, however, a ruling establishing their rights to Superboy, the judge in that case having ruled that even if DC owned the Superman rights, in establishing this new character of Superboy based on Superman they had overstepped what they were entitled to do without permission from Siegel and Shuster.
Siegel and Shuster created another short-lived hero in the late ’40s, Funnyman, an actual clown of a hero, who appeared in only a few comic books and strips. Siegel returned to writing Superman for a time in the ’50s, and went on to write other characters. Joe Shuster fell on much harder times, his eyesight starting to fail even back in the heyday, and eventually had very little money. In 2009, comics historian Craig Yoe published Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster. It reprints Shuster’s pornographic illustrations from a 1950s “Nights of Horror” series of cheap S&M paperbacks. Though the work is anonymous, Shuster’s style is unmistakable; even though it’s fairly mild by today’s standards, there’s no denying that to all appearances that’s a skimpy-lingerie-clad Lois Lane whipping Clark Kent. Some have turned this discovery into speculation on secret fetishistic desires of Shuster, and how that might be seen in the comics, but there’s really a much simpler explanation. Shuster would have known publishers of pornography from the days when comics publishing began, back when it was the same people who were publishing girlie magazines for the men and comics for the boys. It’s likely one of them threw some work his way when he needed the money.
If one is looking for a more fulfilling turn in the later story of Siegel and Shuster, here’s one. Early on, they hired a model, Joanne Kovacs, to pose for Lois Lane. Here’s how Tom De Haven tells the story:
Siegel and Shuster, who must have been around twenty years old at the time, each still living at home and neither gainfully employed, had gone and hired a model. . . . Jerry would come over whenever Joanne Kovacs was at the Shuster apartment, to keep an eye on his, you know, creation. The three hit it off . . . and remained friends, staying in touch even after Joanne moved away.
Years later, they met again in New York City—at a cartoonists’ convention in the Plaza Hotel—and Jerry . . . asked Joanne for a date. They married in 1948. They were still married when Jerry died in 1996.
If you want to think of this as Superman having married Lois Lane in real life, go ahead, enjoy. I do.
Table of Contents
1 Superman as Supermentsh: How the Ultimate Alien Became the Iconic All-American 1
2 Flights of Jewish Imagination: From the Old Country to Tales of a Better Tomorrow 21
3 The Comic in Comics: Mad in the Original Yiddish 53
4 War and Peace: The Rise and Fall of the Superheroes In and After World War II 66
5 It's a Jewish Thing: Not-So-Secret Identities in the Marvel Bullpen 83
6 The Pencil is Mightier than the Words: The Spirit of Will Eisner 101
7 A Jew at War: The Art of Joe Kubert 125
8 Of Mice and Supermen: Art Spiegelman's Maus 145
9 From the New World Back to the Old: Jewish Comics Abroad 161
10 The Amazing Adventures of Michael Chabon: Kavalier & Clay 183
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"This witty, insightful exposé delves into the secret identities of the world's most famous superheroes." -Publishers Weekly