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Superman as Supermentsh

Harry Brod
July 16, 2014
by Harry Brod superjew-43422From the Spring, 2012 issue of Jewish Currents. SUPERMAN, CREATED SEVENTY-SIX YEARS AGO, 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 television series, he’s “a strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.” Readers used to the current scope of Superman’s powers, however, where he’s capable of performing such feats as flying into a blazing sun, freezing a lake with his breath, or lifting entire mountains, may be surprised to learn that in his original incarnation his powers were much less expansive. “He could hurdle skyscrapers,” according to Action Comics #1, which introduced the character, “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 this in 1938, Superman was much more than just a new super character. He inaugurated the entire genre of comic book superheroes. Prior to him, 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. 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 found their way into this ragged end of publishing, and businessmen like Jack Liebowitz and Harry Donnenfeld, who were behind Superman’s publication, also published girlie magazines and pulp fiction with names like Spicy Detective Stories. More than a few of them had mob connections. Tears happyAs Al Jaffe, 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.” Journalist Jay Schwartz writes of the founding generation of comic 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 moguls of the American film industry did. Motion pictures came out of cheap nickelodeon and peep show entertainments, with a primary audience of single men, mostly working-class, and largely immigrants. A good deal of the content was pretty lurid for its time. Likewise with comics: 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. Their strategy of assimilation 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. The Biblical admonition against making graven images or idols had caused a lack of much of a real visual arts tradition among European Jews. One of the few outlets for Jewish visual artists was the illustrated book, which had particularly thrived with the Passover hagode, the first “graphic novel,” which told the story in both words and pictures so that those sitting at the seder table who were too young to read could follow along. The story, of course, was that 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 be a liberator and champion of the oppressed, with the aid of miraculous superpowers displayed in some truly memorable action scenes. Sound at all familiar? 18-300x269WHO KNOWS WHAT LURKED IN THE MEMORIES of young Jerry Siegel (writer) and Joe Shuster (artist), friends since high school in Cleveland, when they created, immediately before the Holocaust, their tale of immigrant refugee baby Kal-El’s arrival on Earth? But 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 — populated by what were said to be “highly evolved inhabitants” — by his parents when they, along with their entire culture, are about to be annihilated in the great holocaust of a planetary explosion? Is it just serendipity that one of their new hero’s powers is being impervious to bullets, when Jerry Siegel’s father had died as a result of a nighttime robbery at his second-hand clothing store? In the context of the time, Superman’s story echoes that of the Kindertransports of Europe, by which Jewish children were evacuated to safe countries to escape the Nazis, leaving their parents behind. “It wasn’t Krypton that Superman really came from,” cartoonist Jules Feiffer commented in a 1996 edition of the New York Times Magazine; “it was the planet Minsk or Lodz or Vilna or Warsaw.” The change from his native Kryptonian name to the adoptive and adaptive Clark Kent (like the change of Jerry Siegel’s family name from Segalovich, and those of millions of Jews), and his later movement from the small town of Smallville to the big city of Metropolis, likewise mirrored Jewish immigration patterns. What in the logic of their story — or, as we shall see, in their own psyches — motivated the introduction of Clark Kent? In contrast to most of the other costumed superheroes who were to follow in Superman’s wake, in the Superman saga it is the superhero who is real and the alter ego who is fictitious. Think of the 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 the standard model. So the question is, why on Earth would Superman want to perpetrate this masquerade? THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SIEGEL AND SHUSTER’S IMAGINARY WORLD works only if, at the same time that readers know who Superman really was, the characters in the story see 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. But little did they know! Jewish men had only to tear off their clothes and glasses to reveal the surging superman underneath. “As a high school student,” confessed Jerry Siegel, “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... 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.” 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. 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 this fusion into one character of these two extremes that distinguished Superman from other figures in the superhero genre. Why, then, does Superman want Lois Lane to fall in love with his false self, nebbish Clark Kent, rather than with his real self? Jules Feiffer had an answer (in his 1965 book, The Great Comic Book Heroes): that Superman sees “mortal men” as the world sees Clark the nebbish. His wish for Lois to fall in love with Clark is the revenge of the Jewish nerd for the world’s anti-Semitism. “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” So say Shakespeare, Siegel, Shuster, and Superman. Of course, the complications of how his identity was kept secret for all those years, even in a world of mortal fools, were never addressed by Siegel and Shuster. They lived in a pre-Internet world and 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 origins entirely behind them — another classic wishful immigrant fantasy. “It may surprise the sophisticate of today,” noted one of Superman’s later editors, E. Nelson Bridwell, “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.” That it worked for Clark also marks him as feminized, as less than a “real man.” WHILE JEWS WERE AT THE HEART OF THE COMICS PUBLISHING INDUSTRY, their creations were certainly not all Jewish. A contrast between Superman and Batman makes this essential point. Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, both Jews, but that does not make Batman Jewish. In fact, Batman’s secret identity as millionaire 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 hagodes. Many 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 hagodes, the wicked son was most often depicted as a soldier, but in the modern period another motif for the wicked son emerged, that of non-Jewish wealthy playboys, the Bruce Waynes of their time and place. 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 assimilationalist nightmare. Clark Kent could easily be imagined as Jewish, but Bruce Wayne was a WASP, to the manor born. Batman pursued a personal vendetta against criminals, in revenge for seeing his parents shot by a mugger. Superman, by contrast, fought oppression. In his first full-length adventure, he saved an innocent man from a lynch mob, found the real murderer, rescued a woman from her wife-beating husband, saved Lois Lane from a hoodlum, exposed a corrupt U.S. senator and a munitions manufacturer, and halted 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. The idea that costumed superheroes fight against costumed, maniacal villains originated in Batman comics, in the character of the Joker. Superman was more likely to be rescuing people or saving humanity while Batman was more likely to be foiling thefts of jewels from people in Bruce Wayne’s elite circles. Superman would have been recognized at the time of his debut as a New Dealer. Jews of Siegel and Shuster’s generation recognized in Roosevelt’s New Deal what they saw as traditional Jewish ethical values, and Superman’s costume was cut from the same cloth. IN THE 1990S AND BEYOND, Superman comics were published that made it seem that Clark Kent 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. A heroic lineage was invented for the Kent family, who 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 abolitionist 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 Bible stories. Christians are accustomed to reading New Testament figures as saints, and they typically want to interpret the Hebrew Bible’s characters in the same way, as moral exemplars. Jews, however, don’t typically 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, the life of a squeaky-clean do-gooder, sacrifices the original Jewish sensibility that created a more human (if alien) hero to a Christian sensibility of saintliness. THE CHRISTIANIZATION OF SUPERMAN reached a summit in the 2006 film, Superman Returns. Whereas 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, the film has Kal-El’s father Jor-El saying that he sent his “only son” to Earth to save us. This is language right out of the Gospel of John, including a declaration that these humans “lack the light to show the way.” The role of Krypton as the “Old World” 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 — Kal-El’s 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. Harry Brod is the author of Superman Is Jewish? How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice and the Jewish-American Way, (2012, Free Press), from which this article is adapted. He teaches philosophy and men’s studies, a field he helped to found, at the University of Northern Iowa. His other books include A Mentsch Among Men and Brother Keepers: New Perspectives on Jewish Masculinity (with Shawn Zevit).
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