Nothing is quite so purely American as the comic book, which is why it will come as a surprise to some readers to discover that philosopher Harry Brod regards Superman and Spider-Man and many other comic-book characters to be uniquely Jewish artifacts that offer crucial insights into the Jewish experience in America.
“For it turns out that the history of the Jews and comic book superheroes, that very American invention, is the history of Jews and America, particularly the history of Jewish assimilation into the mainstream of American culture,” Brod writes in “Superman Is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way” by Harry Brod (Free Press: $25).
Brod, a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa, affirms that his own path into the life of the mind began with a childhood passion for comic books.
“I attribute much of my motivation to become a philosopher by profession to my early reading of science fiction and comic books,” he explains. “The world need not be as it was. There were alterative possibilities, reached not by fantasy but by rational extension of the world we knew. ‘What if…’ became a guiding question for me, and wanting to think that through became second nature.”
The Jewish origins of our superheroes, according to Brod, do not begin and end with the fact that so many of the writers and artists who created them were Jewish. Rather, he detects the influence of characters from Jewish folktales — the golem and the dybbuk — as well as “Jewish traditions of Talmudic disputation.” Nor is it a coincidence that so many Jews found a showcase for their sensibilities in the pages of comic books: “We couldn’t get into newspaper strips or advertising; ad agencies wouldn’t hire a Jew,” recalls Al Jaffee, a longtime cartoonist for Mad magazine. “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.”
Then, too, he teases out the Jewish values, aspirations and anxieties that are sometimes deeply encoded in comic book characters. Superman, for example, can be seen as “an alien immigrant from another planet.” The Incredible Hulk, a latter-day golem conjured by Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), turns into a “man-monster” when he gets angry: “Is it too much to speculate that in the Lieber household it was perhaps impressed upon young Stanley that nice Jewish boys don’t get angry,” muses Brod, “that they’re supposed to be, dare we say it, ‘mild mannered,’ like our old friend Clark Kent?” Spider-Man “is a post-Holocaust American Jew,” writes Brod, “and the guilt that plagues and motivates him is a specific post-Holocaust American Jewish guilt.”
Brod, an intellectual whose gifts include a lively sense of humor, is perfectly willing to invoke a Jewish joke to make the point. “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.’ ” As Brod himself puts it: “Before Joe Shuster drew Superman, the only artist drawing Jews flying through the air was Marc Chagall.”
So, too, does Brod detect “a mocking Yiddishist sensibility” that runs from Mad magazine to Marvel comics and finally into the pages of Playboy, whose “Little Annie Fanny” was drawn by Mad magazine stalwarts Will Elder (born Eisenberg) and Harvey Kurtzman. But he seeks to show us “how American Jews created the modern comic book,” an achievement that has less to do with Jewish jokes than with a Yiddishe Kopp — that is, a characteristically Jewish way of seeing the world.
For example, he insists that Superman and Spider-Man share a common Jewish ancestry, but the differences between these two superheroes reveals a change in Jewish self-image in America: “The difference between Superman’s and Spider-Man’s Jewishness is analogous to the ways Jews, as they became more assimilated into American culture, struggled less with identity issues of being strangers in a strange land,” he offers. “They felt themselves to be more native to America, and so became freer to act and create in ways that are identifiably Jewish, not coded or indirect.”
Brod opens his book with some special pleading on behalf of the comic book as an authentic and worthy expression of culture and creativity. By the end of his book, however, it is clear that he has made his case. Brod devotes a chapter to Art Spiegelman, who boldly rendered a story of the Holocaust as a comic book populated with cats and mice and thereby “demonstrated what the medium was capable of and that there was an audience for it.” But we are able to appreciate Spiegelman’s courageous work all the more because we have seen the work of Jewish artists and writers who came before him.
“Look! Up in the sky! It’s a champion of the oppressed! It’s a messianic liberator!” Brod sums up in his enchanting and enlightening book. “Yes, it’s the Jewish imagination in flight!”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.