Superman, Spider-Man, Alfred E. Neuman. They are some of the most enduring and powerful characters in popular culture. And they all have Jewish roots.
Thanks to people like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (Superman), Jack Kirby and Stan Lee (Spider-Man, The Hulk, the Fantastic Four and many others) and Bill Gaines (Mad Magazine), the face of comic book publishing has always had a Jewish flavour – sometimes subtle, sometimes pronounced – since comics books first appeared eight decades ago.
Why have the Jews played such an important part in the history of comics? Victor Wishna writes, “Mostly sons of immigrants or immigrants themselves, shut out of publishing and commercial art by anti-Semitism, their comic-book creations took up their struggle, fighting for truth, justice and the American way.”
In his impressive three-part series in Reform Judaism magazine, “How the Jews Created the Comic Book Industry,” Arie Kaplan traces the giants (and lesser-knowns) of the business from 1933. He begins with the story of an unemployed Jewish novelty salesman named Max Gaines (né Ginzberg). Gaines figured that if people enjoyed reading comics in their newspapers, why not sell them separately. He shared his idea with his friend Harry L. Wildenberg at Eastern Color Printing and in February 1934, Eastern’s Famous Funnies #1 became the first American comic book sold to the public.
“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,” Ben Baruch Blich, a senior lecturer in the department of history and theory at the Bezalel Academy of Arts told haaretz.com.
“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.”
Max Gaines was also the father of William M. Gaines, creator of a slew of horror comic book titles as well as Mad Comics and later, Mad Magazine (along with the legendary Harvey Kurtzman). The National Foundation for Jewish Culture summed up their contribution in the article Jews in Pen and Ink. “The first issue (of Mad), in 1952, featured a parody of gangster cartoons titled ‘Gonefs.’ No definition of the Yiddishism was supplied. Two generations of Jewish comic artists drew inspiration from Kurtzman and the witty social satire, subtle Yiddishkeit and Talmud-inspired marginalia that crammed the pages of Mad.”
As for the superheroes, whether you are a fan of DC comics’ Superman or a disciple of rival Marvel Comics’ Spider-man, the origins are still Jewish. Superman’s well-known creators were a couple of guys named Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Over at Marvel, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (Stanley Lieber and Jacob Kurtzberg) were responsible for Spider-man, the X-Men and many others.
In “Spider-Jew,” Alan Oirich writes that after Peter Parker’s uncle dies a senseless death, the somewhat nebbishy Parker rises to the occasion. When Parker states, “Not everyone is meant to make a difference. But for me, the choice to live an ordinary life is no longer an option,” Oirich is reminded of Hillel the Elder’s, “Where there is no man, be a man.”
Oirich also sees a very definite parallel between the State of Israel and the often misunderstood Spider-Man. “Anyone who feels for a peace-loving Israel – vilified by bored, vindictive or gullible reporters – can’t help but ask about Spider-Man: ‘Why does he even bother?’ At a time when Jewish sensibilities are raised by unfriendly press coverage of Israeli defensive actions, we relate to a superhero who finds the newspapers against him when his sole aim is to defend the innocent.”
Although these heroes don’t wear kippahs or sport Magen Davids, author Arie Kaplan argues that the characters were imbued with Jewish symbolism and allusions to the plight of Jews in the ’30s and ’40s. Superman, he explains, “is a child survivor named Kal-El (in Hebrew, ‘All that is God’) from the planet Krypton, whose population, a race of brilliant scientists, is decimated. His parents send him to Earth in a tiny rocket ship, reminiscent of how baby Moses survived Pharaoh’s decree to kill all Jewish newborn sons.”
But don’t expect to find unanimity in the comic book universe. Steve Bergson has counted about 600 Jewish comic book titles. But he doesn’t buy the Superman-is-Jewish theory. Put simply, says Bergson, “Superman was born on Krypton, not in Israel.”
To be continued…