In my last column on this subject, I introduced you to some of the Jewish artists, writers and publishers who have been instrumental in creating North America’s comic book culture. Although you can try to decode Jewish characteristics from legends like Spiderman and Superman, neither of them, alas, is Jewish. But that doesn’t mean the comic book world is bereft of Jewish heroes.
Although he may be better known for his legendary battle cry, “It’s clobberin’ time!,” the most famous mainstream Jewish superhero is The Thing. He first appeared in The Fantastic Four #1 way back in 1961, but The Thing’s Jewish roots weren’t revealed until 2002. In the issue, Remembrance of Things Past, The Thing (aka Benjamin Jacob “Ben” Grimm) is asked why he never mentioned his religion before. Could he be ashamed of being Jewish? “Nah, that ain’t it,” replies The Thing. “Anyone on the Internet can find out, if they want. It’s just… I don’t talk it up, is all. Figure there’s enough trouble in this world without people thinkin’ Jews are all monsters like me.”
In a world of superheroes, you might expect everything to be a bit outsized but I must say I never expected to come across a list like The Religious Affiliation of Comic Book Characters. You’ll find that the comics have true believers in practically every religion under the sun, including over 130 affiliated with Judaism in some form other. Here are some colourful – but lesser-known – Jewish heroes that have graced the pages of Marvel and DC.
Ramban (DC Comics) – Ramban is a rabbi (no, not the one from the 13th century) and a student of the Kabbalah who can invoke divine powers. He is the leader of the Jewish/Israeli superhero team, Hayoth, a group of Israeli government-supported meta-humans.
Sabra (Marvel Comics) – Raised on a special kibbutz run by the Israeli government after her powers (strength, speed, agility, reflexes, endurance and stamina) revealed themselves, Sabra’s first public appearance was in a battle with the Hulk, whom she mistakenly believed was working with Arab terrorists operating in Israel.
Seraph (DC Comics) – “Clad in the mantle of Elijah, wearing the magic ring of Solomon and carrying the staff of Moses, his long hair endowing him with the strength of Samson, teacher Chaim Lavon has become the super-hero of Israel… The Seraph!”
Lest we be accused of just being the good guys, two very famous evil-doers also have Jewish lineage. Magneto (Max Eisenhardt) is a survivor the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz who later gained superpowers. That motivated him to do anything – anything! – to prevent atrocities from being perpetrated on fellow mutants. Magneto has been ranked the Number 1 Comic Book Villain of all time. “It’s hard to argue that there has ever been a villain more complex, nuanced, sympathetic and yet irrevocably evil,” argues arbiter IGN Comics.
And then there’s Harley Quinn (Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel), the supervillain portrayed by Margot Robbie in the 2016 film, Suicide Squad. Born into a Jewish-Catholic family, she was raised in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Aside from being a formidable foe in her own right, Ms. Quinn is an accomplice and lover of the Joker. Oy, such naches!
And how about these plot lines? Here’s what happens when Jewish characters find their way into some pretty famous comic titles:
- “Green Arrow teams up with agents of the Mossad (Israeli Secret Service) to fight terrorists who are trying to poison the local water supply with radioactive material.”
- “Superman, thrown into the past, helps save Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in the 1940s.”
- “The Doom Patrol teams up with Reb Chaim to stop Joseph Della Reina’s attempt to force the Messiah to come prematurely.”
Curling up with a comic book can be fun, but discussing and debating Jewish heroes (and villains) brings comics to a new level. The super challenge? Meeting kindred spirits. In 2016, an Orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn helped that come about when Congregation Kol Israel hosted the first Jewish Comic Con. Even if you weren’t on hand, you can still view the panel discussions online including:
- Heroes & Faith: parsing the intersection of religion and comics in entertainment content and careers
- Cartoonists against the Holocaust: historians discuss the work of newspaper cartoonists in the 1930s and ’40s
- Jewish Elements of Batman: The Mezuzah on the Batcave Door
To be continued…