Thwak! To Our Enemies
Thwak! To Our Enemies by Leah Finkelshteyn
June/July 2003 Vol. 84 No.10
Colorful, powerful and generally over-the-top—superheroes are a surprising manifestation of the venerable Jewish tradition of repairing the world.
The peace is broken at the X-Men’s center of operations in Professor Charles Xavier’s mansion. Dracula hovers over a beautiful woman. As he moves in for the kill, Katherine “Kitty” Pryde leaps to the rescue, cross in hand. The vampire laughs—the cross has no power over him.
He grabs Pryde by the neck, but her necklace, silver with a Magen David charm, repels him and his hand bursts into flame. Pryde, the super-hero also known as Shadowcat, is Jewish, and only a talisman of her own faith can defeat the monster.
Shadowcat is far from the only Jewish superhero found in the pages of comic book adventures. Colossal Boy’s problems include grappling with whether he should be dating an alien instead of a nice Jewish girl, and Sabra, outfitted in blue-and-white, is Israel’s defender.
Over the years, comic book characters have thrown back their hoods and cowls to reveal a Jewish face. That this colorful, often sensational, storytelling medium has a Jewish connection is an open secret. Jews have been creative forces in the field since 1938 with the first appearance of the now famous “S,” fueling imaginations and providing role models for generations of boys and, yes, even girls.
“It wasn’t Krypton Superman came from, but the planet Minsk,” said acclaimed cartoonist Jules Feiffer about the creation of Cleveland-born sons of immigrants Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster. And DC Comic’s Superman is far from the only icon of American pop mythology sprung straight from the Jewish zeitgeist. The fertile, some say aberrant, imaginations of Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg), Stan Lee (Stanley Lieber), Bob Kane (Bob Kahn), Joe Simon, Gil Kane (Eli Katz) and more have brought to life Captain America and Spider-Man (both Marvel Comics), Green Lantern and Batman (both DC), as well as Daredevil, the Hulk and X-Men (all Marvel)—characters that in the past months have battled baddies on the big screen.
“It is almost genetic in the Jewish mind and soul to deal with storytelling,” says veteran comic artist and novelist Will Eisner, who revolutionized the comic book industry with his work on The Spirit, a noir-inspired series about a blue-suited vigilante-detective. And this predisposition, combined with what Eisner calls the “American culture of images,” has helped create an ever evolving field that at its best entertains and informs with a visual punch that reaches straight to the subconscious and at its worst (though still entertaining) glorifies a lurid, puerile fantasy world.
Today, there may be fewer Jewish comics creators than in the past, but they are still making their mark in what has become an American institution struggling for legitimacy. The hot list—talents whose names on the cover are likely to ensure a title’s popularity—includes writer Peter Allan David (Supergirl, DC, and The Incredible Hulk, among others); British import Neil Gaiman, writer of the award-winning The Sandman (Vertigo, a DC imprint), a series subtly peppered with midrashim; and author-illustrator Brian Michael Bendis, who in an article on his Web site, www.jinxworld.com, talks about coming up with ideas for his crime-noir titles on Passover.
“My Jewishness has insinuated itself into my writing,” admits David, a 20-year comics veteran. In the 1990’s, he reworked the Supergirl character. She became an angel whose abilities come from theShekhina, the Hebrew term for the feminine aspect of God’s presence.
“[Supergirl’s] plots keyed off themes of redemption and explorations of spirituality,” says David. “There was even a story set in the Garden of Eden.”
Gaiman’s Sandman series received the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story in 1991 for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which made the series the first monthly comic to win a literary award.
Sandman gives flesh to concepts like dream, desire and destiny, but it is really about stories and the people who tell them. “Three Septembers and a January,” a tale about not giving in to despair, stars Abraham Joshua Norton, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States of America and part of San Francisco legend. A perky anthropomorphized female Death, based on a kabbalistic description of the Angel of Death, comes to claim the Jewish Norton at the end of the story: “They say the world rests on the backs of…36 unselfish men and women,” Death, a popular character in an extremely popular series, tells him. “Because of them the world continues to exist.”
Sometimes the Jewish influence is more subtle. According to Jewish educator and comics fan and writer Alan Oirich, artist Gil Kane based his design of the large-headed, balding Guardians of the Universe in DC’s Green Lantern on David Ben-Gurion. The President of Earth was also Jewish—and a woman—adds Oirich. Her son, Colossal Boy from DC’s Legion of Superheroes, identifies as Jewish, he says, and so does she.
Besides stewarding the universe, Jews have also been at the helm of the two major comic book companies. Stan Lee has held the top position at Marvel since the 1940’s and the company’s start as Timely Comics. Today he is chairman emeritus. Julius Schwartz revamped DC in the 1960’s. Jenette Kahn, daughter of a Reform rabbi, also served as DC president and editor-in-chief.
Nevertheless, “Jewish work has gone unrecognized,” says Trina Robbins, who has worked in comix (alternative comics) for years. In the 1970’s she wrote and drew an adaptation of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire for Lilith magazine. Robbins hopes that more attention will be paid to Jewish contributions, as well as to another unacknowledged group—women.
“Mainstream comics are totally male dominated,” Robbins asserts. “Where girls fit in is comix, self-published books.” She also looks for stronger female characters, girls and women who are more than busty victims. Her new title, Go Girl! (Image Comics), aimed at ages 10 to 13, features the high-flying teen Lindsay Goldman—“simply a nice Jewish girl,” says Robbins.
“I’ve always felt that comics should appeal to girls even more than boys—statistics show that girls are more avid readers,” says Jordon B. Gorfinkel, who during his eight years as an editor at DC worked on all of the Batman lines (popular characters often have a number of series, or titles, devoted to them). He also conceivedBirds of Prey, about three female crime stoppers. “There’s so little material that’s appealing, women who aren’t sex objects,” he continues. “My goal with Birds of Prey was to cross Thelma & Louise with the black cop/Bruce Willis relationship from the first Die Hard and do it as superheroes. So, the focus is…on the women…and the action is just to rope in the established demographic. Though you cannot imagine how many times I had to have artists redraw Black Canary’s hemline….”
In 1999, Gorfinkel, who writes and draws a weekly comic strip about Jewish life called The Promised Land, left DC to cocreate Avalanche Entertainment, Inc. He is developing a series called Tag Team with artist Aaron Sowd, about twin girls who share a single superpower. The teenagers, whose last name is Roth, journey to discover their identity and uncover their Jewish roots. “My goal was to combine the same ethics I believe in with the superhero ethic, which I strive for with all my comic book work,” Gorfinkel says.
Another new title for kids, The Jewish Hero Corps (Electric Comics, www.jewishsu perhero.com), created by Oirich, will be out in August. The Corps’ super team includes Minyan Man, who can duplicate himself 10 times; Kipa Kid, known as the Capped Crusader; and Shabbas Queen, whose wand causes electric objects to “rest”.
For mature audiences, a number of graphic novels—a term coined by Eisner for A Contract With God (see “Setting the Standard” below)—investigate Jewish themes in depth. These book-length relatives of the comics have explored the Holocaust, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and even include a number of autobiographies by Jewish writer-artists—illustrator Marvin Friedman’s initial foray into the graphic novel, Marvin Friedman., is a recent example.
Setting the Standard
“I am a writer who writes with pictures,” says the incredibly prolific Will Eisner. In his almost three quarters of a century of experience, he has drawn heroes and working-class citizens, jungle queens and city dwellers. With sure black lines and strong, simple prose, he has mined the depth of the American urban psyche.
His deft pen and expressive characters have also commented on the successes and travails of Jewish American immigrant life. “I grew up with Yiddish stories, and they stayed in my head,” the Brooklyn-born Eisner explains. “There is a Yiddish rhythm to my writing, an undercurrent ofoy vey—stories that start with a sigh.”
First published in 1978, A Contract With God and Other Tenement Stories describes the lives and hopes of Bronx tenement residents in the 1930’s; it helped expand the comic book into the realm of Jewish consciousness even before Art Spiegelman’s acclaimed Maus. Contract’s title story starts with a man making his way home, alone, in the middle of a miserable downpour and evolves into a discussion of man’s relationship with God. Still in print, the book has led the field in the creation of the graphic novel. Among Eisner’s other works of Jewish interest are To the Heart of the Storm, his award-winning autobiography, and The Name of the Game, a multigenerational immigrant saga about the struggle to attain wealth and power and the prejudices that exist between different Jewish communities.
In 2002 Eisner won the National Foundation for Jewish Culture’s lifetime achievement award. But the 86-year-old is not about to lay down his pen; his newest book, Fagin the Jew, is coming out in October from Doubleday Graphic Novels. Fagin examines the anti-Semitism present in classic literature—a timely topic considering the state of Jewish world affairs and further proof that the eyes and hands of the man whose name is synonymous with the best in graphic storytelling are as sharp as ever.
The Will Eisner Library, a collection of many of the artist’s graphic novels and anthologies of The Spirit, is available from DC Comics.
According to cartoonist-teacher James Lewis Strum, creator of the graphic novel The Golem’s Mighty Swing (Drawn and Quarterly), the unique attributes of comics, “the intimacy of the written word, with the impact of the graphic image,” can, and have, explored issues of identity in a sophisticated way.
The black-and-white Golem follows a 1920’s traveling baseball team called the Stars of David as it roams the American countryside, experiencing both racism and acceptance. “I’m very removed from Jewish history and heritage,” says Strum. “Golem was very much about learning about that heritage.
“Comics are so new,” he explains, “for so long [they] had a case of arrested development.” Strum points to Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust portrayal in the graphic novel Maus(Pantheon) as a benchmark. “Spiegelman’s greatest contribution is that he did this comic that had so much success…he showed what the medium can do.”
Likewise, The Jew of New York and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer (both Pantheon), Ben Katchor’s quirky views of urban and Jewish life, have brought welcome mainstream attention to sequential art (a term that includes comic books, comic strips and graphic novels).
In a departure for a company that has largely focused on superheros, Marvel recently published 411, part one of a three-part series about “sacrifice for the sake of peace,” writes Marvel president Bill Jemas in an introduction. “Blown Up,” the first story, relates the reaction of a soldier in the Israeli Air Force after he finds out his only daughter was killed in a suicide bombing.
Many artists and writers feel it is the visually experimental graphic novels that are pushing the boundaries of the field with a sophistication that brings new respect to sequential art. Nevertheless, the square-jawed superhero with a tendency to think with his fists and wear underwear on the outside of his clothes is firmly entrenched.
And despite historical evidence, it is this image that is the most unlikely of Jewish creations. Perhaps the problem is the physical violence that is so much a part of comics; after all, Jews are considered cerebral problem-solvers. More likely the dissonance comes from characters like Batman celebrating Christmas but not a bar mitzva. The green-hued Hulk may have visited Israel and battled Sabra while he was there, but it wasn’t exactly a Jewish outreach experience. So the question remains: Are comic books—and the characters who inhabit them—truly Jewish?
“There is definitely a Jewish rhythm that seeped in surreptitiously,” says artist Archie Rand (see “Old Story, New Telling” below). Rand, who consulted on the Hulk movie in theaters this month, feels comics have a “general courting of vulgarity, seen in the bright, loud costumes, that is very ethnic….”
“There is a real connection between Jews and comic books for any of a dozen reasons,” says Oirich, who is curating an exhibit on the subject with the New York City Comic Book Museum (www.nyccomicbookmuseum.org). “One is historical; another has to do with a…sense of tikkun olam, of what you might call Jewish mythic ideas and feelings that expressed themselves [through superheroes].”
Eisner, who has worked in comics since their inception (“I was there at the bris,” he says), disagrees. He feels that any type of Jewish feel to comic books, at least the early ones, is largely coincidental. “Comics in the mid-30’s were…the bottom of all the art forms,” Eisner posits. “[They] offered an opportunity to those outside the mainstream. The daily news strips, the advertising world, were difficult for Jews to get into.”
The background of those early artists and writers was deliberately hidden, says Eisner, “because they were writing what they regarded as classic American high-adventure stories and creating classic American heroes.” Superman and his many imitators were meant to reflect mainstream values.
Still, many fans insist the ethnicity of these beloved characters is obvious. “They’re all Jewish, superheroes,” writes Michael Chabon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Random House), his Pulitzer Prize-winning fictionalized account of the people who created the Golden Age of comic books. “Superman, you don’t think he’s Jewish? Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself.”
Similarly, says Rand of Eisner’s The Spirit, “His name may be Denny Colt, but he was clearly circumcised.”
In the late 1950’s and 1960’s, comics’ Silver Age, conformist heroes gave way to a more diverse comic world. Stan Lee and Marvel introduced a new type of “real-life” hero with the wall-crawling teenage Spider-Man who worried about money and social acceptance as well as how to defeat the many-limbed Doctor Octopus. In the 70’s and 80’s, Jews started appearing, sometimes with a beard and a hat in a crowd scene, sometimes as minor heroes. Shadowcat showed up around that time, too.
In 1998, DC acknowledged the Man of Steel’s true origins with a story that has him try to rescue two youths from the death camps. “Thank you, Golem, for saving us,” the boys—odes to Seigel and Shuster—exclaim. “We’re the ones who invented you.” However, the story revealed a lingering reticence; it was criticized by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith because, despite kippot and names like Mordechai, the word “Jew” never appears.
The Thing, aka Benjamin Jacob Grimm, returned to the “old neighborhood” last year and said the Shema. The irascible, orange member of Marvel’s Fantastic Four was, according to colleagues, always thought of as Jewish by cocreator Kirby. Pundits and fans wondered, Just how does one circumcise an orange brick?
As sequential art expands and matures, and as Jewish talents continue to have a hand in the development process, the list of Jewish characters and creators could go on —threading through comics much as the Jewish American experience threads through the entertainment industry.
Yet that Jewish voice can be overwhelmed by the desire to appeal to a mass readership. With notable exceptions, mainstream comics still have a way to go in acknowledging its Jewish roots.
Kitty Pryde enrolled in the University of Chicago this year, in a miniseries called Mekanix. She wanted to grow up, lead a normal life, find the person behind the costumed hero. Mekanix explores bigotry, even touching on homeland security and racial profiling, but Pryde’s identity still, in part, stays hidden—nowhere in the series does it overtly mention that she is a Jew.
Old Story, New Telling
A bare-shouldered, scantily clad Esther approaches King Ahasuerus. To their left, a creature in a dark forest, who represents Haman, rubs its tentacle-like hands together above a Hebrew text that, in Megillat Esther, starts his condemnation of the Jews: “There is a people scattered…among the nations….”
“I wanted to make Esther look like what she had to look like to get her mitzva accomplished,” says New York artist Archie Rand. The piece, called Seventh Amidah Theme: The Redeemer, Esther, is one of “The Nineteen Diaspora Paintings,” Rand’s new series that illustrates moments from the Bible. From Creation to redemption, the vivid paintings use the framework of the 19 blessings of the Amidah, the standing prayer said three times each day, which Rand sees as the most central to Jewish experience and belief.
Action sequences, dramatic shadows and text boxes describe Jewish history and legend. Tenth Amidah Theme: End the Diaspora, Cain and Abel shows Cain’s murder of his brother as a crime drama, the guilty party locked in the grasp of a cop. The text from Genesis, in a word bubble, shouts out “…the voice of your brother’s blood is screaming to me from the ground,” perhaps also referring to the pain Jews have suffered in the diaspora.
If this sounds like it comes from the pages of a comic book—that is exactly what the artist intended. “I wanted to…break from stereotyped Yiddishized nostalgia,” Rand says, “so I looked at guys I was looking at as a kid—EC Comics, Tales From the Crypt.” A culture’s visual symbols are manifestations of a culture’s religion, Rand explains. If you accept the language of comics as Jewish language (which he does), then you can combine a system that reflects American cultural belief—comics—with the faith manifest in Scripture.
Fourteenth Amidah Theme: Rebuild Jerusalem, Elijah shows a yellow-orange Elijah as an astronaut exploring a purple room full of strange devices. In the Bible, Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot, and his eventual return prefigures the coming of the messiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. That Rand’s work was connecting to something in the Jewish subconscious was affirmed after the tragic space shuttleColumbia accident and the deaths of its entire crew, including Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut.
“The Elijah-astronaut was painted before I knew about [Ramon],” recalls Rand. “I coupled the phrase ‘and Elijah went up by a whirlwind to Heaven’ with a comment from the prophet Elisha ‘and he saw him no more.’ After the tragedy, I realized why the second phrase had to go there. In Israel, Ramon was called the second Elijah.”