In the 1930s and 1940s, young Jewish hustlers, hucksters, gangsters, and nerds invented the American comic book. Two nebbish kids, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, wrote the first superhero comic in 1935 — an appealing fantasy about a bespectacled, weakling reporter who could, in the blink of an eye, throw off his dorky persona and become a crime-fighting Adonis in blue tights. Not long after, an ambitious young pulp-seller with mob connections named Harry Donenfeld and a disillusioned socialist called Jack Liebowitz founded DC Comics, which would become Superman’s publishing home. In the 1960s, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (once Stanley Lieber and Jacob Kurtzberg) created an entire pantheon of heroes with similar double identities, including the Fantastic Four, the
Hulk, and the X-Men. Most comic book characters were and remain WASPy all-Americans with an ambiguous (but likely Episcopalian) background. But while there have been few kosher superheroes, there are some exceptions.
Although Superman’s Midwestern upbringing doesn’t immediately suggest a Jewish background, consider the evidence. Before adopting the obviously assimilationist name of Clark Kent, he was known as Kal-el (Hebrew for “all that is good”). His origin story bears a strong resemblance to that of Moses: to save his life, his mother sends him in a space pod to another land, where he becomes a great leader. Even before the Man of Steel throttled Hitler and Hirohito on a 1942 comic book cover, Hitler and Mussolini both declared him a Jew and banned all Superman comics from their countries.
In some ways, the golem — in Jewish folklore, a supernatural creation fashioned out of mud and summoned to protect the innocent — is the original superhero. Cartoonist Will Eisner, after whom the prestigious Eisner Awards are named, has said, “The golem was very much the precursor of the superhero … in every society there’s a need for mythological characters, wish fulfillment. And the wish fulfillment in the Jewish case is someone who could protect us. This kind of storytelling seems to dominate in Jewish culture.”
Jack Kirby’s the Hulk was allegedly inspired by the mythical figure, and the golem himself has made a number of appearances in comic books over the years. In 1972, the Galactic Golem battled Superman, and in 1974 Marvel began its short-lived series The Golem: The Thing That Walks Like a Man! Most recently, graphic novelist James Sturm summoned him in his comic about a barnstorming Jewish baseball team in the 1920s that dresses a ringer from the Negro League as the golem in order to sell tickets.
In a 2002 Fantastic Four comic, the Thing, an enormous orange, rock-like mutant, helplessly watches the near-death of a friend and then … begins davening. The Thing’s religion may have come as a surprise to fans, who, like the villain Powderkeg, didn’t think the bundle of rocks “looked Jewish.” However, apparently creator Jack Kirby thought of the Thing as a Jew from the character’s creation in 1961. Kirby is said to have even kept a private sketch of the stony hero in full rabbinical regalia. Comic nerds will have you note, however, that in a 1974 issue, the Thing actually celebrates Christmas with the rest of the Fantastic Four.
Created in 1978 by fifteen-year-old Uri Fink, Sabraman is the first superhero created specifically for an Israeli audience. In the short-lived series, Dan Bar On, a former policeman, Holocaust survivor, and veteran of the 1956 Suez War, the Six-Day War, and the Yom Kippur War, is given superpowers by the “Superagency of Israel.” Shooting radioactivity from his eyes and flying across oceans in seconds, Sabraman uses his powers to fight the Nazi scientist Dr. Mengele. Although the series wasn’t in the least successful, Fink’s comic was the first attempt to create an explicitly Jewish hero and the first of many created to play off Israeli nationalism.
Three years after Sabraman, Marvel comics introduced its own Israeli superhero — a woman named Sabra in an Israeli flag–themed leotard. Sabra was brought up on a kibbutz and trained by Mossad. In her 1981 debut, a group of terrorists blow up a Tel Aviv café and kill a young boy. Mistaking the Hulk (who happens to be wandering around the Israeli desert) for an accomplice, she attacks the green hero before realizing her error. The Hulk then takes the opportunity to provide some analysis of the Middle East crisis: “Boy died,” he growls, “because of two old books that say his people and yours must fight and kill for land.” Ten years later, after a similar misunderstanding, Sabra fights the Hulk again and compares herself to the Israeli state: “Attack us and we endure … and we give as good as we get,” she says, which makes the Hulk think, “Terrific … I’m fighting the Zionist Recruiting Board.”
Magneto is the highest-profile Jewish villain in the comics world. The enemy of the X-Men came of age in the Auschwitz death camp and is driven by an ingrained, protective fear — a fear so all-encompassing that it makes him deadly dangerous. A description of Magneto from X-Men 112 (2001) may contain a bit of real-world political criticism: “It’s ironic, really. Magneto lost his family in a Nazi death camp, persecuted just because they were Jewish for the crime of being ‘different.’ Fifty-odd years later … and this time he’s the monster … he’s become what he’s always hated.” Perhaps feeling uncomfortable making a Jewish Holocaust survivor the arch-villain of a popular comic book, editors have occasionally inserted lines that suggest the possibility that Magneto could be a gypsy.
Jewish Hero Corps
Created by 46-year-old Alan Oirich with the aim of helping kids learn about their Jewish identity, the JHC is a kind of Justice League of America that won’t fight on Saturdays. First published by Electric Comics in 2000, the team battles the evil forces of assimilation (or as Oirich sees it, “Jewish amnesia”) using a variety of superpowers. Menorah Man spurts eight flames from his legs and arms. Yarmulkah Youth (a.k.a. “the Kipa Kid”) has a utility belt of crime-fighting yarmulkes, including an Aussie-style “Yamarang.” Dreidel Maidel has harnessed the awesome power of spinning, and Shabbas Queen (who wears a skirt that falls well below the knees) has a wand that nullifies electricity (it must be recharged one day in seven).