Superman Is Jewish?
By Harry Brod
Free Press, 240 pages, $25
There has been a little boom, recently, in books about the links between Jews and comic books. Stack up Simcha Weinstein’s “Up, Up, and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero,” Danny Fingeroth’s “Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero,” Arie Kaplan’s “From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books,” Paul Buhle’s “Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form,” Fredrik Strömberg’s “Jewish Images in the Comics” and the academic anthology “The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches,” and you’ll have trouble leaping over them in a single bound. On top of that pile, we now get this volume by a philosophy and humanities professor — and at this point, it really needs to add something new to the conversation.
Unfortunately, Harry Brod, who teaches at the University of Northern Iowa, has set the scope of his book so tightly that he can’t stay within it for long. He’s framed “Superman Is Jewish?” as a survey of how superhero comic books express American Jewish culture, but he simply doesn’t have enough material that fits that description. So he ends up extending the premise in several directions, devoting chapters to Jewish content in American comics that aren’t about superheroes, in superhero-related work that isn’t comics (the final chapter concerns Michael Chabon’s prose novel about the early years of the comics industry, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”), in non-superherocomics by artists in Europe and Israel, and in imaginative art that is related to neither comics nor superheroes.
There are chapters on Mad magazine, on Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” and on Jewish-themed comics by artists Will Eisner and Joe Kubert, both of whom had formerly drawn superheroes. By the point at which Brod is attempting to gerrymander Isaac Asimov’s prose science fiction and Marc Chagall’s paintings into the discussion, he’s really pushing it.
At the core of “Superman Is Jewish?” — as with the other books on the same topic — there’s a fascinating sliver of history. There really were a lot of Jews involved in creating the most important American comic books, superhero and otherwise, from the late 1930s to the mid-’70s. Without Jewish creators, there would have been no Superman, no Batman, no Archie, no Mad, no “Maus,” no “A Contract With God” and none of the major Marvel Comics characters introduced in the ’60s.
Stan Lee, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Kirby, Bob Kane, Bill Finger: all major names in the history of American comics, and Jews, one and all. And, with a few exceptions, they never made a particularly big deal about it in public venues. Brod quotes Lee — born Stanley Lieber — on how much Jewishness informs comics: “You know, I have no idea. I never really thought of it.”