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Brod is rightly wary of the kind of treasure hunting that finds Jewish cultural subtext in anything by an American Jewish creator; it would be somewhat difficult to argue that Lee and Kirby’s tales of Norse gods in Thor comics count as Jewish, for instance. He’s careful to point it out where it is significant, as with Captain America socking Hitler on the cover of his first appearance, published nine months before Pearl Harbor, or the Yiddish phrases liberally sprinkled into the early issues of Mad.
But anything in comics (not just superhero comics) that has to do with Judaism, American Jewish culture or Jewish creators seems to be fair game for the book, as does nearly any tangent that can connect to those topics. It probably wasn’t necessary, for instance, for Brod to discuss “the precapitalist agricultural economy of medieval Europe” or to summarize a discussion he had with one of his classes about Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat character, or to relate a self-serving anecdote about a wartime “teach-in” at which he spoke.
In his introduction, Brod complains about the standards of academic prose, noting that “as scholars we’re supposed to remain faithful to our source material; if we take the comic out of comic books, we end up falsifying the data.” The chief necessity of academic writing, though, is that it has to make a point. Brod’s style is discursive, casual, personal and often maddeningly rambling. The clearest argument here comes when he explains that his intention is “to see to it that the stories of Superman and other comic book superheroes not be similarly lost [as an expression of Jewish culture] as they are assimilated into mainstream culture. This is an exercise in reclamation.” Fair enough — but there was never a moment when superheroes were outside of mainstream culture, and it’s hard to see the genre’s links to American Jewish culture as something that’s been lost or deliberately obscured rather than as something that seems more interesting in hindsight. (Brod points out one significant exception: The 2006 film “Superman Returns” specifically presented Superman as a Christ figure.)
There’s also a certain amount of potentially fertile territory that Brod has mostly or entirely overlooked. It might have been nice, for instance, for him to have included something on John Goldwater or Martin Nodell, respectively the (Jewish) creators of Archie and Green Lantern. The most popular writer in superhero comics right now, Brian Michael Bendis, is the son of a rabbi (and the rhythms of his writing owe as much, in their way, to Jewish theater as Lee’s did); the question of cultural assimilation is explored at great length in nearly every incarnation of the staggeringly popular X-Men franchise in the past few decades; the new Batwoman, introduced a few years ago and now the star of her own series, was established as a Jewish character from her very first appearance. Still, you wouldn’t know any of that from “Superman Is Jewish?”
Brod is at his best when he’s looking closely at the work of particular creators; he’s got a keen eye for the specific visual gifts of the artists he likes most, and his reading of “Maus” is particularly thoughtful. Some of the chapters of “Superman Is Jewish?” read as if they started out as lectures, and as a chatty reminiscence by a knowledgeable enthusiast of old comic books and of Jewish culture, the book has its charms. It just doesn’t deliver much of what its title promises.
Douglas Wolk is the author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean” (Da Capo Press, 2007) and the Kindle single “Comic-Con Strikes Again!” He writes about arts and culture for Time, The New York Times Book Review, Rolling Stone and elsewhere.