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Without His Secret Identity, Will Superman Still Be Jewish?

The medium of comic books is a fundamentally American art form — and an overwhelmingly Jewish one.

Superman, Batman, Captain America and the Fantastic Four all came from the minds and Bristol boards of Jewish-Americans, most of whom were first-generation. How these heroes spread from a New York nucleus of insular, and often nepotistic, artists’ pens to the wider world is a success story of assimilation. But Jewish illustrators and writers were also assimilating America to Jewish ideas, filtering values of patriotism through a Jewish lens and elevating something essential to the Jewish condition to a universal beacon as conspicuous as the Bat-Signal.

But as with any great institution, disruptions are inevitable. Two developments in comics, one confirmed and one rumored, are now challenging foundational elements of long-established canon. Both of these moves strike at the Jewish ethos endemic to the form. That’s not a bad thing, though. In fact, these changes mark yet another triumph for the art as its stories attain the status of modern myths.

First, for the confirmed report. On December 11, Superman will reveal his secret identity, Clark Kent, to the world in Issue 18 of the new “Superman” run by Brian Michael Bendis. This is the first time in his over 80 year history that the Last Son of Krypton will go public with his alter ego. The development will send shockwaves through the DC universe, as Bendis insisted, in an interview with The New York Times, that the self-outing will not be a “fake-out” like so many short-lived comic gimmicks.

“We wanted to do this because behind it is 1,000 brand-new Superman stories that have never been told,” Bendis said.

He’s right. Breaking with the secret identity formula — which is a cardinal rule of writing Superman, up there with not having him kill people and his allergy to Kryptonite — opens the door for a massive reshuffling of DC’s continuity. At the same time, its implications for the Man of Steel’s origins and ontology are seismic.

Dreamed up in Cleveland by Jewish kids Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Superman’s duality has long been interpreted by fans – and some rabbinical scholars – as echoing the assimilation dilemma of first-generation American Jewry.

Clark Kent is the face Superman presents professionally and publicly; it’s his byline at the Daily Planet and the byproduct of the time he spent growing up in the heartland of Smallville, where he was raised by corn-fed Americans Jonathan and Martha Kent. Superman, whose real name is Kal-El, comes from a distant homeland. He has an ancient heritage he keeps to himself and he has a far-flung place of reflection (the crystalline shul of the Fortress of Solitude). He fears, rightly so, that exposing this part of himself — to fully embrace and live as Kal-El always — would put a target on his well-toned back.

For a bullet-proof man, keeping both identities separate is largely a means of protecting the more vulnerable people in Kent’s non-superpowered life. But on a deeper level, Kal-El is really defending himself from the fear of being labeled an outsider.

Of course, the culture of 1938, the year Superman was first seen heaving a car on the cover of Action Comics Number 1, is different from the world of 2019. Actors now appear under their given, Jewish-sounding names. Jews, while still a minority and still at risk, are more open about their faith and now boast decent numbers in states and towns that better resemble Smallville than Metropolis.

So, perhaps the question in Superman’s mind, as presented by Bendis, is the right one: “Who was he lying to protect?”

In a world where being openly Jewish is less fraught — or at least more protected — does Superman’s parallel of a private cultural life and public-facing professional one apply to Jews today?

Definitely. It is hard to imagine a time in America — or any country other than Israel — where Jews won’t have to face the dissonance of presentation that Superman so clearly signifies. And beyond the Jews, his predicament speaks to other minorities, to immigrants — to anyone, in fact, who feels the need to hide some of themselves away.

It’s precisely because this dynamic has spoken to so many that Bendis’ plans for Superman are an urgent and welcome evolution. Rather than losing something in the central dualism of Superman, we will gain stories of acceptance, pride, truth and the pitfalls of coming out to the world. No longer will Superman be a closeted Kryptonian, but, in Bendis’ words, “the best version of himself.”

The second major shakeup in comics with large Jewish implications is still hearsay, but is already stirring up strong feelings. Recently, there have been whispers that X-Men villain Magneto, a Holocaust survivor whose persecution informed his views on mutant separatism, might be recast as a black man in upcoming films.

The Times of Israel ran an op-ed by Thomas Brown wondering “Would a race change for Marvel’s Jewish Magneto be anti-Semitic?” His conclusion was, essentially, “No, but…”

Brown writes of Magneto: “His identity as a survivor of the greatest genocide in modern history became inseparable from his identity as a Mutant and informed his violent crusade against the persecution of Mutants.”

(Of course, Magneto could also be black and harbor similar feelings, and many believe that the character, whose Jewish roots were a later development – as Brown admits – was modeled off of Malcolm X.)

After suggesting that Magneto might be Jewish and black or a survivor of a more recent genocide somewhere else in the world, Brown argues that the casting of a non-Jewish Magneto, while well-meaning and something he’d welcome, sends the wrong message in regard to representation.

“Are we really saying that Jews are not marginalized?” Brown asks, in a string of rhetoricals at home with Shylock’s most famous speech. “Not subject to persecution? Not a minority in every sense of the word? Have Jews really just become white people, with all the attendant ‘privilege?’ In the race to represent oppressed or culturally invisible people in the most visible and popular forms of mass media are we erasing the very real struggle, historical and contemporary, of one of the most discriminated ethnic/religious groups in the world.”

Given that plans for Magneto’s casting have not been verified, any motives that might be ascribed to Marvel Studios are speculative. Accordingly, Brown’s thesis falls at times into straw man territory, but it does give us something to consider: To what extent can Jews still claim these characters and stories as proprietary?

Myths, legends and fables, while all originating with a specific culture, eventually belong to the world. The Greek pantheon is taught in American middle schools. Faith leaders of three major religions convey stories from the Hebrew Bible at their pulpits. There are translations of “The Wizard of Oz” in countless languages, including the “universal” tongue of Esperanto. And now, with Marvel films shattering box office records both domestically and abroad, it is small-minded to be so defensive of origins.

It should, instead, come as a source of tremendous pride that less than a century into the form’s creation, superhero comics have become a part of a global mythology. They are a format to be re-imagined, reworked and re-calibrated to a moment in time, probed for new truths and challenged on their essential premises. What could be more Jewish than that kind of Talmudic rethinking?

The urge to change the understanding of Jewish comic canon is not a threat. Rather, it’s a sign that we have made ourselves understood.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at [email protected].

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