Sacred Identities…

Over the past year or so, I have been delving back into the worlds of comic books and graphic novels. A welcome break from more “serious” reading, these genres blend my love of reading and images. As many of you well know, Hollywood is approaching these ready made story boards with a vengeance. As I’ve read more comics and graphic novels, I’ve also been reading about the history of this medium and have found it just as entertaining, especially given its similarities to film history. Both the film and comic book industries have fought opponents who regard their products as trash or as potentially de-moralizing influences. Both industries set up censorship boards to regulate depictions of sex, violence, and crime (although it seems as if comics and graphic novels get away with much more scandalous depictions of said offenses these days).  Finally, both industries have seen Jews play foundational roles in their foundation and maturation with Jews occupying all facets of production from studio executives and publishers to actors and artists.I just finished reading a short book (almost an extended essay) by Rabbi Simcha Weinstein entitled Up, Up, and Oy Vey!: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero. While certainly not as lengthy or as in-depth as Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, It does point to the prevalence of Jews in the history of comic books and graphic novels. All the great household names are here: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (creators of Superman); Bob Kane (born Kahn) and Bill Finger (creators of Batman); Jerry Robinson (creator of the Joker); Will Eisner (creator of the Spirit); Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) and Joe Simon (creators of Captain America); and Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber, creator of everything!). And the list goes on and on.

Given the marginalized nature of comic books in their early days, the industry proved to be a creative haven for Jewish writers and artists. The same could be said of Hollywood too. The story of these comic book artists’ desire to assimilate into American culture finds Hollywood parallels. However, while many Jewish studio moguls might have been willing to cast off their Jewish identity for the sake of Uncle Sam, some of the comic book pioneers walk(ed) a much finer line.

There is of course the undeniable patriotism of the earliest Jewish comic book creators. During World War II, many Jewish comic book artists fought Hitler and the Nazis through their superhero creations and asserted their American patriotism. Most famously, Simon and Kirby depict Captain America punching Hitler in the face on the cover of the first issue of Captain America Comics in March 1941, before America got involved in the war. On the other hand, these artists tangled with their Jewish heritage throughout the pages of their comics as well.

One of the highlights of Rabbi Weinstein’s book is his inclusion of pages from famous comic book series in which characters either reveal their secret Jewish identity or ancestry or actively engage in Jewish religious traditions. Fantastic Four’s The Thing comes out of the Jewish closet in the third series (August 2002) when he says the Shema (testifying to the oneness of God) over a fallen friend. One of The Hulk’s foes-turned-ally is superheroine Sabra, who is an Israeli policewoman in “real life.” In Amazing Spider-Man #502 (February 2004), we learn that a Jewish tailor makes costumes for all the superheroes and villains. These examples are all in the book in full color reprints for us to witness.

But the influence of Jewish culture in comic books runs much deeper than religious or ethnic identity. The superhero creators (sub)consciously imbued their characters and stories with religious values. Superman’s true name is a Hebrew name. Magneto won’t fight past sunset on Friday. The whole concept of masks and hidden or dual identities is a strong theme in kabbalistic teachings. Rabbi Weinstein points to Jewish values that relate to specific superheroes:

  • Superman–integrity
  • Batman and the Spirit–justice
  • Captain America–patriotism
  • Justice League–teamwork
  • Fantastic Four–family values
  • Hulk–anger
  • Spider-Man–responsibility and redemption
  • X-Men–anti-Semitism and reconciliation

The Hulk and The Thing both bear striking resemblances to the Jewish golem. Captain America’s weapon of choice–a shield–is a famous Jewish symbol denoting the closeness and protection of God. His white “A” on the mask on his forehead is also significant. It too is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph) and was the letter needed to empower the golem. The Jewish emphasis on the importance of the tribe finds contemporary parallel in superhero team-ups, most notably The Justice League of America. Moreover, one cannot ignore the paramount importance of the theme of justice in the Hebrew scriptures. The Fantastic Four also mirrors this teamwork (though with family flair) with the number four also holding a special place in Jewish tradition (the four elements or seasons).

Following the concept of dual identities, Rabbi Weinstein describes the Jewish notion of yetzer hatov and yetzer harah, dueling impulses to do good and to do evil that plague all of us. Comic book creators often work out these warring impulses not only between superheroes and villains but within superheroes as well, like Spider-Man or The Hulk for example. Rabbi Weinstein’s discussion of the X-Men is especially insightful, given the Uncanny X-Men‘s recent move to San Francisco in issue #500. Critics draw parallels between the X-Men and homosexuals (both experience persecution as they discover their differences during puberty). Yet Rabbi Weinstein notes the Jewishness of their creators and also sees the X-Men as a way in which they worked through experiences of anti-Semitism. Magneto, far from simply an evil villain, was a victim of the Holocaust. Rather than individuals, the X-Men are an entire race of superheroes.

Up, Up, and Oy Vey! is a quick and entertaining read for long-time comic book fans and fans new to the genre. Rabbi Weinstein’s analysis is more of an introduction to the topic rather than an in-depth study. He concludes with four spiritual lessons that, were it not for the strong Jewish connections that he outlines throughout his text, might seem trite. This book is a great resource in working with teenagers who are especially drawn to comics in order to encourage them to begin to take a deeper look at their pop-culture consumption. It would also make for a great tool in interfaith dialogue and understanding for younger readers.

One of the highlights of Up, Up, and Oy Vey! that I wish Rabbi Weinstein would have explored more is his personal, spiritual journey that he briefly discusses in the introduction and conclusion of his text.  Mirroring the comic book creators and characters about which he writes, Rabbi Weinstein also struggled with dueling identities as he pursued a career in film before more fully embracing his heritage.  Like films lead Craig Detweiler into another level of engagement with his faith, so too do comic books draw Rabbi Weinstein further into his.