The American Comic Book and its Jewish origins

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that over the semester we’ve looked at comics and graphic novels in depth. Like…super in depth. I mean, what else can you do in a class like this? And while it’s been great to see some historical stuff (Oldbuck), read some pretty out there stuff (Das Stadt), and talk about comics and graphic novels that have become pretty prolific in popular culture, I keep feeling like there’s a very large piece missing. As I was sitting here trying to figure out what that missing piece was, it came to me: the origins of the American Superhero Comic Industry. Don’t get me wrong, I totally get that this class wasn’t necessarily about superhero comics, I still feel like it’s important to talk about the people who started the craze. Now, I’m not saying “started” in the sense of “these people made the first ‘comics/graphic novel’ in America,” but more in a sense of these are the people who laid the foundations down for the superhero comic book industry as we know it today. These people, like Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Bob Kane are all hall-of-famers for their contributions, and some (more than others) are household names, and have been for a while now. They also all have one thing (outside of comics) in common:

They’re all Jewish.

As a writer, I’m of the mind set that writers will always write what they know. I’ve seen it plenty of times, both in creative writing classes as well as best selling books (it’s no coincidence that all Stephen King novels are in Maine). With the abundance of Jewish writers and artists at the beginning of the American comic industry, I wanted to see how this background might have seeped into the superheroes we love. So, off to Google I went.

Jack Kirby

Most of the articles and think-pieces I found all start at the same point: the social and historical climate of America during the start of it all. Around the mid-1930’s, New York City had become sort of a beacon of hope for immigrants, especially for Jewish Europeans. These immigrants, who were fleeing from rising, violent antisemitism, found themselves at Ellis Island with what they perceived as a new chance for life. According to Rabbi Joe Klein, in his lecture, these immigrants (and their children) had learned to “hide in plain sight” while living in Europe, and when they came to America, they sort of continued this hiding to a lesser degree. Jewish immigrants wished to climb the social and economical ladder of America, without disrupting the status quo. They became “men of action disguised as men of inaction.”

To Klein, this is where the basis of the comic superhero comes from.  It was a projection of power for the artistic Jewish youth, the children of immigrants. Take for example Superman, an alien sent to Earth for a new chance on life, with incredible powers that he uses to save the people of Earth. The “alien sent to a new place for a better life” is essentially identical to the stories of Jewish immigrants (and all immigrants of this time). However, Klein picks up on something I hadn’t thought of before. Klein states that the story of Superman is most likely inspired by the Jewish stories of the coming Messiah, who would save his people with god-like powers. That Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, had probably envisioned a hero that could save them from the impoverished socioeconomic status they had because they were Jewish. Klein also finds a parallel with the origin story to that of the story of Moses.

According to several sources, “Kal-El” could be Hebrew for “Voice of God”

Of course, this could all be summed up as “speculation” or “over-analysis”, and there isn’t much talk about the Jewish parallels of superheros to their creators outside of Jewish circles, but I do think this is an interesting topic. It is also pretty easy to accept, as most successful superheroes show some sort of parallel to the experience of a Jewish immigrant (Superman, X-Men, Captain America). They are all men of action disguised as men of inaction. They are still the powerful projections of disenfranchised people in America. And it’s fascinating (to me, at least) to think about that history, and haunting to think about the almost complete erasure of it. It leaves me with a few questions. Would these heroes still work without that history to them? What happens to them when that history is completely erased and new creators wish to start story lines that can be seen as a direct perversion of that? Will we get more things like Nazi Captain America? I shudder to think about it.

This was the worst moment of my life

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *