On Oct. 17, the “People of the (Comic) Book” panel, presented by the JCC of Metro Detroit’s Detroit Jewish Book Fair, did a deep dive into the history of Jews in comics during Motor City Comic Con.
“The comic book is a Jewish invention. The superhero genre is a Jewish invention. The comic con [convention] is a Jewish invention,” writer Roy Schwartz explained during Motor City Comic Con weekend.
On Oct. 17, the “People of the (Comic) Book” panel, presented by the JCC of Metro Detroit’s Detroit Jewish Book Fair, did a deep dive into the history of Jews in comics.
On the panel was Roy Schwartz, author of Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero, and E. Lockhart, author of the new DC graphic novel Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero, the first originating Jewish superhero to join the legendary DC Comics universe in more than 40 years.
As thousands of comic con-goers dressed up as their favorite character and roamed the inside of the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Schwartz and Lockhart dove deep into the much unknown, yet rich history of Judaism in the comic book world — and their own contributions to it.
Comic books, superheroes, comic cons … How are all these Jewish inventions?
Schwartz explains that during the 1930s and 1940s, Jews were ostracized and marginalized in respectable creative industries, and the comic book industry was seen as the lowest rung on the ladder of publishing. As result, Jews effectively created something out of nothing.
“These were working-class, Eastern European Jews in New York that couldn’t find a job due to the Depression and the rising antisemitism of the ’30s and ’40s, who, very much like Hollywood, created an industry of their own,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz says Jewish creators consciously and unconsciously borrowed from their background and tradition when creating comic book characters and stories.
“When you look at them from this perspective, they are very rich in Jewish themes and signifiers,” says the Israeli-born Schwartz.
Schwartz has written for newspapers, magazines, toy companies, production studios and writes about pop culture for CNN.com. He has taught English and writing at the City University of New York.
His new book, Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero, is the product of six and a half years of work and started as his graduate school thesis. Schwartz received a writer-in-residence fellowship from the New York Public Library while writing the book.
The book is a journey through comic book lore, American history and Jewish tradition with a keen focus on the entirety of Superman’s career, from 1938 to date. The book is equal parts historical context and thematic content, Schwartz says.
“It’s really about the origins of the comic book industry, starting even before the golden age of comics with Jewish immigrants and their children in the ’30s and ’40s, following the development of the field and tracing things all the way to today,” he states.
Superman: Implicitly Jewish
Schwartz delves deep into the Jewish meaning, picking up on unexplored themes and threads in comic book history.
“The book is written in plain English, it’s meant to be read for enjoyment, but it’s a scholarly work from an academic press with 41 pages of endnotes and bibliography,” Schwartz said. “It’s a fun history book and a rich, fascinating history I’m very happy and privileged to be able to have brought to life.”
In the book, there’s no better example of a superhero and its Jewish connections than one of the very first superheroes ever, Superman himself. Schwartz says Superman is the first implicitly Jewish superhero.
“He’s Jewish as a character, not in the comics. He’s symbolically Jewish,” Schwartz explains.
Introduced in 1938, Superman was created by two Jewish teens from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the sons of immigrants from Eastern Europe.
Superman’s birth name is Kal-El. The suffix “el” means “of God” in Hebrew, with Kal-El defined by some as “Voice of God.” Before his home planet Krypton’s doom, Kal-El’s parents put him in a Moses-like basket, sending him down what has been referred to as the “Nile of intergalactic space” until he landed safely on Earth.
Schwartz, like so many others, clearly connects the dots of how Superman’s origin story is based on Moses.
“Baby Kal-El is sent to safety in a small vessel to an unknown fate, found by people not his own and renamed by his adopted mother, that is origin story of Moses,” Schwartz says.
Another Jewish connection of Superman’s was uncovered when co-creator Jerry Siegel’s lost memoir was discovered in 2011. Siegel wrote that his Superman was inspired by Samson, the biblical judge, as well as the Golem, as a protector of the innocent.
Kal-El, who comes over from the “old country” of Krypton, gets his name changed to Clark Kent to better assimilate into society, as many Jews did at the time the character was created.
“That’s the beautiful thing, because when he transforms from Clark Kent to Superman, he’s not just changing his personal identity, he’s also declaring his ethnic background,” Schwartz says. “His costume is like a tallit or another kind of religious or cultural symbol, that ethnic garb.”
In following decades, Superman’s mostly Jewish writers, artists and editors continued to borrow Jewish motifs for their stories, basing Krypton’s past on Genesis and Exodus.
Lockhart says another way Judaism is linked to the comic book industry is the dual identity of the superheroes invented in the pre-war and WWII years.
“Often, those are stories of people fiercely proud of their superheroic secret identity and at the same time, spend their time assimilating into the dominant culture,” Lockhart explains. “That is what the assimilation project for Jewish immigrants looks like in a lot of ways. That type of superhero remains relevant today for members of other cultures who are passing one way or another as assimilated.”
For some, it may come as a surprise to find out how much of the superhero world in its inception was Jewish. Schwartz says Jewish creatives dominated the profession in its beginnings, and many of the biggest names in the comic book world were Jewish but changed their names to more Americanized versions:
The man who invented the comic book, Max Gaines, was born Max Ginsberg. Legendary comic book writers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were born Stanley Martin Lieber and Jacob Kurtzberg, respectively. Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s family names were Segalovich and Shusterowich, respectively. Prolific comic artist Gil Kane was Eli Katz. Batman co-creator Bob Kane was Robert Kahn.
“It goes on and on and on,” Schwartz says.
In the earlier days, comic book characters did not state their religious or ethnic identities. That started to change in the 1970s, Lockhart says.
“The very first ever explicitly Jewish comic was in 1948 with Funnyman, who was invented by Siegel and Shuster. He was kind of a flop, kind of a Danny Kaye-type clown,” Lockhart said. “But in the ’70s, you started to see a number of openly Jewish heroes and villains emerging into the comic book world.”
It was at that time that Ragman, Seraph, Magneto and other characters started coming into the fold with Jewish identities and characteristics.
Seraph, originally from Israel, was gifted by divine powers with the strength of Samson, the Ring of Solomon, the Staff of Moses and the Mantle of Elijah.
Ragman’s powers are related to the Holocaust, believed to be channeling power from the souls of Jews killed in the Holocaust and throughout history by antisemites.
Magneto, who had been a villain until recent years, is a Holocaust survivor, and much of how he got his powers are because of what he went through. The Holocaust shaped Magneto’s outlook and influenced his extreme methods to protect his own mutant-kind from suffering a similar fate at the hands of a world that fears and persecutes them.
“Basically, these Jewish characters were explicitly linked either to the trauma of the Holocaust or to the specifically religious artifacts that gave them power,” Lockhart says. “That was how it went until recently when we get Jewish characters who are just Jewish. Some of them are retrofitted as Jewish, like Green Lantern. New writers came on and identified them as Jewish, or they were declared to have been Jewish all along, but we just didn’t know, like The Thing.”
The Thing, one of the members of Marvel Comics’ superhero team The Fantastic Four, was an autobiographical creation of Jack Kirby.
The Thing wasn’t revealed to be Jewish for 40 years until 2002, when he recited “Shema Yisrael” to save a dying friend, possessed a Star of David and celebrated his bar mitzvah.
Harley Quinn was clearly Jewish from the get-go. Quinn’s Jewish heritage was officially canonized in 2010 when it was revealed she comes from a mixed Jewish and Catholic family. Quinn is also based on a real Jewish comedian.
In the early 1990s, Batman: The Animated Series co-creator Paul Dini was developing the supporting crew for the Batman villain the Joker. For the Joker’s No. 1 gal, Dini was inspired by Jewish actress, comedian and screenwriter Arleen Sorkin. Sorkin’s snappy, wisecracking personality, as well as her mannerisms, were incorporated into what would become Harley Quinn. Sorkin herself would go on to act as the character’s signature voice actress for 20 years.
In recording Harley Quinn’s voice, Sorkin spoke in her normal Brooklyn accent while putting in a “little Yiddish sound,” another influence from Sorkin. Quinn often uttered Yiddish words such as “oy” and “plotz” in the comics.
New Character for a New Generation
Unlike other characters, Whistle, the main heroine in E. Lockhart’s latest book Whistle: A New Gotham City Hero, is Jewish as a character and explicitly Jewish in the book’s canon.
Lockhart is the author of the No. 1 New York Times bestseller We Were Liars and many other novels. She also writes books for young readers under the name Emily Jenkins. Whistle is her first graphic novel.
“DC invited me to create a superhero for them after reading a novel of mine called Genuine Fraud, which has a lot of superhero content buried inside of it,” Lockhart says.
DC gave Lockhart leeway to create anything she wanted, so she created Whistle.
Lockhart, who is Jewish, gained inspiration for Whistle’s background from her own, particularly relating to New York City. Lockhart’s great-grandparents were immigrants from Russia and Poland, which was the beginning of her family’s strong roots to the city.
Lockhart’s dad lived near the Lower East Side (LES), a historically Jewish neighborhood that retains a strong sense of its Jewish heritage today. Lockhart spent a lot of time there growing up.
“I felt this connection partly because I had studied and read about the history of the LES for another project and because I grew up going there,” Lockhart said. “I felt this connection of my own family to the city, and our heritage was entwined with that.”
Lockhart then created the neighborhood in Gotham City that’s based off of the LES, called Down River.
Whistle (aka Willow Zimmerman) exists in that neighborhood and develops superpowers after getting sucked into the criminal underworld of Gotham City in order to make money for her family.
“Her mom is single and a professor of Jewish history who had to quit her job because she’s really sick and they have no health insurance,” Lockhart explains. “After she gets superpowers, she decides to fight for good rather than evil and protects the neighborhood.”
Whistle’s sidekick dog, Lebowitz, is named after author and social commentator Fran Lebowitz, who is also Jewish.
“Whistle’s powers and identity are not centered on religious beliefs nor on the trauma of the Holocaust, but she’s culturally Jewish, a person who’s deeply connected to a historically Jewish neighborhood that she protects,” Lockhart explains.
Lockhart knows how important representation is in media, and hopes young adult audiences, Jewish or not, connect with it.
“It’s very valuable for young people to see themselves on the page in empowered situations, but I also really tried to write something that was morally complicated about being a superhero,” Lockhart says. “I hope the book will make people think about what it means to be a good person and how challenging it can be to find a path forward.”
While Lockhart’s book is mostly targeted at young adults, Schwartz wrote his book with two audiences in mind.
“For comic book and pop culture fans, I hope it’s a fun, interesting journey through comic book lore and history,” he said. “For Jewish readers, I hope it brings them an appreciation for our cultural contribution. We know about Hollywood, Broadway and standup comedy, but now they’ll be able to fully appreciate our very significant contribution to such a popular and ubiquitous piece of Americana.”
As far as the future of Jews in the comic book world, Lockhart believes it’s a bright one.
“I think the comic book world is opening up and it’s going to continue to open up more,” Lockhart said. “I’ve seen tons of representation in really wonderful and creative ways.
“We’re at the start of a very exciting time when we’re going to see more and more heroes reinvented and invented by a wider range of creators.”