In part or in whole, Jewish men created a majority of America’s greatest comic book heroes—from Superman, Batman, Captain America, Spider-Man, and the Hulk to the Fantastic Four, the Avengers and the original X-Men, the list goes on and on.
Bob Kane (born Robert Kahn) was the force behind Batman. Joel Simon and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) teamed up for Captain Marvel. Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) helped to come up with Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Captain America.
This list begs the question: Why did Jews overwhelmingly dominate comic books in an age when other publishing outlets were closed to them?
A recently-published book, “Superman Is Jewish? How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way,” builds on previous research and attempts to answer this very question.
The author, Harry Brod, is a University of Northern Iowa professor of religion and philosophy. He argues that the Jewish immigrant experience helped construct these superheroes and shaped how we view the American Dream.
“You’ve got men who are facing specific anti-Semitic stereotypes: weak, cowardly, overly-intellectual, wear glasses. You’re basically describing Clark Kent,” Brod told the Des Moines Register in a recent interview. “But the moral of the story is: Little do they know beneath the street clothes is Superman.”
He added: “You had immigrants, poor, working-class guys excluded from the mainstream who took a critical distance and fed America back a super, larger-than-life idealized image of itself: the superheroes.”
Most of the characters Brod covers in his book have no overt ethnicity or religion. But Brod still thinks Jewish ideas appear in Superman and other comic book heroes.
“It’s not enough to be an everyday hero,” Brod said. “You’ve got to be super-super. Part of it is the messianic nature of Judaism. The golden age is in the future — yet to come, rather than in the past. Jews are attracted to science fiction rather than fantasy. When you look at a lot of superheroes, they are created by science.”
Brod also thinks that the flaws of the comic book heroes created in the 1960s—Spider-Man’s self-doubt, the Hulk’s struggle with rage—were also a sign of the Jewish roots of their creators.
“Our biblical figures are flawed,” Brod said. “There’s not this idea that you have to be perfect to be a hero. Spider-Man, Peter Parker is a post-Holocaust American Jew. He couldn’t save his family. Peter Parker isn’t specifically Jewish, but the story is very much representative of how many Holocaust survivors felt.”
Brod isn’t the only person to write on the subject. Danny Fingeroth, a former editorial director of the Spider-Man comic books, wrote “Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society” in 2004. In the book, Fingeroth explained that the comic book industry was considered the lower rung of publishing, which is why it was one of the only publishing outlets open to Jewish writers.
“Because of various types of prejudice, things were closed off to Jews in the first half of the 20th century,” Fingeroth told Wired in a 2007 interview. “Maybe it’s hard to believe now, but Jews were not accepted in a lot of the publishing or advertising industries. There was a great deal of discrimination. There were no official policies like ‘No Jews allowed,’ but you could interview all you want and still not get work you might have been highly qualified for.”
Fingeroth explained that for the creators, writing comics was a way to blend into the American mainstream.
“You had a bunch of young men whose parents were immigrants, writing stories about a very idealized world, where force is wielded wisely and people are judged by their individual character, not by who they are or who their parents were,” Fingeroth said.
The Jewish creators were generally not religious, according to Fingeroth, since “back in the ’30s and ’40s, if you were Orthodox, you wouldn’t do something like comics. I think it was considered something not serious.”
Fingeroth also thinks that the traditional perspective of anti-Semites—that Jews are simultaneously weak yet control the world to a significant degree—might have influenced the creators to form strong, dual-identity characters.
“So one could say that the wimpy secret identity was the Jewish creators’ ways of saying that we’re powerful, in an individual sense, not wimps, and guided, individually and as a group, by the selfless desire to do good.”
Comic books came into fashion in the aftermath of the Great Depression, when publishers, suffering from a drop in book sales, took on comics, which could be sold at a cheaper price and were more generally accessible. Fingeroth explained that the Jewish creators, too, were looking for a way out of the Depression.
“They were sitting around thinking, ‘How can I make a living and move out of my parents’ house or help my parents out? How can I survive the Depression as a creative person, when there aren’t many options?’”
Fingeroth found during his research that many of early comics creators had come from relatively prosperous families that lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. This, he said, might have further influenced the creators.
“They had this weird background of having been fairly secure as kids, and suddenly having nothing at all. It’s like Superman having his whole planet blown up, or Bruce Wayne [Batman] having his parents murdered, or Peter Parker [Spider-Man], already an orphan as a baby, having his adoptive father—Uncle Ben—murdered.”
Arie Kaplan, author of “From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books,” has also written about how the creators’ Jewish backgrounds influenced their work. For example, Superman’s Kryptonian name was “Kal El,” which means “All that God is” in Hebrew.
“We’ll never know if it was intentional, but [Superman co-creators Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster had a basic Jewish education, and it’s hard to believe they didn’t know what that meant,” Kaplan told B’nai B’rith Magazine this past winter.
It’s not certain, however, whether the creators recognized the influence their Jewish backgrounds had on their work.
Fingeroth wrote in his book that “none of the founders and creators of the superheroes that I interviewed in researching this book thought, when first asked about it, that there was anything particularly Jewish about superheroes in general or any superhero in particular.”
Joe Kubert, a DC Comics artist who broke into the industry by naively sharing his boyhood sketches, echoed this view in a comment to B’nai B’rith Magazine before his death in August at age 85.
“There was no talk about being Jewish or not Jewish. I never felt that,” Kubert said. “I’ve been described as a Jewish cartoonist, but I see myself as a cartoonist who is Jewish.”
Tablet critic Douglas Wolk, too, is skeptical about how much the creators’ Jewish backgrounds influenced their work. He feels Fingeroth and Simcha Weinstein, author of “Up, Up, and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero,” may have forced Jewishness into the comic book creators’ inspiration.
“The problem with this approach is that its results aren’t falsifiable,” Wolk wrote in 2008 in Tablet. “Jewishness, the theory runs, is automatically encoded into every Jewish creator’s work. If there’s a direct correlation between the work and anything in Jewish tradition, it’s about Judaism; if there’s not, then it’s about assimilation, and therefore about Judaism.”
He continued: “Reading the work, then, becomes a scavenger hunt or word search for anything that can be construed as Jewish; there’s not much room for the idea that artists might be able to invent something outside their own experience of cultural tradition.”
In this context, Wolk wrote that the creation of Superman could be viewed more as a way to address the American immigrant experience in general rather than the Jewish one in particular.
“The strength of the superhero genre lies in its use of vivid metaphors for cultural dilemmas,” Wolk continued. “One of the genre’s standard devices—the hidden or double identity—resonates with Fingeroth’s rather recursive assertion that ‘Jewish identity is historically about the push and pull toward and away from that very identity.’ … Of course, if Siegel and Shuster’s heritage were, say, Irish or Chinese, an analogous argument could just as easily be constructed.”
Wolk also noted that many early comics creators attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, among them Will Eisner, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Irwin Hasen, and Mac Raboy. And yet, this similarity isn’t construed as a driving force in their creations.
“Is the history of American comics rife with conscious or unconscious references to that school, or a particular teacher?” Wolk asked. “It’s possible—and a particularly vague kind of reading, the same sort Fingeroth and Weinstein use in their books, would probably tease it out.”
Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.