Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Superman is Jewish? The intersection of history, religion, and popular culture in comics

I have blogged previously about Art Spiegelman’s Maus.  The books were an eye opener for me, seeing the powerful emotions, a storyline that personalizes history while not minimizing it, and a format that invites in reluctant readers.  Graphic novels (books in comic book format, with illustrations, and often dealing with topics that align more with adult themes) are a great entry point for both strong readers and reluctant readers.  The art form of comics allows two media to be conjoined and to deepen the experience of the audience.  Comic books have traditionally been in the realm of pre-teen and teenage boys.  The simplicity of the illustration can fool many in to believing that there is little worth between the covers.  Surprisingly - thankfully - there is so much more going on inside of these books.  Seemingly because of their innocuous nature, they are able to convey adult themes, open doors to history, and deal with current events in a way that can be both profound and easily overlooked at the same time.
In 1941, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon created the character Captain America.  On the cover, Cap has infiltrated a Nazi bunker, and is punching Adolf Hitler.  A great image from today’s standard, and nothing less than we would expect from the stories we are taught in our textbooks.  But, the comic came out in March 1941, before the US was committed to the war.  The war was "over there," and Americans wanted nothing to do with it.  Kirby and Simon were young Jewish artists and decided to turn current events into their story.  Their work did not start the war, or increase patriotism.  It took current events and pushed them to the forefront.  It demanded attention and erased ignorance.  It piqued interest and awoke a younger generation.  (Very much in the same vein as Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert Report, today.)

The Holocaust would come up again in popular culture in the 1950s.  Several different stories would deal with the history in different ways.  Stories would continue, ideas would be shared.  And in the 1960s, Stan Lee would create the story of the X-Men, a group of humans that are different, and therefore feared.  I began reading the series in the 1980s, and was immediately drawn to the storyline of exclusion.  While not overtly mentioning antisemitism, it would be hard to deny, even as a boy, the historical basis.  Seeing America’s transformations throughout the 90s - the cultural acceptance of interracial dating, homosexuality, and other minority communities - the X-Men storylines reflected society, and built empathy. 

At some point, I stumbled upon the graphic novel, X-Men:  God Loves, Man Kills.  My eyes were opened.  A part of the story deals with violence aimed at those considered different, and therefore, considered unworthy of life by some (an arching theme in the X-Men universe).  Two young children are hung from a swing set.  They are found by the arch-enemy Magneto (created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, both Jews).  This sets up the backstory.  Magneto will become a complex character that several writers will work to flush out.  Ultimately, in Magneto: Testament, published in 2008, we discover that Magneto is raised Jewish in a German home. His family flees the Nazis and are caught in Poland.  Long story short, his past helps shape his views, and quite possibly reflects the nature of the creators. Magneto’s complexity will be reflected in the movie series, but will not be as effective at generating the empathy and complexity of the character.  The films, though, do provide a decent entry in to the comic world. 

Most recently, Disney has paired up with several creators to develop a film and online graphic novel set entitled, “They Spoke Up:  American Voices Against the Holocaust.This is an interesting series, and I am just breaking in to it as I write this, but looks to be a promising resource.   I will blog about that in the coming weeks.  There are other great works available out there including a great story entitled 2nd Generation: Things I Never Told My Father, in graphic novel form, dealing with the complexity of the Holocaust that allows entry and absorption at multiple levels.  They just aren’t available in the United States. 

As I was researching for this post, I came across a recently published book (2012) entitled Superman is Jewish? that relates similarities in Jewish culture with the comic book storylines.  The author makes a wonderful comparison of the alien that would become Clark Kent being rocketed to safety by his parents before their destruction:  An interstellar “Kindertransport.”  Comic books are much more complex than we can even imagine. 

Sadly, there has been little new in the way of Holocaust graphic literature.  The stories of the 1950s provided shock and awe at a time when it was still fairly new in the cultural psyche.  The Holocaust is rarely invoked as a teaching tool in modern mainstream culture.  It has been moved to the shelf of distant history.  We must be careful to not lose the lessons learned in such a hard fashion.  We must follow the lead of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, use the media of comics and graphic novels to shape the future generations in a less blunt fashion.  Truly, it is often those that need the lesson the most that will be most likely to pick up this form of literature.  Rather than just re-illustrating Anne Frank, let us seek to build on the exploration of humanity by find new avenues and new stories to tell in different formats. 

1 comment:

  1. Great article!

    Please check out The Jewish Comix Anthology website at http://www.jewishcomicsanthology.com/