by Kelley Kidd
With the new influx of superheroes and comic book characters into film, what was formerly a somewhat niche genre has become mainstream. On opening weekend, The Avengers made $207,438,708 in the US alone. (That’s a lot—the massively popular The Hunger Games came in at $152,535,747 its opening weekend.) There may not, at first glance, seem to be anything Jewish about the characters that populate superhero movies. But, not only do “comic book superheroes…disguise themselves to save the world,” according to former Marvel group editor Danny Fingeroth, “they also disguise their Jewish heritage and values.” The superhero trope owes much to Judaism and the Jewish authors who have created many of the comic book world’s enduring figures: Captain America, for example, is intended to be a super-soldier to fight the Nazis, and X-Men’s Magneto discovers his powers as his parents are torn from him in a concentration camp.
This month, Washington, DC’s Theater J will produce The History of Invulnerability, a play that explores the development of the Superman story by looking at the struggles Jewish author Jerry Siegel faced while producing the work. Playwright David Bar Kats “doesn’t pull any punches with the brutality of the era,” using the play to reflect the emotional struggle faced by Siegel during his life and creative process, and by humanity during the period prior to America’s entrance into World War II. In the words of one reviewer, “the fantastic stories of Superman swirl with moments of Siegel’s own life and tales of Jews at Auschwitz during World War II” to illustrate that American Jews created superheroes like Superman to conquer their own sense of vulnerability.
Siegel was not alone in this effort—there are books and books written on the role of Judaism in the comic book industry, not only in the cases of Superman, Captain America, and X-Men, but also Batman, Spider-Man, the Justice League, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four. So why have Jews turned to these characters? Superman helped Jews feel more empowered in the face of absolute vulnerability, and others reflect the importance of Jewish ideals like social justice. Captain America, created by two Jewish authors, was a scrawny outcast, the outsider looked down upon until he is scientifically enhanced to be a Super-soldier, building American morale and combating Nazi Germany. On the cover of one of the original Captain America comics, he is even depicted literally punching Hitler in the face. Following World War II, his popularity dwindled until he re-emerged in the 1960s—his story picked back up with the discovery of his body, frozen since World War II. Having been estranged from life as he knew it, he becomes a character lost in a new era and “haunted by past memories, and struggling to fit into 1960s society, which was much like the sentiments of many Holocaust survivors.” He was both a source of hope for those who felt like outsiders, as well as someone to whom Jews could relate in the years after the Holocaust.
Similarly, the Fantastic Four, written by Jewish author Stan Lee and published by Martin Goodman, exhibited sentiments familiar to Jewish Americans. A crime-fighting team of superheroes, the Fantastic Four included a character named Benjamin Grimm whose exposure to radiation transformed him into “a grotesque, scaly-hided strongman dubbed the Thing.” His struggles with his appearance, and the resulting ostracism and insecurity, led him to separate from the Four and go in search of reconciliation and his own sense of identity. His struggles represented the challenges of living as a minority in the 1960s, and the need for “others” to develop “thick skin” in order to make it in an often intolerant world.
Like all popular culture, the comic book serves both as a mirror to reflect and a tool to shape society and self, an avenue explored by Jewish authors to express their frustrations with intolerance and anti-Semitism, to show the world both the experience of the “other,” and to establish a rallying point and a sense of self.