The Superhero Schtick
You probably know Jews are responsible for comic book history. Max Gaines originated the comic book in 1933. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in 1938; Bob Kane and Bill Finger dreamed up Batman a year later. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby pretty much gave birth to everyone in the Marvel Universe, and Will Eisner invented the modern graphic novel. The organizer of the first comic book convention? The owner of the first comic book specialty store? All Jewish.
I won’t say Jews invented superheroes—Gilgamesh and Hercules came first—but we’ve played the superhero shtick a long time. That scrappy kid who took down down a villain ten times his size? The time two heroes fought all night until they reached a draw and realized they were both on the side of righteousness? They’re biblical stories of David and Goliath and Jacob wrestling the angel, and also comic book tropes.
What is a superhero but someone who keeps surviving, living through the night and waking up in the morning and taking up the fight and surviving another night? What don’t Jewish people know about superheroes?
In the industry’s early days, it was considered improper to mention religious affiliation, but of course Ben Grimm is Jewish; his rocky exterior reflects a post-biblical Jewish superhero: the golem of Prague. “The Golem was very much the precursor of the super-hero,” Will Eisner wrote. European Jews in the middle ages, subject to economic restrictions and threatened by allegations of blood libel, dreamed of a power to protect them from tyrants. Thus sprung the legend of the golem, a creature made from the earth by the hands of man, imbued by the will of God with a semblance of life and the ability to protect the powerless from the powerful.
In America, Jews were free to shrug off the confines of their Jewishness. None of the comic book greats are known by their Jewish-sounding birth names, but the influences of their culture of origin permeated their work. Eisner saw the superhero narrative as a distinctly Jewish one. Even in America, tyranny still needed overthrowing.
Eisner Opens His Eyes
It takes clarity to recognize institutionalized racism when you are the institution, but after a lifetime in the industry, Eisner could examine his field with a mature eye. In the 1940s, he wrote what he later called “accepted stereotypes” into The Spirit. Growth as an artist and writer inspired him to treat his characters with increasing dignity, until he realized the dangers of careless racial generalization. To rectify mistakes made in the past, he says, “I began to produce graphic novels with the themes of Jewish ethnicity and the prejudice the Jews still face.”
To this end he wrote books like Fagin the Jew, a detailed backstory explaining how the anti-Semitic Oliver Twist character came to occupy his place in life, and The Plot, a book that Eisner hoped would eradicate, once and for all, any credence given to the fraudulent racist document knows as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. First, however, he wrote A Contract with God.
In the Contract with God trilogy, Eisner rebuilt the vanished world of the New York City tenement, ethnic enclaves where recent immigrants struggled to realize the American dream. These stories distilled the threads that united many American Jews prior to World War II, set them within the context of the American immigrant experience, and demonstrated how embracing or rejecting the cultural other can mean the difference between prosperity and disaster. His characters were common, ordinary people, calling on all their resources to make life bearable, livable. They were heroes simply by virtue of surviving.
Judaism stresses a personal relationship with divinity; one element of the survival superpower is the ability to take grievances directly to God. Eisner showcases this moral aesthetic in the eponymous first chapter. An Orthodox Jew named Frimme Hersh accuses God of contract violation when Hersh’s teenage daughter dies, even though Hersh has adhered to his side of the religious bargain right down to “a single comma.” His ability to confront his deity directly and lay blame helps him weather the storm of loss even as he denies his own religious expectation.
A later chapter, “A Life Force” illustrates a single evening in the existence of Jacob Shtarkah, an unemployed carpenter, who takes his quarrel with God to a lower court. His only reason to exist, he reckons, the only thing that separates him from an insect, is his ability to create. Despondent, he spends the evening philosophizing to a cockroach, trying to rationalize the desire to live.
Mister Cockroach, what are you struggling for?? To maybe stay alive a few more days? Well…to tell the truth, so am I trying to stay alive. So, then what’s the difference between us?? You…being only a cockroach, just want to live! For you it’s enough! But me, I have to ask, why!? Why, why…who knows why?! …God?? Well, there are only two possibilities! Either man created God…or God created man! If…Man created God…then the reason for life is only in the mind of man!! …If, on the other hand, God created man…then the reason for living is still only a guess! …After all is said and done…who really knows the will of God?? …..So, in either case, both man and cockroach are in serious trouble! Because staying alive seems to the only thing on which everybody agrees.
And, while a moment before, Shtarkah seems ready to accept death and defeat, his monolog brings him to a clear understanding of the will to survive.
“Contract with God” was born directly from Eisner’s own experience of losing a child, written after a lifelong examination of every facet of the human experience. Comic book superheroes were all well and good, but true heroes didn’t need capes, or invulnerability, or inhuman strength. In his later years, he saw that superheroes were merely the ones who went on living after the death of a child, the loss of a job: battling the tyranny of reality.
And Here My Troubles Began
We can draw a line from A Contract with God, widely considered to be the first graphic novel, to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the first (and still only) graphic novel to win a Pulitzer. While the characters in A Contract with God suffer, their suffering seems to pay off in small ways, whereas Spiegelman’s story is one of senseless, horrific, and irredeemable suffering, possibly because it is, first and foremost, a true story.
Maus depicts the horrors of World War II through the eyes of the author’s father, Vladek, who survived Auschwitz, but it’s also the story of who Vladek became after the war. Spiegelman is a character in his own story, one overwhelmed by the burden of dealing with his aging father. As an old man, Vladek is niggling, opinionated, cheap, argumentative, idiosyncratic, and frustrating, but, as Spiegelman draws out the story of how his father survived the war, we see another picture of the Jewish superhero: Vladek survived.
Like Frimme Hersh and Jacob Shtarkah, he goes on even when it’s not entirely certain why survival is better than death, always thinking ahead, working with the materials at hand, positioning himself for the next blow. In one panel, he hands his starving wife something to chew on. “You found food?” Anja asks. “No, it’s only wood,” Vladek says. “But chewing it feels a little like eating food.” Later, he stops eating almost entirely to save enough food to bribe someone to bring her from Auschwitz II to Auschwitz I, where survival is slightly more likely and they can occasionally see each other through barbed wire. Vladek adapts to every situation, does whatever it takes to survive. It seems impossible, superhuman, but it happened.
Spiegelman forces his work to transcend Holocaust narrative by doing what great superhero stories started to do in the ‘80s: humanize heroes. The Vladek of the war is built for survival, adept at saving lives. But Spiegelman never knew this hero until he began taking the oral history that formed this story. The traits that brought his father alive through the Nazi atrocities make him almost unbearable to his family in the story’s present. The elderly Vladek, as seen through the eyes of his son, is deeply flawed.
In collecting and retelling his father’s story, Spiegelman can finally comprehend the complete picture of his father as a man of steel with feet of clay: another sort of golem.
Truth, Death, and Rebirth
In the medieval golem legend, the creature comes to life when the Hebrew word emet—truth—is inscribed in his forehead. When he is no longer needed, the first syllable is smoothed over, leaving met—the Hebrew word for death. According to the legend, the golem then became insensate, merely a lump of clay in the shape of a man, to be stored in the attic of a synagogue in Prague, awaiting the day the Jewish people might need him again. On that day, inspired by the right holy man, it is said that the golem might live, the resurrection we expect from all great superheroes.
Jews have always told superhero stories, and these stories have inspired a will to live, through war and depression, diaspora and enlightenment. Even when they shuck off their Jewish identities, leave behind the Yiddish upbringing, identifying names, and any religious beliefs, the Jewish culture, powerful and uplifting, remains. Superhero comics are fantasies, but fantasies are conceived in reality. Against all odds, the Jewish people have survived for thousands of years. With the inception of the comic book mythos, they ensure that their ideas will continue to survive in new and universal forms.
We are all superheroes, the legends promise. Every time we are inspired in the face of defeat, every moment we strive for our rights against the forces of inequality, every day that we choose to get on with life in a world haunted by death, our superpowers manifest. It’s a beautiful legacy to take from suffering, and a quintessentially Jewish one.
Follow us on Twitter for more comics goodness!