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It’s common knowledge that most of the world’s greatest superheroes were created by Jews. The list of famous Jewish comics creators includes Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, as well as Stan Lee, Frank Miller, and Neil Gaiman. These Jews created comic books, but what, if anything, about those books is specifically Jewish? That’s what Harry Brod tries to find out in Superman is Jewish?
Brod, Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Northern Iowa, sets up a surprisingly sprawling narrative in just 194 pages. He links comics to a greater tradition of Jewish storytelling, including the golem and El Lissitzky’s Had Gadya, which Brod nominates as a sort of prototype graphic novel.
Of course, most attention is paid to what modern readers would readily recognize as comics. Superman gets his own chapter, where everything from the Hebraic origin of the name Kal-El to Clark Kent’s characterization as a nebbish is parsed out.
A lot of this has been explored before, particularly in Larry Tye’s Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero. Brod’s Jewish lens does add a new perspective, though. He describes Superman’s postwar transformation from sadistic street fighter to big blue Boy Scout as a “whitewashing” of his ethnicity.
The section on Marvel is a little less strong. There is little explicit evidence of Jewish themes in Marvel comics (with the exception of Ben Grimm, a.k.a. The Thing, and a few other Jewish characters), so a lot of this is based on conjecture and interpretation of tropes like Spider-Man’s snarky humor and the general liberal tone of the 1960s stories.
What really makes this book worth reading is Brod’s description of Jewish comics creators deploying all of their talents to tell Jewish stories. He makes a convincing argument not just for the literary merit of Will Eisner’s Fagin the Jew or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, but also describes the importance of the graphic novel medium to the structure of those works.
Superman is Jewish? tries to be more than just a list of outed Jewish comic book creators and characters, and it largely succeeds. Brod treats a subject that is still largely viewed as a closed-off nerdscape with seriousness, and tries to link it to a larger Jewish cultural tradition. That requires some chutzpah.