Posts Tagged literature

Book review: “Superman is Jewish?” by Harry Brod

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.

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Moses Maimonides’ iPad

“Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries” at the Jewish Museum, New YorkRecently, I saw an amazing exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City. “Crossing Borders: Manuscripts from the Bodleian Libraries,” shows rare Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic manuscripts from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries.

Among the scores of texts on display were the Kennicott Bible (a magnificently illuminated Hebrew bible) and a book handwritten by the great philosopher and theologian Moses Maimonides.

Obviously, these texts were too old and valuable to handle, but luckily the curators at the Jewish Museum had a clever technological solution. Beside each book was an iPad, so visitors could look at every page virtually. It was very cool, and made for a very odd juxtaposition.

It’s harder to get closer to a long dead philosopher than to see a book written in their own unique hand. On the other hand, it’s harder to get farther away from an original text than reading it on a tablet, where code creates the illusion of paper and ink.

Of course, this is all out of necessity: seeing an image of Maimonides’ book is better than not seeing it at all, and few people would even know of Maimonides if his books had never been mass-printed.

Still, it begs a question: What artifacts will the great writers and thinkers of today leave behind? Will the efficiency of typed notes and digital publishing erase the writer’s mark, denying future generations a reminder that great books are a product of human beings?

Digital tools make creating and reading written works much easier than ever, but that doesn’t mean all of the changes it brings will be positive. The printing press made the books on display obsolete, not the Internet, but there’s still a reason why they attract so much attention today.

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