Posts Tagged Spider-Man

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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Super journalists

The QuestionOne of my favorite things about comic books is the way they glorify my chosen profession. Many superheroes pick up a camera or notebook after they put away their capes, taking to the fictional streets of America as journalists. Superheroes and journalism really go hand-in-hand, and it’s no accident. In fact, it’s all about realism.

A news reporter or photographer is the perfect secret identity for someone is always making news. If Clark Kent showed up every time Superman made an appearance, and din’t carry a press pass, people would get suspicious. As a reporter for the Daily Planet, Kent is expected to follow Superman around, so no one would ever suspect that he and the Man of Steel are the same person. The same goes for Peter Parker of the Daily Bugle. Of course he’s always around when Spider-Man swings into action! How else would he get those amazing photos?

Journalism also provides heroes with the resources they need to fight crime. Working for newspapers gives Clark Kent and Peter Parker access to information; they learn about crises first, so they can respond quickly. The Internet has made that less true (the “Miracle on the Hudson” was first reported via Twitter), but working for a major news organization is still important. Would Spider-Man be as effective if he had to read thousands of tweets by himself before getting some actionable intelligence?

One superhero, the Question, goes so far as to make journalism part of his modus operandi. As T.V. news reporter Vic Sage, he investigates criminal acts, exposing the corruption of Hub City in nightly broadcasts. Then, he takes to the streets as the faceless, trenchcoat-and-fedora-wearing Question to dispense justice.

Superhero journalists aren’t just reporters, either. The Green Hornet owns a newspaper, the Daily Sentinel and, like the question, uses journalism as a tool in his war on crime. Britt Reid publishes stories depicting his masked alter ego as a powerful mobster, spooking his enemies while concealing his true identity and intentions.

Journalism’s role as the “fourth estate” is wholeheartedly embraced by the creators of superheroes. The heroes are, after all, supposed to be real people with extraordinary abilities. They need day jobs that won’t conflict with their crime-fighting missions and, maybe, on a good day, Clark Kent’s reporting can do as much good as Superman’s crime-fighting.

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Comic adults

Justice League by Alex RossOnce upon a time, if you were an adult and you read comic books, people thought there was something wrong with you. Until Marvel revolutionized comic book storytelling in the 1960s, comics were seen exclusively as kid stuff. After all, what adult would take a story about a guy in tights and a cape seriously?

Apparently, a lot. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that more adults read comics than children. Many comic-reading kids grew up but didn’t want to give up their books (who could blame them?) and comics have grown more sophisticated to appease these mature readers. That’s great, because some of these so-called “grown ups” can act pretty childish when it comes to their favorite reading material. recently ran a short review of the new television show Comic Book Men. It’s a reality show about Kevin Smith’s comic book store, sort of like Pawn Stars for the nerd set. Take a minute to read the comments.

It’s amazing how much anger can be stirred up by a reality show about silly middle-aged men running a comic shop. The reviewer didn’t like it, saying that it reinforced negative stereotypes with its all-male cast and their tendency to make typically male jokes about women and gay men.

Luckily, Kevin Smith and company have some staunch defenders. One commenter called the author a “douche,” another said she was “pretty lame;” a third commenter said she shouldn’t be allowed to write professionally.

When a female commenter (Mary 229) came to the author’s defense, she was labeled an “angry fangirl” and taunted. “Mary’s turn on’s [sic] include whipped men, spreading inflammatory lies and invective about Rags Morales, and crying misogynist every ten seconds to invalidate the other persons [sic] point. It’s “angry fangirl 101,’” said commenter “John.”

I’m not taking sides on this one, but I think some of the comments were pretty ridiculous (once again, feel free to follow the link and decide for yourself). Since this is the Internet, I have no idea how old these people are or what their life stories are, but I can’t imagine any circumstances where statements like that would be acceptable in public. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but how about a little civility?

These comic fans should really listen more closely to their favorite characters. Has Superman ever called anyone a “douche” because they disagreed with him? Does Captain America angrily stereotype people when he disagrees with a government policy? Spider-Man is constantly being hunted down by the police and press; does he ever respond with anything besides witty banter?

When comics were read exclusively by kids, superheroes were role models. The morality and emphasis on good citizenship that started out as a way to educate children became an integral part of most heroes’ characterizations. Even in today’s age of moral ambiguity, a lot of it remains.

It’s kind of funny that a bunch of adults reading the same books can’t pick up on those lessons. These characters treat everyone with dignity, even their enemies. That seems like a pretty easy thing to understand. Superheroes are super because of their extraordinary abilities; I don’t want to live in a world where having manners is an extraordinary ability.

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Barack Obama: America’s First Superhero President

Most Americans view George Washington as the “Father of Our Country.” That may be true, but he never shared a cover with Spider-Man. Many presidents are remembered as “larger-than-life” characters, but none of them have made as many appearances in the ultimate showcase of American mythology, comic books, as Barack Obama.

President Obama on the cover of "Amazing Spider-Man #583." Image courtesy of Marvel Comics.

Obama is America’s first superhero president. In the DC Comics miniseries Final Crisis, he made a cameo appearance as Superman. He was also on the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #583; in that issue, Spider-Man and the 44th President foiled an Obama doppelganger.

Even when he is not donning a cape, Obama still makes regular appearances in superhero comics. When Asgard was attacked by Norman Osborn in Siege, Obama pardoned and reinstated Steve Rogers (the original Captain America) who was declared a public enemy after he rebelled against the government in the Superhuman Civil War. And, as if the recession was not enough of a problem, Obama recently had to respond to an attack by Godzilla.

So why to comic writers like Obama so much? One possible explanation is the emphasis on realism in comics. In the Marvel Universe, Bruce Banner may turn into the Hulk, but everything else is exactly the same as the real world. With that rule, any president should be a regular character in Marvel’s comics; supervillain attacks and alien invasions probably warrant the Commander in Chief’s attention.

However, not every president gets the comic book coverage Obama does. When George W. Bush was president, he was barely mentioned in Marvel, even when he signed the Superhuman Registration Act into law in Civil War. It doesn’t explain why DC turned Obama into Superman either. DC does not view its characters’ universe and the real universe as the same; Obama is just as fictional in the DC Universe as Clark Kent is in ours.

Maybe it’s just politics. Perhaps comic book writers and artists are the nerd version of the Hollywood liberal elite: a bunch of hopelessly biased Obama-worshipping commies. A comprehensive poll of comic creators’ political views would be difficult, but one thing is certain: the Obama stories don’t seem political. He appears in stock superhero plots fighting stock villains, not Republicans.

In contrast, there was an open attempt to fight the political battles of the 1980s in comics. While not explicitly named, a president who looks exactly like Ronald Reagan started a war in Central America (and provoked the Soviet Union) in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. On the conservative side, Reagan’s Raiders featured “the Gipper” and his cabinet carrying out the administration’s foreign policies in red, white, and blue spandex.

Showing Obama shaking hands with Spider-Man is very different from those openly political stories. When he opens his mouth, the word bubbles aren’t filled with lines about socialized medicine or job creation. Every time he appears in comics, Obama is too busy trying to save the world from a super-powered threat to plug his own, real-life policies. If stories that include the President are supposed to be political propaganda, it’s all very subtle.

Obama as Superman in "Final Crisis #7." Image courtesy of DC Comics.

In fact, Obama blends very well into the world of comics. That’s where the “larger-than-life” factor comes in. When Obama ran for president in 2008, people treated him like the Messiah. He was charismatic, well-spoken, and promised real change to a political system many Americans had lost faith in. He became the first African-American president and killed Osama bin Laden, organizing a special operation worthy of the Secret Avengers.

America’s desire for a president that is more than the average politician, and 52% of Americans’ belief that Barack Obama could be that president, made him seem like a comic book character. Since 2008, Obama has lost some of that luster; maybe he should read a few of his own comics.

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