Superman is Jewish

In 1938, two young Jews invented “Superman”. To this day, Jews play a major role in the comics scene. The youngest star is a cat who studies the Talmud and lies.

On a distant, doomed planet, a baby is placed in a space capsule by its parents. Then a ball of fire illuminates the pitch-black universe, chunks of stone from the exploding planet Krypton chase after the fleeing rocket. But it reaches its destination, the earth. In fact, the baby is found and raised there by good American farmers.

His “birth parents”, however, the baby is “Superman”, were Jewish. In view of the hour of birth, this is not insignificant. The comic figure "Superman" was created in the USA in 1938 by the then 24-year-old immigrant sons Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, against the background of German fascism.

The aesthetic quality of the comics corresponds to its purpose: it is utility literature. The physiognomies are often coarse, and the backgrounds are usually two-dimensionally colored. The tremendous production pressure that was placed on the comic book authors, who toiled under piecework conditions, made finely composed works of art impossible. Nevertheless, the images and texts forced into a given page scheme developed a dynamic, not least through the courageous use of so-called speedlines, that drove the reader's gaze from picture to picture through the story.

The immediate success of Superman brought an entire legion of costumed heroes with supernatural powers into action-packed life: the most popular was “Batman” by Bob Kane (born Khan) and Bill Finger; “The Flash”, “Captain Marvel” and “Wonder Woman” were also very popular - all conceived and drawn by Jewish immigrant sons, none of them older than 30. Superman was largely responsible for the career of a hitherto insignificant medium: the comic book. The editors of the booklets vied for the rights to every semi-promising world saver, the golden age of comics began: in 1941, 15 million comic books had an estimated 60 million readers. They were money printing machines, from which the employed artists hardly benefited.

Until then, the market-leading newspaper comics had been used for family entertainment; Superman established the comics as a medium for young people. The great need for superheroes can be explained by the omnipotence fantasies of male adolescents. Deformed even during adolescence, the awkward Clark Kent with his secret identity as a muscular and admired Superman obviously offers consolation.

The predominantly young readers did not perceive the comics as Jewish at any time. It was only with the novel "The Incredible Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" (2000), the fictional story of two young Jewish comic artists, that the American writer Michael Chabon pointed to a fact that was little known for a long time: Not only the inventors of Superman had Jewish roots , the predominantly New York-based comic industry as a whole was shaped by Jews. It was the second generation of mainly Jewish-Eastern European emigrants who found their livelihood here. Similar to the film in the pioneering days, the young, prosperous industry offered newcomers entry opportunities that were denied to them in other professions.

What the Jewish superhero artists had in common was the experience of being on the fringes of society; the loss of the original homeland mediated by the parents and the threat from Hitler's Germany created a powerlessness that could be countered in the comic with a one-person superpower: a modern, industrially reproduced golem.

But how Jewish are the superheroes? The question of whether Superman was a Jew, a Methodist (like his adoptive parents) or a Kryptonian Raoist (the belief of his home planet) has been addressed by various studies - without a clear answer. Siegel and Shuster are said to have not worked on their comics on Thursdays as teenagers because Mama Shuster needed the table to prepare for Shabbat. That may be a legend, but the fact is: The two gave their baby a Hebrew name: Superman's Kryptonian birth name is Kal El (God is in everything). And does not the abandoning of the baby in a rocket remind of Moses in the wicker basket? The American comic specialist Arie Kaplan sees another, bitter reality reflected here: the Kindertransporte from fascist Germany.

For the comic book legend Will Eisner, who died in 2005, the case was clear: The Jews who had experienced the rise of fascism would have wished for a superhero “who could protect them”. In 1940 Shuster and Siegel actually drew the legendary episode "How Superman Would End the War", in which Superman dragged Adolf Hitler before a court with the sentence: "I would like to give you a clearly non-Aryan punch." Superman, a non-Aryan, was above all an American icon, especially in the fight against fascism. So the ardent patriot Superman immediately advertised war bonds.

It seems that in the 1920s and 1930s many Jews left Europe not just to escape economic hardship and oppression. Many put on blinkers in the new world and took refuge in a parallel universe in which heroes with superhuman powers came to the aid of the oppressed, while in Europe no one stood up for the persecuted.

For the American cartoonist Jules Feiffer, the superhero comics are an expression of the typical American dream of all immigrants: "Superman did not come from Krypton, he came from the planet Minsk or Lodz or Warsaw", he writes in his essay "The Minsk Theory of Krypton". Superpowers in secret, but inconspicuous in everyday life. "Superman was the ultimate fantasy of the assimilated."

With the end of World War II, the golden years ended for Superman, Batman, Captain America and all the other costumed heroes. The comic trade got into an increasingly sharp dispute about the potential of the sometimes bloody horror and detective books that could endanger young people. The psychologist Frederic Wertham became a key witness for the prosecution with his work "The Seduction of the Innocent". For fear of repression, the comic publishers decided in an act of self-censorship in 1954 to set up the “Comics Code”, which was supposed to ban everything evil and brutal from the magazines.

Harvey Kurtzman, the creative head of «Mad» in the 1950s, treaded paths beyond the booklet mainstream with his new form of happy, anarchic cultural criticism. He slaughtered sacred cows, pounded the McCarthy tribunals as well as TV series and, to make matters worse, spiced up the texts with Yiddish vocabulary. Now the comic medium became attractive for young women for the first time. For women like the Jewish princess Diane Noomin and her comic alter ego “DiDi Glitz” or the later wife of Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky. Her autobiographical work in particular also reflected the Jewish milieu of her origins. At the end of this epoch was Art Spiegelman's «Maus», a survival story of two European Jews (Spiegelman's parents), which explicitly addressed the horrors of the Holocaust. "Mouse" was the only comic that was ever awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

In the USA, it seems, the serious handling of being Jewish, of one's own history, dominates in comics to this day. Again and again one refers to Art Spiegelman's comics, which deal with the Holocaust. Jewish draftsmen who behave in an anti-Jewish manner are met with the sharpest criticism: in his book “Nothing Sacred”, the American media theorist Douglas Rushkoff demands, among other things, that Judaism and the Bible should be understood again as “open source” against the supposed certainties and taboos use - an obviously uncomfortable notion for the representatives of the institutionalized faith. With “Testament” he and the draftsman Liam Sharp are now presenting a religious-philosophical spectacle from the early days of the Bible - in the form of a comic, of course. There he lets the gods of nature compete against the heralds of the word in a parallel world in order to check the great narratives for contradictions.

In Europe, a young French Jew has found his own way of dealing with his Jewishness in recent years: Joann Sfar is life-affirming and happy. Sfar grew up with his grandparents, who did not raise him religiously, but aroused his interest in his own origins and provided him with an astonishing detailed knowledge of Kabbalah, the Jewish mythology. Belonging to the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, Sfar, who was born in 1971, makes use of both his Jewish-Eastern European and, more unusually, that of his Jewish-Maghreb ancestors. "The Rabbi's Cat" (2001) lives in the Maghreb at the beginning of the last century, a tomcat who wants to become a Jew in order to be able to marry the rabbi's pretty daughter. The tomcat learns human language after a classic fall from man: he kills a parrot, but brazenly denies the murder. With language, lies come into the world.

In what follows, the hangover examines Judaism exactly as Douglas Rushkoff demands in «Testament». For example, the tomcat questions the naive, omniscient behavior of the rabbis or the uncritical behavior of the Talmud students, which is so far removed from the Jewish dialectic: the tomcat secretly follows one of the annoyingly devout Talmud students - to the Arab quarter. When he sees the student coming out of a brothel in shame, the cat thinks: “When I thought he was uncompromising and noble, I hated him. Ever since I've known about his falsehood and his dichotomy, since I've watched him get torn between hormones and beliefs, I've liked him. " Sfar illustrates the desire for contradiction: So it is a miracle that the cat speaks, but at the same time a great disaster because it lies.

And if, as the rabbi of the cat explains, Western logic is characterized by thesis, antithesis, synthesis, while Jewish teaching is characterized by thesis, antithesis, antithesis, antithesis - yes, then this cat is definitely a good Jew.

The pictures of Sfar, colored by Brigitte Findakly, show an almost cozy Jewish existence in Algeria at the beginning of the last century. Of course, there is also ignorance, racism, marginalization and deadly confrontations here. Nevertheless, there will hardly be a reader who cannot discover a place of longing in this small world. Sfar outlines nothing less than the possibility of a tolerant coexistence based on respect for the other, which is geared towards enduring contradictions and not towards equality.

One can assume that the cat is the alter ego that its creator wants: It is disrespectful, funny, upright, selfish, free-spirited, educated, tactless, unbound - and has a sure instinct for avoiding simple truths. A bearer of hope for insecure contemporaries who do not want to place themselves in the hands of religious dogmatists, but who long for meaning. In France, Sfar has sold around 500,000 albums of "The Rabbi's Cat". An amazing success for comics with explicitly Jewish content.

Even if comics are still underestimated as a medium for illiterate people in Israel, in the diaspora they have long since become important ambassadors of Jewish culture.

Katja Lüthge is a journalist. In 2005 she curated the exhibition “With Superman everything started in Berlin. Jewish artists shape the comic ».

This article comes from the January 2008 NZZ Folio magazine on the subject of "Young and Jewish". You can order this issue or subscribe to the NZZ Folio.