In the 1930s, when anti-Semitism blocked paths for Jewish writers and artists, many became the superheroes of the fledgling comic book industry.
Jewish writers, artists, and publishers turned obstacles into opportunity in creating Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men.
They also managed to sneak a little of their Jewish background and perspective into their work, said Arie Kaplan, author of From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books.
From subtle biblical allusions to plots that addressed, in coded language and plots, anti-Semitism and fascism, Jews hid their ethnicity behind covert references.
“You probably couldn’t do that today because everyone would look it up on the Internet,” said Kaplan, who spoke Jan. 23 at the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth. In those days, he said, “you could.”
In his book, published in 2008, Kaplan profiles the pioneers of the comics industry, including Will Eisner, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Al Jaffee, Neil Gaiman, Jerry Robinson, and Art Spiegelman.
“Comics were sort of the bottom of the barrel,” said Kaplan, himself the author of the comic book mini-series, “Speed Racer: Chronicles of the Racer.” “They couldn’t get a job writing novels. Many aspired to write for radio, but they couldn’t. But the fascinating thing is their characters have outlived those radio characters.”
During the presentation Kaplan focused on Superman and its creators, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. Their Action Comics hero became an instant bestseller in a country deep in the throes of the Depression.
“In 1938 the world was in need of a hero,” said Kaplan.
Kaplan said that first issue “was fascinating at a sociological level,” because the creators took on social issues, a trend that would continue in the early days of the Superman comics.
In just a handful of pages, the hero uses his powers, which did not yet include the ability to fly, to rescue Lois Lane from kidnappers, burst into the governor’s office to halt the execution of a woman unjustly accused of murder, subdue a wife beater, and drag a corrupt politician by his ankles across telephone wires.
Today’s Superman “is written like a friendly big brother, but in those days he was written kind of cocky and showing off his powers,” said Kaplan. Shuster and Siegel “seemed like they were striving for something grounded in social issues, then stopped. It then became sort of whimsical, like Law and Order with tights and capes.”
A writer for MAD Magazine, Kaplan recalled that when he first started, a number of other Jewish writers were speculating about what is Jewish about Superman. Some believed the authors had the biblical Moses in mind when they told how the baby Superman was sent by his parents from a dying planet to Earth — and only later learned his true identity.
While Kaplan has doubts about the Moses linkage, he believes they knew exactly what they were doing when they created Superman’s real name — Kal-El.
“Superman is very God-like and if you read the Torah, a lot of the angels have ‘el’ [God] at the end of their names,” he said. “It is part of the name of a lot of synagogues.”
For Jews who felt powerless in the face of anti-Semitism and fascism, creating a super hero to defeat Hitler or Stalin was also “a power fantasy.”
Some Jewish writers also managed to sneak in references to moral issues, including anti-Semitism, racism, and the lynchings of African-Americans in the South.
“There was a clear morality,” he said, although he acknowledged that in those early days the comics were often “preachy and cheesy.”
Many of these topics were too hot for the mainstream media.
“These were issues not being talked about in the pop mainstream of the time,” said Kaplan. “You couldn’t talk about it on the radio or on television. But you could get away with it in comics because no one was paying attention.”