by Eric Hal Schwartz
Once upon a time, a loving parent sent a baby boy to an uncertain future far from home for fear he wouldn’t survive if he stayed where he was. Found by kindly natives, he was raised like a native in his new land and when he grew up, performed feats that astounded one and all, becoming a savior in a time of great need, fighting for truth and justice.
Tell that story around the seder plate and it’s the story of Moses but add a bright red cape and a surprisingly effective pair of glasses and it’s the story of another iconic figure, Superman.
Superman’s parallels to Moses are not too surprising considering his origin as the creation of two Jewish kids from Cleveland in 1934. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had spent four years shopping their first strips around to the newspaper syndicates but faced rejection after rejection. Shuster even burned some of the early work out of frustration with the process. Eventually though, they found success in the infant field of comic books, selling their story and all rights to their character for a mere $140. Only decades later after much litigation did they manage to get some of the rights and royalties for their work.
The early years of comic books took place in the midst of the Great Depression, when millions of Americans looked everywhere for a way to survive. Jews and other minorities commonly faced employment discrimination on top of other economic woes, and those with a creative bent were often shut out of mainstream media and advertising. Comic books, however, were a new, open field and companies including National Allied Publications and Timely, which would eventually become DC and Marvel Comics respectively, were owned by Jews. Young, eager Jewish writers and artists poured out their feverish four-colored dreams, working long hours for little pay and sometimes no credit. Some of their characters have faded into obscurity but many remain powerful, and lucrative, pop culture figures like Batman, Captain America and of course the Man of Steel himself.
Most of the early superheroes represent science-fiction concepts like space aliens and the power of chemistry and radiation, but their roots, like their creators, have a strong Jewish influence. Along with the Moses parallels to Superman, superheroic and superpowered figures pepper Jewish legends and stories. There was the super strong Golem who protected the Prague ghetto, according to legend; Samson with his super strength proportional to his hair length; and prophets like Elijah able to command the elements themselves.
Those Jewish influences on the characters and creators of the beginning of comic books have inspired a new exhibit, ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950, which opened recently at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. The public awareness of comic books and superheroes has never been higher, with a seemingly endless line of movies, television shows and other adaptations of comic-book creations making the exhibit very timely and a draw to all kinds of audiences.
Smashing through a brick wall with ease as he flies through the air, Superman himself greets visitors as they enter the airy room brimming with memorabilia and history of famous characters and their creators. Arranged chronologically, by character and other ways, the exhibits take visitors on a tour that travels from Krypton to Cleveland where Siegel and Shuster first dreamed of a hero who’d not only stand up for the oppressed but one capable of shrugging off the worst the bad guys of the world could throw at him.
“There’s been a lot of scholarship about whether or not Superman is Jewish,” said Jobi Zink, senior collections manager at the Baltimore Jewish Museum. The exhibit was developed by the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta and has been traveling the U.S. for some time although this is the only stop for the exhibit to the Northeast, Zink said.
Much of the collection comes from the estate of the late Jerry Robinson, a major contributor to early Batman comics who among other achievements gave Robin, the Boy Wonder and Batman’s sidekick, his name and invented the Joker, the Clown Prince of Crime and Batman’s arch nemesis. Some of Robinson’s collection did not travel with the exhibit for insurance reasons but high-resolution scans on period paper are detailed enough that it’s not noticeable. Even the fingerprints from the original art are reproduced so everything looks authentic. Zink said she is looking forward to sharing some of her knowledge, some of which she picked up in a class on comic-book history at the University of Illinois. She didn’t expect the class to be such a direct help with her career.
The exhibit also includes an old-fashioned phone booth where a voice asks for help and conveniently placed costumes for children and adults rest in a box nearby. A Batmobile for children to pretend they are the Dark Knight, one of Siegel and Shuster’s old working desks and of course lots of comics provide some of the other options for visitors young and old.
“It has a really broad appeal,” Zink said.
Before and during World War II superheroes reached enormous heights of popularity, with some comics regularly selling over a million copies per issue. Patriotism informed a lot about comics, especially after the U.S. entered the war. Superheroes sold war bonds and encouraged rationing. Superman and others broke up a remarkable number of fifth-column rings and other Axis plots, but few characters represented the country quite as overtly as Captain America. Clad in red, white and blue with a star-spangled shield and wings above his ears, Captain America’s secret identity as blonde-haired, blue-eyed Steve Rogers was not Jewish but his creators, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (originally Kurtzberg) definitely were. His origins as a poor, skinny kid who liked to draw growing up on the Lower East Side could’ve been the story of thousands of Jewish children growing up in New York. He and other heroes, draped in the flag and otherwise, fought endless hordes of Axis threats both mundane and fantastic and their adventures were even shipped to soldiers serving overseas as part of their rations.
After the war, however, the rising fears of communism, juvenile delinquency and other social ills found a scapegoat in comic books, most famously in Seduction of the Innocent by Frederic Wertham. His crusade, supported by many around the country, led to the end of the golden age of comics, only to be revived in the ’60s when the silver age took off, once again majorly influenced by Jewish creators like Julius Schwartz and Stan Lee. If the exhibit in Baltimore is anything to judge by, the intertwined story of comic books and Judaism was an essential part of bringing that four-color world to the vibrant life it became.
ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950 will be on display at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore through Aug. 18. Entrance is free for members, $8 for nonmembers, $6 for seniors, $4 for students and $3 for children under 12.