Even still, I mourn the death of Stan Lee at the age of 95. He had a transformative role in American popular culture.
Let’s go back to the very origins of the superhero industry in the United States.
A new book, From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books, by Arie Kaplan, published by Jewish Publication Society, makes it very clear: from its very origins, the comic book business was a Jewish endeavor.
Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created Superman. Bob Kane (nee Bob Kahn) created Batman. Stan Lee (nee Stan Leiber) created Spider-Man, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four, among others. (For a “Jewish” appreciation of Stan Lee’s work, check out Liel Leibovitz in Tablet). There was Mad magazine (Harvey Kurtzman, Al Jaffe). There was Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, and others.
Did they “know” that what they were doing was a Jewish thing?
Probably not. To quote Kaplan:
They were creating a product for general audiences and didn’t try to sneak any sort of subtext, Jewish or not, into their work. If any Jewish symbolism did seep out, it was purely subconscious on the part of the cartoonist/writer involved.
Yes, but: there had been a backlash against comic books (which my parents gleefully joined; they were sure that comic books would “rot my mind”). Psychologists condemned the genre as contributing to juvenile delinquency. Children had accidentally killed themselves as they imitated Superman and Batman. Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman were closeted gay and lesbian superheroes (!) (as in SNL’s “the ambiguously gay duo”.
The anti-comic book rhetoric that accompanied the origins of the comic book industry was subtly anti-semitic. A 1954 editorial in the Hartford Courant referred to comics as “the filthy stream that flows from the gold-plated sewers of New York” – in which “New York” typically serves as a dog whistle for “Jews.”
In particular, what was the Jewish impetus behind the creation of superheroes?
In one sense, they emerged out of a desire for Jewish empowerment. The Nazis were killing Jews; we wanted revenge. (In fact, one theory about the origins of Superman was that he emerged out of the medieval golem legend).
But, there was another Jewish piece to super heroes – and this is what I found, and continue to find, most fascinating.
Super heroes had secret identities.