Samson And Superman: Judaism And The Modern Super Hero

Honestly, sometimes you don’t know exactly the article that you are researching. I was looking up political leanings of comic book characters for another site. I was given the suggestion by a site editor to look up the time frame as well as the creators of the comic book characters to see what the context of their creation was. The conclusion I came to, I almost could not get anyone to listen too. I knew that I had re-discovered something important but there was no where it really fit.

Let’s review the following list. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Mort Weisinger, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, Joe Simon, and Martin Nodell. Who were they? These men are responsible for Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Green Lantern, The Fantastic Four, X-Men, The Hulk, Captain America, as well as countless others. Go to a movieplex at any point and time for the twenty plus years. You have seen their creations in virtual Omni – presence throughout. As a matter of fact, what used to be one event comic book movie per year has morphed into multiples. Other than being prolific, why do I mention this?

In addition to having a shared love of creating comics, every last one of these men are of Jewish origin. All of the creations came about between the 1940s and the 1960s. So, you virtually have an untapped phenomenon here that starts to demand answers. There is also now a dwindling base in order to provide them. It’s sad that a cohesive narrative may never be told. The narrative goes something like this. Between the Great Depression and the end of the Kennedy era, Jewish men introduced a virtually completely new genre of American mythology. That subset of mythology is now known as the comic book super hero. That is an important piece of information to have. It is an important lens in order to look through many of the clichés that we see in comic books.

I really think that there are clues in the teachings of the Old Testament in this. Super Heroes wear often colorful outfits. The Biblical Joseph wore a ‘coat of many colors.’ Super powers? In the Bible, they are generally granted by God but they do exist. Look at Samson or Gideon. Look at Moses parting the Red Sea or Elijah in a flaming chariot. The other aspect of this article is that I started in 2010 tweeting every verse of the Bible. It has been nearly two years and I am only on Genesis 18, but I highly recommend reading the Bible either a verse or 140 characters a day. Just read at the end of the evening and let it soak in for the next day.

I think that a healthy portion of this discussion is that Super Heroes wear masks. Look at the Jewish mentality in the early to mid-twentieth century. Jews were hiding their Jewishness all over Europe to avoid Stormtrooper death squads. The discovery of your “Jewish Identity” was everything from firing from a job to a death sentence. Jews protected their identities at all costs. Serious consequences would happen if you were ‘found out.’ Therefore, Super Heroes wear masks. Superman does not wear a mask at his superhero identity but wears one in his civilian identity. To illustrate my point, think of the number of entertainers and executives to this day that gladly change their names to hide potential Jewish identities. It was almost considered a slur a couple of years back when Charlie Sheen referred to producer Chuck Lorre (Two And A Half Men, The Big Bang Theory) by his Jewish name. Look at the real names of the men listed above. Stanley Martin Lieber, Jacob Kurtzburg, Mort Weisinger, Robert Kahn, Bill Finger, Joe Shuster, Jerry Seigel, Hymie Simon, and Martin Nodell. Nearly half of them felt the need to change their name in some way in order to be accepted by a wide audience. A Jewish creator would know exactly what a ‘secret identity’ meant.

How do Super Villains attack? They generally destroy cities. Super Villains, in their classic sense, will destroy an entire civilization. The Old Testament is absolutely rife with stories of destructions or subjugations of civilizations. Whether by the hand of God or by the hands of the wicked, it happens all the time. There are firestorms. There are people walking through dry river beds. There are mysterious oracles, like the Burning Bush, that talk. There are witches. There is conversations with ghosts. There is destiny. There are consequences, such as in the story of Jonah, in not fulfilling that destiny. The theme of running away from a persons destiny also figures prominently in stories such as Spiderman.

There is an over riding feeling in most of these characters or either being out of their element or not accepted. Superman is an immigrant. Bruce Banner has to hide a terrible secret and control his rage. Alan Scott and later Hal Jordan were selected by a ring for their duty in life. Aquaman is literally a fish out of water. Captain America takes a drug and wraps himself in a flag. Peter Parker is a geek with glasses. Mutants are just born Mutants and there is nothing they can do about it. They are thrust into situations in which they have power or responsibility and often have to react to it.

The success really comes in the Marvel revolution and The Fantastic Four. The Fantastic Four debuted in the 1960s during the Kennedy Administration. You finally had heroes that were comfortable with their powers. The Fantastic Four could show off the fact that they were different as well as be public about who they were. The Fantastic Four were allowed to be beautiful, smart, or freakish. With the Fantastic Four, it did not matter. They were accepted. They did not have to live in fear. This was the optimism during the Kennedy era. Of course, by the 1980s, we had The Watchmen.

These men would have grown up with and been developed by an official state who actually wanted to exterminate your race. Nazism as a counterpoint (overtly and subtly) I considered to be a major theme in the construction of super heroes and their respective villains. Thus, actual Nazis often figured into the stories. Captain America has the Red Skull. One of the earliest Fantastic Fours had the ‘Hate Monger’ with the ‘Hate Ray’ who turned out to be Hitler. As part of yet another article, I also studied how fictional characters confronted Adolph Hitler. In short, again, I have done a lot of research building towards this and I had no real idea what I was building towards. Many of the Super Villains actually take up official positions. The Super Villain as despot is a major theme. Victor Von Doom controls (as well as oppresses) the small country of Latveria. Darkseid (a Kirby creation) controls the planet of Apokolips. Lex Luthor evolved from a mad scientist into more of an business mogul. Norman Osborn owned a corporation. Galactus is a world devouring force of nature. The list can go on and on but the point is clear. In some ways, National Socialists cast a long shadow over what we refer to as a ‘comic book villain.’

I would encourage study as well as conversation on this. I have read the Bible as well as have read comic books my entire life. I started reading both at virtually the same time. However, in this my 37th year on the planet, I have only now started to consider the Super Hero experience in the framework of the Jewish experience in the mid to late twentieth century. It was a period of creation and narrative that was absolutely extraordinary. The characters continue to inspire audiences to this day. Audiences simply know who these heroes are. I think that it is important to consider as well the circumstances, which were equally extraordinary, that allowed these characters to come into existence.


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