If a writer isn’t careful, his or her scholarly attention can suck all the fun out of an otherwise enjoyable topic. Harry Brod, a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa, evades that danger as adroitly as a superhero escaping a supervillain’s trap. Brod’s “Superman is Jewish? How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way” (Free Press, 209 pages, $25) takes comic books and their creators and themes seriously without taking itself too seriously.
The answer to the title’s question is more complicated than one might first assume. If a character’s “Jewishness” is derived from his or her creator’s, then many, many comic book heroes are Jewish. But Brod casts that simple equation aside right away, comparing Superman to Batman (a favorite pastime of comics readers since these characters, both created by Jews, first appeared), arguing, in part, “While Clark Kent worked for a living and was even a writer — a good Jewish boy, in other words — Bruce Wayne was a Jewish parent’s ultimate assimilationist nightmare.”
Brod’s project isn’t just a “compare and contrast” exercise in the DC (or Marvel or independent) universe. In the early going, he takes readers on a historical survey of anti-Semitism and into the art studio of Marc Chagall; later on, he considers Art Spiegelman’s seminal graphic novel “Maus,” and Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” Throughout, he balances scholarly rigor with a wacky sense of humor, offering up an excellent and enjoyable book of cultural and social history.