It’s a question too compelling to resist.
If Harry Brod, University of Northern Iowa professor of philosophy and humanities, author of the just-released “Superman Is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice and the Jewish-American Way” and lifelong comic-book lover, could pick one superpower, what would it be?
His answer has more to do with his background as a philosopher, he replies, than his stash of comic books.
“All the way back in the ‘Republic,’ Plato tells the story of Gyges’s ring, which can make its wearer invisible,” Brod says. “He uses it to teach a lesson about ethics, about how the truly virtuous person would not do immoral things even if they knew they wouldn’t get caught.
“The idea has held my imagination ever since I first heard it. So I would choose as my superpower the power of invisibility, coupled with the strength to resist the temptation that power brings with it.”
The fact that Brod cleverly picks two superpowers ties in with the duality he examines in his new book.
Jewish writers and illustrators, children of immigrants who were denied work at 1930s advertising agencies, newspapers and publishing houses, helped forge the fledgling art form of the comic book. How they went about presenting these tales of courageous crime fighters was not that different from what Jews were doing at the same time in Hollywood.
“They created a super-idolized image of the American dream,” Brod explains, “then fed it back to America — images that mirror that dream.”
They took the Everyman and made him faster, smarter and stronger, then dressed him up in a proud colorful costume, so he could outwit and outfight those who would do us harm.
But here’s the twist, and it’s the very heart of “Superman Is Jewish?” These writers and cartoonists — Jack Kirby (nee Jacob Kurtzberg), Stan Lee (Stanley Lieber), Joe Simon and Bob Kane (Robert Kahn), among others — incorporated into the mix what Brod calls “a Jewish sensibility.”
The man of steel’s creators, Cleveland, Ohio-born Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, “were Depression-era teenagers,” Brod notes. “They were Clark Kent-types — they were nerdy, they didn’t get dates, they were reporters on the school newspaper.
“But the moral (of Superman, begun in 1932) is, ah-ha, underneath, little do they know.”
The true man, Brod emphasizes, is superpowered Superman — nebbishy Clark Kent is the disguise.
“Superman sided with the little guy, he was the champion of the oppressed,” Brod says.
The subtext, he explains, was that the larger-than-life costumed crusaders were fighting anti-semitism on behalf of their authors.
Sometimes not so-coded, though: Simon and Kirby’s Captain America, in his first comic book cover in 1941, is shown valiantly “socking Hitler on the jaw,” Brod says.
Subsequent comic-book characters retained that outsider Jewish attitude. The X-Men, for example, are clearly a persecuted minority.
Spider-Man, on the other hand, is a bit more subtle. This angst-ridden hero represents “a post-holocaust” view, Brod contends — the preventable death of his Uncle Ben stands as a metaphor for the guilt suffered by those who believed they “didn’t do enough to save their families” from Nazi death camps.
“I’m not saying Stan Lee had this in his mind (when he and Steve Ditko came up with Spider-Man),” Brod says. “It was in his subconscious …. You can pick up what’s in the air.”
Over time, comic-book superheroes became more like “super cops,” Brod says. “They became more authority figures.”
Comic-book characters today “don’t need to be coded. DC Comics rebooted their characters last year, and Batwoman is now a Jewish lesbian.”
But for all its history and its life lessons, Brod’s book is “not about Jews in comics. This is about Jewish-ness in comics,” he says.
Plus, readers will “have fun with it,” he says.