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Arts & Culture As Comics Become Respectable, Jewish Heroes, Creators Recognized

March 4, 2004
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They’re as unlikely a bunch of superheroes as there ever were: Menorah Man, Dreidel Maidel, Minyan Man, Magen David, Kipa Kid, Shabbas Queen and Matzah Woman.

But on creator Alan Oirich’s glossy comic book pages, the Jewish Hero Corps leaps, spins and multiplies to fight the enemy Fobots — robots charged with stealing Jewish memories.

Since it hit stores in mid-January, Oirich’s story has packed implicitly Jewish lessons into the actions of wholesome but edgy characters drawn by Ron Randall.

Oirich says he began to come up with the stories when he was 8, when a friend told him that he wasn’t going to celebrate Chanukah that year. Oirich thought about public service announcements such as “don’t smoke” that appeared in comic books, and thought a similar message might help tout Judaism to kids.

In the corps’ debut story — so far there is only one volume — the Jewish superheroes must fight to retain Jewish memories against what older readers will recognize as assimilation.

The superheroes’ powers contain lessons about Judaism for readers with varying Jewish educations. Shabbas Queen’s wand disables electrical appliances for 25 hours, the length of the Sabbath. She also must recharge her wand every seven days, meaning that it rests one day a week.

With their flowing hair, muscular machismo and desire to right the world’s wrongs, the Jewish Hero Corps is arguably one of the few Jewish superhero teams — at least, one of the few overtly Jewish ones.

Behind the masked men and assorted heroes that have graced comic book pages, Jewish writers and cartoonists have been part of the industry since the 1930s, when comic books first gained widespread popularity.

Heroes such as Superman and Batman were created by Jewish comics pioneers like Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Spiderman co-creator Stan Lee, born Stanley Martin Lieber, is Jewish, as are Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who created Captain America.

“Jewish illustrators and writers entered the comic-book field because other areas of commercial illustration were virtually closed to them,” Arie Kaplan wrote in Reform Judaism magazine in an article titled, “Kings of Comics: How Jews Created the Comic Book Industry.”

As new immigrants, many Jews could not find work in more respectable mediums and so moved into seedier ones, Kaplan wrote.

Real threats to the Jews often found their way into the cartoons, In the 1940s, for example, superheroes fought Nazi enemies, just as Allied forces were doing in Europe.

At a Manhattan lecture this winter on Jewish comic characters and creators, the subtle and obvious Jewish aspects of comics were showcased at an exhibit co-sponsored by the JCC in Manhattan, the New York City Comic Book Museum and

At the lecture, Oirich pointed out the parallels between Superman’s life and traditional Jewish folklore and customs. Though the audience didn’t seem convinced that Superman was a perfect mashal — or allegory — for the biblical story of Moses, Oirich laid out the many ways Jews have contributed to the comics industry.

The immigrant status of the early comics writers probably contributed as much to their heroes as Judaism did.

“Superheroes are a reaction to immigrants trying to fit in,” said Jordan Gorfinkel, a comic book maven, former D.C. Comics editor, author of the “Everything’s Relative” comic strip, and the brain behind the comic book series “Birds of Prey.” The immigrant persona of the Jewish writers contributed to Superman’s character, he said.

“They washed away the undesirable aspects in the disguise of mild-mannered Clark Kent,” he said.

Other comics may show implicitly Jewish themes, too.

“Even if people don’t mean to put it into the character, you bring your experience into the character when you create them,” Kaplan said in an interview, mentioning the X-men — a team of mutants with special powers who are shunned by society.

Writers had to come up with innovative superheroes, and a good one was a group of mutants that everyone hated because they were different, Kaplan said.

While any outsider group probably could identify with that feeling of difference, Jewish characters and subjects did crop up in the early editions of popular comics and continue to do so today.

“When you consider the over-representation of Jews working in the comics industry, it seems surprising that most comics readers and most Jews seem unaware of the Jewish contribution to this art form and unaware of Jewish topics in stories,” said comics historian Steve Bergson, of the Jewish Public Library of Toronto.

For example, he said, he would read Batman comics “and then I would see the Golem and the word ’emet,’ ” — Hebrew for “truth.”

As a library sciences student, Bergson decided to keep track of those notations. Today, he maintains an online bibliography that lists Jewish references in comics; he also moderates a message board where more than 70 industry insiders and comics readers stay up-to-date with Jewish comics news.

It’s hard to pin down the reasons for the recent growth of interest in the Jewish contribution to comics.

Michael Chabon’s 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay,” in which two Jewish cousins create a superhero based on the mythical Golem of Prague, put the topic into pop culture.

But Kaplan argues that works like Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus,” a comic strip that won a Pulitzer in 1992, have lent credibility to a medium that once was considered the lowest form of art. The new gravitas lends itself to exploration and analysis.

A 70-year-old medium, especially one that spans three generations, is old enough to catalogue and look at critically, Kaplan said.

“This is the second generation in a row raised on comics,” he said. “They have a respect for it, and the Jewish ones among them are able to analyze the Jewish stuff in comics like their forebears couldn’t.”

“What looked American to older generations looks Jewish to us,” he added.

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