Alright. I just finished the first chapter of Harry Brod's book Superman Is Jewish?, and it hit me like a punch. Most people who know anything about the history of comics know that the founders of superherodom, The Greats, were Jews. Lieber (Lee). Kurtzberg (Kirby). Schuster. Siegel. Liebowitz. Eisner...and the list goes on. For a long ways. These guys were geniuses of narrative, every one, and they were all pulling from the stories they'd grown up with. Brod focuses on that influence, particularly in the case of Superman (created by Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel). He wants to come to an understanding of which elements of Jewish culture made their way onto the pages of comics in the late '30s and onward.
The answer is, "Quite a lot of them".
The biggest blow in the first chapter, though, is the recognition of antisemitism in the comics industry. Let's get this straight: when I wrote "antisemitism", you thought "Nazi". Yup. The antisemitism we're addressing here is significantly milder, though no less a cultural crime. It's more akin to an iconoclasm than a holocaust. It's a whitewashing of Judaism and its influences to make this particular brand of media more palatable to North America at large, and it has changed our beloved characters over the decades to a point where are are almost unrecognizable as the heroes they once were coughnewfiftytwocough...sorry, where was I? Ah, right. I'm not complaining, I swear. I like these heroes. After all, their altered selves are the only ones I've ever known. I'm okay with the changes, but we need to recognize that those changes happened. These aren't my thoughts; I'm getting pretty much all of this from Brod, and passing it on to you, paraphrased. However, Zach Snyder hadn't just made a Superman blockbuster when Brod was writing, so...
Why was he created? Well, he was written by two slightly-built nerdy Jewish guys in New York in the 1930s. That should tell you everything right there. Two young men who are cultural outcasts by birth, who parents set out to escape persecution and find a promised land of sorts, who wound up working the runt-end of the New York publication industry. Awesome. These guys create a story about the man that every boy wishes he was: a moral straight-edge, powerful, handsome...and then they write a flipside for him. They stick themselves in there as an "alter ego", Clark Kent, the little guy. There's a lot to unpack there...but that's not what were here for.
The basics of the Superman story are this: the planet Krypton is about to be destroyed. An alien couple sends their only child off in a small vessel to save his life, and he grows up among a people not his own. He eventually becomes a champion of those people, but disguises himself as one of them so as to live in secret. That's it, in a nutshell. So...antisemitic? Yup. Let's take a quick look at the Bible, or Bibles: the Jewish and the Christian scriptures. Christian students are used to reading Bible stories about heroic figures, like David facing down Goliath, but Jewish students know better. Take the Book of Genesis, where it all starts. It's the multi-generational saga of a dysfunctional family struggling with rape, murder, incest, lies, and theft. And then there's the stuff they do to others. The Jews have no illusions about the flawed nature of their biblical forefathers. But centuries of Christian tradition have sanctified and sanitized those stories, and the characters are looked upon as saints and moral exemplars. Superman didn't start off as a goody two-shoes. He had a little bit of bad boy in him in the '30, threatening to drop people off buildings if they didn't answer his questions, flaunting his powers and operating entirely on his own authority. Nowadays he comes gift-wrapped in an American flag. When Siegel and Schuster were in charge it was clear that the real man in the story was Superman, and Clark Kent was a puny personification of the way he saw us. But now, well, watch the movies. Where does Superman get his moral code from? Martha and Jonathan Kent, his earth-parents. DC even created a heroic past for the family, an ancestry that had the Kents sheltering Harriet Tubman once upon a time. Clark was in good hands,good, all-American hands. I'll quote Brod on this next bit:
"With each wrapping of the flag, the Superman/Clark Kent character moved up a level in what medieval Christian thinkers called the Great Chain of Being, the hierarchical order of the cosmos. Over the years, as Superman's powers increased so that he came to achieve near divinity, Clark became more humanized, even allowed to be heroic in his own right, gaining greater humanity. Over the long term a Pinocchio-like transformation turned Clark from a wooden figure of ridicule into a "real boy"."(pg.15)And so we ended up with shows like Smallville, made possible because Clark was now a real person. Crazy. But it doesn't end there. I'm going back to Brod for this next bit; I don't trust my paraphrasing.
"By the time we reached the 2006 Superman Returns film that brought Superman back to the big screen after a long hiatus, Superman's de-Jewification had proceeded so far that he was not only the ultimate all-American, he was even being claimed as a Christ figure. Another nice Jewish boy was being resurrected as a Christian god. The Warner Brothers/DC Comics publicity machine launched a two-pronged campaign before the film's release, one aimed at the usual action-adventure crowd, the other aimed at conservative Evangelical Christians and flying under the general cultural radar, specifically positioning Superman Returns as the next Christian blockbuster, hoping to cash in on the trend following The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia." (Pg.17)So, that got crazy. I didn't know about that ad campaign until I read this two days ago, and I can't help but think that Schuster and Siegel must have rolled in their graves. You've probably all seen that 2006 Superman film. It has this "father becomes the son and son becomes father" motif running through it, and then Supes gets stabbed in a very iconic location...not coincidence. Also note, Superman's trip from Krytpon to Earth was originally a story about an infant being saved fro his dying world. It has become, in both the 2006 movie and now in 2013's Man of Steel, a tale of a father sending his son to save us. We have a messiah, the writers tell us, and his name is Superman. And now, in conclusion, let's return to that opening statement.
I say again: Man of Steel was an inherently antisemitic film. You've read the history, brief and drastically abridged but accurate, of the character's development. Snyder made a movie tailored to a modern audience, building on the character as we now know it and therefore the character as it has been Americanized. Half the movie was conversation between Jonathan and Clark about how to live a moral life with great power under your belt, with Kevin Costner playing a flawless all-American dad. I loved that movie. It felt like someone had finally got Superman right, and I watched it twice in theatres. But let us face the truth here. Man of Steel was the single thickest coat of whitewash yet applied to the Jewish immigrant's fantasy that was Superman. We have all but lost sight of the original character under layers of antisemitic sanitization that we didn't even know were there. So, there. That's my spiel. Superman was never meant to be Jesus.
He was meant to be Moses.