Created by Jewish teens Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Man of Steel made his 1938 debut in Action Comics no. 1. Superman’s connections to Judaism — a subject that has been touched on in larger histories of Jews and comics — provide the impetus for this study focused exclusively on the world’s first superhero.
Roy Schwartz chronicles debates about Superman’s “Jewish history,” beginning with the crime fighter’s parallels to Moses (and more briefly to Samson and the golem). Moses was a boy dispatched to safety in a small vessel down the Nile River; the Last Son of Krypton was transported in a tiny rocket to America. Schwartz also points to Superman’s birth name, Kal-El (with the Hebrew suffix “El” denoting God in the Bible), and analyzes interpretations of the prefix “Kal,” variously understood without consensus.
A particularly compelling correlation is Superman’s arrival as a refugee immigrant from Krypton, an old world destroyed – – conjuring the biblical flood in Genesis, and the Holocaust in post-World War II comics – – to the safe haven of America. There he was raised by strangers in a strange land. Schwartz describes a familiar scenario to Jews as projected through Superman: How Kal-El negotiated his dual identity by adopting the Americanized name Clark Kent, and the challenges he faced living in two worlds. Those observations have been ferreted out by past comics scholars, but Schwartz stands apart with his in-depth examination and insights. Schwartz does not merely list these claims (and others) as bullet points or with morsels of evidence. Instead, he questions such assertions and digs deeper than scholars have before.
For example, Schwartz even-handedly elucidates how Superman can conversely be read as a Christ figure. In doing so, he identifies messianic themes and the trinitarian nature of Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman inherent in some Superman comics and other media (e.g., the long-running television series Smallville and the 2013 film Man of Steel), although these are much rarer than metaphors that signal Superman as a member of the tribe. Nonetheless, by showing two sides of the denominational debate, Schwartz gains credibility with the reader.
The title of this book should not prejudice readers. This is a serious study of Superman and at the same time a broader examination of why and how Jews have had such a crucial impact on the comics industry from its inception. At times, Schwartz provides a history of the industry itself. In some detail, the author also takes on DC Comics’s shameful treatment of Siegel and Shuster after they unfortunately and all-too-early signed over the rights to one of the most famous fictional characters in the world.
Schwartz engagingly parses the intersections of the Superman mythos, theology, American history, and Jewish tradition and culture. His thorough knowledge of Superman’s iterations by different creative teams from the Golden Age of comics to the current moment – – and of the character’s forays into radio, television, and the big screen – – is truly impressive.
Samantha Baskind is Distinguished Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University. She is the author or editor of six books on Jewish American art and culture, which address subjects ranging from fine art to film to comics and graphic novels. She served as editor for U.S. art for the 22-volume revised edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica and is currently series editor of Dimyonot: Jews and the Cultural Imagination, published by Penn State University Press.