While reconciling faith and modernity is nothing new in Jewish literature, it is not often explored in comics. The recently released graphic novel Superman Isn’t Jewish (But I Am… Kinda) is an exception. This serious but charming account is about a boy named Benjamin whose infatuation with living a Jewish life sours as he grows older; the book follows the small steps he takes to return to those elements of Judaism that are most meaningful to him. The book’s title is a bit misleading — there aren’t any Superman heroics here. Rather, Superman is a counterpoint, an archetype of Jewish creativity and influence (after all, his creators were Jews).
Benjamin is a precocious French child with a love of pop culture. Although raised in an interfaith family, he clings to the Jewish roots of his father, who tells him that “all great men are Jewish.” Though the themes of the book are quite serious, the tone is not. Bemon and Boudet inject humor in their words and images, and in the style of bande dessinée, they don’t focus on the grimness that seems to have infected mainstream American comics. While Benjamin’s repudiation of Judaism sets up the emotional stakes, his exploits are often comical, and typical of any adolescent trying to find his place in the world. The book is frank about Benjamin’s sexual journey; the identifying marker of his Jewish manhood is a source of embarrassment in his younger years. But the story never veers into truly dark territory. Boudet’s winsome artwork reinforces the lighter aspects of the book, but is also deft enough to carry the emotional weight of Benjamin’s journey.
The need to conceal and come to terms with one’s role in the world is at the center of Superman Isn’t Jewish—like Clark Kent’s double life as a humble reporter and a galaxy-moving hero. Though at times the protagonist’s motives come off as a bit shallow, his internal conflict is something that all readers will recognize.