Jer­ry Siegel and Joe Shus­ter, cre­ators of Super­man, 1942

Super­hero comics are fun­da­men­tal­ly Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture. In the 1930s and 1940s Jew­ish immi­grants in New York were kept out of most respectable indus­tries, so pub­lish­ers, writ­ers and artists cre­at­ed an indus­try of their own, comics. They also cre­at­ed its pro­pri­etary genre, super­heroes, which they infused with var­i­ous lev­els of Jew­ish signification.

Less known is that the com­ic book itself is a Jew­ish inven­tion. In 1933 an unem­ployed school­teacher from the Bronx named Maxwell Gaines (né Gins­burg) came up with the idea of licens­ing old news­pa­per strips and reprint­ing them in a mag­a­zine for­mat. (It’s why they’re called comics,” they were orig­i­nal­ly all humor strips.) Grad­u­al­ly new con­tent was need­ed, and five years lat­er, in June 1938, Super­man debuted.

The Man of Steel was the first super­hero, and the mold from which all oth­ers will for­ev­er be cast. He’s also a heav­i­ly Jew­ish char­ac­ter. Not canon­i­cal­ly but meta­tex­tu­al­ly, as a metaphor and as an avatar of his Jew­ish cre­ators, Jer­ry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

He was giv­en the birth name Kal-El, El mean­ing god in Hebrew, and the same ori­gin sto­ry as Moses; a baby whisked to safe­ty in a small ves­sel, found amidst thick veg­e­ta­tion, renamed and raised by peo­ple not his own, who grows to become a great sav­ior. In sev­er­al ver­sions he trav­els across the North Pole and learns of his spe­cial her­itage from the holo­gram of his father Jor-El, mir­ror­ing Moses’s jour­ney across Mid­i­an and the burn­ing bush.

Siegel acknowl­edged being inspired by Sam­son, the super-strong Israelite judge who fought in the name of truth and jus­tice, whom he reg­u­lar­ly ref­er­ences in the ear­ly comics. He was also inspired by the golem of Prague — par­tic­u­lar­ly the 1920 film — in cre­at­ing an inde­struc­tible cham­pi­on of the oppressed. (In 1958 the golem leg­end was used whole­sale for the ori­gin of Bizarro, one of Superman’s most famous adversaries.)

Siegel and Shus­ter based Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, on them­selves. They were both bespec­ta­cled, gawky and neu­rot­ic, but also cere­bral, inven­tive and wise­crack­ing — a check­list of Jew­ish stereotypes.

Super­man is essen­tial­ly the sto­ry of the Jew­ish refugee Kal-El who came over from the old coun­try and angli­cized his name to Clark Kent. He’s an alien who can pass for human but can only inter­act freely with soci­ety through a dis­guise, a Jew pass­ing for a non-Jew. His cos­tume is made from the Kryp­ton­ian fab­rics his moth­er wrapped him in as a baby, and he wears it under his clothes like a tal­lit, giv­ing him the abil­i­ty to change iden­ti­ties at whim.

Oth­er super­heroes from the peri­od reflect their Jew­ish cre­ators’ back­ground and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions as well. Cap­tain Amer­i­ca, for exam­ple, cre­at­ed in 1941 by Joe (Hymie) Simon and Jack Kir­by (Kurtzberg), is about a young weak­ling of strong resolve who vol­un­teers to become a super-sol­dier to fight the Nazis, equipped with a star-span­gled shield. It echoes the sto­ry of King David, a gen­teel youth of unwa­ver­ing faith who vol­un­teers to fight the giant ene­my of his peo­ple, lat­er fash­ion­ing a hexa­gram shield, the Star of David.

What makes comics Jew­ish isn’t just the his­to­ry of their cre­ation; it’s the rich tapes­try of Jew­ish themes and sym­bol­ism that can be found with­in them.

Cap­tain America’s alter ego is Steve Rogers, an under­sized young artist from the Low­er East Side, just like his co-cre­ator Jack Kir­by. Kir­by plain­ly stat­ed that Cap­tain Amer­i­ca was me, and I was Cap­tain Amer­i­ca.” When the Cap­tain punched Hitler on the cov­er of his first issue — dat­ed March 1941 and pub­lished Decem­ber 1940, a year before Pearl Har­bor and when the vast major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans were staunch­ly against inter­ven­tion — it was Kirby’s own anger com­ing to the sur­face.” And when the press was rel­e­gat­ing reports about the ongo­ing Holo­caust to the back pages, the cov­er of Cap­tain Amer­i­ca Comics #46 showed tagged inmates marched at gun­point to giant ovens, human bones stick­ing out of the ashes.

The image in most people’s minds of 1950s comics is cheer­ful and care­free, but in truth many became post-Holo­caust alle­gories, an out­let for their Jew­ish creators.

The most pop­u­lar genre was hor­ror, not super­heroes, and Super­man became increas­ing­ly haunt­ed by the destruc­tion of his home world and extinc­tion of his peo­ple. Sto­ry after sto­ry, he strug­gled with survivor’s guilt, dis­cov­ered oth­er Kryp­ton­ian sur­vivors like his cousin Super­girl, and tried to learn about and pre­serve his lost culture.

In the 1960s, Mar­vel Comics rev­o­lu­tion­ized the indus­try with new forms of sto­ry­telling and an explo­sion of new char­ac­ters, many co-cre­at­ed by the Jew­ish duo Stan Lee (Stan­ley Lieber) and Jack Kirby.

These new cre­ations con­tin­ued to reflect Jew­ish themes, like the X‑Men, a per­se­cut­ed minor­i­ty of mutants who can large­ly pass for human, sworn to pro­tect a world that hates them, who learn how to use the gifts of their spe­cial her­itage in a yeshi­va-like pri­vate school. The series explored, and still does, ques­tions of iden­ti­ty, inte­gra­tion vs. trib­al­ism, and coexistence.

Comics’ worst-kept secret is that Spi­der-Man, the most prof­itable super­hero, is Jew­ish. A neu­rot­ic neb­bish from For­est Hills, Queens, a heav­i­ly Jew­ish neigh­bor­hood then and now, he quipped con­stant­ly with iron­ic, self-dep­re­cat­ing humor sprin­kled with Yid­dishisms like oy.

Lat­er on, writer Bri­an Michael Bendis — a for­mer ortho­dox yeshi­va stu­dent who wrote the char­ac­ter longer than any­one else — added mishugas, fakak­ta, shmen­drick and ref­er­ences to hol­i­days like Shavuot. In the 2018 ani­mat­ed movie Spi­der-Man: Into the Spi­der-Verse Peter Park­er can be seen, for a split-sec­ond, step­ping on the glass at his wedding.

In the 1970s Kir­by wrote and drew a mul­ti­year, mul­ti-series saga called the Fourth World” about war­ring alien gods, where the good guys were based on Jew­ish arche­types and the bad guys on Nazi arche­types. Almost every issue was brim­ming with bib­li­cal, Tal­mu­dic, and Kab­bal­is­tic allusions.

Jew­ish cre­ators increas­ing­ly brought their back­ground to the fore­ground in oth­er gen­res as well, pro­duc­ing works like Tri­na Rob­bins’ 1972 Wimmen’s Comix, Har­vey Pekar’s 1976 Amer­i­can Splen­dor, and Will Eisner’s 1978 A Con­tract with God and Oth­er Ten­e­ment Sto­ries. Art Spiegelman’s Maus received the 1992 Pulitzer Prize.

Comics’ Jew­ish parent­age has been increas­ing­ly acknowl­edged in recent years. In 2002 Will Eis­ner received a Life­time Achieve­ment Award from the Nation­al Foun­da­tion for Jew­ish Cul­ture, in recog­ni­tion that in many ways the [com­ic book] genre is a Jew­ish-cre­at­ed genre.” In 2000 Siegel and Shus­ter were named in The Jew­ish 100: A Rank­ing of the Most Influ­en­tial Jews of all Time, and in Novem­ber 2021 they were induct­ed into the Jew­ish-Amer­i­can Hall of Fame.

But what makes comics Jew­ish isn’t just the his­to­ry of their cre­ation; it’s the rich tapes­try of Jew­ish themes and sym­bol­ism that can be found with­in them.

These themes, while pre­sent­ed metaphor­i­cal­ly and hyper­bol­i­cal­ly, are the same as those of twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Jew­ish-Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. Siegel, Shus­ter, Simon, Kir­by, Lee, and oth­er ear­ly com­ic book cre­ators came from the same back­ground and wrote and drew about the same things as Roth, Bel­low, Wouk, Mala­mud, and Miller. They deserve to be on the same shelf.

Super­man co-cre­ator, Joe Shus­ter, in a press pho­to by DC Comics, 1975

Roy Schwartz has writ­ten for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines, law firms, tech com­pa­nies, toy com­pa­nies, and pro­duc­tion stu­dios. He has taught Eng­lish and writ­ing at the CUNY and is a for­mer writer-in-res­i­dence fel­low at the New York Pub­lic Library. Is Super­man Cir­cum­cised? is his sec­ond book.