Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero, by Danny Fingeroth, foreword by Stan Lee. New York: Continuum, 2007. 184 pp. $28.95 (c ); $19.95 (p).
Amidst a slew of recent scholarly works on superhero comics, Danny Fingeroth's Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero marks a solid contribution. Just as Clark Kent parades as a mild-mannered average reporter for the Daily Planet with a meager pair of Buddy Holly-style glasses as his disguise, the Jewish influence over superhero comics and the resultant iconic, mega-market industry has also remained hidden beneath our very noses, and apparently in plain sight. According to Fingeroth, this "disguise" has worked almost too well. Through careful scholarship and impressive interviews with some of the leading creators of comic book superheroes, he argues it was not simply a matter of coincidence that the progenitors of such characters as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men were Jewish. Despite this, Fingeroth explicitly states that he is "in no way saying that the [superhero] creators intended such [Jewish] meaning or content" (p. 19). Thus, he is able to make substantial assertions that directly contradict those of such comic book icons as Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, and Bob Kane, who maintain that their Jewish heritage did not find its way into their creations. The fact that Fingeroth positions his thesis in stark contrast to these legends (with the exception of Stan Lee, who seems to find the Jewish link to superheroes more than plausible) makes Disguised as Clark Kent a significant addition to the study of superhero comics.
Fingeroth methodically and logically lays out the historical evidence, initiating his investigation with a seemingly simple question: "What's so Jewish about superheroes, anyway?" The answers, which make up the vast majority of his book, are numerous. Indeed, the impetus for Fingeroths entire project is the need to discover whether "there was anything particularly Jewish about superheroes in general or any superhero in particular" (p. 25). The first and perhaps most important superhero to begin with is, of course, Superman. Two youngjewish men from Cleveland named Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster created the "Man of Steel," a fact well documented. Fingeroth regards this not just as a curious fact, however, but also as an invitation to examine Superman's connection to the same traditions as those of his creator. In fact, Fingeroth sees Superman as a sort of wish fulfillment of the Jewish (American) Dream to become "the quintessential American, unafraid to speak truth to power, especially to the types of petty tyrants that people face on a day-to-day basis" (p. 49). As the ultimate immigrant, Superman harkens back to many biblical figures, but the one most apt, Fingeroth claims, is Moses. Additionally, Superman's outsider status, his preternatural willingness to do good, his noninterest in overabundant wealth, and perhaps most important, his all-important secret identity compose not only "America's idealization of the individual" (p. 48) but also the Jewish immigrant's hope to "invent the new self. . . in this new world" (p. 49). Superman, then, becomes an archetype for superheroes to come.
Once he establishes the Superman connection to Jewishness, Fingeroth moves on to later iterations of the superhero figure. As with Superman, the author takes great care to establish Batman's Jewish heritage. Bob Kane, the controversial creator of Batman, apparently diminished the role of his ancestry whenever possible. Fingeroth relies heavily on a biographical reading of Batman through the lens of Kane, and at times it feels like a bit of a stretch. …