Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero

By Lawrence, John Shelton | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2008 | Go to article overview

Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero


Lawrence, John Shelton, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero Danny Fingeroth. Foreword by Stan Lee: New York: Continuum, 2007.

If we accept the Hebrew Bible as historical source, persons of Jewish identity have forever debated how that identity is or should be parsed into its components of ethnicity, nationality, and religion. In the past decade, writers have renewed this dialectic through a sharpening focus on Jewish ethnicity as a strand of superhero comics. Michael Chabon's novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) explored Jewish angst and feelings of impotence over Hitler's Europe. Gérard Jones's Men of Tomorrow (2005) roots the birth of the comics not only in the Jewish creators but also the somewhat shadowy enterprises of Harry Donenfield and Jack Liebowitz. Rabbi Simcha Weinstein's Up, Up, and Oy Veh! (2006) sifts through superhero comics to celebrate Jewish story analogues and religious impulses. Danny Fingeroth, who knows comics scholarship well, brings to this ethno-religious arena the unique background that informed Superman on the Couch (2004), which explained the appeals and evolution of different story types in superhero comics.

Like his earlier book, Disguised as Clark Kent shows a deep familiarity with the principals and particulars of comics as a trade involving many hands and minds. Fingeroth's previous career at Marvel, creating stories for Dark Hawk, Hulk, X-Men, and serving as Group Editor for SpiderMan Comics, lends his treatments a rare authority. How many authors can cite, as Fingeroth does, precisely relevant interview materials with seminal figures like Will Eisner? A reader also finds here a personal dimension rare in comics scholarship. Fingeroth, self identified as a New York Jew with eastern European roots, is trying to reconstruct the culture of persons from a recently lost world of immigrants "so foreign and so strange as to take on the air of fairy tales" (22).

Rather than listing important Jews in comics as a tribal celebration, Fingeroth aspires to present the superhero fantasy's "Jewish inflections," as he puts it, trying to separate them from elements found in predecessors such as Gilgamesh, Hercules, Zorro, or the Lone Ranger. He realizes that this story is strongly interpretive rather than straightforwardly factual. Even Stan Lee (Stanley Martin Lieber), who writes the book's Foreword, emphasizes that Fingeroth's attribution of Jewish ethnic values is "speculations and conclusions" (11). Lee and his cohorts felt "in the front of our minds that we were just trying to make the best action-adventure comics we could" (10-11)-not attempting to portray or project Jewishness and certainly not noticing it. In other words, they saw themselves as assimilated and making popular American stories in the process.

Conceding this sort of resistance, Chapter 1, "Secret Identities," collects a number of these denials by Jewish creators. As regards their creative intent, it is relevant to mark a difference, employed by Fingeroth, between "portrayal"where there is congruency between creator's conscious intention and creative product-and "expression," where symbolic values (and symptoms) may be projected in the absence of, and perhaps contrary to conscious purpose. Jules Feiffer made the point well in his New York Times obituary for Jerry Siegel, "The Minsk Theory of Krypton," suggesting "it wasn't Krypton that Superman really came from; it was the planet Minsk or Lodz or Vilna or Warsaw" (qtd. in Disguised, 24). At the time of Superman's genesis, Siegel likely saw himself stretching Utopian science fiction (published in his own magazine, Science Fiction: The Advance Guard of Civilization), but Feiffer and Fingeroth argue for psychic layers of secret superhero birth linked to existential fears shared by 1930s Jews. Siegel himself gravitated toward such a perspective in 1975 when he spoke of his "great urge to help the downtrodden masses," who included "the helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany" (qtd. …

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