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cic2007-11-05.jpgLast week I began my commentary on Danny Fingeroth’s new book Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero. The book demonstrates that Fingeroth, a former editor and writer at Marvel Comics, has realized two principles that, in my experience, most mainstream superhero comics editors and writers don’t grasp.

One is that the superhero genre works through metaphor. For example, Superman was sent from his home planet of Krypton through outer space to Earth, where he was raised as an American by Jonathan and Martha Kent. This can be read as a metaphor for the immigrant experience; it also parallels the Biblical tale of the infancy of Moses, who was born of Jewish parents, was cast adrift for his own safety, and was found and raised by Egyptians.

The second principle is related to the first. This is that stories may have meanings that their authors did not consciously intend. When I interviewed Fingeroth for Publishers Weekly’s online newsletter Comics Week, I asked him, “Were any of the Jewish comics creators of the Golden and Silver Ages consciously aware of putting themes that specifically reflected their ethnic background in their work?”

Fingeroth, who is himself Jewish, replied, “I don’t think so. I think they were, if anything, trying to divest their work of any such content and make it as ‘all-American’ as possible. But the human mind is a strange and wonderful thing, and years later we can look at the work and tease out all sorts of below the surface meanings that weren’t intended to be there.”

The In his book Fingeroth asserts that “there are and were–for the most part unconscious and subconscious–true Jewish content, meaning, and themes in various seminal superhero works.” (Fingeroth, p. 19). He recognizes that such “content,” reflecting the Jewish-American experience, is present even if the authors deny its presence. “There was nothing overt or conscious about this, of course,” Fingeroth writes about such “Jewish content”: “Even creators who do not share [Will] Eisner’s disavowal of Jewish intent have only come to see it in retrospect” (Fingeroth, p. 18).

Fingeroth declares that “the creation of the superhero seems to have been more than a function of happenstance. The creation of a legion of special beings, self-appointed to protect the weak, innocent, and victimized a a time when fascism was dominating the European continent from which the creators of the heroes hailed, seems like a task that Jews were uniquely positioned to take on” (Fingeroth, p. 17).

Jerry Siegel stated that the Nazi persecution of Jews was one of his motivations for co-creating Superman, although he also points to the economic devastation of the Great Depression, which affected Americans of all ethnic backgrounds: “being unemployed and worried during the depression and knowing hopelessness and fear. Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany. . .I had the great urge to help . . . help the downtrodden masses, somehow. How could I help them when I could barely help myself? Superman was the answer” (Fingeroth p. 41). However, since Siegel wrote that in 1975, perhaps this is a case of a Jewish-American creator coming “to see it in retrospect.”

Another Hewish comics creastor of note, Neil Gaiman, told Fingeroth that “Jews had been culturally and for so long the underdog that dreams of wish-fulfillment and dreams of power crystallized into superheroes. . . .the oppressed have their stories and fantasies. Those in power don’t need fantasies” (Fingeroth pgs. 143-144).

Fingeroth maintains that, whether Jewish or not, “immigrants have an outsider’s view of a society and so understand it, in many ways, more clearly than someone born into that society” (Fingeroth p. 23). In my interview with Fingeroth, he stated “that the Jewish and other immigrants, as outsiders, were able to see what was important to the majority society, then distill those values and ideas and reflect them back through the vehicle of popular culture.”

The problem here, I suggest, is that the founding fathers of the Golden and Silver Ages of superhero comics were the children of immigrants, not immigrants themselves. Right now America is going through another great period of immigration, with New York City once again as one of its centers. Looking through my New York City neighborhood, I see Asian and Latino immigrant families all around me. What I notice is that the immigrants’ children, who were born and raised in this country, seem thoroughly Americanized. I assume that the superhero genre’s founders, who grew up within American culture, would not have had the same perspective on it as their immigrant parents would have had.

Nonetheless, second and third generation Jewish-Americans would still have felt themselves to be outsiders to some extent since they did not follow the same religion as the majority of Americans. Moreover, anti-Semitism was more overt and widespread in America in the 1930s than today. In his introduction to Fingeroth’s book, Stan Lee writes that he encountered “very little” bigotry in his life, but states that “I certainly had read, heard and known about the prejudice so many Jewish people faced”; significantly, Lee says, “I was very lucky” to have experienced so little of it (Fingeroth p. 10).

Jules Feiffer grew up reading the superhero comics of the Golden Age of the 1940s and began his own career in comics at the Golden Age’s close as Will Eisner’s assistant on The Spirit. Fingeroth quotes Feiffer’s observation that “Superman was the ultimate assimilationalist fantasy” (Fingeroth p. 24). As noted, Superman was an immigrant from another world who was raised out in the countryside, the traditional cradle of American values, to be an American himself. He even acquired a WASP-sounding name, Clark Kent. Feiffer goes on to say that “The mild manners and glasses that signified a class of nerdy Clark Kents was [sic], in no way, our real truth. Underneath the schmucky facade, there lived Men of Steel!” The “fantasy,” then, is that Superman the Kryptonian, who represents Jewish-Americans’ true ethnicity, is not only vital, powerful and downright cool, but that he is also hailed as a hero by the majority culture. (However, as Fingeroth points out later in the book, it was not until 1948 that Superman himself first discovered he was from Krypton. In the 1930s and 1940s the general populace in Superman comics had no idea he was an alien!)

I wonder if Clark represents another side of the “ultimate assimilationalist fantasy” for a minority group: being able to blend into mainstream society so perfectly that one’s true background–one’s inner identity–is undetectable. Part of the fantasy is that all you have to do is put on the glasses, adopt the proper set of “mild manners,” wear the same business suit as everyone else, and not draw attention to yourself, and voila! The disguise–and the assimilation– are complete!

As Fingeroth observes, “It’s the traditional immigrant attitude of keeping a low profile, not standing out. To stand out is to be a target, and who needs that?” (Fingeroth, p. 25).

Later, Fingeroth states that “Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, it was the desire to escape from the Jewish past that in many ways led to the creation of the superhero” (Fingeroth p. 34). He points out that “For the Jewish immigrant families like those from which Siegel and [Superman co-creator Joe] Shuster came, the dual identity was more than a convenience. When your history tells you that you can be murdered because of who your parents happened to be, the freedom provided by being able to blend into the mainstream culture is essential to survival” (Fingeroth p. 49).

Last week I showed how John Byrne subtly but sharply revised the treatment of Superman’s dual identity in The Man of Steel (1986). In the traditional view, Clark Kent is the “facade,” as Feiffer puts it, and people cannot see through to his true self, which is Superman. In The Man of Steel Superman is the public persona, and people cannot see through it to his true self, which is Clark Kent.

In justifying Superman’s dual identity in Man of Steel, Byrne appears to be using as his model the celebrity seeking privacy, rather than the immigrant assimilating in order to escape becoming the target of prejudice. But in both the traditional approach to Superman’s dual identity and Byrne’s, there is the sense that the secret identity is protection against a palpable threat. In The Man of Steel Clark Kent adopts his public persona of Superman after he is mobbed by a grateful public after publicly using his powers to save a space plane from crashing. As I noted last week, Clark tells his foster parents that “They were all over me! Like wild animals. Like maggots. Clawing. Pulling. Screaming at me” and confesses to feeling “fear” (Byrne, The Man of Steel #1, p. 28) He describes a physical threat that seems not unlike that posed by a mob of bigots attacking a member of a minority group.

Despite recasting Superman/Clark as a beleaguered celebrity, Byrne still seems to have realized, consciously or not, that the motivating force behind adopting a secret identity is fear of persecution.

Fingeroth recognizes that “To modern sensibilities, that unquestioning need for a disguise flies in the face of, if nothing else, our current ideal of the whole, integrated, non-hypocritical, complete human” (Fingeroth p. 35).

In recent years superhero comics have become more lax in their treatment of the secret identity motif. Think of all the superheroes who have been “outed” or have “outed” themselves lately, including such major figures as Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Man and the X-Men. As Fingeroth says, this may reflect a contemporary idealization of the “integrated” human personality. It surely also reflects an American society that has become more tolerant towards racial and ethnic differences than it was in the 1930s and 1940s. Today’s superhero writers grew up in a very different circumstances than the founders of the genre did.

There is also the more recent phenomenon of “identity politics.” The Jewish members of the superhero genre’s founding generation tended to play down their Jewish identities, in many cases even to the extent of adopting new names, in order to fit into a Christian-dominated society. (In his book Fingeroth examines how Batman co-creator Bob Kane continued to conceal his Jewish background as late as 1989 in his autobiography.) As Fingeroth points out in his book’s later chapters, starting with the Baby Boom generation, comics creators such as Howard Chaykin and Peter David are not only open about their Jewish background but even explicitly portray comics characters, like Dominic Fortune and Doc Samson, as Jewish. Fingeroth’s Disguised as Clark Kent and other books on the same subject, including Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, are efforts by Jewish-American writers to openly claim the superhero genre as a product of Jewish-American culture. Indeed, nowadays, at least some immigrant groups seek to retain elements of their native culture while settling into American society.

Marvel’s original version of X-Factor may have marked a turning point. This series’ original premise was that the original members of the X-Men posed as humans who hunted down mutants. In actuality, the original X-Men would then train the mutants they found not only how to manage the use of their powers but also to “pass” as ordinary non-mutant humans. Indeed, the original X-Men had “passed” as humans in their civilian identities from the beginning of the original X-Men comic book. But comics fans objected to this premise, recognizing that “mutants” at Marvel were metaphors for members of minority groups, and contending that it was immoral to insist that they hide their true group identities. X-Factor’s second writer, Louise Simonson, reached the sane conclusion, created a storyline showing that X-Factor’s public stance that mutants were dangerous played into the hands of bigots, and finally had X-Factor publicly renounce it.

Years later in New X-Men, writer Grant Morrison took the next step by “outing” Professor Charles Xavier as a mutant, and thus exposing his Xavier Institute as a school for mutants (see “Comics in Context” #28: “Adapt and Assimilate”). Morrison portrayed this turn of events as a blessing in disguise, enabling the X-Men to openly campaign on behalf of mutant rights.

Since X-Men is about a team of superheroes who represent a minority group, rather than about an individual superhero, Morrison may have been correct in disposing of secret identities in this case. Having Xavier go public may well have been a necessary move in keeping X-Men relevant to 21st century America’s multicultural society.

But as I wrote last week, contemporary writers in the superhero genre may be making mistakes by downplaying or ignoring elements that were inspired by the Jewish-American culture of many of the genre’s founders.

The secret identity trope did not originate with Superman; the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro, among others, had used it earlier. But it’s clear that the secret identity motif had particular resonance, even if unconscious, for Jewish-Americans. As Fingeroth indicates, such elements of the superhero genre that reflected Jewish concerns also proved to have great appeal to the wider audience. Feiffer’s quotation goes on to state that “America cloned itself into a country made up of millions of Clark Kents. and day after day, you could hear them muttering to themselves, I’m not really like this. If they only knew my true identity” (Fingeroth p. 24).

Fingeroth concludes, “The concept that in a modern technological society we all had inner Supermen and Superwomen yearning to be revealed was an idea that the world was waiting for even if it didn’t know it” (Fingeroth, p. 42). This society still exists. In a modern nation that encompasses millions of people, in which each of us may seem to be only a cog in the capitalist system’s wheels, in which the power of technology dwarfs that of the individual, the superhero makes sense as a fantasy by which the individual can assert himself and achieve recognition.

Fingeroth argues that “The Siegel-Shuster Superman concept was in its way the diametric opposite of the contemporary [meaning the 1930s and 1940s] fascist and communist solutions to the modern dilemma of finding meaning and identity in mass society. As expressed through Superman, the self was not to be subsumed to the collective” (Fingeroth p. 42). Nietzche didn’t believe that his ubermensch should “be subsumed to the collective,” either, and, of course, the German fascists adapted the ubermensch concept to their ideology. Nonetheless, I think that Fingeroth makes a good point that the American superhero stood for the potential value of the individual in a period when people sought solutions in ideologies that led to totalitarian systems that would crush individual liberty. “The primacy of the individual was what so many immigrants, including Eastern European Jews, came to America to partake of and conribute to” (Fingeroth p. 43).

But I think that the secret identity would have an appeal in a society of any size. You don’t have to be Jewish or a member of a minority group to identify with Clark Kent; all you need is to feel that other people don’t fully understand the real you, and that is probably a universal sentiment. Fingeroth writes of “the fantasy that having a second self touches in all of us. We all want to think there is greatness in ourselves that the world cannot see, or that we cannot allow it to see, that the facades we display in everyday life are just that–masks that society forces us to wear” (Fingeroth, p. 49).

As I have written many times in the past, the duality of human nature, whether it is between one’s “good” and “evil” sides, or between one’s public and private selves, is one of the dominant themes of the superhero genre.

The dual identity also serves as a metaphor for everyman as he is (the “civilian identity,” like Peter Parker) and everyman’s potential to become a success, to achieve his dreams, to become a “hero” (the superhero, like Spider-Man).

Moreover, the dual identity represents the necessary duality in the superhero, who is at once demigod (or demigoddess) and man (or woman). As Dr. Peter Coogan shows in his book Superhero: The Secret Origin of the Genre, the “science-fiction supermen” before Siegel and Shuster’s creation were often threats to society (see “Comics in Context” #165: “The Supervillain Defined”). The concept of Nietzche’s ubermensch, the superman “beyond good and evil,” was easily twisted by the Nazis to their own purposes. Because the American superhero is grounded in humanity through his “civilian” persona, he is our benefactor, rather than a potential tyrant: he is one of us. (Coogan notes that the secret identity is a “customary” element of the superhero genre. See “Comics in Context” #162: “The Superhero Defined.”)

Looking at Silver Age superhero comics, the contemporary reader might be surprised to see how many “normal” people appear in their pages. For example, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby loved to show their thunder god Thor interacting with ordinary folks on the streets of Manhattan. This is in part because Lee and Kirby must have recognized the necessity that their superheroes must be part of the society that they defend. The secret “civilian” identity makes the superhero into a member of that society.

In contrast, nowadays, not only have secret identities fallen out of fashion, but it often seems that virtually everyone in a contemporary superhero comic is a costumed character. This is the situation that Mark Waid and Alex Ross critiqued in Kingdom Come, which depicts a world in which there are too many superheroes, and they fall to fighting among themselves. Back in a 1996 interview for Westfield Comics, Ross said, “I would criticize modern superheroes as being little more than gangs fighting gangs. When they’re removed into their own environments that are all these techno-babble, Kirby-derived playgrounds and you’ve got characters upon characters and not one person looks like they live in the real world, after a while it feels like another planet.” When the Westfield interviewer suggested that “It’s the contrast between real life and the life they lead, in other words, that is the source of what’s interesting about them,” Ross responded, “Yeah, because ultimately, as far as I’m concerned, once you remove them to their own environment, where it’s just a land of superheroes, then it’s literally become as boring as real life [laughter].”

As my regular readers know, I dislike DC’s Identity Crisis and Marvel’s Civil War. But I recognize that each represents a backlash to the fashion of disposing of secret identities and separating superheroes from the rest of society.

In Identity Crisis writer Brad Meltzer directs readers’ attention back to the impetus for adopting dual identities: fear of persecution. He shows that when superheroes publicly reveal their dual identities, they expose their loved ones–”ordinary” people–to attack.

Civil War pulls in different directions at once. By having Spider-Man and Iron Man publicly reveal their secret identities, Civil War actually separates them from the rest of society, since they can no longer lead normal lives within it. (Spider-Man’s current “One More Day” storyline makes the negative consequences clear.) On the other hand, the climax of Civil War comes when a group of ordinary citizens emerge from seemingly out of nowhere and restrain Captain America from further assaulting Iron Man. These citizens claim that Captain America has lost sight of what the people want, which is greater government supervision of superheroes. I disagree with the idea that Captain America was wrong to fight for individual freedom in Civil War. Yet it is appropriate that the “ordinary” people on the street, who were so visible in Silver Age Marvel Comics, should reemerge to remind the superheroes, who were behaving like what Ross called “gangs fighting gangs,” of their duty towards them.

The psychological appeal of the dual/secret identity should be more evident in this age of the Internet, in which people masquerade behind screen names and adopt alternate personas in virtual worlds like Second Life.

I’m writing this only a few days after Halloween, which is society’s annual celebration of alternate identities. At the annual Halloween parties at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA), “ordinary” people dress as costumed superheroes, thus expressing more assertive, liberated sides of their personalities for an evening. This year, at the party and outdoors on Halloween, I saw examples of that contemporary Halloween trend in which adult women dress in a more erotically charged manner than they would ordinarily attempt.

It is wearisome to see newspaper or television reports on San Diego’s Comic Con that give the impression that everyone there is in costume, rather than the one percent or less who actually are. But New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, who attended this year’s San Diego Comic Con, has the right perspective on Comic-Con cosplay (July 28, 2007). “Every day we wake up to navigate through a faceless, inhuman, Made-in-China existence,” she wrote, with a certain political incorrectness, but “events like Comic-Con. . . give men, women and children of all ages permission to dress up and act out.” Like Halloween, Comic Con suspends the normal rules of society, enabling people to outwardly assume different identities. Dargis described Comic-Con as a place “where people can give physical form to the passions that the rest of the year remain safely hidden from the cruel world.” (So what happens at Comic-Con stays at Comic-Con?)

Yes, this happens at fantasy and science fiction cons, too. But the superhero genre, which originated in comics, is the area of pop culture that is most identified with the concept of alternate identities. Writers and editors of the superhero genre should be wary of departing from one of the major factors in the genre’s psychological appeal.

New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella recently wrote that “Art is personal; it makes people think about their secret lives” (Nov. 5, 2007). Intelligently handled, the superhero genre can deal with exactly that: the “secret lives” of the characters, the writers, and the readers. This, Acocella is saying, lies at the heart of art.

Turning to the creation of the superhero genre, Fingeroth observes that “There are the legends surrounding the golem, and surely these were part of the superhero mix” (Fingeroth p. 33), noting further that Michael Chabon deals extensively with the golem in Kavalier and Clay. In Jewish folklore a golem is a superhuman being created from clay (as in the name of Kavalier’s partner?), soil or mud by a holy man (thereby paralleling God’s creation of Adam) to serve him. Golems are of low intelligence and are potentially dangerous. In the most celebrated golem story, Rabbi Judah Loew creates a golem to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution; the golem eventually begins attacking and killing people, and the rabbi deactivates him. Fingeroth asserts that the golem legend was “riffed on in Frankenstein,” meaning the 1931 movie, though he doesn’t demonstrate a direct connection. I see that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel was first published in 1818, whereas the story of Rabbi Loew’s golem first appeared in print in 1847. In any case, the two tales parallel each other.

I wonder how much the golem legend really is applicable to the superhero genre. Although the “science-fiction supermen” (like Frankenstein’s monster) that preceded Siegel and Shuster’s Superman could be dangerous, like the golem, the American superhero isn’t a threat to the public at large. I suppose that one could say that Siegel and Shuster, in creating Superman, were comparable to the holy men of legend creating a golem to combat evil and protect the innocent, albeit in a fictional world. But within the context of the stories, the superhero is usually neither unintelligent nor a servant of a master who created him. Perhaps one could say that the typical superhero is his own golem, creating a heroic identity for himself in which he goes out to perform good deeds.

In fact, it seems to me that the early superhero who is most like a golem may be Wonder Woman, whose creator, William Moulton Marston, wasn’t Jewish. Wonder Woman originated as the figure of a child, molded from clay by the Amazon queen Hippolyta, and endowed with life by the Olympian gods. But was Marston thinking of the golem, or of the creation of Adam? Considering the role of Greek mythology in the Wonder Woman mythos, Marston may have been thinking of the story that Prometheus created the first human beings out of clay. (It suddenly strikes me that in Jack Kirby’s The Eternals, the Forgotten One, a benefactor of humanity who was punished by Zuras, may in part be based on Prometheus.)

Fingeroth contends that “there’s little evidence of [Carl] Burgos’s Jewish roots” in his stories about his creation, the original Human Torch (Fingeroth p. 65). But the original Torch’s origin (in Marvel Comics #1, 1939) certainly parallels the golem legend: a modern version of the wise man of legend, a scientist named Professor Horton, creates an android with superhuman powers, which breaks free and goes on a rampage before finally settling into his career as a superhero.

In writing about Jerry Siegel, Fingeroth reveals something that had escaped my notice before this: that Siegel’s immigrant father, Mitchell (born Michel) Siegel, died during a robbery of his store, either from being shot or from a heart attack. Fingeroth correctly argues that the loss of his father gave Jerry Siegel strong psychological impetus to create a fictional superhero. Oddly, Fingeroth overlooks the fact that Siegel wrote not one but two deaths of father figures into the pre-Byrne Superman legend: Jor-El dies in saving his son from the destruction of Krypton, and Clark Kent’s foster father makes a deathbed speech instructing Clark to use his powers to benefit humanity.

At the MoCCA Halloween party, I was taken aside and asked my expert opinion: is Superman like Moses or Jesus? I gave the same answer that Fingeroth does in his book: Superman has parallels to both. Fingeroth says that “Moses is viewed by some theological thinkers as a precursor to Jesus, both figures having been sent as babies to save their people and change the world” (Fingeroth p. 44).

Here I can draw upon my background as a Catholic. Not just “some theological thinkers,” but also the whole Catholic Church finds many parallels in the Old Testament to the life of Jesus, and interprets them as precursors to Christ. Hence, for example, Jonah’s stay in the belly of the whale for three days foreshadows Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection on the third day.

What’s really going on is that Biblical figures like Moses and Jonah and even Jesus are following archetypal mythical patterns, and it should be no surprise that Superman, a figure from modern “mythology,” likewise parallels elements of the lives of Moses and Jesus.

Next week I will further explore the ideas in Danny Fingeroth’s Disguised as Clark Kent, which should be a key book for students of the superhero genre.


Titan Books has just published Steve Saffel’s lavishly illustrated coffee table book Spider-Man: The Icon, which covers the web-slinger’s history in comics, movies, television, records, toys, and every other relevant form of media and merchandising. You can read my interview with him for Publishers Weekly’s Comics Week here.

-Copyright 2007 Peter Sanderson


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