Over the last few weeks I have been examining Danny Fingeroth’s new book, Disguised as Clark Kent, which examines how the superhero genre reflects the Jewish-American background of many of the genre’s founders. As a lapsed Catholic, I have no trouble spotting the religious imagery in say, fellow Catholic Frank Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again, but I can use the help of Fingeroth’s book in understanding how Jewish-American culture influenced the work of Stan Lee (who wrote the book’s introduction), for example.
A measure of Fingeroth’s success is that he has opened my eyes to looking for such influences even in works outside the scope of his book, which is devoted to the superhero genre. For example, the Jewish Museum in Manhattan, which was hosting half of the “Masters of American Comics” exhibit last year at this time, is now presenting “From the New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig,” marking the centennial of his birth. One of Fingeroth’s themes is that being Jewish in American society confers an “outsider’s” perspective. It is therefore illuminating to consider Shrek, both in Steig’s book and in the movies, as a representative of the minority group member as outsider. In Steig’s book, Shrek embodies an adamant refusal to conform to mainstream society’s norms: it is a fable that takes a defiantly comedic stand against assimilation (see “Comics in Context” #186: “Le Petit Chef”).
Then there’s the new computer-animated film about anthropomorphic bees, Bee Movie, whose auteur is unmistakably comedian and television icon Jerry Seinfeld. Various reviewers have mentioned the exchange of dialogue that obviously signals that Seinfeld’s bees are, in part, metaphors for Jewish-Americans. On an expedition outside the hive, protagonist Barry B. Benson (voiced by Seinfeld) meets Vanessa Bloome (voiced by Renee Zellweger), a kindly human with a symbolic last name: she is the flower to his pollinating bee. (She even owns a flower shop.) On a literal level, though, they start a platonic romance. (Computer-animated films have had varying levels of success in depicting humans. DreamWorks Animation has succeeded in making Vanessa look appealingly pretty and even sexy.) Back in the hive Barry’s mother asks, “Was she beeish?” and Barry states that his new friend isn’t a “wasp.”
A delightful surprises in Fingeroth’s book is his discovery of parallels to Jewish-American culture in what initially seems a highly unlikely source: Marvel’s Thor, which is about the gods of Norse–and Germanic–culture. Back in the 1960s, series creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby devised a longrunning subplot in which Thor had fallen in love with the mortal woman Jane Foster, despite the opposition of his father Odin, monarch of the gods.
When I interviewed him for Publishers Weekly’s Comics Week, Fingeroth told me, “Immigrant families are often concerned that their children will marry within the group. Jews, with their small numbers, are famous for this concern. So when I reread the Thor stories about Odin forbidding Thor to ‘intermarry’ with mortal Jane Foster, it just seemed plain to me that this was reflective of the conflicts that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. . .had to have experienced in their own lives and families.”
Fingeroth also points out in his book that the initially forbidden romance between Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four and Crystal. who belongs to a different racial community, the Inhumans, similarly reflects this conflict. (Of course, this theme isn’t restricted to Jewish-American creators: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet find themselves in similar situation.)
So, then, Barry’s leaving the hive to explore the outside world is like someone moving beyond his ethnic community to investigate the majority culture. Barry’s platonic romance with Vanessa is a metaphor for a Jewish-American man falling in love with a Gentile woman.
But, although the mainstream reviews I’ve read take no notice, the Jewish-American themes extend much further than this in Bee Movie. Barry discovers that humans are “stealing” honey from the bee population. This is a metaphor for the majority culture’s exploitation of the labor of a minority group. It’s not surprising to find this as a subject of an animated film for families. But, startlingly, Seinfeld and his collaborators go further.
Bee Movie establishes that humans harvest honey from hives in what the dialogue calls “work camps” for bees. Of the mainstream critics whose Bee Movie reviews I read, only Rex Reed in The New York Observer came close to finding the buried subtext, referring to “a honey farm that is like a Nazi work camp staffed by slaves”. The movie shows us that before the humans remove the honey, they gas the bees. We see smoke get released and watch the bees collapse. It’s not lethal, but, considering that the Vanessa subplot has already likened bees to Jews, the metaphorical implications should be obvious.
Horrified by the exploitation of the bees, Barry fights back by initiating a class action suit against the human race. During the trial the racial subtext becomes more explicit. The opposing lawyer is a caricature of the stereotype of the racist Southerner, who openly argues against granting bees “equal rights” and publicly exposes the relationship between Barry and Vanessa to foment bigoted reactions. In the trial sequence Seinfeld and company appear to be likening bees to African-Americans as well, as Barry refers to the bees as the humans’ “slaves.” The climactic point of the trial comes when Barry produces a “bee smoker” in court, which gets triggered: in full view of everyone present, bees in the audience are gassed and collapse. even in the context of a “funny animal” movie, it struck me as startling, even somewhat shocking. For a moment Bee Movie had become Maus.
Do you think I’m reading too much into this? In his review in The Onion (Nov. 8-14, 2007) film critic Nathan Rubin missed the Holocaust imagery but nonetheless observed, “Yet the darkness endemic to Seinfeld [the TV series] manifests in some satisfying, unexpected twists” such as “a loopy dream sequence that ends tragically”. He’s referring to a strange sequence in which Barry dreams of Vanessa attempting to fly, as he does, but in a one-woman aircraft which crashes in flames. Watching this I wondered why this sequence was in the movie, since Vanessa is in no danger in the story. But Rubin may be right that there is a dark undercurrent beneath Bee Movie’s bright, shiny surface.
Moreover, Seinfeld told PBS’s Charlie Rose (on the latter’s show on November 5, 2007) that he was surprised that children liked Bee Movie so much because he had principally aimed it at adults. He told Roger Ebert, “To be honest. . .I wrote it for adults”. It seems strange that he would think that there was a large enough adult audience for what is basically a funny animal animated film to make Bee Movie a commercial success, but this does indicate that Seinfeld wasn’t averse to dealing with “adult” subjects in the film.
Despite its ambitions, I still found Bee Movie disappointing. Seinfeld and his co-writers labored for over two and a half years on the screenplay, but to my mind the story still seems deeply flawed.
The initial premise is that Barry is a young bee who, having just finished bee college is expected to commit to a job in the hive, which is depicted as a company town run by a corporation called Honex: we are told that once he makes his choice, he will never be able to switch to another job, he will never get a day off, and he will literally work until he drops dead. A Honex orientation guide cheerfully declares, “You’ve worked your whole lives so you can work your whole lives.” Barry rebels at this prospect, as well he should.
Brad Bird’s great animated film Ratatouille starts with a somewhat similar premise: the protagonist, Remy the rat, is pressured to conform to the lifestyle of the rest of his species, which is basically to eat garbage for the rest of their lives. (Again see “Comics in Context” #186: “Le Petit Chef”). But Remy has a driving passion to eat and create fine foods, and he envisions a different, better life for himself, which he successfully achieves.
In contrast, Barry has no ambition or dream he pursues from the start of his movie. Moreover, Bee Movie and Seinfeld himself seem to have contradictory feelings about Barry’s future in the hive. Seinfeld told Entertainment Weekly that “I love utopian societies, which is what they [bees] live in — it seemed like a very ’60s corporate environment to me, where people believed in the company, and government, and society. I love that. To me, utopia is an old Jack Lemmon movie. Growing up, I thought that would be the ultimate life, to have a convertible and work in an office in Manhattan”. Somehow I think that writer/director Billy Wilder would not have considered Jack Lemmon’s character’s corporate life in his film The Apartment (1960) as utopian.
Even though Barry is tempted by the life of a “pollen jock,” one of the macho bees who flies out of the hive to gather honey (a task actually performed by female bees in real life, by the way), he still balks at making any choice that would commit him for the rest of his life.
But this storyline takes a back seat to Barry’s evolving relationship with Vanessa. In speaking to her and thereby initiating the relationship, Barry says he is violating the rules of bee society. Metaphorically, Barry is breaking a taboo about close association with people outside his community. Now you might think that the Barry-Vanessa storyline, with its strong subtext, would become the main plotline of the movie. But no, except for the very brief uproar at the trial over it, and the occasional fits of anger from Vanessa’s human boyfriend, Barry and Vanessa’s relationship doesn’t hold onto center stage. It’s as if Barry had picked up a sidekick to provide him with moral support for the next half of the movie. It’s as if after the balcony scene Romeo and Juliet took off to star in an entirely different play.
So if Bee Movie isn’t really about finding an alternative career or finding love outside your community, maybe it’s about an oppressed people (the bees) revolting against their oppressors (the humans). Here I must issue the requisite spoiler warning: if you don’t want to learn about the last act of the film, skip the next fourteen paragraphs.
Barry triumphs in court, the bees are legally granted possession of all their honey, and this turns out to be disastrous. With all the honey they could want, the bees stop pollinating flowering plants, apparently all over the world. From her apartment overlooking Central Park (And just how can the owner of a one-woman flower shop afford this?), Vanessa shows Barry that all of the plants there are dying. As she explains, this will destroy the entire ecosystem of Earth: if flowering plants die, there’ll be no food, and animals and the human race will perish as well. (Yes, it’s another end of the world movie.) The only flowering plants left alive, she informs him, are the roses that were saved for the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California.
All right, let’s stop here. Is the movie suggesting that Barry was wrong to sue the human race, and that humans should have continued to exploit, enslave and gas the bees? (By the way, in real life, “Centuries of selective breeding by humans has created honey bees that produce far more honey than the colony needs.”).
Once Barry won the lawsuit, wouldn’t humans have negotiated with the bees to obtain some of their honey? People don’t just use honey for food; it also has medicinal benefits. Since Seinfeld and company have portrayed a bee society that has its own tiny automobiles and television shows, among other trappings of human-style civilization, surely some sort of trade agreement could have been worked out, wherein the bees would exchange honey with the humans for consumer goods. So why would honey production grind to a halt? Besides, even though honey has a long shelf life, wouldn’t the bees eventually have to replenish their stores?
Wouldn’t lots of human beings–and Seinfeld’s intelligent bees as well–have realized, as early as the trial, that if the bees stopped pollinating plants, ecological catastrophe would strike? Wouldn’t scientists have realized this before it got to the point that all the plants in Central Park were dead? Wouldn’t the human and talking bees have reached some sort of agreement to start pollinating plants again long before this point? And if plants all over the world were dying, why would humanity only save the roses for the Tournament of Roses Parade!?! Isn’t food–like wheat–more important?
Does Seinfeld mean to suggest that the bee community (metaphorically representing a minority group) is so lazy that none of them would want to continue working after they won the lawsuit? Considering that he and his co-writers had established that bee society was perfectly happy never taking any time off in their entire lives, wouldn’t retirement be anathema to most of them?
And just how stupid is Barry, the protagonist, that he didn’t notice the ecological catastrophe until it was nearly too late to reverse it? If this movie was aimed at adults, then it has to deal with the kind of logical questions that adults would ask.
Once Barry sees the light, does he first try to persuade the rest of the bees in his local hive that they have to start pollinating again? No, instead he and Vanessa embark in a scheme to steal a truckload of roses from the Tournament of Roses Parade and fly it to New York City. When the plane is in danger of crashing, the rest of Barry’s hive goes to his rescue, and only then does he fill them in on his master plan.
And so the bees use the pollen from the stolen roses to restore the plant life of Manhattan to health. Meanwhile, I found myself thinking, wouldn’t it have been easier if Barry had organized the bees that live in California to use the pollen from all the roses in Pasadena to pollinate plants out there, first? And since presumably there are talking bees out in California too, wouldn’t they have already figured this out? If Earth’s entire ecosystem is in danger, why is it important to start the repollination process in New York City? Okay, granted, as a New Yorker myself, I can sympathize with Mr. Seinfeld’s Manhattan-centric world view, but in this case it’s still wrong.
So, with Story Arc #4 resolved, Bee Movie moves into its happy ending, in which Barry not only runs a law office in the back of Vanessa’s flower shop, but also has become a member of the “pollen jocks.” This brings the movie full circle back to Story Arc #1, but the movie seems to have lost sight of that storyline’s initial point. What about not wanting to be stuck in the same job for the rest of hs life? What about never getting time off or working toll one drops dead? Barry does have his new legal career, but he doesn’t seem enthused about it, and tell the “pollen jocks” that he couldn’t wait to get out of the office.
I suppose that Bee Movie could be interpreted as a fable about a youth who rebels against the ways of his community, but then learns to value them when the community is endangered (by the humans’ oppression), and ultimately rejoins the community. That interpretation would certainly have resonance for the members of a minority group within a larger society. But to me, Bee Movie ends up seeming like a parable about giving up one’s dreams and settling for the status quo.
In Entertainment Weekly Owen Gleiberman writes, “It’s also a fable for our 24/7 worker-bee age. We’re used to animated films like Ratatouille that salute those who don’t go with the flow, but Bee Movie takes a paradoxically fresher tack. In this movie, the power of the individual turns out to be overrated. It’s the system that’s precious, and if that message sounds a tad…reactionary, Bee Movie finds a touching beauty in it. Who’d have guessed that Jerry Seinfeld, the maestro of nothing, would spearhead a fairy tale about the inspiring glory of punching the clock?”
I’d put it differently. Who’d have guessed that Jerry Seinfeld, who did not pursue a conventional career, like that of a lawyer or doctor, but instead followed his muse into the realm of stand-up comedy, and triumphantly beat the odds, co-creating a masterwork of television comedy and becoming fabulously wealthy as a result, would spearhead a fairy tale about punching the clock? He told Charlie Rose in that November 5 show that he is still motivated by the quest to unearth “nuggets of comedy.” Seinfeld’s life is more like Ratatouille, and yet he told Roger Ebert that “I was myself on the TV show and I am in this too, except if I were born as a bee, this is what I would be like”. Really?
I’ve been following my muse into middle age. I may not be rich, but I’m proud of my growing body of work, and think I would have been bored and felt unfulfilled had I not pursued ny fascination with comics and cartoon art, a subject that mainstream culture is finally beginning to take seriously. At the end of Ratatouille, Remy loses his chance at great commercial success, but he continues to pursue his art, and thus the film comes to its satisfyingly happy conclusion. Given a choice between Bee Movie and Ratatouille as a fable for my life, I unhesitatingly choose the latter.
Oh, yes, and at the end of Bee Movie it trns out that cows talk, too, and one of them complains to lawyer Barry that humans exploit them for their milk. Perhaps this is a can of worms that Seinfeld and the other writers should have left unopened, since humans don’t just milk cattle. So would Barry B. Benson put folks like J. Wellington Wimpy and myself on trial for eating hamburgers?
Let’s return to my chapter by chapter survey of Danny Fingeroth’s Disguised as Clark Kent. Fingeroth is good at evaluating and explaining away mistaken pieces of conventional wisdom on his subject. For example, he notes that the second syllable of the Kryptonian names for Superman–Kal-El–and his father –Jor-El–sound “like one of the Hebrew names for God” (Fingeroth, Disguised as Clark Kent, p. 45). Fingeroth points out that Superman’s co-creator Jerry Siegel is on record as revealing that “Jor-El” is simply a shortened version of his own full name, Jerome Siegel. But Fingeroth acknowledges that “it’s quite possible” that Siegel and artist Joe Shuster’s “memories of childhood Hebrew school lessons” could have “inspired” these Kryptonian names (Fingeroth p. 45). Here we should remind ourselves of one of Fingeroth’s guiding principles in writing this book: the power of the subconscious on the creative mind. Isn’t it possible that while Siegel consciously believed that he named Jor-El after himself, that the name sounded right to him because it subconsciously reminded him of a Hebrew name for God? We can never know for certain, but we should recognize the possibility.
As I argued last week, examining the work of the original creators of the superhero genre may show us whether and how its contemporary practitioners have strayed from the essential elements of the superhero concept.
For example, at one point Fingeroth speculates about Siegel and Shuster’s intentions in creating Superman: “they would have their creation embody the best of the Good Immigrant qualities. ‘Everyone says all Jews care about is money? Well, look at this: we’ve invented the most powerful man in the history of the world–and he still insists on having a day job at The Daily Planet. He is selfless and, by extension, so are we.’ He’s a tzaddik, literally ‘righteous man’ in Hebrew” (Fingeroth p. 47).
The early Superman treated criminals brutally at times, but the character quickly developed a strict moral code of behavior, truly becoming a “righteous man,” as Fingeroth says. In recent years, however, there was Marvel’s X-Statix team, mutant superheroes who were motivated primarily by seeking fame and fortune. More importantly, the “grim and gritty” trend in superhero comics that began in the 1980s and continues through the present day has brought the superhero who is quite willing to kill. Is such a character truly an archetypal “righteous man,” or is he morally compromised? The “goddamn Batman” of Frank Miller’s current All Star Batman and Robin takes a sadistic pleasure in injuring his criminal opponents (see “Comics in Context” #119; “Bats and Spats” and “Comics in Context” #178: “The Whole World Is Watching”). For the genre to progress creatively, the characterizations of superheroes must be portrayed with more complexity and sophistication. But writers must beware of diluting and subverting the superhero concept and genre in the process.
Speaking of Batman, Fingeroth references Rabbi Simcha Weinstein’s hypothesis that Batman’s origin was inspired by Kristallnacht, the 1938 anti-Jewish pogrom in Germany. As Fingeroth puts it, “Like the Jews in Europe, Bruce Wayne and his family thought they had all they needed to be insulated from the vagaries of life. Yet, like the Jews of Europe, it was all taken away from them in an instant” (Fingeroth p. 56). It’s certainly possible that this provided the inspiration for Batman’s origin.
But who created Batman’s origin? Was it Bob Kane, whom DC Comics officially credits as Batman’s creator, or Bill Finger, who, like Kane, was Jewish, and who co-created most of the original Batman mythos, or even Gardner Fox, who wrote some of the earliest Batman stories? My guess is that it was Finger, who generated most of the concepts for the early Batman, right down to the name Bruce Wayne and major elements of Batman’s costume design. Moreover, Finger’s body of comics work has a darker edge than Fox’s. In his great Silver Age work, Fox never approaches the bleak, haunting quality of the origin story in Detective Comics #33.
Then again, as Fingeroth demonstrates, Batman co-creator Bob Kane went to great lengths to conceal his Jewish background; reading this, it seems to me that Kane may even have been in a state of denial. Since, in the early days of Batman, Finger and Fox worked for him, why would Kane approve the origin story if he thought it was a parable about the plight of European Jews?
Fingeroth also wonders if Joe Chill’s shooting of Bruce Wayne’s parents was inspired by the murder of Jerry Siegel’s father. This is possible, too. Then again it appears that Kane lifted the scene of the murder of Thomas Wayne directly from a 1938 “Big Little Book” called Gang Busters in Action, illustrated by Henry Vallely. So maybe Kane wasn’t copying reality, but another artist.
But here I believe that Fingeroth comes close to a simpler answer to the question. Why couldn’t the story of Batman’s origin simply be a response to the widespread urban crime of Depression-era America? It was the lawlessness of that period that similarly inspired Dick Tracy and the classic gangster movies of the 1930s. The simple concept of a mugger appearing, seemingly at random, and gunning down a prosperous couple is a perfect image of the dangers of a lawless urban environment. It could equally well be an iconic image of the big city in the 1970s, which, not coincidentally, is the decade when the Batman returned to his late 1930s roots as a grim, avenging figure in the comics.
Following the lead of comics historian Gerard Jones, Fingeroth argues that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s creation Steve Rogers a. k. a. Captain America was “a kind of surrogate Jew” (Fingeroth, p. 58). “If Steve Rogers was blond, well, there are blond Jews. . . . ‘Rogers’ could have been a fake name, too. So, maybe despite all outward appearances, an argument could be made for Captain America as some sort of Jewish-inflected character, the ‘weary, old-country survivor reborn as the new fighting Jew,’ as interpreted by Gerard Jones” (Fingeroth, p. 60).
I think that Fingeroth may be pushing this point further than is justified. But he’s on target when he writes that “Perhaps the most ‘Jewish’ thing about Captain America’s stories is the concerted attempt by the creative staff to make every story universal” (Fingeroth p. 59). Since Simon and Kirby intended Captain America to be a symbol of America, then it made sense that they would cast him as a member of the largest ethnic group in the country in that time before multiculturalism: in other words, as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
But yes, it’s true that the earliest Captain America stories reflect Simon and Kirby’s Jewish background. On the cover of Captain America Comics #1 the title character punches Adolf Hitler in the jaw. Though Fingeroth doesn’t, it should be noted that the first issue was cover-dated March 1941, nine months before America’s entry into World War II. Back then there was considerable isolationist sentiment against becoming involved in the war, and so Simon and Kirby’s open opposition to Hitler was rather daring.
Fingeroth is also correct to point out that the creator of Captain America’s “super-soldier serum” was “Professor Reinstein,” whom Simon and Kirby obviously based on the Jewish scientific genius Albert Einstein. Hence, the subtext is clear when, in the origin story, a Nazi agent guns down the Jewish Reinstein, and Captain America then avenges Reinstein’s death.
It’s surprising that Fingeroth doesn’t do more with his observation that the “super-soldier serum” transforms Steve Rogers into “a one-of-a-kind, perfect, Aryan-looking specimen of humanity” (Fingeroth p. 58). Ironically, Captain America physically matches the Nazis’ idealized vision of a member of the Aryan “master race.”
Were Simon and Kirby conscious of the irony? Decades later, the late Marvel writer Mark Gruenwald seemed to be, when he transferred the consciousness of Captain America’s Nazi archfoe, the Red Skull, into a cloned copy of the Captain’s own body: thus the Red Skull became Captain America’s literal evil twin.
Whether consciously or not, Simon and Kirby had turned the Nazis’ image of the Aryan superman to their own purposes. Captain America was not fighting for the dominance of a master race, but for the freedom of a democratic society in which immigrants from other ethnic groups could find refuge from fascist tyranny.
Fingeroth perceptively points to Reinstein’s declaration that Captain America will be “one of America’s saviors” and comments that “the metaphor system at work here is as much Christian as Jewish” (Fingeroth p. 58). So Captain America is a Christ figure, but couldn’t he also be viewed as a Messiah? And since Professor Reinstein remodels the once frail Steve Rogers into a physically perfect soldier, to go out and combat tyranny, couldn’t Captain America also be seen as a variation on a golem? I’ll let you ponder all of this until I continue my review of Dressed as Clark Kent next week.
ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MYSELF AND OTHERS
I will be interviewing Tim Sale, the artist who has frequenty collaborated with writer Jeph Loeb (on Batman: The Long Halloween, Daredevil: Yellow and Hulk: Gray, among other projects) and who does artwork for the television series Heroes, on Saturday, November 17 onstage at the Big Apple Con’s annual “National” convention. The convention runs from Friday afternoon, November 16 through Sunday, November 18 at the Penn Plaza Pavilion at 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan.
Writer/artist Richard Howell has moved his Claypool Comics series about vampires, Deadbeats, to the Internet, and recently reintroduced a character named Edwin, who first appeared in Richard’s indie comic Portia Prinz of the Glamazons. Take a look at strips 79, 80, and 81 and see if you can figure out what they have in common with “Comics in Context.” Here’s a hint: in strip 81 Edwin delivers one of the best worded defenses of continuity I’ve ever read.
And I am pleased to welcome Fred Hembeck back to Quick Stop Entertainment, where he has resumed work on “The Fred Hembeck Show” with episode 101.
-Copyright 2007 Peter Sanderson
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