April 19th, 2010 –
Right now I’m interested in the superhero story, where it came from, how it has evolved, what makes heroes “good” or “bad” in our minds, why we like antiheroes, and what we need from our superheroes. So I picked up a book on the history of superheroes, Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero by Danny Fingeroth. I was amazed at the extent to which the Jewish experience shaped Superman – and, by extension, America’s national mythology.
In the book, Fingeroth talks about the original creators of the Superman comic, two Jewish boys named Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster. Superman came out of a mix of their personal history, their cultural heritage, the immigrant experience, world events, and ideology surrounding them. I’m convinced Superman was born Jewish. But what fascinates me is how he was born Jewish. How did his story come to be, and what messages did it have for Americans? Looking at the past can help us see the present. Where have our superhero stories come from, and what are they telling us?
The Jews at the time were immigrating to America because of pogroms and the rise of fascism in Europe. They had come in fear for their lives. They had to maintain a double identity: their homeland identity and their assimilated, mainstream identity. Fingeroth writes, “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.” Thus, Superman’s double identity was born. Just as the Jews had to disguise themselves as WASPs, so did Clark Kent.
The rise of fascism also brought a desperate need to the Jewish people – a need that cried out for a messianic figure. The creators of Superman, therefore, sent out subconscious messages to the American people. Fingeroth lists a few:
• Have some compassion for their victims!
• Don’t you understand we are just like you?
• You have to help!
• Here is how you can use your gifts, America – to help those in need and distress! (p. 18)
Another historical influence was the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism. Superman’s individualist ideology opposed the communist ideology. Fingeroth writes: “As expressed through Superman, the self was not to be subsumed to the collective. The self could best serve the whole by being allowed to flourish and thrive and express itself. This was the same celebration of the individual that had pervaded American popular culture from the solitary cowboy heroes of Owen Wister even onto the baseball fields . . . ” (42)
Yet another was the concept that science and reason could transcend human flaws, expressed in early science fiction.
One final influence was the Great Depression. Fingeroth quotes a 1975 press release from Siegal that shows how poverty added to the mix:
Listening to President Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” . . . being unemployed and worried during the depression and knowing homelessness and fear. Hearing and reading of the oppression and slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews in Nazi Germany . . . seeing movies depicting the horrors of privation suffered by the downtrodden . . . 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. (41)
So that’s Superman. Born out of dire need, giving inspiration and hope to so many. What impact did he have back then? Did he inspire Americans to have compassion? Did he contribute to getting us involved in World War II?
It is ironic that the same qualities we needed from a superhero back then are getting us in trouble now: the individualist ideology, the idea that a hero can swoop down and save us (so we don’t have to do it ourselves). Our time is different. We beat Hitler and then became him, creating our own occupation camps of Japanese and ultimately dropping a weapon of mass destruction on two Japanese cities. State communism fell. An individualist ideology that went too far has contributed to the dismantling of our social safety net.
What do we need from our superheroes now? What are we telling them? What are they telling us?
Tune in next time. Same bat-time! Same bat-channel!
Fingeroth, Danny. Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero. Continuum: London and New York. 2007.