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

Superheroes like Spider-Man, Captain America and Superman have become pop culture icons, but what of the culture that inspired them? In "Disguised As Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero," published by Continuum, industry veteran Danny Fingeroth explores the early days of American comics and the circumstances that found Jewish writers and artists poised to create the enduring, iconic heroes that we still read about today. CBR News spoke with Fingeroth about the book.

Fingeroth, who is editor-in-chief of "Write Now!" magazine and a former Spider-Man Group Editor for Marvel, said his new study looks at the cultural origins of the superhero. "'Disguised As Clark Kent' (or DACK, as I like to call it) is a book that explores the fact that so many of the creators of the most well known superheroes were Americans from Eastern European Jewish backgrounds, usually the children of immigrants, or even immigrants themselves," Danny Fingeroth told CBR News. "Immigrants have the ability-and the necessity-to see what it is about the society in which they find themselves that makes them function, and then having to discover a place for themselves in that society. In America, immigrants found themselves in a society whose ideal was that a person would be judged as an individual, not as members of a group. In practice, of course, this wasn't always the case. But in a society with tolerance as its ideal, someone coming from an outsider perspective would be able to live in and among that society and be able to learn from that society's values and dreams.

"From there, it would make sense that individuals with the ability and desire to entertain would be able to reflect back to the society insightful versions of stories of its own history and legends. Why did Jews predominate in the early years of comics (and movies)? Perhaps because of a history of storytelling, going back to the Old Testament, perhaps because entertaining people meant they would possibly accept you and not persecute you as they had in the old country. Certainly, it had to do with the fact of most of 'legitimate' advertising and publishing being closed to Jews in the early part of the 20th century. Nobody cared about comics-they were considered a step away from pornography-so it was a place where young people could tell amazing stories about their view of aspects of the dominant culture all around them. A lot of these people were Jewish, for the reasons stated, and also because there were so many immigrant Jews in New York, looking for a way for themselves and their families to survive. They were a large part of the available talent pool, shut out of other industries, and desperate to survive in this new country."

"Disguised as Clark Kent" is Fingeroth's second book-length non-fiction project on the comics industry, a topic for which he is well placed to document. "As with my previous book, 'Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society,' I bring to the table the unique perspective of being someone who has spent decades actually making comics stories, as opposed to someone who brings a fan's or academic's perspective-which are important and valid perspectives, but don't bring the 'insider's' view to things that I do," explained Fingeroth. This insider's advantage goes beyond a familiarity with the publishing process and access to creators. "Well, of course, I had a lot of phone numbers and e-mail addresses for people I wanted to speak to. But the main thing my insider perspective brought was having an understanding of what a comics creator might have been thinking when he or she wrote or drew something. Sometimes fans and critics ascribe motives for comics content that is unconnected to reality. Deadlines and page rates, editorial and marketing demands, interpersonal relationships with others connected to the creation of a given story, all play a part in choices creators make. As a combination of creative and business concerns, comics are affected by all sorts of things you wouldn't think they would be. But the funny thing is, sometimes those kind of business-related pressures, in retrospect, mean that a writer, artist, or editor may let something personal slip into a story that they might not have if they had more time to revise it."

Beyond what he already knew or could discover from personal experience, Fingeroth researched his book with other works written on the comics industry, including Gerard Jones's "Men of Tomorrow," Arie Kaplan's series of articles on Jews and comics, and "'Up, Up, and Oy Vey" by Simcha Weinstein. Fingeroth also praised periodicals such as The Comics Journal and Roy Thomas's "Alter Ego," which, like "Write Now!," is published by TwoMorrows.

Fingeroth noted that among the creators he spoke with, the degree to which the Jewish heritage influence their work varied, though most of these creators believed they had concealed their influences-and not without reason. "While there was never in the U.S. the virulent anti-Semitism of Hitlerian and Tsarist Europe, there were plenty of homegrown bigots and demagogues, the most influential of whom included Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Father Coughlin," Fingeroth said. "So American Jews, in general, were wary of calling attention to their identities, especially those in media who tended to be either from less traditional homes, or seeking escape from tradition. These early comics creators wanted themselves and their creations to be seen as 'all-American.' I didn't come across anybody from that era who was both extremely religious and a comics creator. The very nature-at least back then-of wanting to create pop-culture fantasy seemed to involve leaving those religious roots behind. I think most of these creators had fleeting relationships with Jewish education and religion-most had bar mitzvahs, but little religious training before or after. Most culturally and ethnically identified as being Jewish, and some felt a kinship with progressive social movements, such as the labor movement, in which a lot of Jews were involved, but had much less involvement in the religion itself. Maybe it goes back to the old prohibition against making 'graven images' that kept more observant Jews from entering comics and other entertainment fields. Or maybe it was that religious families tended to be less tolerant of their children entering 'offbeat' fields. (These days, there are a few Orthodox comics creators.)"

But as with any cultural background that becomes ingrained into a person's sense of self, the concerns and experiences of Jewish creators inevitably seeped into their work. "What I try to do in the book is to point out how, despite the intention to remain non-denominational, Jewish creators (and those of other ethnicities) couldn't help but inject some of their background and their preoccupations into the work. Any Jewish metaphoric content I or others find in the stories and characters was by no means intentionally placed there.

"My favorite involves Marvel's Mighty Thor, who I'd never seen in a Jewish light before. And why would I, or anyone? He's a Norse deity! But in his early stories, covering the first several years of the character's existence, a recurring subplot--that eventually became a main plot--was Thor's love for his alter ego Dr. Blake's nurse, Jane Foster. Odin, ruler of the Norse Gods, and Thor's father, forbade him to marry her because she was a mortal and he was an immortal god."

Fingeroth noted there are often prohibitions in Jewish and other ethnic communities against marrying outside the group, and that the modern tension of breaking away from this system can be seen in the story of Marvel's thunder god.  "Stan Lee and Jack Kirby could arguably be interpreted as having been using Thor and Jane to work out their own feelings about the taboos around intermarriage they had grown up with," Fingeroth said. "I'm not saying they did this consciously--just the opposite. But in retrospect, I found it fascinating and worthwhile to discuss that kind of topic in 'Disguised as Clark Kent.'"

The author is more skeptical of links between super powers and Jewish mysticism. "This is one of those things where other people see this more than I do," Fingeroth said. "While there have always been magic-based superheroes, magic has generally been treated in comics as another form of science. There's that old saying, 'magic is just science we don't understand yet.' While I can see some connection between the Golem myths and superheroes, I don't really buy it in my gut. Maybe that's just because I didn't have as many Golem stories read to me as a child as some other people did. Also, I think the 'mystic' elements of Judaism were generally of little interest to most people who were not deeply immersed in Jewish scholarship, which I don't think most of the early comics creators were. I always saw superheroes as just the opposite of mysticism-as the attempt to create a secular pantheon of modern gods who ultimately were about science and rationality, not mystic chants and esoteric systems of approaching and understanding the divine."

While the inherited culture may have colored he stories that were told, the vibrant communities of New York's early Jewish ghettos may have given rise to the concept of the superhero itself. "The superhero mythos in essence speaks of a world where power is used wisely, and for the benefit of the community," Fingeroth said, reflecting the spirit of that community these creators would have found themselves living in. "I never saw superheroes as being a slap in the face of law enforcement, as some people have interpreted them. They always seemed to me to be the distillation of the best of a community and society, helping, not infantilizing those they protect as well as the official police forces. Superheroes are the fantasy figures who will protect you against threats from within the community as well as outside threats to it. The traditional superhero will never attempt to control or manipulate the community, or ask for any reward from it.

"They do right for its own sake."

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