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Minsk theory of Krypton

May 11, 2010

Berlin's Jewish Museum is currently hosting an exhibition called "Heroes, Freaks and Superrabbis - the Jewish Color of Comics," which charts the role played by Jewish artists and publishers in the comic book industry.

Comic illustrations of The Spirit and the Immigrants by Will Eisner, and Superman
The exhibition explores the comic tradition throughout the 20th centuryImage: Will Eisner Studios, Inc./2010 DC Comics/DW

On their way into the Jewish Museum, visitors these days will find themselves passing a sculpture entitled "Even Superheroes Have Bad Days." Superman appears to have crash-landed headfirst into the pavement. He might have ended up on a Berlin street, but where did Superman come from? It's a question the exhibition inside the museum sets out to answer.

Conceived in cooperation with the Museum of Art and History of Judaism in Paris and the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, the show traces the roots of comics, and demonstrates how the industry was built from the ground up by the children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

It picks up the story in the 1890s, with profiles of pioneers such as Rudolph Dirks, inventor of "The Katzenjammer Kids" and, incidentally, an early adopter of the speech bubble.

Then, after romping through over 100 years of comic art, the exhibition wraps up with a selection of contemporary comic artists working in Israel today.

"The point of the exhibition isn't to say comics are a Jewish specialty," said co-curator Anne Helene Hoog at the press conference ahead of the show's opening. "Rather, it looks at the question why so many Jews became comic artists, and what issues preoccupied them."

"Superman is a Jew"

A member of the public looks at rows of MAD magazine covers at the exhibition in the Jewish Museum
Over the decades, MAD magazine has been hugely influentialImage: picture alliance/dpa

If anyone was not aware that cartoon characters across the board - from Spiderman to X-Men and the Fantastic Four - all had Jewish creators, the curators have certainly spelled out their message: The show provides ample evidence that the history of Jewish comic artists is nothing less than the history of comic art.

In many cases, the Jewish origins of the early comic strip characters are instantly apparent. One obvious example is Milt Gross, who in the 1920s wrote comics for the daily broadsheet New York World in a Yiddish-inflected English and often reworked well-known fairytales - such as "Nize ferry-tail from Elledin witt de wanderful lemp."

But by the 1930s, the era of the superhero had dawned. The writers might have still been Jewish - even if they did Americanize their names, such as Batman's inventor Robert Kahn, who become Bob Kane - but there was nothing overtly Jewish about these lantern-jawed characters. Nonetheless, as the exhibition shows, the Nazis were often the enemy.

"I'd like to land a strictly non-Aryan sock on your jaw," reads one speech bubble in the 1940 strip "How Superman Would End the War," as the Man of Steel holds Hitler by the scruff of his neck.

After another episode the same year, in which Superman demolished part of the German West Wall with France, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels proclaimed that "Superman ist ein Jude!" ("Superman is a Jew!") and summarily banned Siegel and Shuster's popular comic from the newsstands.

Assimilation fantasies

Black and white illustration from "The Golem’s Mighty Swing"
"The Golem's Mighty Swing" by James Sturm is a 2001 graphic novel about a Jewish basball teamImage: Sammlung Alexander Braun

A host of scholars over the years have pointed out that the core of Superman's persona is indeed that of the immigrant. Originally, he is a "starchild," placed by his parents on a rocket and shipped alone across millions of light-years to earth as the only survivor on the eve of the planet Krypton's destruction.

Others have asked what else superheroes are doing if not practicing the Jewish value of tikunn olam (Hebrew for "repairing the world").

Although the exhibition shows rather than tells, Anne Helene Hoog echoed this theory at the press conference, when she said that superheroes were often depicted as outsiders who, with an immigrant's deep patriotism, battle to save their adopted country from an outside threat.

"It wasn't Krypton that Superman came from; it was the planet Minsk or Lodz or Vilna or Warsaw," wrote another popular US cartoonist Jules Feiffer in a 1996 essay for The New York Times Magazine called "The Minsk Theory of Krypton." In it, he says that World War II-era superheroes embodied the American dream shared by countless foreigners.

"Superman was the ultimate assimilationist fantasy," he suggests.

Old-testament imagery

Color illustrations from Hulk and True Glitz
From Hulk to Didi GlitzImage: MARVEL/Diane Noomin/DW

And while The Incredible Hulk, created by Marvel Comics' former CEO Stan Lee (whose parents were Romanian-born Jewish immigrants), has obvious similarities to the ancient Jewish tale of the Golem, it might come as a surprise to many to learn that Superman can, in fact, be understood as an incarnation of Moses.

"Like Moses, Superman was discovered as an apparently abandoned baby and raised by the people who found him," said Jewish Museum program director Cilly Kugelmann. Other scholars have pointed out that like Superman alias Clark Kent, Moses also had a double identity: as an Egyptian prince and as the liberator of the Jewish people.

But it was only well after the war that comic artists became less oblique and began addressing Jewish issues head-on.

As the counterculture movement of the 1960s gained momentum, so did subversive "comix" written and published by feminists such as Trina Roberts and Aline Kominsky-Crumb. They deliberately set out to portray Jewish life and the Jewish experience - as illustrated by Diane Noomin's overtly autobiographical comic strips such as "Life in the Bagel Belt with DiDi Glitz" and "Meet Marvin Mensch."

Meanwhile, over at the cult MAD magazine, launched in 1952 by Harvey Kurtzman, satirical writers and cartoonists like Al Jaffee, Will Elder and Mort Drucker, ensured that the publication became a byword for an urban Jewish sensibility.

Another graduate of the underground comics movement of the 1960s and 1970s was Art Spiegelman, who set new standards with RAW, a comics anthology he edited with Francoise Mouly from 1980 to 1991. One of the most notable works published in RAW was his own Pulitzer-prize-winning "Maus" series, which tells the story of his Holocaust-survivor father, a Polish-born Jew; his own feelings of guilt and anger toward him as he was growing up, and how this biography affects his present-day.

Storytelling tradition

A pile of Batman comics
Many writers Americanized their namesImage: AP

All in all, anyone who sees the exhibition at the Jewish Museum will probably never read comics in the same way again.

In his 2008 book "Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero," Danny Fingeroth quotes Will Eisner, comics writer and founder of the character "The Spirit."

"There were Jews in the (comics) medium because it was a crap medium…an easy medium to get into," writes Eisner. "So…you had a medium that was regarded as trash, that nobody really wanted to go into...and a group of people who…brought with them their 2,000-year history of storytelling…. The only way they communicated the technique of survival to each other was telling stories."

"Heroes, Freaks and Superrabbis - the Jewish Color of Comics" is on display until August 8.

Author: Jane Paulick

Editor: Kate Bowen