Superman at 75: Reflections on comic book hero’s Jewish roots

Upcoming 2013 film ‘Man of Steel’

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Superman, the iconic cartoon champion of “Truth, Justice and the American Way” made his first appearance exactly 75 years ago this month with the release of Action Comics # 1.  This milestone for the granddaddy of all comic superheroes has been duly noted in the Cleveland, Ohio neighborhood of Glenville, where two Jewish high school students, Jerry Siegel and his best friend Joe Shuster, created the Man of Steel. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson issued a proclamation designating “Superman Day,” at a Cleveland City Hall ceremony attended by Siegel’s daughter, Laura Siegel Larson, who flew in from California for the occasion.

But there is much more to the Jewish connections to the Superman story in all of its incarnations over the past 75 years than the fact that Siegel and Shuster were Jews. A new book, “Superman Is Jewish?” by Harry Brod (Free Press News, $25) is just the latest in a growing library of serious volumes that document the amazing array of Jewish connections to Superman as well as an entire pantheon of superheroes, including Spider-Man, created by Stan Lee, and Batman, created by Bob Kane, both of whom are Jewish.

Brod, a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa, also explores the “real” secret identities of the super-heroes, and how their creators —including Siegel and Shuster, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby — integrated their own Jewish identities with their creativity. Brod cites such Jewish sources as the Passover Hagaddah, and what he describes as the “superpowers” possessed by Moses.

We learn from Brod’s book and other sources  (see sidebar) that a strong case can be made that Superman was, is and always will be Jewish.  This not-so-secret secret is more fundamental to understanding the Superman character than his rather thin disguise of suit, spectacles and combed-back hair, the mild-mannered Clark Kent, who from 1940 until very recently was a reporter for the Daily Planet in the city of Metropolis.  His colleague at the Daily Planet was the fetching Lois Lane who had a major crush on Superman while cluelessly regarding Clark as a klutzy platonic friend and rival for big stories.

In a sign of the times, even the superpowers of Superman could not hold back the relentless impact of the Internet and social-media, Clark Kent recently quit his post at the Daily Planet.  He has also lost the option of using phone booths to switch from his business suit to the blue and red costume with the iconic “S” in the front in the age of universally held cell phones.

Superman has survived the explosion of his birth planet Krypton, the plots of the evil scientist Lex Luthor and the reverse reality of the Bizarro stories through his various incarnations in Action and Superman comic books, newspaper comic strips, a radio show starring Bud Collyer as the Man of Steel, several popular TV series and movie versions starting with the 1978 production starring the late Christopher Reeve.  Reeve owned the role through three sequels ending  in 1987.  A less successful incarnation was Brandon Routh in “Superman Returns” in 2006.  Next month, Henry Cavill will star in “Man  of Steel,”  described as “the legend of Superman” for  the “post-Dark Knight world.”

Reeve’s “Superman” film made mega-millions for DC Comics and Warner Brothers.  Siegel and Shuster were still living at the time of its release, when it was revealed that they were paid a paltry $125 for the rights to the feature.  After this scandal was exposed, DC Comics finally made amends and began paying the two creators an annual stipend and restored their creator credit line to all future comics and spin-offs.

While the various books cited here document many instances of Jewish elements within the Superman story, perhaps the most important distinction lies within the dual identity of Clark Kent and Superman.  Clark Kent’s persona as the mild-mannered reporter is much more in keeping with Jewish values than the idea of a superhuman.  The German philosopher Frederich Wilhelm Nietzsche, developed the concept of the “Ubermensch” or “Superman,” who is so richly endowed with physical and intellectual powers that he could be regarded as exempt from the laws and rules that govern the “Untermenschen,” or “lower” people who were not as beautiful, brilliant or powerful.

The Nazis twisted the concept of the Nietzschean Superman into the concept of the Aryan, or “master race” of superior beings over the “lesser” peoples, like Jews, Slavs and Romani. Judaism, on the other hand, conceived of the idea of a middle ground between the so-called Ubermensch and the Untermensch.  For generations, Jewish parents have urged their children to “just be a mensch,” a human being who is decent, compassionate and honorable.

Jews are urged not to use physical or intellectual strength to be bullies or arrogant, but to be a justice-seeking human being. Neither should we become “Untermenschen” downtrodden “victims.”

And so, the boiled-down essence of the Jewishness of Superman can be found not in the persona of the costumed, caped champion, but in his alter ego.  You do not have to be “Superman” (or Moses).  Just be the best Clark Kent that you can be.

Happy Birthday, Superman and Clark Kent.  May you continue your shared journey for the biblical 120 years—and beyond.