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February 5, 2005 7:28 PM   Subscribe

"After unknowingly eating an atomic matzah that was accidentally baked in a microwave oven with radioactive water, she was surprised to learn that she could fly..." Take your radioactive spiders and your gamma bombs and shove them up your tuchus. I'm casting my lot with the Jewish Hero Corps! But seriously: Most (but not all) of the most widely-known superheroes around are a bit on the WASPy side. Is it possible to address issues of ethnicity and identity via superheroes, given the fact that most folks think it's just a lot of punching and zapping? Or do we have to resort to doing via metaphor?
posted by hifiparasol (46 comments total)
This is great, thanks!
posted by 6:1 at 7:33 PM on February 5, 2005

incredibly cheesy, but fun!

(and i thought the Thing was Jewish?)
posted by amberglow at 7:38 PM on February 5, 2005

Nice post, thanks.

And amberglow, the Thing is clearly Irish. That's why he's orange and doesn't get along with the (clearly also Irish) Yancy Street Gang.
posted by interrobang at 7:46 PM on February 5, 2005

The Super Friends went ethnic at one point, trying out heroes such as Apache Chief, Samurai, and Black Vulcan. They get graded here. Marvel tried it in the Contest of Champions series (great article on a great site). Ireland had "Shamrock" (who had a tiff with "Captain Britain"). China's representative was "Collective Man" (yikes!). The Jewish one in C.O.C. was Sabra "Like the spiny pear that is the symbol of the Israeli people from which I derive my name -- I am harsh to my enemies... yet sweet to my friends!" (yikes yikes!)

It's interesting from the usually dismissive attitude given to such attempts to see that people don't seem to like attempts to introduce diversity, even when nothing is really at stake.

Ok, time to take my nerd pills and go to bed.
posted by ontic at 7:47 PM on February 5, 2005

There are nerd pills? I would like to take these.

Wait, do they make you more nerdy, or less nerdy?
posted by interrobang at 7:50 PM on February 5, 2005

Ah! How could I forget El Dorado!??! I really liked him too. Might as well post the better Superfriends page I found him on too.

Supposed to be less nerdy, but I haven't had my dosage adjusted in a while...
posted by ontic at 7:58 PM on February 5, 2005


The thing with comic books and superheroes is that we read diversity into them anyway and don't need it spelled out for us usually--except when it comes to Thor: clearly not Jewish. : >
posted by amberglow at 8:03 PM on February 5, 2005

No, no, amberglow's right: The Thing, a.k.a. Benjamin Jacob Grimm, was recently outed as Jewish.

And I would submit that it's impossible not to see superheroes as representing issues of identity (or dual identity, or secret identity). You could translate that as sexual identity, ethnicity, race, etc. to an astonishing degree: just look how malleable the X-Men metaphor has been over the years. It's no coincidence that that series was introduced in 1963, the year of "I Have a Dream".

See also this article from Hadassah magazine about Jewish or crypto-Jewish superheroes and their creators, or this discussion from the Union for Reform Judaism about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
posted by Asparagirl at 8:04 PM on February 5, 2005

oh, and us Jewish kids knew that most of the people drawing them were Jewish anyway (as per Kavalier and Clay) : >
posted by amberglow at 8:05 PM on February 5, 2005

Kinda related: yiddish slang in comics.
posted by dhruva at 8:06 PM on February 5, 2005

I thought the X-Men was all about diversity and discrimination.
posted by cali at 8:09 PM on February 5, 2005

they're all about that, and about the closet.
posted by amberglow at 8:11 PM on February 5, 2005

Marvel just launched an Indian (as in the subcontinent, not Native American) version of Spiderman. This article from the Weekly Standard talks about the new book and how it compares to the old book and what that tells us about national identity compared with superhero identity. Deginitely worth a read, though the weeklystandard.com site seems to be down at the moment, but that should be the right link for when it comes back up.

By the way, Marvel apparently recognized early on that its original books had been too whitebread. All five of the original X-Men were WASP's, but when they revived the book in the 1970's, the new team members (Havok, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Storm, Wolverine, Thunderbird, Banshee and Sunfire) were WASP, German Catholic, African Pagan, Canadian, Native American, Irish Catholic, and Japanese, respectively.

Also, Daredevil is Catholic and the book clearly grapples with Catholic themes and archetypes. I think Kevin Smith mentioned something about that being a reason he was interested in the book as a kid.
posted by Asparagirl at 8:14 PM on February 5, 2005

Oops, forgot to list Russian Atheist in that list--sorry, Colossus.
posted by Asparagirl at 8:15 PM on February 5, 2005

The Thing is Jewish? Wow. I'm especially impressed that he was originally conceived as Jewish but that fact stayed hidden for so long. We get to learn something new about his character without having to bear any ridiculous retconning.
posted by painquale at 8:57 PM on February 5, 2005

Wasn't Superman drawn by a Jew?
posted by xammerboy at 8:59 PM on February 5, 2005

And yeah, the ethnic push of the Super Friends was utterly blatant and trasparent. Here's Seanbaby on Black Vulcan (from Seanbaby's great Super Friends page):

"The white Super Friends all had names that described their powers. Aquaman, Batman, Hawkman, Flash... you kind of had an idea what their powers were even before they announced them outloud every time they used them. But anyone ethnic got named after the country they're from or what color they were. If Apache Chief was white, he'd be Grow Man or Large Lad. And Samurai? He wasn't a Samurai. That doesn't mean anything, it's just the only Japanese word they knew. It's like naming Batman "Cowboy" or naming Green Lantern "Baseball Player." They named the Mexican Super Friend "El Dorado." That was a city made out gold. Yeah, it sounds Mexican, but it's nonsense. If the Super Friends hired a Swiss guy, you know they'd name him Hot Chocolate. If a black guy hadn't already taken it, of course."
posted by painquale at 9:05 PM on February 5, 2005

The Truth series in 2002 told the story of the first Captain America, a black man. Previous discussion here.
posted by jeffmshaw at 9:15 PM on February 5, 2005

Nifty, Asparagirl (and hifiparasol). I didn't know Neil Gaiman was Jewish until those links, but I liked his inspiration for Death in the Sandman series: "I once read that you die because you see the Angel of Death, and you fall in love. And you fall in love so hard your soul is sucked out through your eyes, and that's the moment of death. It's a lovely, strange old Jewish legend."
posted by blahblahblah at 10:00 PM on February 5, 2005

The Nazis used to call Superman "Superjew" (source: Alan Moore in last week's "Chain Reaction" -- beware, if you try googling for corroboration, a few choice white pride sites crop up as prime results).
posted by John Shaft at 10:13 PM on February 5, 2005

Speaking of Alan Moore, he created an interesting social paradiggem in his book Top Ten, which is about police officers in a city populated entirely by superheroes. In it, robots are the opressed minority, living in slums, degraded with racist terms (like "clicker") and harassed by the cops. Later, a robot character joins the cast and faces harrassment by a fellow cop.

An interesting take on racism, particularly within the context of what is essentially a superhero ghetto.
posted by hifiparasol at 10:27 PM on February 5, 2005

The Thing isn't Marvel's only well-known Jewish character. In fact, I'd say the other one is better-known, and his ethnicity has always been known: the man who goes by the pseudonym Erik Magnus Lensherr, Magneto.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:02 PM on February 5, 2005

On another note, since comics are a written medium, you obviously never hear the characters speak. But if you think about it, Dr. Doom should have a thick Eastern European accent, Magneto and Magneto a Polish one, for example.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:04 PM on February 5, 2005

Thanks for the clarification, amberglow. I'm pleasantly surprised, and also a little upset that I'm so behind on my Fantastic Four knowledge.
posted by interrobang at 11:05 PM on February 5, 2005

Also, I guess since it's too late now, and they've already made a movie, but I've been pitching my version of the Fantastic Four movie for a couple of years to friends. Here's what it is:

A movie version of the Fantastic Four should absolutely take place in the "high sixties"; it should happen in a hip and swinging 1964, right before the Beatles, right during Sputnik; this would even work in the movie franchise Marvel has built if they did it right because they haven't mention the Fantastic Four yet.

It would be like a retro early James Bond movie, and could even have commentary on the Cold War. I actually wish that the Fantastic Four movie were going to be like this.

Double-breasted suits, and so on. Mister Fantastic's hair would make sense, and they could retroactively insert the Fantastic Four into any other Marvel movie by playing it so that it was just assumed (as it is in the comics) that everyone just assumed that it was normal that the Fantastic Four had been around forever.
posted by interrobang at 11:22 PM on February 5, 2005

Heartily agreed, interrobang.

Also, no one's yet mentioned Nightcrawler's ordination as a Catholic priest.
posted by hifiparasol at 11:32 PM on February 5, 2005

Just remembered this cover of Heeb magazine from 2003, which might be appropriate for this discussion...
posted by Asparagirl at 11:40 PM on February 5, 2005

Oh, and Kitty Pride is Jewish, also.
posted by Sangermaine at 11:43 PM on February 5, 2005

Oh, and Kitty Pride is Jewish, also.

I sure hope so.
posted by interrobang at 11:53 PM on February 5, 2005

There's actually an entire section of the unofficial X-Men FAQ talking about whether Magneto was a Rroma (Gypsy) or a Jew, backed up with more comic book citations and historical research into the Holocaust than is surely healthy for a fictional character.

Note that Israel also plays a big but largely overlooked part in X-Men continuity, as it's where Xavier first meets Magneto in the 1950's, It's also the first time he meets a fellow mutant, period; Xavier doesn't meet and help a young Jean Grey until the 1960's. And it's also where he falls in love and unknowingly knocks up Gabrielle Haller:
"David Charles Haller is the son of Charles Xavier, who later became the founder of the two teams of superhuman mutants, the X-Men and the New Mutants, and Gabrielle Haller, who later became the Israel ambassador to Great Britain. Xavier and Gabrielle Haller had an affair in Israel nearly two decades ago, and Xavier was unaware when he left Israel that Haller was pregnant with his son...

When David was living in Paris with his mother, who was a member of the Israel diplomatic service, her home was invaded by a terrorist assassination team out to kill every Israeli they could find there. They murdered David's godfather, Daniel Shomron, before his eyes..."
The traumatized David consequently ends up becoming a supervillain known as Legion (quote taken from the Biblical "I am Legion"). He goes back in time to kill Magneto, but accidentally kills Xavier instead, so that the X-Men never get formed. This sets off a huge multi-book storyline dubbed "The Age of Apocalypse".

In other words, they take an Israeli-born male Jew with a Biblical-derived name, show him to be seemingly nice but really super-evil, and have him kill off a Christ-like figure, ushering in the apocalypse. Ooookay then.

I mean, it still wasn't as blatantly religious as DC's Kingdom Come storyline, which was Book of Revelations up the wazoo, but come on.
posted by Asparagirl at 12:02 AM on February 6, 2005

I sure hope so.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:39 AM on February 6, 2005

BTW, Wikipedia has a list of Jewish superheroes, with a link to the Jewish Supers List.
posted by raygirvan at 10:49 AM on February 6, 2005

Optimus Prime is Jewish?
posted by null terminated at 11:03 AM on February 6, 2005

Heh heh ... "Yamarang" ...
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 11:05 AM on February 6, 2005

As someone once famously pointed out, Superman came over from the old country and changed his name from Kal-El to Clark Kent. Hmm.

How does one circumcise Superman?
posted by kyrademon at 12:33 PM on February 6, 2005

Looking at the list that raygirvan pointed out, I notice there are more Jews in Marvel than in DC. It kinda doesn't surprise me, since Marvel comics have a history of being both sensitive to "minority" issues (as in the X-Men) and more recognizing of common, everyday folk (as in Spidey). DC, in my experience, has always seemed a bit more interested in the notion that their heroes are gleaming icons to be held on high, without a real sense of grounding in the real world (and yes, I realize we're talking about pyrokinetics in spandex, but it's still possible to tell such a story and be grounded in the real world).

But then I looked at Wiki's list of black superheroes, and the numbers seemed the same.

I've never been a big DC fan (except for Vertigo). The characters just never really appealed to me, so I may very well be talking out of my ass. Anyone care to comment?
posted by hifiparasol at 1:15 PM on February 6, 2005

I agree completely with your assessment. It's often been said that Marvel has characters, while DC has archetypes. Just two different approaches to comics, one personal and human, the other grand and godlike. The only DC character I like is Batman, because he is the most human of all the characters.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:38 PM on February 6, 2005

How does one circumcise Superman?

With a circumcision-knife (there's gotta be a word for this, neh?) made from kryptonite. Duh.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:45 PM on February 6, 2005

nah...he wasn't super on his own planet...a mohel from there could have done it before they sent him away. (which reminds me of the mohel in the news for giving kids herpes--ugh!)
posted by amberglow at 1:51 PM on February 6, 2005

here (and ewwwww...)
posted by amberglow at 1:52 PM on February 6, 2005

circumcision-knife (there's gotta be a word for this, neh?)

Izmel. Like mohel, oddly appropriate for Superman. The baggypantsandbravado blog has a skit on this: The Mensch of Steel.
posted by raygirvan at 2:46 PM on February 6, 2005

Not the Marvel route, but when I was a youngster I used to get tons of Hassidic children's magazines, some of which featured a few panels of Super Neshoma (Hebrew: soul) battling the Yetzer Hora (evil intentions/temptation) in the cut-away view of some unsuspecting Hebrew School kid's heart. There was also a full-length comic involving the messiah and two lil' kids zooming around the galaxy in a cosmic red Volkswagen, performing miracles.

Of course, none of this holds a candle to Anne Frank Conquers the Moon Nazis.
posted by soviet sleepover at 2:48 PM on February 6, 2005

Mustn't forget Nite Owl II in Alan Moore's classic Watchmen . He's got cool costumes, gadgets galore and a thing for girls in adventuress costumes.
posted by Scoo at 8:16 PM on February 6, 2005

I'm quite certain that I once read an article - most likely in The Comics Buyers Guide - which reported on an interview with Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster (the creators of Superman) in which the pair said that Superman was Jewish. One of the creators said "If I'm Jewish [and he evidently was], then so is Superman."

Also, I should mention...

Apparently, at some point in the nineties, the writer (John Byrne? Or had someone else taken over at that point?) of Marvel's Alpha Flight wanted to "reveal" that the character North Star was gay. He dropped hints, layed the groundwork, built up to it... and then Marvel chickened out. They refused to let the storyline go ahead. Well, the readers had been primed for some sort of revelation, so... the writer let it be known that Northstar was a faerie. A literal faerie. Like from Tolkien or Spenser.
posted by Clay201 at 9:04 PM on February 6, 2005

Huh? Marvel didn't chicken out. Northstar came out in Alpha flight #106, in May 1992. For goodness sakes, the character says "I am gay", and then the next day announces it at a PRESS CONFERENCE. It wasn't exactly in code.
posted by kyrademon at 9:12 PM on February 6, 2005

kyrademon: Sorry. I got all this information second hand, either on usenet or through the discussion forums at the Comics Journal website. I stopped reading Alpha Flight around issue number 30.

Now I'm curious where the whole "faerie" story originated. Thanks for the correction.
posted by Clay201 at 4:59 AM on February 7, 2005

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