As part of a regular series (i.e. when I remember) your Editor intends to introduce and explain some of the books used in her research. This is not intended as an exhaustive review as you would see in a historic journal, say, but just a little overview of what I’ve found interesting and useful.
My inaugural review is “Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero” by Simcha Weinstein. If I list some names for you – Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Stan Lee, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Max Gaines, Jerry Robinson, Will Eisner – and I asked you to name what they have in common, you might say ‘comic book pioneers’, or something like that. You’d be right, but they have something else in common too – they were (are) all Jewish.
Weinstein’s book is an exploration of the link between the comic book character and its creators via Jewish culture. In his introduction, Weinstein introduces this theme and explains that the book is an exploration of how major characters in DC and Marvel, including Superman and Captain America, personify a theme that features in ‘the Jewish tradition’. In essence, it is a series of essays on Jewish spirituality, using the DC and Marvel universe as a guide. It also ‘seeks to reclaim a vital component of that [Jewish] heritage’, i.e. to point out that the comic book industry was overwhelmingly staffed by the sons and grandsons of Jewish immigrants.
How far does it succeed in its aims? Well – Jewish culture and tradition is a huge subject to cover, but Weinstein does an admirable job of setting out who the Jewish contributors to his chosen characters were and the themes he sees within them. The chapter on Superman is particularly compelling and leaves me in no doubt that to understand Superman is to understand Jewish experiences in 1930s and 40s America. Where Weinstein displays real power is in his exploration of the bible stories that resound within these comics. This is particularly fascinating and had me gripped. It also has a number of interesting facts that are relevant to historic analysis, but are also of great general interest. One such example is that Jewish artists were effectively excluded from certain illustration roles. The antisemitism of American society at the time meant, therefore, that the talents of these young men had to go into comic book production, an industry that accepted them.
Overall though, the book left me wanting more. It simply did not have enough depth. It would have benefitted from more detail about Jewish culture and the historic experience. Furthermore, the themes that Weinstein picks as ‘Jewish’ – Superman = integrity, Fantastic Four = family values – one could easily argue are present in many cultures; that other folk traditions equally hold dear such values and – indeed – incorporate them into their stories. However, Weinstein leaves me in no doubt that, within comics, these themes are sourced from Jewish culture and so our comic book heroes are in some ways reflections of the young US Jewish male experience.
Overall, I would recommend reading this book. I’ve supplied a link to its purchase in the UK. It looks as though a new edition may be in the offing as it is available for preorder for March publication:
The edition I reviewed – published by Barricade Books, Fort Lee, NJ. Publication year – 2006.