UP, UP, AND OY VEY 

"How do you circumcise an orange brick?" Manhattan's Cosmic Comics stuck that sign in their store window last summer, while internet fan sites were fielding other less-than-kosher questions about the Sabbath obligations of superheroes. A beloved comic book character had finally come out of the spiritual closet.

The Thing, of all things, was Jewish. The Thing — picture a pumpkin-colored, cinderblock Hulk — is one of the Fantastic Four, the superhero team created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1961. Colleagues say Kirby, now deceased, always thought of The Thing as Jewish, just like him. (One of Kirby's unpublished drawings depicted his 500-pound boulder-man in full rabbinical garb.) Forty years on, new writers at Marvel Comics decided to share their in-joke with the world.

Marvel's much-discussed June 2002 issue (No. 56, "Remembrance of Things Past") finds The Thing in his old Lower East Side 'hood, battling the evil Powderkeg — and pausing to pray the traditional "Sh'ma Yisrael" over an injured bystander. Powderkeg wisecracks: "Funny, you don't look Jewish."

Few comic book characters do, even though, as Montreal comic book author Mark Shainblum points out, "almost all the major superheroes of the Golden Age (1938-1950-ish) and the Silver Age (1958-1972-ish) were created by Jews." Besides Marvel's Lee (born Leiber) and Kirby (neé Kurtzberg), the list includes Batman creator Bob Kane, MAD Magazine's William Gaines (whose father was also a comic book pioneer), and veteran DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz.

Will Eisner (Sheena, Queen of the Jungle) coined the term "graphic novel" to describe A Contract with God, his illustrated Jewish family saga. Arguably the most notorious and acclaimed graphic novel, Art Spielgelman's Maus, recasts the Holocaust with Nazi cats and Jewish mice.

Peter Birkemoe, who owns the Beguiling, a venerable Toronto, Canada comic shop, speculates that "In the first half of the century, having been excluded from many established industries, it was not uncommon for new industries to either be started by, or rapidly attract, Jewish entrepreneurs — the movie industry being a prime example."

In the 1930s and '40s, New York City was both the hub of comic book publishing and Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany. "Comic books, being considered an 'unrespectable' medium, were not as closed to new immigrants," Birkemoe adds. No wonder some obsessive fans and amateur historians claim they have uncovered the secret "Jewish-ness" of creatures formed within this unique geopolitical crucible.

 
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Superheroes, they claim, are usually outsiders, gifted yet misunderstood, strangers in a strange land. Taking up the theme, arch-conservative writer Robert George mused in The National Review: "Perhaps that ethnic heritage explains the common themes of abandonment, loss of home, and the existential need to bond oneself to a greater good."

In these discussions, one name leaps over others in a single bound. With Superman, writes Liz Kennedy of CoolCollecting.com, "Siegel and Shuster created a lasting work, reflecting their own Jewish values: to do good for its own sake, and heal the world where you can. Those values are intrinsic to the Talmud."

Superman was the brainchild of two Jewish teenagers, Cleveland's Jerry Siegel and Toronto's Joseph Shuster. Michael Chabon's award-winning 2000 novel, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (loosely based on their lives), is dedicated to Jack Kirby — and playfully nominates the Golem (a legendary medieval monster said to protect Prague's persecuted Jews) as the first Jewish superhero.

Chabon's characters are convinced the Man of Steel is "one of them." Steven Bergson isn't. Bergson moderates Yahoo's "jewishcomics" mailing list. He admits Superman's "origin story" invites such interpretations:

"Superman is 'alien' (which is what immigrant Jews were called); leads a double life (as Jews who posed as Gentiles did); was saved by being sent away in a rocket (parallels to both the 'Moses in the basket' story and the exodus from Europe to the U.S. & Canada in the '30s); and his `given Krypton` name sounds Jewish ('Kal-El' could be a transliteration of the Hebrew 'All that is G-d')."

But, Bergson insists, "Superman is not even from our planet, much less 'a member of the tribe.'" If every fictional character is "Jewish" just because its author is, then "E.T., created by Steven Spielberg, is Jewish as well."

Lately, a few unabashedly Jewish characters have debuted in mainstream comics: the X-Men's Kitty Pryde (who scares off Vampires with her trusty Star of David), and Israeli "super-soldier" Sabra. But most Jewish comic books are labors of love by artists not associated with big-name publishers. Pittsburgh's Al Wiesner self-publishes Shaloman, "who sports a Hebrew letter 'shin' on his chest. Instead of being a man of steel, he is a man of stone, as were the original commandments that he strives to uphold."

Perhaps the most ambitious undertaking is Alan E. Oirich's educational Jewish Hero Corps project. Oirich started developing his characters as a child. Thirty years later, the JHC have their own trading cards, interactive CD-ROMs, and "fans across the religious spectrum, including Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and even Hassidic" Jews. Menorah Man grows eight arms and shoots flames from them. Dreidel Maidel spins at tremendous velocity, "so no one can see her perform good deeds." Shabbas Queen's electro-magnetic wand must be recharged one day in seven. Minyan Man "can multiply into 10, becoming a pyramid or a human chain." HyperGirl acquired her superpowers "after unknowingly eating a matzah baked in a microwave oven with radioactive water." Spoonfuls of silly humour (Yarmulkah Youth's nickname is the Capped Crusader) help the Hebrew School lessons go down.

The eagerly-awaited Kavalier and Clay film should expose the epic tale of comic books and their Jewish inventors to a wider audience. Meanwhile, Shainblum dreams of making his own documentary film on the subject, and Bergson lovingly tends his massive online "Jewish Comics Bibliography" (www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/5756/JWISHC.HTM).

Yet Marvel chairman emeritus Stan Lee claims he just doesn't get it. Lee sounded flattered, but flustered, when Radio WNYC recently called him to talk about The Thing's newly-revealed Semitic heritage. "You know, I didn't intend for him to be Jewish," Lee laughed. "No. I never thought for a minute what `the characters'` religions were."

The show's host pressed bravely on: "How much has Jewishness, do you think, informed the medium" of comic books?

Laughing again, Lee replied: "You know, I have no idea. I never really thought of it. It is strange when you mention it that the best-known characters were done by Jewish writers. I guess that is an odd thought."

With that, the living legend signed off, adding apologetically: "I hope I didn't spoil your whole show."


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