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How Jewish Creatives Built The Modern Comic Industry

From left to right: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko

Today, superhero movies dominate the box office. Iconic characters like Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Avengers grace our screens and rake in millions for their corporate overlords. With the way that modern comic juggernauts treat the creatives that built them from the ground up, many may not know that all of those characters were created entirely or almost entirely by Jewish writers and artists. So, it’s important that we take a look at the impact of Jewish people on the comic industry and the birth of the modern superhero, and I think maybe “impact” might be too soft a word since Jews basically created the concept of the superhero. 

In the 1930s, Jewish cartoonists struggled to find work, due to antisemitism in mainstream publishing outlets. However, the comics publishers of the time, such as DC and Timely, later known as Marvel Comics, were mainly Jewish-owned with Martin Goodman at Timely and Harry Donenfeld at DC. This allowed young and inexperienced Jewish creators at the time to find work and carve out their own niche in the comics industry. This is to the point where most of today's major comic book characters were created by Jews. Superman, arguably the first modern superhero who helped define the superhero archetype, was created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, sons of European Jewish immigrants, heralding the Golden Age of Comics. Batman, Robin and much of their rogues gallery and supporting cast were created by the Ashkenazi Jewish writer Bill Finger and Jewish artist Bob Kane. On the Marvel side of things, Stan Lee along with frequent collaborators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, all Jewish, heralded the start of the Silver Age in the 60s with the creation of the Fantastic Four followed by an entire catalogue of heroes including Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, Black Panther, Iron Man, and basically everyone else.

These Jewish creators would often integrate aspects of their culture into these characters. Superman’s Kryptonian name “Kal-El” is derived from the Hebrew words Kal, meaning “Voice” and El, meaning “God”. And though modern-day writers and filmmakers (*cough* Zack Snyder cough cough) like to depict him as a Christ-like figure, Superman really has more in common with the biblical Moses, sent away as an infant child for his own survival and raised under another identity, until the day he would discover his true name and purpose to fight against tyranny and oppression. Captain America, created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, is based on the Golem of 16th century Jewish folklore, a creature who would protect Jews in ghettos from antisemitic hate crimes. The very first Captain America comic, released when the US was still isolationist and largely neutral in WW2, had the titular hero, meant to embody American values, punching Hitler in the face right there on the cover. This prompted outcry including threats of violence and death against Marvel employees from US-based Nazi sympathisers. The struggle against bigotry and oppression is a common theme in comics from that era. Before he was the “Man of Steel” fighting against aliens, giant robots, magic 5th dimensional imps, bald rich guys with inflated egos, and gorillas doing things gorillas wouldn't normally do. Superman was the “Champion of the Oppressed” fighting against greedy industrialists, tyrants, war profiteers, and even the actual Ku Klux Klan. The Thing of the Fantastic Four comics, also based on the Golem and one of few canonically Jewish superheroes, struggles to fit into normal society, due to his physical differences (namely being a giant pile of rocks). Meanwhile, the X-Men were created at the height of the Civil Rights movement as an allegory for oppressed groups everywhere, fighting to protect a world that hates and fears them. 

This is important because today's comic adaptations have frequently diminished and whitewashed Jewish characters. Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, who in the comics were children of a holocaust survivor, have had this element of their backstory removed and were cast with non-Jewish actors. Both were introduced in Avengers: Age of Ultron, working for a Neo-Nazi organisation. More recently, Moon Knight, another canonically Jewish character, had elements of his culture downplayed for the Disney+ adaptation. In the comics, his Jewish identity was an integral character trait, as Marc Spector would have to grapple with the conflict between his Jewish faith, and his violent methods in service of an Egyptian god. This makes it all the more disappointing that in his recent series, the character's Jewish background and identity were barely acknowledged and instead, relegated to a few scenes in the show's penultimate episode.

However, steps have also been made to acknowledge the comic industry's Jewish roots. The upcoming Superman: Legacy has a Jewish actor attached to the lead role. Meanwhile, in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the Peter B. Parker version of Spider-Man is depicted as Jewish, having married Mary Jane Watson in a Jewish ceremony. All versions of Peter Parker in the Spider-Verse duology including the 616 and 1610 versions as well as Ben Reilly, or the Scarlet Spider, are all voiced by Jewish actors. Personally, I think this is a step in the right direction. Jews built the comic industry from the ground up, rising against discrimination that stopped them from finding work in more respected outlets, and in the process creating beloved, iconic characters, modern day-myths who have come to outlast and outgrow the publishers that initially rejected them. With bigots harassing today's comic writers for “daring” to exist in the comics industry while female or decrying the inclusion of “woke politics (usually just the existence of social minorities in prominent roles), it is important to remember that the very concept of the modern superhero was born because of minorities who were rejected from mainstream outlets due to their minority status and decided to carve out their own niche in the industry, and that even some of the earliest comics didn’t shy away from pushing the political boundaries of the time and calling out injustices present in contemporary society. 


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