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October 13, 2002

Comics--That Old Time Religion


Thanks for tipping me off on the latest in the debate over the religious affiliation of super-heroes. According to a story on, "Up, Up and Oy Vey," which you can read here, the discussion has been fueled by the recent "outing" of The Thing (a member of the Fantastic Four super-hero crime fighting team) as a Jew—and, apparently, a traditional one at that.

The Thing Affirms His Jewish Identity--Are You Gonna Argue With Him?

I first heard the argument that all super-heroes are Jews in Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.” In that novel, Clay, a Jewish teenager who goes on to become a comic-book writer, wises up his Jewish cousin Kavalier, a future comic book artist:

They're all Jewish, superheroes. Superman, you don't think he's Jewish? Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself.

As quoted in the story, Steven Bergson, who works at Toronto's Albert and Temmy Latner Jewish Public Library, and who moderates an Internet site dedicated to Jewish comic books (which you can see here) admits Superman's "origin story" invites a Jewish interpretation: Superman is an 'alien' immigrant, leads a double life (as Jews who passed as Gentiles did), was saved by being sent away as an infant, (with obvious parallels to both the 'Moses in the basket' story and the escape of the Jews from Germany) and his Kryptonian birth name sure sounds Jewish (Kal-El in Hebrew means 'All that is God.')

The Moses of Krypton?

As a religious triple threat (baptized a Roman Catholic, raised a Protestant and converted in adulthood to Judaism) and a longtime comics fan, I’d like to weigh in on this incredibly significant issue.

The arguments for Superman’s Jewishness are strong, but not, I think, totally conclusive. The two Jewish teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster, who invented the ‘Man of Steel’ (and who are the obvious prototypes for Kavalier and Clay) appear to have been channeling other religious traditions as well. Superman is raised by a man (Pa Kent) who is not his biological father, and is brought up in a rural backwater (Smallville); moreover, this foster Son from the heavens grows up to possess miraculous, godlike powers. This is all rather reminiscent of the Christian narrative of Jesus (of course, another Jewish boy).

The Iron Giant--Can a Robot Look to Superman For Spiritual Guidance?

The regrettably underseen animated movie, “The Iron Giant,” is a good example of how popular culture has used Superman as a Christ-symbol. In it an alien robot of superhuman power is inspired by reading Superman comic books to sacrifice itself in order to save its adopted community. Rather touchingly, the robot mutters the single word: “Superman” under its breath just before ramming a haywire nuclear ICBM head-on in the upper atmosphere, detonating the warhead and scattering itself to the four winds.

Echoes of the Buddha?

And the Superman story doesn't just echo the Judeo-Christian religious continuum. Superman, while not entirely disinterested in women, certainly has not fulfilled God’s prime directive to his creatures (presumably including Krytonians) to go forth and multiply. (Superman, by my reckoning, has had some 70 or so post-pubescent years to find himself a nice girl and get hitched. As any yenta would ask, "So what's the problem, a big strong good-looking guy like him? And he makes a regular paycheck?") This ascetic tendency (a rather un-Jewish avoidance of the pleasures of the flesh) combined with all that time spent meditating at his "Fortress of Solitude" suggests Buddhist overtones. These overtones are reinforced by Superman’s many, many “deaths” at the hands of Lex Luthor and other villains. During my prime Superman comic reading years in the late 50s and early 60’s, Superman was bumped off and effectively reincarnated at least once a year. From scattered impressions gathered at 7-11 comic racks since, not much has changed. This super guy's had more lives than a whole herd of cats.

Turning to Spiderman, I gotta admit, the case for his Jewish identity is pretty much overwhelming, despite his rather middle-American name (Peter Parker). I mean, the boy is constantly tortured over letting his parents down, he lives in Forest Hills, he lusts after Gwen Stacey (the ultra-waspy blonde) and Mary Jane Watson (a prototypical 'Catholic High School Girl in Trouble'), etc., etc. What more do we need to know?

Waspy Gwen and Catholic Mary Jane: How's a Good Jewish Boy to Choose?

Maybe Stan Lee kept explicit religious complications out of Spidey's love life because even Stan the Man (arguably the greatest master of plot since Dickens) couldn't have worked out all the tangles that would have caused.



posted by Friedrich at October 13, 2002


Hi there,
I must say that i found your article very intresting and funny. I Live in Israel and am writing a seminar about religious propoganda in super hero scripts.
You focused me very much and for that i must thank you, i wonder if you have any other info. i could use?
Thank you,

Posted by: Ilan on April 23, 2004 6:11 AM

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