Jerry (Jerome) Siegel was born in 1914 and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. His parents immigrated to the US, fleeing Anti-Semitism in Lithuania. Joe Schuster was also born in 1914. He grew up in Toronto, Canada, and at the age of 10 his family moved to Cleveland. His Jewish parents met in Toronto: his father Julius came with his family from Amsterdam, his mother Ida from Kiev.
Jerry and Joe met and became great friends in high school. Both were fond of literature and adventure and fantasy movies (science fiction was still in its infancy, it wasn’t really called yet “science fiction”).
Jerry wrote, Joel sketched, and at the end of high school they started making comics together. Throughout the 1930’s, as they worked to build their name and reputation in the comics industry, they kept on developing a character and storyline that would change the world.
The first comic book in the Action Comics series by publisher Detective Comics Ltd. (some may be familiar with their widely known abbreviated name these days, DC), was published in April of 1938. The comic book told the story of Superman, an alien being, human in appearance but with superhuman powers, who lives among us. He walks among us in disguise as socially awkward journalist Clark Kent, but in secret – he is saving the world!
Jerry and Joe, social awkward in their own eyes, created the legend of Superman.
Two New York Jews (they move to New York in the late 30’s) create a comic book character, so what? Now every character conceived by a Jewish person is Jewish by definition? Come on!
First, of course not, and more importantly, there are a multitude of Supermen. The legend of Superman has been told over and over again, countless times – in comics, literature, on the radio, on film, TV shows, digital games and I’ve not checked, but probably shadow puppetry theater as well. Creators have used Superman to express a variety of ideas in different themes, quite a few of which are actually American, Capitalist, even Imperialist, many others a religious-Christian tone, not to mention Messianic.
But still, it’s difficult to ignore the background of its original creators, the fact that this is their first creative work, and the one that they have developed together for a long time over their youth and young adulthood.
It’s hard not to acknowledge and assume some very basic surface influences at the least. First, the Old Testament story of Moses, sent away as a mere baby from his home, his family, his people, sent in a basket – to be saved, much like Superman. Superman’s name is of course also thought-provoking. His original Kryptonian name, Kal-El, an alien name, reminiscent in the Hebrew language to names of Biblical angels (God’s messengers that also have superpowers and who, in Jewish and Christian mythology, may also fly). The name also carries within it the word El (other well-known angels: Gabriel, Michael, Uriel, Raphael), meaning God. The word Kal in Hebrew echoes the word “Kol” meaning “voice”, the name “Kal-El” can be understood as “the voice of God”.
However, in studies that examine the topic deeper, some see in the Superman persona, storyline and concept, a representation of the dual existence of American Jews at that time period, the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s, and possibly a glimpse into Siegel’s and Schuster’s psyche, a look into their personal dilemmas, their souls.
On the one hand, descendant from a great culture, an impressive past, but one that is no more, is utterly destroyed. History can be accessible to them – If they choose to access it. Ancient and mysterious wisdom and knowledge. They do not have the knowledge in them, with them, they do not fully comprehend the depths of the knowledge that exists. In order to gain access to the great minds and wonders of their legendary past they must go to a special place, a sacred repository where these secrets are held, where they will hear – figuratively or perhaps even literally – the voices of their lost culture. This is a decision they must make. They know the knowledge is there, waiting for them to be found.
On the other hand, they must hide all of this, they mustn’t be revealed. They have to assimilate in contemporary culture: walk “among them”, be “like them”, look “like them”. “They” do not know that their normal clothes, their office suits, summer shirts, winter sweaters and coats, they’re all costumes. Underneath, another garment is hidden – secret, sublime, holy even, charged with tremendous power.
The undergarment? Another costume, no other word for it. It may seem ridiculous, but it’s part of the ceremony, in it imbued a piece of that historical knowledge, that immortal, heavenly, power. A blue leotard, red underwear on top and on the chest an archaic sign, reminiscent of the English letter S.
One should also allow space for the duality in the assimilation dilemma in American society, a dilemma that exists in every community of immigrants. Should we preserve our unique identity – our culture, traditions, recipes and rituals, or should we let them go? Should we live in a separate community or try and adopt local customs and ways, not clinging to our immigrant community and past. Louis Lane, Kal-El’s love interest, we should be reminded, thinks that Clark Kent is a squeamish, nerdy, klutz, but Superman – is hot!
Another interesting reversal is that Clark Kent is a journalist, man of the written word, the nerdy scholar who is embarrassed around people in general, particularly awkward around women (Siegel confessed that his embarrassment around women is embodied in Kent’s character). In contrast, Superman – a name common for people with special physical strength in the 1920’s and 30’s – is of course first and foremost, physical. The Man of Steel is strong, muscular, and sexy. He feels comfortable with public attention in general, and with the attention of women, and of Louis Lane, in particular.
And lest we forget – Superman’s motto. Again, duality and backwards logic. One can read in the slogan the strong desire (which again, exists in many immigrant communities, not specific to the Jewish American community) not only to assimilate, but to prove complete integration by demonstrating extra-patriotism, above and beyond expected, far more than the local “native” population, who may be readily more critical of their local government.
What is Superman’s motto? What is he fighting for?
Truth, Justice and the American Way!
This is one possible reading of Superman, and as I mentioned, there are many Supermen, and many possible readings. Considering the history of the creators, this reading is self-evident and well accepted and legitimate, alongside others.
Jerry and Joe are indeed the original creators, but they were certainly not the only ones who contributed to Superman’s tremendous success in its very early beginnings. Might this hamper the thesis? Well, let’s see! The publishers, Detective Comics Ltd., are Jacob Leibowitz, an Ukrainian Jew, and Harry Donnenfeld, a Romanian Jew. The first editor-in-chief, who came on board with Joe and Jerry when Superman’s stories began to grow beyond their capabilities in 1940, was Mort Weisinger. Was he Jewish? Of course! descendant of a Jewish family from Austria.
But if a conclusive proof of Superman’s Jewish roots is required, well, the Nazis thought he was Jewish, and they did not like it one bit.
They may have been all about the Übermensch, but they didn’t like the Superman.
By February 1940 (six months into World War II, but nearly two years before the Pearl Harbor attack), Superman was already extremely popular in the comic book world and was now to become a radio star as well. Getting a radio show was a big deal back then: four days a week, 15 minutes every day, Superman’s tales would circulate all over the country, through the ether, a daily radio cast. Superman has officially become an influencer; a Celebrity, on his way to the A-list.
On Look magazine, in an item promoting the radio show, Siegel and Schuster were asked how they thought Superman would end the raging war in Europe. The answer was given in a special edition comic written exclusively for the magazine. Superman flies to Europe, picks up Hitler from his hiding place and brings him – not before he smacks him and takes Stalin along with him – to a meeting of the League of Nations in Geneva. He doesn’t kill them. He doesn’t punish them. He brings them both to face trial before the entire League of Nations, for crimes against humanity.
Look magazine made its way to Germany and on April 25, 1940, in “The Black Corps” (Das Schwarze Korps), the SS weekly, a deadly review of the Jewish Superman was published (1).
From the review (in English translation):
Jerry Siegel, an intellectually and physically circumcised chap who has his headquarters in New York, is the inventor of a colorful figure with an impressive appearance, a powerful body, and a red swimsuit who enjoys the ability to fly through the ether. The inventive Israelite named this pleasant guy with an overdeveloped body and underdeveloped mind “Superman.” He advertised widely Superman’s sense of justice, well-suited for imitation by the American youth.
As you can see, there is nothing the Sadducees won’t do for money!
And, after slaying the plot, the reviewer concludes:
A triumphant final frame shows Superman, the conqueror of death, dropping in at the headquarters of the chatterboxes at the League of Nations in Geneva. Although the rules of the establishment probably prohibit people in bathing suits from participating in their deliberations, Superman ignores them as well as the other laws of physics, logic, and life in general. He brings with him the evil German enemy along with Soviet Russia. Well, we really ought to ignore these fantasies of Jerry Israel Siegel, but there is a catch. The daring deeds of Superman are those of a Colorado beetle. He works in the dark, in incomprehensible ways. He cries “Strength! Courage! Justice!” to the noble yearnings of American children. Instead of using the chance to encourage really useful virtues, he sows hate, suspicion, evil, laziness, and criminality in their young hearts.
Jerry Siegellack* stinks. Woe to the American youth, who must live in such a poisoned atmosphere and don’t even notice the poison they swallow daily.
* A joke about Siegel’s last name, distorting it into the word “wax” in German.
Just like any story, it’s but a story. Superman isn’t Jewish just as he’s not American. He does not exist. What it is, is an interesting story about the creation of myths, the interpretation we give to creative work, to storytelling; a story about how imagination integrates with reality. A story about the extent to which a work of art, of fiction, a story, can be separated from its creator(s), and about our choice of whether to do so, or not.
If literature departments in Israeli universities seek relevance, they must start teaching and exploring the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, acclaimed science fiction author, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 88.
In support of this argument I’ll present the radicalism in Le Guin’s thought and the manner in which she shaped the way I myself think about literature, life and their reciprocal influence. To do this I’ll begin with media theoretician Marshall McLuhan’s most famous idea: “The medium is the message”.
The claim on which the expression “The medium is the message” is based upon, is that when analyzing any media technology, what’s important is the medium itself, and not the message (“content”) that is transmitted through it. A train is a train and it affects humanity the same way whether it transports cargo around Europe or takes people to work in Asia. McLuhan said of the machine, the production line, that it affects man all the same, whether it produces luxury cars or popcorn. It is of course true about television – it doesn’t matter what we watch on TV, rather the very fact that we sit in front of the television every night. This is true also about literature, and more specifically about storytelling, a medium that is almost transparent to us. We always think about the content of the story, but we do not take into account that storytelling itself enwraps a message, by virtue of being what it is. And what it is, is something much more biased than we may believe it to be.
In 1986 Le Guin published an article titled “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction“, the shopping cart theory of literature. In general, she claimed in the article that through eons humanity lived in gathering societies. We picked fruits, collected nuts, gathered plants and occasionally lucked out with an accidental hunt. One day several men got up, went out into the field, and stumbled across a gigantic animal (in our collective memory it is of course a mammoth), killed it and came back to the tribe with the spoils. But what they brought back with them to the tribe was far more significant than the meat from the hunt – they came back with a heroic tale. “I did this, and a friend of mine jumped out, in front of it, from here, then I flanked it from there, he strangled it, was trampled under it, and then I slit its throat with that pointed stick and killed it.”
This tale became the human narrative, and the little tool, the pointed stick – the spear, sword, arrow – it became human technology. In our collective experience, this phallic form is known to be the origin of technology, the first tool, and it is what had allowed us to spread out and become what we are today. This story – the hero who tackles a monster (real, mental, bureaucratic) and defeats it (or loses, if it is a tragedy) – Is the story we are all familiar with. For us, this is how a story is meant to be told.
But Le Guin reminds us that before all this there were tens of thousands of years of gathering. We ate from the tree and field, and what we wanted to keep for tomorrow, we kept inside a pouch or some basket – this was the first tool, the initial technology that allowed us to spread and expand. It was the first thing that transformed us from an animal that is surviving from one moment to the next into a complex creature that thinks about tomorrow. But there is no story to it; It is impossible to tell a heroic tale about how I struggled with a nutshell and came home with ten acorns. It’s just not as interesting.
In her literature, Le Guin tries to tell different stories. True, there are always heroes and there are always obstacles that they try to overcome, but “The real journey is coming back”, to burrow one of her captivating quotes from her novel “The Dispossessed“. In her article she writes that the hero hijacked the novel; she doesn’t believe we need to give him the front stage but rather put him inside the basket or carrier bag to mix with other ingredients. The societies she describes in her novels mix femininity with masculinity, dream with reality, actions with consequences, intentions with acts; everything is more circular, more ambivalent.
It is not obvious that if the hero has a strong enough desire and that if he kills enough monsters, he will get what he wants, because it is not even clear what he wants. Her storytelling style is not exactly the unleashed arrow flying straight ahead, the same linear movement of hero-desires-obstacles-victory.
That is why her literature is so radical. Because it makes us wonder “what if”- and the “what if” question is at the heart of science fiction. What if the default of storytelling was not the arrow flying straight ahead, but the circular narrative? Not one, but zero. Not a spear, but a basket. What would reality look like then? Possibly, some capitalist, masculine, violent wrongs would have been spared from us. She reminds us to think about the very medium of storytelling, not just about the content, but on how we tell any story.
She’s not only radical because she presents in her stories anarchist, socialist and a-gendered possibilities of society, but because she explores and presents how the very basis of storytelling could have looked like, how our thinking would have changed, and how this change, might have changed the world. And it’s so much more interesting than reading literature through the prisms of gender or class or all that shit that’s being taught in numerous literature departments and faculties of the humanities. Le Guin is a true radical, the kind of radical we need.