One day in 1933, as he was cleaning his office, an idea came to Charlie Gaines: He would publish a magazine that would put together all the comic strips that had been published earlier in the dailies. A year later Gaines – a Jew who was born Maxwell Ginsburg – published the first-ever comic book, called “Famous Funnies.” Success was instant.
Within a few years Gaines’ initiative spawned a flourishing industry, and by the mid-1930s there were increasingly growing numbers of comic book publishers. The undisputed kings of the genre were a few superheroes who fought to rid the world of evil. Behind them stood mainly Jewish immigrants – not only the publishers but also the creative artists, the writers and illustrators who were in charge of the creative aspects of this industry. They were responsible for the fact that Jewish content seeped – consciously or otherwise – into the characters, plots and illustrated worlds on display.
In fact, nearly all the great superheroes were created by Jews: Jerry Siegel and Joe (Joseph) Shuster created Superman, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) created Captain America, Bob Kane (Robert Kahn) and Bill Finger invented Batman, while Kirby, together with Stan Lee (Stanley Martin Lieber) produced a particularly impressive line of heroes such as Spider-Man, The Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Ironman, the X-men, Thor and the Avengers.
Shuster and Siegel’s Superman was launched in 1938, published by Gaines. Comic book aficionados have argued and debated whether Superman himself was also Jewish, and whether he and subsequent superheroes were created in order to fulfill a hidden Jewish desire to deliver a decisive victory over Nazi Germany. Surprisingly, upon reading the veteran superhero’s life story one encounters several elements that derive from traditional Jewish culture. The first of these is the name Kal-El he receives from his parents. Kaplan says that there is a lively ongoing debate around the question of whether Siegel and Shuster planted these Jewish signs in Superman deliberately or not. He notes the name Kal-El as an example, which sounds like a Hebrew name that could mean “all of God” or “God’s voice.” He adds that Siegel and Shuster received a Jewish education.
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, author of “Up Up and Oy Vey,” which also deals with Jews and comic books in America, concurs in the belief that the Jewish elements in Superman’s story derive from the Jewish identity of his creators. “These are all creators who themselves had bar mitzvahs, spent time at the synagogue. I think about how natural it is that Superman has this parallel with Moses. The creators probably had a Passover Seder, and we write about what we know about. It makes sense that Superman would be so close to Moses. Moses had this double life – he was raised in a foreign culture, a foreign land, and as a child was put in a basket and sent away. He also had a double identity. And Moses was the voice of God, like ‘Kal-El’; it’s the Moses story,” explains Weinstein in a telephone interview.
Blich mentions a possible source of inspiration – the 16th century Jewish legend of the Golem of Prague. The Golem, who was a superhero before the term was coined, was created, according to the legend, by the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehuda Levai (Loew). He sent the Golem out to terrorize those who spread blood libels against Jews.
“Will Eisner [one of America’s greatest comic book cartoonists, who was also Jewish] wrote that the Golem was perceived in the 1930s as a mythological character, an early superhero,” says Blich. “The comic book creators were obviously secular, but the story of the Golem was imprinted in ‘Jewish genes’ searching for salvation. There are numerous conceptions of Superman as a mythological hero, a modern embodiment of ancient mythology, a hero with supernatural powers who can save civilization from the forces of nature or the evils of human society.”
The amusing debate around Superman’s Jewishness was never settled, since many others saw in his character elements taken from Christianity and a likeness to Jesus. It’s interesting to note, however, that someone who skipped over all the lengthy arguments around this issue was none other than the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who declared in 1940 that Superman was Jewish (discussed above)…
There’s also, however, a strong Jewish angle to Steve Rogers aka Captain America. For instance, the lower east side of Manhattan, where Rogers grew up, was one of the places where a large number of immigrants (largely Jews) settled. Also not coincidental was the name ‘Reinstein’ – which rhymed with a contemporary famous scientist of Jewish descent: Einstein. And last, the pre-serum Steve Rogers was a stereotypical depiction of the Jew as being frail and passive.
Taking a cue from the Captain, Superman too joined in the war effort. And while Nazis themselves had banned comic books, they did feel its effects – so much that Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, himself denounced Superman as a Jew.3
With his sidekick 12 year old Bucky Barnes, Captain America took a first–hand role in fighting the forces of evil. What made Captain America comics different was that they were violent, in fact, shockingly violent for the time period. Characters were shot between the eyes, left beaten and bloodied, and tortured.1
What was it that led Jews to take such a prominent role in the movie and comics industries?
“I don’t think that the central role played by Jews in film and comics from the outset was due to special abilities or talents in these areas,” says Dr. Ben Baruch Blich, a senior lecturer in the department of history and theory at the Bezalel Academy of Arts. “What caused it was the open and latent anti-Semitism that prevailed in the United States at the time. Since daily newspapers [in the U.S.] refused to accept illustrations or comic books made by Jews, they had no other choice. For example, Siegel and Shuster, who were only youths then, could not find jobs at mainstream comic book networks, so they joined Gaines. The same was true for cinema. This was a restriction that forced Jews to develop a new approach.”
The comic book writer Arie Kaplan, who wrote the book “From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and comic books,” explains that in contrast to the advertising industry, the comic book industry was free of anti-Semitism since many of the publishers were Jews, and no expensive academic degrees were required.
Danny Fingeroth, an American writer of comics and a former editor at Marvel Comics, who wrote the book “Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the creation of the Superhero,” further explains the central role Jews played in the early decades of the film and comic book industries: “Many factors went into Jews being prominent in storytelling media. It has to do with, it seems to me, Jews’ connection to a tradition of storytelling, as well as Talmudic analysis, plus the status of the children of Jewish immigrants – like all immigrants – having an outsider status in America. This led some of them to analyze what history and myths fueled the American imagination, and how to reflect that self-image back at Americans in stories that had universal appeal.2
Propaganda leading up to WWI, during the war, and afterwards had focused on brainwashing Americans that it was un-American to not support the wars we had no business fighting in the first place. The WWII propaganda machine took the sparkle of the ‘The Golden Age of Comics’ and pounced upon it, using nearly every superhero as part of an ideal ‘pro-US’ platform. These superheroes symbolized the military who were fighting the evil-doers and tyrants of the world to kept us safe. ‘Support the troops’ was the focus rather than supporting the ‘war effort’ because the reasons for war were typically manufactured.
When the war began, 15 million comic books were being published a month. Two and a half years later, 25 million copies were sold a month. Superman and Captain each sold over 1 million editions a month. And the largest single customer in the period was the United States Army. Originally, the Army was buying comic books as diversions, but soon many of the soldiers became hooked on the story lines, character development, and the virtuous fight against evil and oppression.1
Many writers of the books actually were part of the Office of War Information and the War Writer’s Board. These organizations supposedly were interested in given accurate information about what was happening overseas. The comic book became a vessel to do so. Another aspect that endeared Captain America to many Americans was that he always fought by the “rules” of war and won. His antagonists always “cheated” and lost.2
Comic books also became popular for other virtues in the Great Depression. Scott A. Cord claims:
Even as a form of escape, the comic book allowed readers to fantasize about punishing real life wrongdoers. Since the Depression was the overriding concern of Americans during the 1930s, readers enjoyed seeing superheroes fight against those who exploited the bad times for their own financial benefit. For example, early characters such as the Green Lantern, Superman, and Batman often took on corrupt businessmen who mistreated poor and desperate workers in the late 1930s.
Soon (in comic books at least) ‘Winning the war’ went hand in hand with good defeating evil, always getting the girl and upholding Truth, Justice and the American way.
Batman, introduce in 1939, was seen on various covers holding guns, firing guns and handing over guns to troops.
In the spring of 1954 the publication of The Seduction of the Innocent, based on Jewish psychologist Frederic Wertham’s seven-year-long study of the effects of comic books on America’s youth. Dr. Wertham condemned most of the genre–especially crime and horror comics–for having contributed to juvenile delinquency. As the outcry following the publication of Seduction of the Innocent grew, so did the call for government intervention. The Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Committee on the Judiciary opened in Manhattan federal court on April 21, 1954. Bill Gaines had to cancel his entire line, except for MAD, which became a magazine to escape censorship.
Superhero TV Propaganda
Before the campy, high-tech 1960s TV version of Batman, Columbia produced this deadly serious theatrical serial The Batman, featuring the caped crusaders battling forces of evil on the home front. In the inaugural episode, “The Electrical Brain,” Batman and the Boy Wonder battle a Japanese agent, Prince Daka, who operates out of an abandoned Little Tokyo storefront exhibit depicting scenes of Japanese wartime atrocities. Except for the Japanese Cave of Horrors, the Little Tokyo district of Gotham City (a stand-in for Los Angeles rather than New York) has been entirely abandoned following a “wise government’s” decision to deport all persons of Japanese ancestry to concentration camps. Here, Daka leads a band of American collaborators in creating a “new order” loyal to Imperial Japan, through the development of such technologies as a death ray, electricity-induced mind control and some very sophisticated audio and video surveillance equipment. By contrast, Batman and Robin operate out of an entirely non-technological Bat Cave (populated by real bats) and oppose Daka’s sinister plans using only their fists. According to the demands of the genre, each episode ends with a cliffhanger, such as Batman being overpowered by Daka’s thugs and tossed from a rooftop) that is quickly resolved at the beginning of the following week’s episode.
The inversion of more recent tropes of technological proficiency in this iteration of the Batman franchise is worthy of note. While Batman’s failure to participate in the war effort abroad may be excused by his defense of the domestic homeland, perhaps the use of high-technology for mere crime-fighting would have been a more difficult sell to wartime movie audiences. The show’s narrative exposition is careful to justify Batman’s domestic activities, as well as the deportation and detention of Japanese-American citizens by the War Relocation Authority. Among the justifications for this otherwise constitutionally troubling government action was the possibility of domestic spies using amateur radio technology to communicate with Japanese submarines, a fear that is more than validated by the Daka’s technological mastery over electrical and radio technologies. The trope of Asian cultures’ propensity for “brainwashing” and mind-control is also underscored by Daka’s apparatus for turning patriotic American scientists and industrialists into obedient zombies controlled by radio signals.
Motion Picture WWII Propaganda
Unlike German films glorifying Hitler and the Nazis, U.S. propaganda had to be subtle. Elmer Davis, the journalist who headed the Office of War Information, said, according to Hollywood Goes to War: “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into most people’s minds is to let it go in through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize that they are being propagandized.” For example, crowd scenes might show women in uniform, teenagers would be participating in war activities, and businesses would display war posters.
To sum up how important movies were to Americans during the war, you only have to imagine peering into the theaters and seeing every seat filled. But perhaps Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall said it best, in a comment repeated in Projections of War. Marshall said the war had seen the development of two new weapons: the airplane and the motion picture.