on 31 October 2013
By a quirk of curious timing, Harry Brod's book on the Jewish roots of several American comic book superheroes appeared in print just a few months after Larry Tye's book "Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero", where the titles might imply some sort of competitive collision between the two books, which is not necessarily the case. Tye himself has addressed the question of the Jewish "roots" of Superman via its creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and has continued to do so in various newspaper commentaries and on book tours. In the case of Brod's book, his cheeky and snarky title does not imply that his own book is only about the single character of Superman, not at all. Brod's subtitle, which mentions "comic book superheroes", broadens his scope to encompass not just the Man of Steel, but a number of comic book creators and their creations, ranging from "Mad" magazine through the Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Sgt. Rock and the X-Men (Magneto in particular), and also including chapters about Will Eisner, Joe Kubert, Art Spiegelman, and Michael Chabon.
Brod does a good job of explaining how Jewish legends such as the Golem inform the creation of Superman and comparable heroes, as larger-than-life humans who are to help redeem society and weed out evil, as the Golem was meant to do. He also notes how later treatment of Superman essentially whitewashed out the Jewish "roots" of Superman to make him more "Christian" or "Christ-like" in his meanings and symbolism. Likewise, Brod's treatment of other aspects of comic book history touch on how not just past cultural and religious history, but also economic circumstances, led to such a striking Jewish influence early on in the history of American comics. He also goes beyond earlier superheroes in chapters on Art Spiegelman's "Maus" and on Israeli and European comics who use more explicitly Jewish themes in their work, certainly compared to earlier American comic book artists of decades earlier.
Brod is a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, but goes out of his way in this book to avoid academic jargon and to tell his story in as clear and accessible prose as possible. At times, IMHO, he leans a bit too far in his informal and chatty tone, when he "breaks the fourth wall" of history writing with his own personal memories or comments, bringing in the authorial "I", where normally the author does not intrude so personally. Other readers may not be quite so jarred by such passages compared to this reader. Also, you need to be aware that while there are footnotes after the main text, there is no index.
While this topic of the Jewish roots of American comic books isn't completely new, for those to whom this might be a new subject, this book makes a decent introduction.