It is no secret that I love comic books.
When I was young I found comfort in the X-Men, a band of teenagers who upon reaching puberty discovered that they had mutations. Their newfound powers made them special and wonderful, but also made them outcasts to be persecuted and discriminated against. That I was struggling with being gay in a traditional Jewish community, and that the X-Men’s lead figures – Professor Xavier and Magneto – met while caring for Holocaust survivors in Haifa made the connection all the more compelling.
I came to appreciate that comics could, at their best, shine a light on our own narratives as a society. Through art and story, they had the potential to bring clarity to our own understanding of ourselves as a nation.
In 2006, Marvel’s ‘Civil War’ – when in the wake of an explosive mass casualty, the U.S. government enacted a “Superhuman Registration Act” and hero fought against hero over the question of civil liberties – was a singular artistic response to post-9/11 America. Captain America stood against registration and was assassinated, a powerful metaphor for America’s loss of innocence and the death of civil liberties in those challenging years.
I thought of this in recent weeks as two pieces crossed my desk.
Last week I had the pleasure of watching a new documentary, The Hebrew Superhero. This film explores the history of the Israeli comics scene. There are several interesting elements to it; one being that the early Israeli funny pages were – not unlike American Yiddish newspapers a century ago – far more focused on teaching Jews how to assume the identity of their brand new country, in this case, Israel. A second observation is that by and large, Israel doesn’t have homegrown superheroes akin to America’s Superman. The 1970’s ‘Sabraman’ barely had enough material to last five issues. Other characters of a similar bent were created or imported by Americans who already worked in the New York comics scene. As one of the artists in the film explains: “In Israel, everyone is the superhero.” This is the Israeli self-identity reflected in their comics, the average sabra who is tough, protecting their people every day, making sacrifices for the nation. Thus, despite the title of the film, while Israel has a rich and vibrant comic book scene, it isn’t at all like the big action superheroes we are most familiar with in the U.S.
Which brings me to a second recent item. There’s been a bit of controversy over the past month regarding Marvel Comics’ current Captain America. This latest iteration of the character is a black man who was the prior Captain’s sidekick (known to current movie goers as the Falcon), and has taken up his mentor’s shield. In the first few issues, he does battle with militia who are attacking people crossing the border from Mexico. Amidst the current wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric in American politics, some of those who espouse an ugly hatred toward newer Americans are outraged by this.
But here’s the thing: Captain America taking up of his shield for immigrants is in keeping with a long tradition of the character and of the Jewish community. It isn’t just that we were immigrants who experienced this ugly hatred once and should recognize it today, as Bend the Arc so pointedly conveys in a new TV ad. It’s also that this character, like so many American superheroes, was created by Jewish artists trying to articulate an idea of their own American identity in an earlier time. Superman was the new immigrant – from a bit farther away than the shtetls of Europe – with hidden strength; his birth name, before becoming American, was Kal-El, adapted from the Hebrew for “the voice of God.” The Captain was created in the 1930’s by these Jews to take up arms against fascism. The iconic cover art of ‘The Cap’ punching Hitler – before we ever entered World War II – will forever be a defining image of those early years of the comic industry.
As our artists took up their pens, they established a broader idea of American superheroes who, unlike their Israeli counterparts, really could leap tall buildings in a single bound. The Captain has always stood up for civil rights, for liberty, for immigrants, because that’s what our Jewish American community stands for.
In the current political landscape, where some seek to lead our nation away from being the welcoming society that the Jewish community has long embraced, it is time to remind ourselves that our real heroes aren’t in comic books. They are the artists who drew them, along with the men and women who inspired them. Time and again, these heroes made their voices heard fighting for the values that Emma Lazarus captured in her ‘New Colossus’; the enduring idea of America as a place for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” where the world’s homeless could come to find a new home.
As the Syrian refugee crisis continues, and as some in our nation seek to close the door on them and push out some of our newer residents, it is time for all of us to make our voices heard again in support of a compassionate country, ready again to welcome the stranger into a new home. It is time for all of us to be heroes again, super or otherwise.
P.S. You can catch the American premiere of The Hebrew Superhero this weekend at the Boston Jewish Film Festival.