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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

TOO JEW? OR NOT TOO JEW?

I recently wrote this mini-essay in response to a rather oversimplified meme lately, in which it's claimed that the superhero idiom as it manifested in comics' Goklen Age was somehow particularly Jewish.  To say the least, I disagree.

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Without downplaying the role of Jewish Americans in the history of super heroes, I don't think that the concept is "particularly Jewish."


I might agree to that if the super heroes had really appeared out of nowhere, like Athena from the head of Zeus. But they have very clear linkages to the heroes of crime and SF-adventure pulps that had been circulating for almost ten years previous (I say "almost" because although pulps had been around for a while, the publication of the SHADOW magazine in 1931 really kicked off a new spurt of pulps centered on particular heroes).

I've no great information on the ethnic background of the major writers of popular characters like the Shadow, Doc Savage, G-8 et al. Probably some were Jewish, but I tend to doubt that Jewish writers were as highly represented there (if only because I think someone would drawn attention to it by now!) Chances are that these pulp-creators were heavily Gentile, and they were formulating or re-formulating many of the basic storytelling tropes that comic books would use-- not least that of the super-powered hero seen in Burroughs' JOHN CARTER and Fearn's GOLDEN AMAZON. If you remember that the total number of super-powered heroes in the Golden Age is far smaller than that of the "costumed athletes" who follow the model of the Shadow and the Spider-- not least because the latter type was easier to conceive-- the indebtedness of the costumed-hero comics to the hero-pulps seems to me beyond question.



It's not that the heroic concept is intrinsically Jewish, or even especially influenced by then-contemporary Jewish history. It's more likely that Will Eisner's hypothesis is at the root of things: a lot of talented artists in New York suffered ethnic discrimination from the Gentile hierarchy that worked in advertising art and similar venues. Thus you had a lot of talented but hungry artists drawn toward comic books, that asked no questions about your family and background, but only wanted you to turn out lots and lots of work, albeit at meager rates-- and most of them imitated the then-reigning source of cheap fiction, the pulps. Similar things occured with Gentile creators as well, like Gardner Fox and Martin Nodell.


You can factor in some other things, like the fact that four-color comics were ideally suited for brightly colored heroes. But as far as the basic concept goes, no particular ethnicity has a lock on it, in my opinion.

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