Friday, September 22, 2006

Tonight I'm gonna party like it's 5767

Happy New Year and L'Chaim to all of SSTOL's Jewish readers! (You know who you are. At least, I hope you do.)

In celebration of Rosh Hashanah — which, for the benefit of my fellow goyim, begins tonight at sunset — today's Comic Art Friday celebrates heroes and heroines of the Hebrew persuasion. If you're an SSTOL regular, you've seen both of today's artworks on previous occasions, but feel welcome to enjoy them again on this New Year's Eve/Day (depending upon what time of day you read this).

This first piece is a favorite from my ever-growing "Common Elements" series, featuring pairs of unrelated heroes who share some factor in common. On the left, one of the most influential creations in the history of comics: Denny Colt, a.k.a. The Spirit. On the right, the first mainstream superheroine to openly acknowledge her Jewish faith: Katherine "Kitty" Pryde, a.k.a. Shadowcat, of the X-Men and Excalibur.

The common element I had in mind when putting Denny and Kitty together actually isn't their religion, but their code names. Early in her superheroic career, before settling on the Shadowcat identity (though she's often referred to in the comics simply by her real name) Kitty used the nom de guerre Sprite, which (not surprisingly) derives from the same linguistic root as Spirit.

When asked about The Spirit's background, his creator Will Eisner always stated that he never specifically thought of The Spirit as a Jewish character, and certainly never intended to portray him as such. However, the legendary cartoonist and comics historian Jules Feiffer, who began his career as Eisner's assistant, has written concerning the blue-suited hero, "His name may have been Denny Colt, but you knew it had been Cohen at some point."

Probably the most identifiably Jewish heroes in comics are the two pictured in the following drawing by longtime industry stalwart Rich Buckler. Another of my Common Elements pieces, this one portrays a clash of titans: The Thing (real name: Benjamin Jacob Grimm), the rock-skinned powerhouse of the Fantastic Four, and Sabra (real name: Ruth Bat-Seraph), the national superheroine of Israel.

Although Ben Grimm, the blue-eyed, ever-lovin' Thing, has been a major star in the superhero firmament since 1961, fans weren't universally aware that he was Jewish (though his name certainly offered a clue) until 2002, when writer Karl Kesel and artists Stuart Immonen and Scott Koblish created a Fantastic Four story designed to reveal Ben's religion to the world at large. In this tale (Fantastic Four, Volume 3, Issue 56), The Thing prays the Sh'ma, a Hebrew prayer customarily offered at death, over a wounded friend from his childhood, a shop owner named Sheckerberg. Later, after Sheckerberg recovers from his injuries Ben and the man share a poignant exchange:
Sheckerberg: It's good, too, to see that you haven't forgetten what you learned at temple, Benjamin. All these years in the news, they never mention you're Jewish. I thought maybe you were ashamed of it a little.

Ben: Nah, that ain't it. Anyone on the Internet can find out, if they want. It's just... I don't talk it up, is all. Figure there's enough trouble in this world without people thinkin' Jews are all monsters like me.
Which raises a point worth considering. Anyone who knows anything about the history of comic books in general, and the superhero genre specifically, knows that the founders of the industry were young Jewish men. The costumed hero by whom all others are measured, Superman, was the brainchild of a couple of Jewish kids from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Likewise, most of the linchpins in the Marvel Comics canon, from the Fantastic Four to the X-Men, were created by writer-editor Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber) and artist Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) — the latter of whom also cocreated (with another Jewish writer-artist, Joe Simon) Captain America in the early 1940s.

Yet, even though comics began as an industry overwhelmingly perpetuated by Jewish talent, it wasn't until relatively recently that there were any openly Jewish superheroes in mainstream comics. As we've seen, it took 40 years for Marvel Comics to officially acknowledge that one of their best-known and most beloved heroes was a Jew.

It's frightening to realize that the roots of bigotry burrow so deep into the American psyche that for decades, the authors of a popular entertainment medium couldn't promote to a general audience characters who openly shared their creators' heritage.

And that's your Comic Art Friday for this Rosh Hashanah 5767. L'Shana Tova!


2 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Blogger Joel offered these pearls of wisdom...

What a great post! Is there an award i the comic book industry for best post? I've got to find it.

11:00 PM  
Blogger MCF offered these pearls of wisdom...

Never knew that about Ben(had stopped collecting by then). I had some Hulk issues where he fought Sabra, her heritage more obvious.

I think the best use of Kitty's faith was a classic X-men where they fought Dracula. A cross only works for a devout Christian like Nightcrawler, and Wolverine making one with his claws does nothing since he's not a believer. A cross doesn't work for Kitty but when the vampire goes for her, he gets burned by the star of David around her neck.

7:42 AM  

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