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The significant role of American Jews in the fledgling comic book industry is already well documented, especially in the cases of creators such as Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Joe Simon, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, and Joe Kubert, who helped create the colorful mythology of heroes that now dominates much of popular culture. Harry Brod’s Superman Is Jewish? returns to this topic, but its title is slightly misleading. In this book, Brod does look at Superman, the first superhero, but he also offers a wide range of chapters that explore the breadth of ways that comics, past and present –in their broadest definition—may be read as Jewish.
Brod’s thesis differs from similar works that focus more on the Jewish men who imagined, wrote, and drew characters such as Superman, the Thing, and the Spirit, among many others. Brod instead argues, “we should be primarily looking at the work itself, not its creators” if only to avoid giving “everyone a blanket license” to equate a creator’s religious background or any one-off Jewish references in comics stories with actual narrative meaning. (xxii) Such a content-based approach to analysis allows Brod to make some interesting points as to what makes a comic [End Page 31] Jewish. With Superman, it is not then really the Orthodox background of his creators, but the combination of “the superman and the super nerd into a single character” that reveals an avatar for contrasting social types and masculinity that is very persuasively Jewish. (11)
Brod jumps through different chapters that range across Superman, the Marvel Comics bullpen, Will Eisner, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, though not always in strict chronological order. The result is a work that reads more like a series of essays–very engaging, well-written essays–structured around Brod’s plan of reading Jewishness through content. Brod does not expect his readers to know anything about his subject; he supplies just enough information to contextualize his readings, making the book a very good primer for both undergraduate and more scholarly readers new to the subject who are looking for an introduction into Judaic comic studies vis-à-vis history and practice. Some of Brod’s analysis might seem like old hat to seasoned comics readers, especially his discussion of Maus, but there is plenty of new work here to maintain a high level of interest. His analysis of Eisner’s monumental The Spirit is a refreshing example of fan passion fueling an excellent explanation of Eisner’s complicated technical skill. The author’s explication of Spider Man as a Jewish story might seem like a stretch to some readers, but it may work equally well to discuss the limits and questions of Brod’s content-only approach. His work on Superman as a Christ figure is also a little abrupt, but is very timely for audiences interested in debating the new Man of Steel film.
Readers who are already familiar with his subject will find Brod’s work most interesting in its discussion of MAD magazine, a short section on Harvey Pekar, and an excellent chapter on Joe Kubert. This section, titled “A Jew at War,” makes an engaging case for Kubert’s style as being noteworthy because it depicts a “human scale for the human body” that allows Kubert to successfully navigate the poignant, emotional narratives of war through the medium of comics. (134) With Kubert’s recent death in 2012, Brod’s inclusion of him speaks to the book’s contemporary relevance.
Brod ranges into some outer territory as well. He connects the practice of Jews making illustrated books, especially of Passover sequences, to the Moses trope of Superman’s origin as an orphan. Brod takes this idea even further in a lengthy discussion on how the “European Jewish modernist art movement” (as seen through the work of Marc Chagall), eventually fed into the graphic narrative of comics. (29) This discussion is speculative, but very provocative, and goes a long way to connect Brod’s...