Public Heroes, Secret Jews:Jewish Identity and Comic Books
"Who was that masked man?" was the common refrain of those who witnessed the Lone Ranger (John Reid) perform some heroic act or feat of derring-do. The Lone Ranger began in 1933 as a radio program, so it was up to the audience to imagine what the man and his mask looked like. By 1938 there was a syndicated comic strip, and in 1948 The Lone Ranger comic book series began its 145-issue run.1 These visual representations created the now iconic look of a man in a simple black domino mask, which was enough of a disguise that no one could recognize the man under the mask. Superman had already established that something as simple as removing or adding a pair of glasses could obscure a hero's identity, so the Lone Ranger's domino mask was more than sufficient as an act of subterfuge.
Putting on or taking off a mask is an almost sacred act within the pages of comic books. The mask is the thing that separates, protects, and creates the liminal space in which an alter ego exists. This essay is going to use what I am calling "masking theory" to think critically about both what it means to have a secret identity and how Jewish comic book characters have had their Jewishness masked and unmasked throughout their history. Masks do not all work the same way. Bruce Wayne wears a mask so that people do not know he is also Batman, but Clark Kent is the mask that Superman wears to hide his otherness. Characters don masks for many reasons, but the most common is to hide something about themselves that they do not think society would understand. Sometimes they are protecting the reputation and family of the "real person" under the mask, but not always. Superman hides in plain sight as Clark Kent just as Wonder Woman hides as Diana Prince; they hide their inhumanity while Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker (Spiderman) hide their humanity. The mask is always a defense mechanism, but what it is defending is not always the same thing. Masking theory, in this case, is focused not only on the characters but also the comic book authors themselves, and what we might infer about them based on what masks they apply to their creations. The masking and unmasking of Jewish characters speaks to what Rachel Kranson calls the "ambivalent embrace" of postwar American Jews and middle-class American identity.2 [End Page 53]
For this study I focus primarily on four characters: The Thing (Ben Grimm), Magneto (Max Eisenhardt), Ragman (Rory Regan), and Shadowcat (Kitty Pryde). Drawing on Tom Morris's work on secret identities, as well as other contemporary theories of comics and graphic novels, I argue that for three out of the four characters, it has been their Jewishness that has been their "secret identity" at least as much as their "real" name. I am beginning with The Thing because his mask is the least stereotypical. His identity was never a secret, so if (as Morris argues) a secret identity is an integral part of the superhero genre, The Thing allows us to ask what his secret might be. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Thing, and they and the other Jewish writers like them might have been masking themselves as they were masking their characters. While fear of exposure might have driven art to imitate life, secret identities are nevertheless powerful, in part because they open up space for more: more personality, more diversity, and more exceptionality. A character with two separate yet fully formed identities offers greater space for writers and artists to explore social and political issues, and yet there can be downsides to keeping certain parts of a character hidden, or masked.
In "The Secret of Secret Identities" Morris writes, "for most of the superheroes, a dual identity is primarily about masking. The costume and the superhero persona (from the Latin for 'mask,' or presentation) keep a secret."3 Masking is substantially different from both hiding and making invisible. Masking is about taking something obvious or apparent and covering it in such a way as to obscure it. Nevertheless, a mask does not remove the fundamental truth that lies beneath. Masking is generally about protection; masking tape, for example, protects the surface below from paint. Masking does not change what sits below the mask, and it does not remove it permanently. A mask simply diverts the eye (or the paint) for a brief time until it is removed, and the underlying reality is once again revealed, unchanged and unharmed. Therefore, when a superhero wears a mask the version of her that sits below the mask exists simultaneously with the version of her that wears the mask. She has not undergone a fundamental change by donning the mask. This is why masking is not an appropriate way to describe the difference between Bruce Banner and The Hulk; Banner is functionally gone when the Hulk is present, and vice versa. In masking you can only cover something, not eliminate it.
I want to push Morris's ideas even further. He sees secret identities in a narrow way. "Everyone knows who the Invisible Girl is," Morris writes, "It's Sue Storm. She doesn't try to hide her real identity. In the same way everyone knows that Reed Richards is Mr. Fantastic. They don't attempt to use their flashy outfits or catchy new names to mask their true, original identities."4 Sue Storm and Reed Richards are two members of the Fantastic Four. The third member of the team is Sue's brother Johnny, and the final member is Ben Grimm, a character who I will be further analyzing below. It is telling that Morris instinctively uses the two members of the team who, one could argue, have the least to hide in their "true, original identities." Sue and Reed [End Page 54] remain relatively human when they transform (most Fantastic Four artists depict Sue's invisibility by showing her same body shape rendered in bluish or opaque form), while Johnny and especially Ben become terrifying and even monstrous. They have much more to lose through exposure, and it is therefore unlikely that their identities being common knowledge means, as Morris speculates, that they have no mask at all.
In this, Ben Grimm is not alone. Monstrosity is an important part of what many comic book characters are masking. Many characters feel, rightly or not, that their other self is a monster, either physically or because of their powers. They feel "abnormal" and they therefore mask themselves to keep those they love from abandoning them. As Linda Ceriello writes, "the monster is deployed to symbolize that which threatens or has gone wrong in society or within an individual—that which, once 'fixed,' will result in the restoration of social order."5 The more monstrous a character's "other self" is, the more likely she or he will feel the need to hide, or mask, because there is an assumption of moral failing that accompanies monstrous bodies. Grimm, unlike the other members of the Fantastic Four, is stuck as The Thing permanently; he cannot mask his physical monstrosity. He is not masking his real name, and he cannot mask his monstrosity, so what is he masking? What is he keeping secret, or protecting from being associated with a monster such as him? Physical monstrosity, however, is not the only kind of monstrosity, and characters have often masked other perceived character flaws or weaknesses because of the perception of imperfection. Characters have masked queerness, for example, or ethnic difference and have "passed" as straight or "passed" as white as part of their masking. Grimm is one of many characters for whom masking, and passing, involved hidden or unproclaimed Jewishness as well.
In the following pages, I use "masking" to describe one common way that Jewish comic book writers and artists both conformed to and subverted social norms. In Disguised as Clark Kent, Danny Fingeroth writes, "as part of their assimilation into America, Jews became deeply involved in creating the modern myths that infuse our pop culture."6 Yet, he says, many of the Jewish creators of comic books argue that their personal Jewishness was not important, or that they were just telling universal stories: "According to this viewpoint, if there was any Jewish mythological basis for the superheroes that emerged from comics, it was fueled by the same Bible tales to which every child in Western society is exposed, as often as not in a nonreligious, nonethnic context."7 Stan Lee even tried to claim that the abundance of Jews in the comic book industry came as a surprise to him, or was something he had never noticed. When asked during an interview about whether his Jewishness informed his art, he responded, "you know, I have no idea. I never really thought of it. It is strange, when you mention it that the best-known characters were done by Jewish writers. I guess that is an odd thought."8 Artists and creators are constantly masking and revealing, whether they realize it or not. Masking theory is not just a literary tool; masking theory can be applied to any situation in which someone is choosing what to reveal [End Page 55] and Comic Books and when. It creates a language for a systematic critique of the way public figures chose what personal information to reveal, and when. By thinking about these choices in terms of what is being protected, or masked, and what is gained by removing a mask, we can approach the narrative of "coming out" in a theoretically constructive manner. There is a great deal of important information that can be gleaned (about both character and creator) by what a character reveals, what they mask, and when they are open or hidden about certain things.
Visible and invisible monstrosity drive characters to behave in certain ways in order to protect themselves and those about whom they care, and historically there have been many characters whose Jewishness was masked by their creators. I argue that this was not because Jewishness was seen as monstrous but because the creators were protecting the Jewish community from negative associations. Lee was born Stanley Lieber, and Jack Kirby was once Jacob Kurtzberg. As Arie Kaplan explains this phenomenon, "it would be easy to say that these people changed their names out of hatred for their own ethnicity. But that just isn't true."9 Kaplan argues that the name changes came from a fear of antisemitism, but interviews with Lee tell a different story.10 He often talked about the fact that he was "saving" his real name for his "Pulitzer Prize-winning Great American Novel."11 He changed his name because he did not want his real, Jewish name associated with something as lowbrow as comics. He once said, "People had no respect for comic books at all. Most parents didn't want their children to read [them]."12 Therefore, while many Jews undoubtedly changed their names out of fear of discrimination, there was also a sense from those within the comics community that what they were doing wasn't "good" art, and that it wasn't "good for the Jews." The movement from hidden to open Jewishness corresponds to other tendencies in American culture (Jewish and non), so while masking theory is derived from this analysis of comic books it can also offer a new way of thinking about public Jewishness more broadly.
The Comics Code and The American Dream
The origin story (to use comic book terminology) for masking theory comes out of several trends in post-World War II America. Two documents, published within months of each other, express the conflicting forces that would shape the development of the comic book industry as it moved into the pivotal "Silver Age," generally dated from 1956 to 1970. This was the period during which Lee13 and Kirby grew Marvel Comics into a juggernaut (no pun intended) and artists like Joe Kubert at DC Comics responded by changing their approach to match Marvel's. The documents were the first iteration of the Comics Code Authority in 1954 and Will Herbert's Protestant, Catholic, Jew in 1955.
In April 1954, in the face of growing fears about the dark, macabre, occult, and gruesome content of many comic books, the Senate Subcommittee [End Page 56] on Juvenile Delinquency convened a hearing on the comics industry to determine whether the government needed to step in and regulate the content. The major comics publishers decided to get ahead of the problem and self-regulate, much like the film industry had done with the Motion Picture Production Code (often called the "Hays Code") in the early 1930s. In the fall of 1954 the major publishers agreed on the first instantiation of the Comics Code Authority (CCA) guidelines.14 The CCA seal was a sign that nothing truly disturbing or immoral was depicted in an individual comic, and the hope was that by self-regulating they could keep Congress from imposing sanctions from above. The CCA addressed comics' image problem in two ways. First, it effectively forced the more objectionable publishers out of business. The horror and true crime series could not "clean up" their content enough to stay on the right side of the CCA, so those titles could not bear the CCA seal. Parents immediately began to look for the CCA seal, assuming it meant that the book contained largely wholesome content, so those publishers that could not—or would not—adhere to the CCA quickly folded.15 Secondly, it set standards that the remaining publishers promised to uphold, and as it was self-imposed, the idea was that they would keep each other accountable.16
The code was extensive, and in hindsight appears almost silly at points. Crime and criminals could not be presented sympathetically, and the details of a crime could never be shown. Policemen, judges, and government officials could not be mocked. Kidnapping could not be shown. No comic could have the word "horror" or "terror" in the title, and zombies, vampires, ghouls, and werewolves were prohibited. The code regulated dialogue, costumes, romance, and myriad other facets of storytelling. In addition, slipped in among the other rules was one sentence: "ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible."17 In and of itself this seems innocuous. Publishers, however, were so afraid of violating these standards that they often opted to omit certain topics altogether, rather than risk a title not receiving the CCA seal. Religion (and especially, it seems, Judaism) was one of the most feared taboos. Most of the comic creators and publishers were Jewish. David Zurawik writes about a similar phenomenon in regard to television, and argues that the reason there were no Jewish characters on television for the better part of thirty years was a fear of "surplus visibility" on the part of the Jewish network executives. Zurawik says that surplus visibility is, "the feeling among minority members and others that whatever members of that group say or do, it is too much and, moreover, they are being too conspicuous about it."18 As post-World War II Jews, Jewish television executives and writers were afraid to remind people they were there, much less that they were in power. Better to keep Jews hidden and under the radar, rather than potentially incite antisemitism.
This desire not to upset the status quo is intrinsic to the "tripartite" society Will Herberg described in 1955 when he wrote about the way the American Protestant majority had found balance with the Catholic and Jewish minorities. Herberg describes a Jewish community that, while not assimilating [End Page 57] per se, had taken pains to keep religious difference out of the public eye. "It is not difficult to understand," Herberg writes, "why an extreme secularism and 'separationism' should appeal to so many American Jews as a defensive necessity."19 There was safety in being part of the mainstream, but many Jews thought their position in the mainstream was tenuous, and depended on their apparent conformance when compared to the Protestant norm. This explains what was simultaneously happening in comics. Even after other religious characters had become popular, such as Daredevil (1964)20 and Nightcrawler (1975), both of whom have Catholicism as an important part of their backstory, publishers remained afraid to depict conceptually Jewish characters. As we will see in the case studies below, there were characters with coded or possible Jewish backstories but explicitly Jewish characters were essentially non-existent.
Thing Theory: The Case of Ben Grimm
These fears of surplus visibility and the reality of Jewish self-censorship created the environment within which Grimm came to life. When Lee created The Fantastic Four in 1961 he set out to change the narrative about superheroes. Superhero comics in the 1950s had been dominated by Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and a handful of others who conformed in one way or another to Morris's ideas about masking. Some of them put a mask on to be normal (like Superman and Wonder Woman), some of them put a mask on to be extraordinary (like Batman), but all live lives that are divided between their two selves—lives in which they deceive and lie to even those closest to them in an attempt to protect or shield them from the dangers that accompany being a caped crusader. Grant Morrison, in his comic book history Supergods, mentions that the normalcy of Lee's Silver Age creations was part of what made them sensational. "These new Marvel heroes … dressed like us, even though they had fantastic physical abilities … the exploration of their constantly shifting, always familiar family dynamic made them a perpetual motion story machine."21 The Fantastic Four, unlike the Superman- or Batman-style hero who kept his two selves separate, were open about their duality. The Fantastic Four were astronauts exposed to radiation on a mission, and they came back with new mutant abilities, so there was never a question of keeping their powers secret or having their new alter-egos be unknown. It was public record.
Sue Storm, The Invisible Girl, came back (as her name implies) with the ability to become invisible, while Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, gained the ability to stretch and contort his body to impossible degrees. If we use monstrosity as a metric for goodness, both Sue and Reed remain clear good guys. Sue is the least monstrous of the four as she simply moves between visible and beautiful, and invisible but ostensibly still beautiful. Reed's body does take on monstrous proportions at times, but his classically attractive face was rarely transformed. Johnny Storm, The Human Torch, becomes engulfed in [End Page 58] flames when he activates his powers, but when he turns them off he returns to his boyish good looks. Only Grimm, the pilot and fourth member of the team, is truly a monster—he becomes The Thing. As Morrison writes, "Ben drew the short straw as his reward for trying to prevent this whole insane escapade from ever taking place, when he transformed into the monstrous orange-plated Thing, unable to ever return to his human form."22
This is what makes Grimm such a compelling case study in secret identities. Like his teammates, everyone knows that Grimm is The Thing. However, just because everyone knows Grimm is The Thing that does not, as Morris speculates, mean that he is not still masking, not still covering up, and not still hiding elements of who he really is. Ben is the only one of the four who is stuck in his mutant, monstrous form. While Sue can be visible or invisible and Reed can have normal human proportions or elongated ones and Johnny can "flame on" or not, Ben is always The Thing, a giant rock monster who looks terrifying to villains and civilians alike. Morrison says that Reed, "quite rightly, blamed himself for Ben's shocking deformity and loss of a normal life," and the use of the word "deformity" speaks to the extent of Ben's loss of his old self.23 There is no possible return to normalcy for Ben—he is forever othered.
According to Morrison, in the Fantastic Four "the Marvel superhero was born: a hero who tussled not only with monsters and mad scientists, but also with relatable personal issues."24 Nevertheless, for all the Fantastic Four were depicted as a family, Ben was always sort of the odd man out. Sue and Johnny were siblings, and when Sue and Reed eventually got married it became even clearer that Ben was somehow not like them. Reed Richards and Sue Storm had their hyper-American alliterative names, and their phenotypically WASPish good looks, but Ben was different. The Thing is a giant protector, a nearly identical figure to the Golem of Prague, but that connection is left unspoken. As will be seen below, Rabbi Judah Loew's creation, The Golem, is a common theme in comic books, but in the case of The Thing the similarities are thematic and stylistic, not explicit. Even before the writers began to hint that there was more to Ben's background than the all-American pilot we first met, he stood apart.
In 2002 Marvel released a special, Ben-focused issue of The Fantastic Four called "Remembrance of Things Past."25 Ben returns to his roots, to Yancy Street in the Lower Manhattan neighborhood in which he grew up. The issue begins with a flashback to Ben's youth. He is running with a bad crowd, breaking windows, including one in the shop of Mr. Sheckerberg. Ben's older brother Danny tries to give the shopkeeper some money to forget the problem, but Sheckerberg calls them "hoodlums" and Ben stops Danny from assaulting the man by promising to work weekends in the shop to pay for the damage. The first few pages flit through scenes from Ben's childhood interspersed with silent panels of the adult Thing walking the empty streets. As we witness Ben and his mom getting the news that Danny has been killed in gang violence, the well-meaning police officer tells Ben that "God took him to a better place." Ben replies "but God left us here, didn't he?" Next, [End Page 59] we see a slightly older Ben getting his induction into the Yancy Street Gang, which required him to steal something from Sheckerberg. Ben holds up the old man's personal Star of David necklace, which he had swiped. The panel zooms in on Ben's eyes, and his hand holding the dull, gold necklace.
The comic then moves to the present, where an even older Sheckerberg tries to throw The Thing out of his shop, and The Thing responds "nice to see you too, Mr. Sheckerberg." The Thing says he is there to offer protection, which Sheckerberg tries to refuse. We flash back to teenage Ben, now the leader of the Yancy Street Gang, being abandoned by his friends and having them throw garbage on him since he moved in with his "fancy uncle the doctor" on his way to "become some hotshot pilot." As yet no one has said the "J word," but the clues are mounting. He targeted the Star of David; his uncle is a fancy doctor. Back in the present a "Bam! Pow!" superhero fight takes place, culminating in Sheckerberg falling down, possibly dead. The Thing goes to his limp body, saying "can't tell if he's breathin, don't hear nothing … me givin him CPR could crush him … Sheck could be dyin and I can't do nothin! No. No there is one thing. Lessee, been a while." At this point The Thing does the only thing he knows to do, which is to begin reciting the Shema. Sheckerberg recovers, they have some banter, and The Thing reveals that part of why he came back was to return the necklace he stole. He tells Sheckerberg "this doesn't mean I'm gonna start goin to temple again," but the implication is that he has reconnected with a lost part of himself.
Sheckerberg asks if the reason The Thing's Jewishness was never in the press is that he was ashamed. The Thing's response is quite telling: "Nah, that ain't it. Anyone on the internet can find it 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." Grimm's desire to keep his Jewishness separate from something he thinks is shameful mirrors Lee's changing his name to save his "real" name for "real" novels. Sheckerberg turns the idea of monstrosity back on itself, saying, "remember the tale of the Golem, Benjamin? He was a being made of clay—but he wasn't a monster." The Thing acknowledges that he has been masking, probably for many reasons, but at least one of them was because of his perceived monstrosity and the way that might affect other Jews. He sees himself as a horror, while Sheckerberg sees him as noble. On the final page The Thing scoops up Powderkeg, the villain he fought in the middle of the issue, who says to him "You're really Jewish?" The Thing responds "There a problem with that?" to which Powderkeg replies "No! No, it's just you don't look Jewish."
The heavy subject matter ends with a lighthearted joke, as a way of signaling that the revelation that The Thing is Jewish should not be taken by readers as anything serious. Yes, his secret Jewish identity has been revealed, but The Thing is still the same loveable pile of rocks he always has been. Rough, from the street, a former gang member, but also (we now know) Jewish. The revelation of The Thing's Jewishness is part of a larger movement toward embracing the things the Comics Code Authority previously obscured. By 2002 the CCA was all but dead. Although it did not disappear [End Page 60] entirely until 2011, fewer and fewer publishers worried about having the seal on their books, and almost no consumers made their buying decisions based on its presence or absence.26 Comics publishers no longer feared being accused of "mocking" religion by showing a gang member or criminal to be Jewish, and Jewish publishers and artists no longer feared overexposure if they included Jewish characters in their work.
Marvel has continued to lean into the opportunities offered by The Thing's new, not-so-secret identity. In 2006 they ran an issue called "Last Hand" in which The Thing is hosting a superhero poker night.27 The issue is largely an excuse for Marvel to have all of their favorite characters in one room, interacting in ways they never could in their own storylines. Two-thirds of the way through the issue, The Thing's girlfriend tells him he is going to win because "today you're the man" and we then flash back a few months. Sheckerberg is back, and he takes The Thing to temple (the one he said he was not going to start attending) to meet with Rabbi Lowenthal (is it a coincidence his name is so similar to the rabbi who created the Golem?). They ask him if he would like a bar mitzvah, since it has been thirteen years since his transformation into The Thing. He agrees, and says, "every weekend I wuz back in Shecky's store, getting some private one-on-one Sunday Schoolin … every weekday I wuz goin to Hebrew School … and every spare moment, I was practicing my torah and haftorah portions with Rabbi Lowenthal." The next page is an amazing image of a synagogue packed with superheroes—his aunt and uncle holding hands and crying—as The Thing stands on the bima in his tallis and kippah and gives a dvar torah about Job.
Grimm's secret identity was never his name. The Fantastic Four, as public figures with super powers, reset the paradigm in terms of what a secret identity was, or what one meant. Some claim that Lee and Kirby envisioned The Thing as Jewish from the outset in 1961, and while that appears to be true, at least for Kirby, the subsequent examples in this essay demonstrate why they would not have felt comfortable revealing that at the time.28 The Thing is a monster with a "shocking deformity" and under the rules of the CCA it is probable that Marvel Comics worried that revealing such a monster as Jewish could be construed as "ridicule." Furthermore, Stan Lee/Stanley Lieber, Jack Kirby/Jacob Kurtzberg, and the other Jewish comic creators, were all hiding in plain sight. The publication of Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in 2000 had certainly brought the conversation around Jewish comic book writers and their creations back into the zeitgeist, so that might be one of the things that led to The Thing's 2002 unmasking. Grimm is one of the best examples of a character whose Jewishness developed well into the history of the character as a way to humanize an otherwise inhuman character. The next example shows this "Jewishness as humanity" theme even more clearly. [End Page 61]
Earth's Most Powerful Supervillain: Magneto
Magneto is, in many ways, the best example of a character with a Jewish identity that dare not speak its name. When he first appeared in 1963 it was as the primary antagonist to the newly created super team the X-Men. In the mythology created by Lee and Kirby there are mutants among us, and their mutations usually manifest at puberty. Additionally,
not only was X-Men a resonant metaphor for adolescence, but it was also an allegory for prejudice. As society hated and feared them for being innately different than everyone else, the X-Men are a metaphor for the ethnic "other" (African Americans, Asians, Latinos, Jews, Muslims, and homosexuals, among others).29
Unlike the Fantastic Four, who were all-American and universal, the X-Men spoke to the outsider. Ironically, the feeling of being different or outside is every bit as universal as the Fantastic Four's hegemonic normalcy, and while the X-Men were not an immediate success, their readership grew steadily over the decades.
From the beginning a part of what made Magneto interesting as the adversary of The X-Men is that he and Charles Xavier, The X-Men's leader, both believed they were trying to help mutants. Xavier, Professor X, runs a school for mutant children, and "wants to organize and train mutants to serve the greater good of humanity, and hopes as a result to convince both communities they can live together in harmony."30 Xavier is an idealist, who refuses to give up on the idea that humans will come to appreciate mutants if the mutants can only become useful enough. There is a near codependent desperation to Xavier's approach when you look at it closely enough. His belief that someday, somehow, humans will accept and tolerate mutants—and until that day comes mutants have to do most of the heavy lifting in terms of repairing the relationship—carries with it a certain uncomfortable quality. It echoes a pervasive liberal, generally white narrative that sees minorities as needing to "meet the majority halfway" and change or minimize their differences in order to fit in with society. This is the mentality that gave us terms like "color blind" and "melting pot," both of which eliminate or obscure diversity to achieve harmony.
Magneto, on the other hand, "believes that humans have waged war against the mutant population and that mutants must respond in kind. His actions are all undertaken in the name of mutant freedom."31 The conflict between Charles Xavier and Magneto has been described as "a metaphor for Dr. Martin Luther King's ideological arguments with the militant activist Malcolm X."32 Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants are fighting for themselves against a world that has rejected them. They believe mutants to be genetically superior to humans, and that it is time for them to assume their rightful place as the alpha species on the planet. Magneto is not evil because he is bad, he is evil because he is fed up. Magneto did not arrive in 1963 with a fully formed backstory, but Marvel invested a great deal of time [End Page 62] and effort in making him into not just a supervillain but an antihero. Grant Morrison (who wrote an X-Men arc in 2001 and therefore knows the characters well) writes that Marvel, "had spent some considerable time developing the archvillain from his origins as a one-note terror merchant in 1963 to a sensitive romantic antihero."33
Part of this process of humanizing Magneto, as already seen with Ben Grimm, was the gradual revelation of Magneto's Jewishness. By the 1980s Magneto's rage against humanity had an origin: the Holocaust. While in most cases it would not be necessary to clarify that a survivor of Auschwitz was Jewish, Marvel actually hedged their bets. Magneto's wife Magda appeared in an issue of The Avengers in 1979, and we learn that she was a Holocaust survivor, although it is made explicit that she is Romani.34 In "I, Magneto" from 1981 Magneto acknowledges that he, too, was at Auschwitz and that his entire family was slaughtered.35 The comics do not clarify why Magneto was in the camps, so while he may be Jewish, he may also be Romani (or a member of any other persecuted group). In an X-Men arc in 1985, during which Professor X is missing and Magneto is actually leading the school, Magneto accompanies Jewish mutant Kitty Pryde to an event at the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC. Magneto comments that "then it was the Jews. My nightmare has ever been that tomorrow it will be mutants."36 Magneto's singular mention of Jews as the victims of the Nazis might be telling, or it might be because that is the focus of the Holocaust Museum. It is leading, but not a definitive expression of Jewishness. According to Chris Claremont they were being purposely cagey. In an interview he said:
The reason we decided to err on the side of tact, discretion, use whatever word you like, in that regard, was that we weren't playing with our character, per se. He was a pre-established character, a Stan character, a Stan/Jack character. So we didn't want to mess around with the core of his origin to that great an extent, certainly without getting a green light from Stan.37
The X-Men film franchise had bought into Magneto's Jewish backstory as early as 2000, but the comics steadily refused to confirm that narrative. Bryan Singer, the Jewish director of the first two X-Men films, has used the Holocaust as a frequent motif in his films. In X-Men, "Singer explicitly draws parallels between the Holocausts survived and connived by Magneto and chapters from U.S. history that resulted from mass hysteria and fear of groups allegedly posing a threat to the American way of life."38 Making Magneto explicitly Jewish on screen made artistic sense for Singer, but the fear of revealing something that significant about such a long-running comics character kept that backstory from making it onto the page. It was not until The Magneto Testament was published in 2008 that the comics finally acknowledged Magneto's Jewishness.
The Magneto Testament was a five issue, stand-alone arc published from September 2008 to February 2009. It detailed Magneto (sometimes going by the name Eric Lensherr, but in this iteration named Max Eisenhardt) as a young boy growing up in Nazi Germany. His affinity for metal is hinted at [End Page 63] throughout the five issues, and the writer leaves it up to the reader to decide whether, at one pivotal moment, Max survives a hail of bullets that kills the rest of his family just by luck, or because of a first outburst of mutant powers. Lee and Kirby, who created Magneto, were Jewish. Claremont, who spent years complicating Magneto and introduced the idea that he was in the camps, is Jewish. But it was Greg Pak and artist Carmine di Giandomenico, neither of whom is Jewish, who finally and definitively unmasked Magneto as a Jew. Jewish fear over surplus visibility, combined with a desire to keep the X-Men universal—and applicable to any persecuted outsider—kept the writers from unmasking either Magneto or themselves, until the weight of evidence was so overwhelming that to not admit Magneto was Jewish became more of a problem than admitting it.
Tatterdemalion Rising: The Ragman Cometh
Although you could argue that these examples represent the attitudes toward masking of Lee and Kirby almost exclusively, it was not only at Marvel that the Jewishness of comic book characters followed this pattern. Over at DC, Joe Kubert and Robert Kanigher, Jewish comic book writers the same age as Lee and Kirby, developed a new character: Ragman. Ragman #1 appeared in September of 1976, and anyone with knowledge of American Jewish history might have wondered if the character were Jewish. His name, Rory Regan, certainly was not, but his backstory was. Regan is the owner of a pawn shop called Rags n' Tatters, and in the first issue we learn that he opened the shop as a tribute to his father, who had been a "junkman."39 He wheeled a cart around New York City collecting rags and discarded items, which is an occupation commonly associated with Eastern European Jewish immigrants to New York.40
Kubert and Kanigher went on record that Ragman was explicitly not Jewish despite, like Magneto, having such a classically Jewish origin story. Ragman's initial run was just a five-issue mini-series, so his crypto-Judaism would have remained only speculation had DC not brought the character back in 1991. From 1985 to 1986 DC published a genre-changing series called The Crisis on Infinite Earths, which placed their characters in battle throughout the multiverse. This opened up innumerable narrative possibilities and opportunities to bring back previously discarded characters. One of these returnees was Ragman, this time with an extremely Jewish backstory. Harry Brod discusses this change in his book Superman Is Jewish? Brod argues that:
When The Thing came out a Jewish, it was the most notable such revelation in comics, but the oddest conversion from non-Jew to Jew [is] the Ragman … Kubert still says today that he and Kanigher had no intention of creating a Jewish character, but to me the later development of the character is a striking example of how the creator's background can manifest itself in the creation without the creator having explicitly intended it.41 [End Page 64]
The text on the cover of the first issue of the rebooted Ragman reads: "From The Ashes of the Warsaw Ghetto to the back alleys of Gotham City. … The Tatterdemalion of the Oppressed rises again."42 Ragman is still Rory Regan, he still runs the Rags n' Tatters pawn shop built on the junkman career of his father. He still becomes the Ragman after a brutal attack, only this time his attack is interwoven with the legend of the Golem of Prague. After Rory is shot and believes he is dying he has the same nightmare of his time in Vietnam that he has had several times previously in the issue. This time, however, he hears a voice saying to him "emet," Hebrew for "truth." Emet is the word used to bring life to the Golem of Prague, so its invocation here is a clue to those with knowledge of the Golem legend as to what is going to come.
After the emet/Golem dream, Rory awakes to discover that he nearly died, and that his father did die. He goes to the cemetery to find his father's grave and leaves a rock on the headstone, as is traditional for many Jews. The issue ends with Rory opening a box in his father's shop and finding a suit of rags. The following panel is a tombstone with emet carved upon it, and we are left with a full, black page broken up by bits of cloth as Rory becomes the Ragman in reality, and not just in his visions. As with "Remembrance of Things Past," this issue is saying that the main character is Jewish without significant (or in this case any) use of the word "Jew." A Jewishly literate reader would infer from the multiple references to the Warsaw Ghetto, the rocks on the headstone, and the emet motif that Rory Regan is Jewish in this iteration. None of those references, however, is so blatant that a reader unfamiliar with Judaism would definitively infer the character is Jewish.
The second issue contains no clues to Rory's Jewishness until the final pages.43 The emet motif returns, and when Rory sees it written inside the Ragman suit he exclaims, "There it is again! The Hebrew word for 'truth'! But what does it mean?? I've heard of the legend of the Golem … but I'm not a clay man with letters carved in my head! I'm only flesh and blood." In the bottom right-hand corner of the penultimate page we see the beginning of a response: "Oy, what a challenge I find myself facing!" The final page is a full-page image of a man in a yarmulke who tells Rory he is there to train him. The word "Jew" or "Jewish" has still not appeared, but this is an image that communicates to most readers, including those with minimal Jewish literacy, that Rory is Jewish.
The cover of the third issue is an image of the gate to Auschwitz, with its "Arbeit Macht Frei" logo in the center of the cover.44 The text on the cover reads, "It is Warsaw 1941—the people call for a hero to save them … and the first Ragman emerges to battle an evil he cannot defeat." The stranger from the end of the second issue tells Rory "I am your beloved rabbi! And you are my loyal apprentice," and on page three of the issue the authors retell the story of the creator of the original Golem, Rabbi Judah Loew, beginning with the words "In the ghettoes of Prague during the sixteenth century, life for Jews was less than ideal." It took that long for the word "Jew" to appear in print in relation to Ragman. As with The Thing and Magneto, Ragman's [End Page 65] unmasking as Jewish seemed inexplicably difficult for his creators. Kubert and Kanigher had no problem saying the first version of Ragman was not Jewish, but it was much harder for Robert Loren Fleming, the author of the second iteration, to articulate fully what was he was clearly hinting. In the tiny text of the editor's note at the end of Ragman #1 from 1991, DC Comics editor Kevin Dooley writes:
Finally, an odd coincidence. Leo Keil of Brookline, MA, commented in old #3's letter column, then named "Junk Mail": "Despite his non-Jewish name, Rory seems to me at least, to be the comics' first Jewish super-hero … I like the idea." E. Nelson Bridwell said Mr. Kanigher had stated, "If Rory was meant to be Jewish, he'd have a Jewish name … Rory is of Irish descent." Of course, being Jewish is more than a name, and that's not what Mr. Kanigher meant, but in this present version of RAGMAN, Rory is definitely Jewish, his powers heavily rooted in the Kabbala. Robert Loren Fleming will be writing the next issue's text, and should give you more specifics.
The authors and editors may have thought they were being obvious with Rory's unmasking as a Jewish hero, but in reality it still took them three months (if one was reading as the issues came out) to write the word "Jews" in the comic itself. By 1991 DC had already stopped including the CCA seal on their titles, so they were no longer bound by any of the CCA's guidelines. The apparent fear of coming down on the wrong side of the CCA was gone, and Fleming is not Jewish, so it is unlikely he had any concerns over Jewish surplus visibility. The slow unmasking of Rory Regan more likely represents an ongoing sense that making a character explicitly Jewish runs the risk of alienating some readers, so publishers and writers tiptoed around that particular identity marker, leaving religion "secret" as long as possible.
Shadowcat's Out of the Bag: Kitty Pryde's Bold Jewishness
The most notable exception to this rule of masking Jewish comic book characters is Kitty Pryde, a member of Marvel's X-Men. She was introduced in The Uncanny X-Men #129 in January of 1980, and the first time she is drawn she is very clearly wearing a small Star of David necklace.45 She was conceptually Jewish from her inception, and while some writers focused on her religion more than others did, her Jewishness has never been masked. Although Claremont would go on to be cagey about whether or not Magneto was Jewish—in part, as he claims, because Magneto was not his character originally—he had no such worries with Pryde. He created her and while, "not all writers of the X-Men have given attention to Kitty Pryde's Judaism … influential X-Men scribe Claremont (who created the character along with John Byrne) is one of the writers who most consistently portrays Kitty as a religious Jew."46
Pryde's Jewishness is not only visible, it is functional. She was thirteen when she first appeared in 1980, and because comic book time passes according [End Page 66] to the whims of the author, she remained a teenager for many years. In Uncanny X-Men #159, from July 1982, the team needs to rescue their team member Storm, who has fallen under the spell of Dracula.47 Kitty (or Shadowcat, as she comes to be known) is in Storm's bedroom when Dracula comes to claim his bride, and she does what any child who has seen a horror movie would do: she grabs a cross and tries to repel him with it. They are both shocked when it does not work, but Dracula tells her "Little fool, you have outsmarted yourself! The cross has no power over such as I if the wielder does not believe in it! You are no Christian but a Hebrew!" Wolverine similarly tries making a cross out of his blades later in the issue with the same result. Only Nightcrawler, who as mentioned above is canonically Catholic, is able to repel Dracula with a cross. Pryde, however, has other weapons at her disposal. When Dracula grabs her, her Star of David burns his flesh. The comic thus establishes that it is not the cross itself that works, it is the presence of any object in which the holder believes, so Pryde's Star works just as well as Nightcrawler's cross.
Shadowcat's explicit Jewishness had an impact on the Jewish unmasking of Magneto as well. It was her desire to attend the event at the Holocaust Museum that drew Magneto to attend.48 She was there on behalf of her grandparents, who were Holocaust survivors, to try to locate some of the people they knew in the camps and pass along messages about their loved ones. Magneto accompanied the teenager, so it was her Jewish history that pushed Marvel closer to unmasking Magneto. His choice to join the only conceptually Jewish member of the team at an event for Holocaust survivors was read by many people as an implicit admission that Magneto was Jewish, even as Marvel continued to try to claim he was not. Because Pryde never needed to be unmasked, Claremont and Marvel could gauge whether there was any backlash against a Jewish superhero. I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention that gender undoubtedly played a role here as well. Women and girls in comic books have not traditionally been as popular as men and boys, so whether they consciously considered this or not, they were taking less of a risk by creating a young, Jewish woman than they would be by "changing" a beloved male character like Magneto. Nevertheless, despite Pryde being the most recently created of the four characters in this study, she was the first one to be visibly Jewish. Each of her predecessors had a secret Jewish identity that required unmasking, while she and her Star of David stood Jewishly unmasked from her inception.
One of the reasons superheroes have been so popular and successful is their universalism. The idea was that any little boy (because let's face it comics were not written for girls initially) could see himself in these heroes. Anything that smacked of particularism, therefore, was anathema to comics. Jeffrey Johnson, in Super-History, said that what made the Fantastic [End Page 67] Four unique "was that they were more human than any other super-human that had preceded them; [they] fought super-menaces and stopped criminals, but they also bickered among themselves and faced personal problems that many readers could understand."49 Their universalism was their major selling point, and became the model of what Marvel and DC published for decades. Stan Lee believed readers wanted heroes like them, but he also thought that meant not making heroes like him, a Jewish kid from New York. So while Morris may be right that the Fantastic Four do not mask the difference between their private and super personae, The Thing, Magneto, and Ragman were still being masked by older Jewish fears of over-exposure. Kirby always thought The Thing was Jewish. Magneto was always the voice of those who had been oppressed and were not going to take it anymore. Ragman's backstory was Jewish in every detail except his decisively Irish name. The eventual unmasking of these characters built on decades of Jewish backstory elements and hints. Once fear of Jewish overexposure began to wane and non-Jewish writers began to develop some of these characters new Jewish storylines began to appear. As the number of characters with multicultural backgrounds grew, and it became clear that readers would tolerate and even welcome diversity in their heroes, the unmasking of Jewish characters became safe. Only Kitty Pryde wore her Jewishness on her body from the beginning, but her body was already not that of the imaginary adolescent boy the publishers saw as their target audience, so her religious difference had less potential downside.
Throughout the Silver Age of comics and into the Bronze Age (1970–1986) identity politics shaped comics publishing. DC and Marvel realized there was money to be made in characters who spoke to minority groups.50 Black Panther premiered in 1966. Red Wolf, the first Native American superhero, debuted in 1970. Hispanic villains were a comic book staple from the beginning, but by the mid-1960s Hispanic superheroes were becoming common. One by one, the publishers sought to include new cultures, backgrounds, and ethnicities. Yet despite the fact that the writers and executives were largely Jewish, the unmasking of Jewish characters lagged far behind the celebration of other cultures. From a monstrous golem with no apparent connection to Jewish folklore to a Holocaust survivor who was possibly Romani to an immigrant rag-and-junk peddler who was unnecessarily Irish, comic book writers wrote their Jewish histories into their stories, and then made conscious choices to mask the Jewish characters. It has taken decades to reveal the hidden Jewishness of many of these crypto-Jewish characters; the continued success of these characters after their unmasking shows that fears of either the CCA or surplus visibility long outstayed their necessity.
Jennifer Caplan is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Program Director for Jewish Studies at Towson University. Her research focuses on American Judaism and various elements of popular culture. She publishes on film, television, comics and graphic novels, stand-up comedy, and other forms of contemporary media. Her forthcoming book on American Jewish comedy is set to be published by Wayne State University Press. She received her PhD from Syracuse University and her BA and MTS from Wellesley College and Harvard Divinity School, respectively.
1. Jeffery K. Johnson, Super-History: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society (Jefferson: McFarland, 2012), 11.
2. Rachel Kranson, Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
3. Tom Morris, "The Secret of Secret Identities," in Superheroes and Philosophy, eds., Tom Morris and Matt Morris (Chicago: Open Court, 2005), 254.
4. Ibid., 252.
5. Linda C. Ceriello, "The Big Bad and the Big 'Aha!': Metamodern Monsters as Transformational Figures of Instability," Holy Monsters, Sacred Grotesques: Monstrosity and Religion in Europe and the United States, ed. Michael E. Heyes (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2018), 207.
6. Danny Fingeroth, Disguised as Clark Kent (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007), 23.
7. Ibid., 24.
8. Harry Brod, Superman is Jewish? How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish American Way (New York: Free Press, 2012), 90.
9. Arie Kaplan, From Krakow to Krypton (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Service, 2008), 29–30.
10. For an extensive study of the many reasons Jews had to change their names, see Kirsten Fermaglich, A Rosenberg by Any Other Name (New York: New York University Press, 2018).
11. Stan Lee and George Mair, Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee (New York: Fireside, 2002), 26.
12. David Sims, "Stan Lee Was Synonymous With American Superhero Comics," The Atlantic, November 12, 2018, accessed January 6, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/11/stan-lee-marvel-comics-dies/575638/.
13. Marvel Comics had existed in some form since the late 1930s, but Lee took over as editor in the early 1960s and in 1961 launched The Fantastic Four, which is considered the title that revolutionized the medium.
14. Kaplan, From Krakow to Krypton, 77.
15. Fingeroth, Disguised as Clark Kent, 75.
16. Johnson, Super-History, 80–81.
18. David Zurawick, The Jews of Prime Time (Lebanon: University Press of New England, 2003), 6.
19. Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), 239.
20. Daredevil's Catholicism is an interesting parallel to the Jewish story in this essay. He was created by Stan Lee, and although is Irish, and therefore one might assume Catholic, that is not ever mentioned. It was only when Tony Isabella, a Catholic himself, took over writing Daredevil that explicit connections to Catholicism entered the storyline (beginning in issue #119 from March, 1975). Frank Miller, also Catholic, later made Daredevil's Catholicism central to the character, so it is interesting that the religious revelation here seems to run directly against the sequence of events with Jewish characters.
21. Grant Morrison, Supergods (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2012), 91.
22. Ibid., 93.
25. Karl Kessel, Fantastic Four #56 (New York: Marvel Comics, 2002).
26. Amy Kiste Nyberg, "Comics Code History: The Seal of Approval," CBLDF.org, accessed June 26, 2019, http://cbldf,org/comics-code-history-the-seal-of-approval/.
27. Dan Slott, The Thing #8 (New York: Marvel Comics, 2006).
28. "The Religious Affiliation of Comic Book Character Ben Grimm: The Thing of the Fantastic Four," Adherents.com, accessed June 26, 2019, https://www.adherents.com/lit/comics/Thing.html. See also Brod, Superman is Jewish?, 89.
29. Kaplan, From Krakow to Krypton, 113.
30. Rebecca Housel, "Myth, Morality, and the Women of the X-Men," in Superheroes and Philosophy, eds. Tom Morris and Matt Morris (Chicago: Open Court, 2005), 76.
32. Kaplan, From Krakow to Krypton, 115.
33. Morrison, Supergods, 357.
34. David Michelinie, The Avengers #186 (New York: Marvel Comics, 1979).
35. Chris Claremont, The Uncanny X-Men #150 (New York: Marvel Comics, 1981).
36. Chris Claremont, The Uncanny X-Men #199 (New York: Marvel Comics, 1985), 13.
37. As quoted in Abraham Reisman, "How Magneto Became Jewish," Vulture.com, June 5, 2019, accessed June 12, 2019, https://www.vulture.com/2019/06/dark-phoenix-how-the-xmen-magneto-became-jewish.html?sfns=xmwa.
38. Lawrence Baron, "X-Men as J Men: The Jewish Subtext of a Comic Book Movie," Shofar 22:1 (Fall 2003): 44–52.
39. Bob Kanigher, Ragman #1 (New York: DC Comics, 1976).
40. See Hasia Diner, Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migrations to the New World and the Peddlers Who Forged the Way (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 177–178.
41. Brod, Superman is Jewish?, 134–135.
42. Robert Loren Fleming, Ragman #1 (New York: DC Comics, 1991).
43. Robert Loren Fleming, Ragman #2 (New York: DC Comics, 1991).
44. Robert Loren Fleming, Ragman #3 (New York: DC Comics, 1991).
45. Chris Claremont, The Uncanny X-Men #129 (New York: Marvel Comics, 1980).
46. "The Religious Affiliation of Comic Book Character Kitty Pryde," Adherents.com, accessed June 17, 2019, http://www.adherents.com/lit/comics/Shadowcat.html.
47. Chris Claremont, The Uncanny X-Men #159 (New York: Marvel Comics, 1982),
48. Claremont, Uncanny X-Men #199.
49. Johnson, Super-History, 92.
50. The biggest counter-example is LGBTQI representation. There have long been queer-coded characters, but they were either villains, jokes, or simply closeted until quite recently. It has taken into the twenty-first century for queer characters in comics to become normalized.