By the early '70s, when I came of mainstream comic-book target-audience age, Superman, who my father assured me was once a respectable superhero, had become a dork. Or perhaps my father was favorably predisposed—after all, he and my mother had grown up in the same neighborhood and attended the same high school as Superman's creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Maybe Superman had really always been a dork. More likely, my impressions were the fault of the überdorklich 1950s television series Adventures of Superman, reruns of which had sent me changing the channel long before my first opportunity to close an open Superman comic book.
Much of the dorkiness was in the mainstream drawing style: comic books of that era were filled with so many superheroes doing so many super things, all rendered in similarly stiff lines and palettes. Once I'd been exposed to the complex, cynical treats of Mad magazine and the underground comics of R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and others, the adventures of a bland, straight-talking WASP-y superhero drawn with all the passion of an anatomy illustration couldn't hold my attention. And when the Superman movie came out, in 1978, I cared so little that I didn't notice it until 1992, and didn't watch it until 2006.
But what if Superman weren't a WASP? What if he were Jewish? Would that have mattered? What if I were a Jew?
Throughout my life, people have told me that I was a Jew, because people had told my parents the same thing. As far as I knew, I didn't have any religion. Religion, to precocious li'l Dave who'd read too much too soon, was the same as any other neurosis—believing that by trying to control something beyond your control, by repeating simple rituals that you can control, you'll somehow change the uncontrollable. Maybe it made sense when people thought that the world was flat; but it didn't seem relevant anymore.
"But it's not just a religion! It's a people!"
"Yes! Everyone hates us!"
"Oh. Okay, then. Sign me up."
"We already did!"
The whole Judaism-as-a-race concept seemed, well, racist. Sammy Davis Jr. had converted to Judaism—was he less Jewish than someone born into it? And one of my uncles had traveled to China and gone to a synagogue filled with hundreds of Jewish Chinese people, who looked just like other Chinese people. Were they less Jewish than Jews from the Middle East?
Whatever I was, having been dubbed a Jew, I became hypervigilant in the detection of other Jews. He a Jew? She a Jew? We look just like white people, except we have big noses and lots of money, right? (Except for my family, who had neither—or so they said!) My Jew-detection practice, however, was limited to nonfiction, live-action humans. Fictional characters requiring religion, I figured, would be so designated by either narration or speech balloons, or by the artist indicating it in some less obvious way—the wearing of a yarmulke, for example, or a lowercase "t" worn on a chain around the neck. Or perhaps one of the other characters might make some less apparent allusion. It first occurred to me that Phineas Phreak, one of Gilbert Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, might be Jewish judging by the facial expression of his buddy Freewheelin' Franklin remarking, "You don't look Texan," upon learning of Phineas' origins.
"What a nice man! Of course he's Jewish!"
—nice lady observing Superman's Niagara Falls rescue in Superman II
In the late 1930s, when Superman was first created, there was no "Up, up and awaaayy!!!" No radio announcer to bark, "SOO-PER-MAAAN!" So I propose the following: if you lived in a building where the neighbors downstairs were the Sudermans, the people down the hall were the Subermans, the Zuckermans and the Sugermans, and the only barking announcer was the one in your head, upon seeing Superman in Action Comics No. 1, you would not have pronounced the name Superman as "SOO-PER-MAAAN!" You'd have pronounced it "Superm'n."
Some historians believe that Superm'n was Jewish. They'll cite, as evidence, variations on the following notions:
Aha! No. 1. Superm'n was created by two Jewish kids, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, offspring of Jewish immigrants. And Jews make Jews.
Aha! No. 2. Superm'n's given name, Kal-El, sounds conspicuously Hebraic.
Aha! No. 3. Siegel and Shuster may or may not have been subliminally inspired by the legend of the Golem, mythical protector of persecuted Jews in 16th-century Prague.
Aha! No. 4. Superm'n's origins are awfully Moses-ish: parents placing Kal-El in a rocket bound for Earth; parents of Moses sending him downriver in a basket of reeds.
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Aha! No. 5. The story of Superm'n disguising himself as Clark Kent is the story of Jewish European immigrants trying to assimilate into the American mainstream without revealing their Secret Plan: that even though the tenets of Judaism discourage seeking out converts (because everyone, everywhere gets the same afterlife anyway), "the Jews" who control the media must spread their sinister Joogenda™ by corrupting America's Youth™ with bland superheroes, just as "the Christians" who control the nation's slaughterhouses and breweries must spread Kristie-Anna Tea™ via weekend barbecues.
Is Superm'n Jewish? Yes? No? Maybe? Don't know? Don't care? To me, it doesn't seem likely that anyone—fictional or nonfictional—who knows for certain that he was born into an advanced culture in a distant galaxy would have any reason to believe any of the locals' superstitions, one way or the other. Maybe Clark Kent's Jewish. But Superm'n? He's just a nice man.
Read Scott Foundas' review of Superman Returns.