After more than 70 years, Superman has finally come home. Not to the mythical planet Krypton, but to Berlin. For it was the Third Reich that decades ago helped inspire the birth of America’s comic book superheroes.
“Heroes, Freaks and Super-Rabbis”, a new exhibition of comic art at the Berlin Jewish museum, explores the hidden roots of today’s superheroes, many of whom were created by Jewish artists and writers in the US as a reaction to the rise of Fascism and Nazism.
Superman too was a refugee from a destroyed civilisation, but one able to take revenge for the destruction wreaked on his family and homeland. During the 1930s, Jews across Germany and Nazi-occupied countries found themselves almost powerless in the face of the Nazi leviathan. But the comic-book superheroes created by their American co-religionists used their superpowers to show that good could still triumph over evil, despite the grim news from Europe.
The superheroes’ Jewish creators, such as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, dreamt of an alternate reality where people were not judged by the colour of their skin, says Danny Fingeroth, a former editor of the Spiderman series, and author of Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us About Ourselves and Our Society.
“These were children of immigrants and they believed in an idealised world, where the powerful used their power on behalf of the weak. These characters were created largely by Jews, and they understood about having a secret identity, where you are one person at work, another with your friends and a third at home. It’s a very basic immigrant reflex.”
The superhero myth is an archetype of story-telling, one rooted in the very first human literature such as Samson in the Bible to Greek and Roman gods. Many Jewish writers have long been fascinated by the idea of physical prowess: Isaac Babel, for example, rode with the Cossacks during the Polish-Soviet war that followed the Bolshevik revolution. For some, Jews and physical power are still an unsettling combination. The comics showing brawny superheroes felling evil-doers certainly have a special resonance in Berlin.
Nowadays Spiderman and Batman are multi-million dollar franchises, with a myriad of film and marketing spin-offs. But it’s important to remember that superheroes such as Captain America were invented with an explicitly political agenda, says Fingeroth. Batman, whose dark vision of an urban dystopia still resonates today, first appeared in May 1939, a few months after Kristallnacht, the state-sponsored Nazi pogrom against the Jews.
At a time when much of the American establishment was firmly opposed to entering the war, Captain America, who was launched in spring 1941, was an intensely patriotic anti-fascist. His battles with his comic book enemies helped ensure that when the US did enter the war at the end of 1941, Americans were psychologically prepared. “All these characters were created in the shadow of Nazism. The super-hero is a benevolent vigilante,” says Fingeroth.