As Michael Chabon details in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the comic book art form (and subsequent television shows and films) owes a debt of gratitude to Jews and the Jewish experience. From Shuster and Siegel to Joe Simon, Bob Kane and Will Eisner (to name a few) noteworthy superheroes sprung from the minds and pallets of Jewish creators, mapping their American Jewish experience onto colorful messiahs and golems galore. That’s why I was intrigued to learn a new reboot intends to “return Superman to his Jewish roots.” In recent years we’ve seen Superman transformed into a Christ-like figure, but his origins were both profoundly Jewish and distinctly American, trading his ethnic Hebrew name (Kal-El) for a wholesome Midwestern one (Clark Kent), traveling from a distant place to make his home like so many immigrants, even surviving the arduous journey as an infant in a Moses basket-like space craft.
Comic book movies have been riding high for some years now with Jews featuring prominently on occasion (2017’s Wonder Woman with Israeli actress Gal Gadot) but often less-conspicuously (e.g. 2018’s Black Panther). At the time of writing, Black Panther has just surpassed $1 Billion in gross sales. We took our kids to see the film in a packed theater the week it debuted. They’re big into superhero movies right now, and living as we do in our majority African American neighborhood, they were also excited to see a film featuring a hero who looks like their neighbors and friends.
We found ourselves sitting next to a black couple and their son. The little boy must have been no more than 7 years old and his mother kept covering his eyes during the more violent scenes. And yet, the way she would whisper to him during the film, pointing out the stately King T’Challa, the beautiful African landscape with its advanced civilization, the portrayal of strong women, it was clear it was she and her husband, not the boy, who were responsible for the film choice. They were showing Black Panther to their child the way Jewish parents show Exodus or Fiddler on the Roof to ours. It was a rite of passage, a glimpse at a slice of black culture the sentiments of which – black power, agency and ingenuity – were as real for them as they are fantasy for too many whites.
Black Panther, like so many other comic book heroes was the brainchild, in 1966, of two Jews, Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) and Stan Lee (Stanley Lieber). “Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who invented the character and… Wakanda, they were two Jewish-American artists…” says director Ryan Coogler, “and pulling from the things that they were seeing around them to make these stories.” In other words, they saw in this first mainstream black superhero, something analogous to the Jewish experience. Like Superman, Black Panther came from a mystical and powerful realm and was gifted the strength, wisdom and compassion to fight oppression and injustice. Over 5o years later, Coogler, a black man who grew up in Oakland, CA, says making the film “brought me closer to my roots.”
What does it mean for Jews to tell African American stories? It doesn’t mean we simply take credit for them, and we must be careful how we appropriate them. (A black Jew I know takes umbrage with Ashkenazi Jews singing Go Down Moses at their Seder table). And yet there’s something elegant in what Kirby and Lee were able to do in the 60’s, in the midst of the civil rights era. They paid attention to what they were hearing and seeing. They crafted a figure who could be shaped by future generations of artists, so that future generations of actors and film-makers could fashion something magical and fervently relevant, and future generations of African American movie-goers could introduce their children to a hero we can all be proud of.