Comics hero Frank Miller wants a Superman who ‘confronts his Jewish roots’


The Jewish history of Superman is well known. Jewish writer Jerry Siegel — who co-created the iconic comic book character with Jewish illustrator Joe Shuster — once said he conceived of Superman after reading about the “slaughter of helpless, oppressed Jews” in Nazi Europe.

The character’s original name from his home planet of Krypton is Kal-El, which sounds very Hebrew (the Hebrew suffix “El,” which comes at the end of many biblical names, like Rachel or Daniel, is an ancient word for God). And in one of the earliest Superman comics, the Man of Steel fulfills a very Jewish fantasy: He captures both Hitler and Stalin and brings them to the League of Nations, where they are tried for war crimes.

More recent iterations of the Superman franchise haven’t alluded to these and other Jewish roots — but famed comic book writer Frank Miller wants to change that.

Miller, whose is known for his work on influential series such as “Sin City,” “300” and “The Dark Knight Returns,” told Inverse at New York’s Comic-Con on Friday that Superman needs to “confront his Jewish roots again.”

“He has a history in World War II, and I’d like to put him there again,” Miller said, alluding to Siegel’s origin story. “Superman needs to confront his Jewish roots, and I’d like to write that. I’d like to have him face a death camp.”

Miller is often credited with introducing the darker style and tone typical of most modern superhero narratives. His popular work on “The Dark Knight” — his characterization of Batman as a conflicted, haunted crime fighter —  is typical of his bringing adult themes to the world of comic books. Miller has created stories around Superman, but without the depth he says he brought to Batman. If Miller decides to focus on a Superman narrative, it seems like it could be full of Jewish history.

“I wrote Superman as a foil for Batman, but I want to write his story too,” Miller said.

Gal Gadot on Wonder Woman casting


Gal Gadot, the Israeli supermodel recently cast as Wonder Woman in the upcoming movie “Man of Steel,” opened up on an Israeli talk show about her new role.

The slender Gadot has received significant criticism from Wonder Woman fans about her physique. Some claim she is too thin and too flat-chested to properly embody the iconic superheroine.

“I represent the Wonder Woman of the new world,” she told the Israeli program ‘Good Evening with Guy Pines.’ “Breasts … anyone can buy for 9,000 shekels and everything is fine.”

Gadot also delved into her character’s backstory. In her comic book incarnation, Wonder Woman’s secret identity is Princess Diana of Themyscira, a princess of the Amazons, a fierce race of warrior women who lived near the Don River in contemporary Russia. In some iterations of the myth, Amazons cut off their right breasts in order to throw their javelins with greater accuracy — a fact Gadot picked up on in her interview.

“By the way, Wonder Woman is Amazonian, and historically accurate Amazonian women actually had only one breast. So, if I’d really go ‘by the book’ … it’d be problematic,” Gadot said.

She added that she plans to work out with weights in order to gain the extra muscle required for the role.

You know you’re a boomer if …


— You grew up believing that eating all your vegetables would help starving children in China.

— You took an Iowa Test with a No. 2 pencil in school … and that’s all you ever knew about Iowa.

— When you were a child, your favorite television shows were hosted by clowns, cowboys or hand puppets.

— Growing up, you spent Saturday mornings watching cartoons, Saturday afternoons at a matinee movie and Saturday evenings playing outside.

— You know George Reeves is the real Superman and Clayton Moore is the only Lone Ranger.

— You remember TV stations signing off the air at night with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and starting each day with test patterns.

— Somewhere in the back of your closet you have a pair of bellbottom pants, a paisley blouse or platform shoes.

— Your memories of “tripping the light fantastic” have nothing to do with dancing.

— You know how to do the Teaberry Shuffle.

— You once thought guys with mullets were cool.

— The notion that gas would cost more than 50 cents a gallon someday was ridiculous.

— Hitchhiking was once an acceptable form of transportation to you.

— Your current mail consists of AARP newsletters, Cialis coupons and Amberen samples.

Jewish roots of the ‘Man of Steel’


Seventy-five years after bursting into the world of comic books, something still feels Jewish about Superman.

That’s not just because he was created by two Jewish teens from Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, who debuted comic books’ first costumed superhero in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics No. 1.

From his Kryptonian name to biblical similarities, Superman and his story — which will be mined again for box office gold in Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” opening June 14 — offered plenty to discuss during a June 2 panel discussion at the Skirball Cultural Center, “Superman at 75: A Jewish Hero for All Time”

The event featured Richard Donner, director of the beloved 1978 original film starring Christopher Reeves; actor Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen of TV’s “Adventures of Superman” (1952-1958); and Geoff Johns, chief creative officer at DC Comics. Larry Tye, author of the 2012 book “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero,” moderated.

“Our program was just what I’d hoped,” Tye told the Journal a week later. “Having three of Superman’s most eloquent and passionate defenders, from three different generations, explain why they love him, and why the world does.”

The discussion came just as Warner Bros., parent company of DC Comics, the publisher of Superman comics, prepared to unspool yet another incarnation of that familiar tale about the Man of Steel. It’s the story of a humanoid alien — survivor of the dying planet Krypton — who arrives on Earth, where he gains superpowers from the sun, assumes the secret identity of journalist Clark Kent and engages in a love triangle with fellow reporter Lois Lane and, well, himself.

[Related: Six reasons Superman is Jesus in “Man of Steel”]

At one point during the Skirball event, Tye — fresh off a lecture tour that included Temple Beth El in San Pedro and Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills — asked the audience what religion Superman is. He answered that all faiths read their own interpretation of him.  

In his later conversation with the Journal, the Boston-based Tye discussed the Judaism encoded in the Superman mythos.

“The evidence of Superman’s ethnic origin starts with Kal-El, his Kryptonian name,” Tye said. “ ‘El’ means God. ‘Kal’ is similar to the Hebrew words for voice and vessel. Together, they suggest that the alien superbaby was not just a Jew, but a very special one; like Moses.”

Tye also sees parallels between the Torah and Siegel and Shuster’s groundbreaking creation, originally drawn on a breadboard the latter’s mother rolled her challah dough on for Shabbat. For example, he compares the superhero’s rocketship escape as an infant from Krypton to the story of baby Moses floating down the Nile in a basket in Exodus.

Larry Tye. Photo by Elisabeth Frusztajer

Even Superman’s “American” ideals are very Jewish.

“The three legs of the Superman myth — truth, justice and the American way — are straight out of the Mishnah,” Tye said. “ ‘The world,’ it reads, ‘endures on three things: justice, truth and peace.’ ”

“Man of Steel,” the cinematic version of the superhero’s story that flies into multiplexes this weekend, is already tracking to deliver a $100 million opening weekend, with Snyder’s interpretation of Krypton’s last son appearing to embrace the Siegel and Shuster era’s sci-fi roots.

But back in the ’70s, Donner said he initially balked at the script that arrived at his home with a Superman costume.

“I was brought up with Superman, and this was a parody of a parody of a parody,” he told the Skirball audience.

One scene, he said, involved Superman seeking the bald villain Lex Luthor, but the person he finds turns around revealing himself to be Telly Savalas, offering him a lollipop and quipping his trademark, “Who loves ya, baby?” 

Donner said his reaction was: “God! What are they doing? They’re destroying Superman!”

He insisted on rewriting the script, but his writing partner, Tom Mankiewicz, hung up on him the first time Donner told him the “perfect project.” After much convincing, Mankiewicz came to Donner’s house to discuss the project.

“In those days, I had a little bit of weed in the ash tray,” Donner recalled. “It was Sunday after all. I lit up and put on the costume.” 

He greeted Mankiewicz while wearing the outfit.

“I had to pull him out of his car, he wouldn’t get out!” Donner said, laughing.

After Mankiewicz agreed to the project, they knew what they had to do.

“This was sacrilegious,” Donner said. “You don’t mess with Superman.”

“Verisimilitude” became Donner’s buzz word: “It had to have a sense of reality,” he said regarding the secret to pulling off the movie’s mix of comic book action and humanity. “You could laugh with it but not at it.”

Johns said that the movie changed his life.

“I don’t think there would be any superhero movies [without ‘Superman’],” he said. “Everyone cites it as the birth of the modern superhero movie. It’s actually still the best.”

Tye said he is optimistic about the chances of this year’s reboot to outperform 2007’s lackluster “Superman Returns,” “even if [the star, Henry] Cavill, is a Brit playing an all-American hero, and even if Superman has, heaven forbid, stopped wearing his underpants on top of his tights.”

As for Superman’s late creators, they were famously cut out of the billions their creation raked in for Warner Bros. via comics, movies and merchandise, and spent their lives fighting in the courts, trying to right the lopsided work-for-hire contract they had signed. Last October, a federal district judge ruled that Shuster’s heirs had signed away their rights to Superman in 1992. Three months later, a U.S. appellate panel said Siegel’s heirs must adhere to the agreement they made with Warner Bros. in 2001, which made them give up claims to the character.

Tye believes he knows why Superman, as his book’s title suggests, continues to entertain and inspire.

“He is neither cynical like Batman nor fraught like Spider-Man,” Tye explained. “For the religious, he can reinforce whatever faith they profess; for nonbelievers, he is a secular messiah. The more jaded the era, the more we have been suckered back to his clunky familiarity. So what if the upshot of his adventures is as predictable as with Sherlock Holmes? The good guy never loses. That’s reassuring.

Calendar Picks and Clicks: June 1-7, 2013


SAT JUNE 1 

LOS ANGELES JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL 

More than 20 dramas, documentaries, comedies, foreign language films and shorts will be shown at seven venues from Thousand Oaks to Beverly Hills. Highlights at the eighth annual L.A. Jewish Film Festival include tonight’s star-studded opening-night gala celebration with the premiere of the comedy “Putzel,” starring Susie Essman (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and Melanie Lynskey (“Two and a Half Men”); “Neil Diamond: Solitary Man,” a documentary on the music icon; “Becoming Henry/Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir,” with Polanski addressing every aspect of his celebrated and controversial life; “My Father and the Man in Black,” the untold story of Johnny Cash and his talented but troubled manager; and “When Comedy Went to School,” the closing-night film, which presents an entertaining portrait of the country’s greatest generation of comedians. A program of the Jewish Journal. Sat. Through June 6. Various times, locations. $40 (opening-night gala), $7-$12 (films). (213) 368-1661. lajfilmfest.org.

“ON SACRED GROUND” 

Rabbi Anne Brener, a psychotherapist and director of spiritual development at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California; the Rev. Janet Bregar, a pastor of Westwood’s Village Lutheran Church; and the Rev. Tom Eggebeen, interim pastor at Hawthorne’s Calvary Presbyterian Church, reflect on the passages from the Five Books of Moses that guide their lives. Jeff Bernhardt, editor of “On Sacred Ground,” moderates. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom hosts. Sat. 12:30 p.m. Free. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000. vbs.org.

“FIRST TAKE” 

The Industry, Los Angeles’ home for new and experimental opera, presents this showcase of excerpts from six new operatic works-in-progress. Included are Brooklyn composer Aaron Siegel’s “Brother Brother,” an operatic work for percussion, strings, choir, soloists and actors that explores the enigma of brotherhood, and “Pierrot Lunaire,” a new theatrical song cycle by rising star composer Mohammed Fairouz with libretto by cultural critic and poet Wayne Koestenbaum (“The Anatomy of Harpo Marx”). The performances feature the modern music collective wild Up, conducted by Christopher Rountree and The Industry’s music director, Marc Lowenstein. Sat. 2 p.m. Free. Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 443-7000. hammer.ucla.edu.


SUN JUNE 2 

SORO COMMUNITY FESTIVAL 

This annual gathering near Pico-Robertson builds bridges among local neighbors, businesses and nonprofits, and celebrates the cultural diversity of the community. This year, the 16th annual SoRo (South Robertson) Festival features a variety of L.A.’s hottest gourmet food trucks, including Kosher Grill on Wheels; more than 60 vendors, with the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles and ORT America among them; a boutique with Jewish artwork for sale; live musical entertainment and dancing. Attractions for children include a rock climbing wall, arts and crafts, and more. Sun. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Free. South Robertson Boulevard, between Cattaraugus Avenue and Beverlywood Street (just north of the 10 Freeway at the Robertson Boulevard exit). (310) 295-9920. soronc.org.

JTEENLA FILMFEST: “TELLING THE JEWISH STORY”

JTeenLA’s “Telling the Jewish Story” showcases a diverse range of short films from Southland students. Halston Sage of Nickelodeon’s “How to Rock” introduces the festival, and a teen filmmaker panel and reception follow the screenings. A program of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, BJE — Builders of Jewish Education and The Righteous Conversations Project. Sun. 3 p.m. $6 (students, seniors), $8 (adults). Laemmle’s Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (213) 368-1661. lajfilmfest.org.

“SUPERMAN AT 75: A JEWISH HERO FOR ALL TIME” 

For those who are curious about Superman’s Kryptonian name, Kal-El, which is Hebrew for “vessel of God,” or who have ever wondered why the origin story of the world’s first superhero seems like it’s straight out of the Book of Exodus, today’s discussion explores the Man of Steel’s Jewish roots. Marking 75 years since Superman debuted in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics, Larry Tye, author of “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero,” the first full-fledged bio of Superman; Geoff Johns, chief creative officer at DC Comics; Jack Larson, television’s original Jimmy Olsen; and “Superman” director Richard Donner appear in conversation. A Q-and-A and book signing follow. Sun. 2 p.m. $8 (general), $6 (members), $5 (full-time students). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.


WED JUNE 5 

“INSIDE JEWISH TURKEY” 

If you’re interested in learning about Turkey’s Jewish community, which has a long history of self-sufficiency, don’t miss tonight’s shmoozefest, featuring young Jewish voices from Turkey discussing their traditions, triumphs and challenges, which continue to define their community. Organized by Entwine, the young adults outreach movement of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and presented in association with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Wed. 7-10 p.m. Free. Mama’s Secret Bakery & Cafe, 8314-8316 W. Third St., Los Angeles. jewishturkeyla.eventbrite.com.


FRI JUNE 7 

“HANNAH ARENDT”

Margarethe von Trotta’s biopic stars Barbara Sukowa as the influential German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist Arendt. Using footage from the 1961 Adolf Eichmann trial — during which Arendt introduced her now-famous concept of “the Banality of Evil” in her controversial reporting of the trial for The New Yorker — and weaving a narrative that spans three countries, von Trotta turns the invisible passion for thought into immersive and dramatic cinema. Fri. Various times. $11 (general), $8 (children under 12, seniors). Laemmle Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. Laemmle Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Laemmle Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. (310) 478-3836. laemmle.com.

Superman is Jewish?: People of the comic book


Nothing is quite so purely American as the comic book, which is why it will come as a surprise to some readers to discover that philosopher Harry Brod regards Superman and Spider-Man and many other comic-book characters to be uniquely Jewish artifacts that offer crucial insights into the Jewish experience in America.

“For it turns out that the history of the Jews and comic book superheroes, that very American invention, is the history of Jews and America, particularly the history of Jewish assimilation into the mainstream of American culture,” Brod writes in “Superman Is Jewish?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way” by Harry Brod (Free Press: $25).

Brod, a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of Northern Iowa, affirms that his own path into the life of the mind began with a childhood passion for comic books. 

“I attribute much of my motivation to become a philosopher by profession to my early reading of science fiction and comic books,” he explains. “The world need not be as it was. There were alterative possibilities, reached not by fantasy but by rational extension of the world we knew. ‘What if…’ became a guiding question for me, and wanting to think that through became second nature.”

The Jewish origins of our superheroes, according to Brod, do not begin and end with the fact that so many of the writers and artists who created them were Jewish. Rather, he detects the influence of characters from Jewish folktales — the golem and the dybbuk — as well as “Jewish traditions of Talmudic disputation.” Nor is it a coincidence that so many Jews found a showcase for their sensibilities in the pages of comic books: “We couldn’t get into newspaper strips or advertising; ad agencies wouldn’t hire a Jew,” recalls Al Jaffee, a longtime cartoonist for Mad magazine. “One of the reasons we Jews drifted into the comic-book business is that most of the comic-book publishers were Jewish. So there was no discrimination there.”

Then, too, he teases out the Jewish values, aspirations and anxieties that are sometimes deeply encoded in comic book characters. Superman, for example, can be seen as “an alien immigrant from another planet.” The Incredible Hulk, a latter-day golem conjured by Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), turns into a “man-monster” when he gets angry: “Is it too much to speculate that in the Lieber household it was perhaps impressed upon young Stanley that nice Jewish boys don’t get angry,” muses Brod, “that they’re supposed to be, dare we say it, ‘mild mannered,’ like our old friend Clark Kent?” Spider-Man “is a post-Holocaust American Jew,” writes Brod, “and the guilt that plagues and motivates him is a specific post-Holocaust American Jewish guilt.”

Brod, an intellectual whose gifts include a lively sense of humor, is perfectly willing to invoke a Jewish joke to make the point. “It is hard to resist — too hard for me, in fact — quoting Zeddy Lawrence here: ‘It may not be true in all cases, but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb. If the word ‘man’ appears at the end of someone’s name you can draw one of two conclusions: a) they’re Jewish, as in Goldman, Feldman, or Lipman; or b) they’re a superhero, as in Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man.’ ” As Brod himself puts it: “Before Joe Shuster drew Superman, the only artist drawing Jews flying through the air was Marc Chagall.” 

So, too, does Brod detect “a mocking Yiddishist sensibility” that runs from Mad magazine to Marvel comics and finally into the pages of Playboy, whose “Little Annie Fanny” was drawn by Mad magazine stalwarts Will Elder (born Eisenberg) and Harvey Kurtzman. But he seeks to show us “how American Jews created the modern comic book,” an achievement that has less to do with Jewish jokes than with a Yiddishe Kopp — that is, a characteristically Jewish way of seeing the world.

For example, he insists that Superman and Spider-Man share a common Jewish ancestry, but the differences between these two superheroes reveals a change in Jewish self-image in America: “The difference between Superman’s and Spider-Man’s Jewishness is analogous to the ways Jews, as they became more assimilated into American culture, struggled less with identity issues of being strangers in a strange land,” he offers. “They felt themselves to be more native to America, and so became freer to act and create in ways that are identifiably Jewish, not coded or indirect.”

Brod opens his book with some special pleading on behalf of the comic book as an authentic and worthy expression of culture and creativity. By the end of his book, however, it is clear that he has made his case. Brod devotes a chapter to Art Spiegelman, who boldly rendered a story of the Holocaust as a comic book populated with cats and mice and thereby “demonstrated what the medium was capable of and that there was an audience for it.” But we are able to appreciate Spiegelman’s courageous work all the more because we have seen the work of Jewish artists and writers who came before him.

“Look! Up in the sky! It’s a champion of the oppressed! It’s a messianic liberator!” Brod sums up in his enchanting and enlightening book. “Yes, it’s the Jewish imagination in flight!”


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

Superman belongs to DC Comics, judge affirms


The heirs of Superman co-creator Joe Shuster do not have the right to reclaim copyrights to the popular character, a federal judge ruled.

Wednesday's ruling in California gives DC Comics, owned by Warner Bros., all rights to Superman for books, movies, television and other medium.

In response to a DC Comics lawsuit filed in 2010 seeking a judgment that it owns all copyrights to the Man of Steel, U.S. District Court Judge Otis Wright ruled that Schuster's sister and her son did not succeed in reclaiming their rights to Superman. Wright said a 1992 agreement to receive annual payments from DC Comics in exchange for all rights to the character made by Shuster's sister superseded the Shuster heirs' claim under “termination rights” in U.S. copyright law.

The estate of co-creator Jerry Siegel successfully reclaimed some rights to Superman using such a termination notice some four years ago.

A new Superman movie, “Man of Steel,” is scheduled to be released next summer by Warner Bros. and is in the middle of production.

Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer to play Superman’s mom


Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer will portray Superman’s Kryptonian mother in the Superman movie sequel.

Zurer reportedly will replace Julia Ormond, who left the film for unknown reasons, in the role of Lara Lor-Van. Zurer has starred in “Angels & Demons” and “Munich.”

Russell Crowe is portraying Superman’s Kryptonian father, Jor-El. Superman is being played by the British actor Henry Cavill.

Production on the film, which is scheduled for release in the summer of 2013, has begun.

Zap! Pow! Bam!


Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s two Jewish kids from Cleveland!

The fact that Superman, the defender of truth, justice and the American way, as created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was not so much from Krypton as, in the words of cartoon artist Jules Feiffer, “from Planet Minsk,” is one of the many things to be learned from “Zap! Pow! Bam! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950,” which opened at the Skirball Cultural Center last weekend.

The exhibition originated at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta and was curated by Jerry Robinson, an artist during the golden age of comic books, who joined the cartooning staff of the Batman comic series as a teenager, creating both Batman’s sidekick, Robin (inspired by Robin Hood), and the hero’s first supervillain, The Joker.

Robinson, who will speak at the Skirball on March 5, lent the show many artifacts from his own collection, including the artwork from many iconic covers for Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman comics, as well as Robinson’s own first concept sketch for The Joker from 1939.

“Zap! Pow! Bam!” sets these comics “in context and celebrates the Jewish artists who shaped the values of an entire generation” according to Erin Clancey, Skirball associate curator. The show includes an impressive collection of original artwork, including early Superman sketches, as well as artwork for Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and Captain America, among many others.

It also offers facsimiles of the original Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman comic books; a minitheater where 1940s movie serials, such as “Superman vs. The Atom,” play on a continuous loop; a vintage Batmobile ride for children under 7; as well costumes for kids to try on, instructions on how to draw superheroes and even a phone booth that rings with calls for Superman’s help.

There are issues of both iconic and little-known heroes (The Green Lama for example). And as for the Kryptonite – I can’t tell you what happens when you walk by, all I can say is watch out. Kudos go to the Skirball for managing to display so much in one of their smaller galleries.

Also, exclusively at the Skirball is an adjunct exhibition titled, “Lights, Camera, Action: Comic Book Heroes of Film and Television,” curated by Clancey, which makes the connection to Hollywood, including some of the earliest film and animated versions of Superman, Captain Marvel, Captain America and Wonder Woman. Original posters and costumes are included, among them ones worn by George Reeves as Superman, Michael Keaton as Batman and Warren Beatty as Dick Tracy. Also on view is the Batcycle, with its Robin sidecar, from the 1960s TV show.

Visitors will also appreciate the special items in the gift shop, which include not only super-hero themed books and DVDs but an assortment of T-shirts, capes, superhero-themed kitchen magnets, bobble heads, trading cards, Band-Aids and even Superman-themed kippahs and mezuzahs.

“Zap! Pow! Bam!” is particularly well curated to make the point that for a brief span of time, a small group of Jewish Americans dominated the nascent industry. Similar to the early days of the movie industry, they were for the most part children of immigrants, eager to assimilate but lacking the entrée into the higher reaches of design or literature. In the comics, they found a tremendously powerful medium for self-expression, through which they were able to both change and influence American culture.

Bios of artists, writers and editors from the golden age of comics are on view, including Superman creators Shuster and Siegel, Batman’s Bob Kane (born Kahn) and Bill Finger, the multitalented Robinson, Jack Kirby (originally Jacob Kurtzberg), Mort Meskin, Emanuel (Mac) Raboy, longtime editors Mort Weisinger and Jules Schwartz, as well as Stan Lee (born Lieber), the former president and chairman of Marvel Comics, who would come to embody comics in the 1960s and beyond.

What is striking is that most of these men were from New York, all were young (17-24) when the got involved in the medium, and they all were Jewish. Much has been made of the similarities between the stories of Moses and Superman, or how, like Samson, Superman has a secret vulnerability (Kryptonite).

However, unlike almost all the other superheroes, Superman is the character’s true identity, while the human Clark Kent, is his alter-ego, and Superman is less powerful in his costume of assimilation. Above all else in these stories, readers have always responded to the fantasy that whatever our shortcomings, our true identity as a superhero is hidden inside us, waiting to be revealed.

The exhibition also makes a convincing case that popular comic books influenced American attitudes about World War II and that it was these Jewish writers and artists who helped cast fighting the Nazis in simple terms as a battle between good and evil.

In the late 1930s, at a time when American icons like Charles Lindbergh and William Randolph Hearst – let alone President Franklin Delano Roosevelt – were counseling America to stay out of the war, comic book heroes, such as Captain America, already were battling Hitler. In one volume on display at the Skirball, Hitler refers to Superman as “swine,” and Superman refers to himself as a “non-Aryan.” Another asks, “What if Superman ended the war?” and has Superman taking Hitler and Mussolini by force before the League of Nations to stand trial.

The comics also supported those already fighting. For example, Robinson created a hero called London to dramatize the heroism of the English during the Battle of Britain.

Once America entered the war, comics continued their propaganda function. It is estimated that comic books were 80 percent of what American servicemen were reading.

The battles against Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito gave a focus, a mission to many of the comics’ heroes. Some fought their way across France and into Germany. And although the existence of Nazi extermination camps took a while to make it into print, concentration camps appeared in a 1942 volume on display at the Skirball.

During World War II, sales soared. By 1944, according to Robinson’s catalog essay, combined sales of comics reached 20 million a month. Yet after the war, they seemed to lose steam.

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they tried to embrace the atomic age, and atomic energy was portrayed as a superforce for both good and evil, with heroes and villains alike having atomic powers.

The comics continued, but society as a whole became less interested. By the 1950s, comics came to be characterized as corruptors of youth, and they began to be regulated for the first time. The golden age was over.

My own golden age of comics was in the late 1960s and again in the early 1980s, as I was reminded recently when I opened a battered box containing my childhood collection that had been sitting in storage for many years. There were the legion of superheroes – the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Sgt. Rock and the Silver Surfer.

Re-reading them, I was struck by, first of all, how well they were written. They seemed more complex in terms of story, as well as their political allegories, than I remembered and much more complex than the movie versions that have become staples of studio summer entertainment. Still, in one way or another, they were all about war and imminent destruction.

In the forward to the exhibition’s catalog, Jane D. Leavey, executive director of the Breman Museum, makes the point that superheroes took on the role of tikkun olam, repairing the world, between 1938 and 1950, giving Americans the sense that even ordinary people could be heroes. This was both an appealing and urgent message for a society already deep in an era of economic depression and now facing a foreign war.

As the catalog’s prologue states: “During the long depression that followed the Crash, the American people craved not only humor to lift their mood, but also strong men, Super Heroes, to correct their world.”

Given that, the appearance of “Zap! Pow! Bam!” could not be better timed. Is it a coincidence that in “Amazing Spider-Man” No. 583, released Jan. 14, Barack Obama gave Spidey a fist-bump?

The golden age of comics may be long over, but this exhibition offers a great reminder of the role that storytellers and artists can play in our culture, as well as how it is times like these that call upon ordinary people to be heroes.

“Zap! Pow! Bam! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938-1950” continues through Aug. 9 at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For information, call (310) 440-4500 or visit http://www.skirball.org/.

Briefs: Cancer helps Olmert poll numbers, Mrs. El Presidente in Argentina — still good for the Jews


Olmert’s Popularity Buoyed by Cancer

Ehud Olmert’s disclosure that he has prostate cancer edged up his approval ratings. A poll commissioned by Yediot Achronot after Olmert’s surprise announcement Monday found that 41 percent of Israelis “appreciate” his performance as prime minister, up from 35 percent last month.

Olmert, whose popularity plummeted after last year’s Lebanon war and amid ongoing corruption allegations, also got high marks in the survey for his “bravery” in coming forward, an act that 61 percent of respondents said they found moving. Eighty-seven percent of respondents agreed with Olmert’s decision to stay in office. But asked which among Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is most fit to be prime minister, 14 percent said Olmert, 17 percent said Barak and 35 percent said Netanyahu. Yediot did not say how many people were polled. The margin of error was 4.3 percent.

Argentine Vote Means No Change for Jews

Argentina’s new president likely will not change government policies toward the Jewish community.

The victory by current first lady and senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in national elections Sunday will be a continuation of official policies regarding Jewish interests, according to Aldo Donzis, president of the DAIA, Argentina’s Jewish umbrella organization. The government of her husband, Nestor Kirschner, was active in seeking justice for the terrorist attack on the Jewish community building in Buenos Aires in 1994, and initiated projects to fight anti-Semitism, discrimination and xenophobia.

The first lady and now president-elect was active in these efforts, according to Donzis. On Monday morning, with 97 percent of the election results calculated, Fernandez de Kirchner had garnered 45 percent of the vote. She needed at least 40 percent to avoid a runoff. In the capital city of Buenos Aires, where most of the Jewish community resides, she received 23 percent of the vote.

Alleged Syrian Reactor in 2003 Photo

A 2003 photo shows the alleged nuclear reactor Israel bombed in Syria last month under construction. The Sept. 16, 2003 photo, released by GeoEye, an aerial image archive in Dulles, Va., and published in Saturday’s New York Times, suggests that Syria’s nuclear weapons program long predates the Sept. 6 Israeli attack. Initial reports suggested that the reactor Israel allegedly targeted was in its nascent stage. Israel, Syria and the United States will not confirm the nature of the attack.

Rabin Killer Can’t Attend Brit

Yitzhak Rabin’s jailed assassin lost an appeal to be allowed to attend the circumcision of his first son. Israel’s High Court of Justice on Tuesday turned down a petition by Yigal Amir for a special furlough on Nov. 4, when his son is to be circumcised. Amir had argued that he should not be denied leave rights granted to other convicted murderers in Israel.

Amir’s wife, Larissa, became pregnant during a conjugal visit to the prison where Amir is serving a life sentence in isolation. She gave birth on Sunday. The fact that the circumcision will take place exactly 12 years after Amir gunned down Prime Minister Rabin at a Tel Aviv peace rally has stoked the ire of Israelis opposed to seeing the assassin enjoy any jailhouse leniency.

Terrorism Led Portman Into Activism

The anguish of a friend grieving over a terror victim in Israel led actress Natalie Portman to become an activist.

“When I was at Harvard, a very close friend lost someone to the violence in Israel,” the Israeli-born movie star says in a first-person essay that appeared this weekend in Parade magazine. “I felt so helpless watching her pain. I really wanted to do something, but I didn’t know where to begin. Coming from Israel, I know how polarized that part of the world scene can be.”

Portman called Jordanian Queen Rania, a Palestinian, who told Portman about the Foundation for International Community Assistance. The group, Portman says, “grants loans, mostly to women, to start small businesses. Rather than donate food, it helps people earn the money to buy their own food and gives women the opportunity to better their lives.”

Portman has since traveled to Central America and Africa for the foundation.

“It’s impossible to know the outcome of anything,” she writes. “You have no idea whether the life you impact will go on to bring peace to the Middle East or will go blow up a building. All you can do is act with the best intention and have faith.”

Israeli Film Takes Top Prize in Kiev

An Israeli film took the top prize at a Kiev film festival. “The Band’s Visit” received the Grand Prix and $10,000 at the 37th Molodist (“Youth”) International Film Festival on Sunday.

It was the first feature-length film by 34-year-old Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin. The whimsical tale, which has won other awards, follows the iconoclastic adventures of a band of Egyptian musicians who are lost in a small town in Israel’s Negev Desert. Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko participated in the festival’s opening.

‘The Tribe’ Hits No. 1 on iTunes

A documentary about Jewish identity is in the No. 1 spot of most downloaded short films on iTunes. Tiffany Shlain, director of “The Tribe,” a humorous look at American Jewish identity through the lens of Barbie, says she launched her film on iTunes Oct. 2, hoping to crack the top 10 list. It is now the first independent documentary to hit No. 1, Shlain notes.

“This says there’s an audience that wants to watch documentaries about American Jewish identity,” says Shlain, who lives in Mill Valley, Calif. “This opens the doors for other filmmakers and expands the options of what is available to download.” The other films in the top 10 are all by major studies such as Disney and Pixar, except for the indie “West Bank Story,” in the No. 7 spot, which won this year’s Academy Award for Best Short Film.

“The Tribe,” released in December 2005, was shown at 75 film festivals, including Sundance and Tribeca, and won nine awards. It is available at

‘Superman’ Director Lives Out His Dream


“Whether you’re an immigrant or you’re born in the heartland, at some point we all feel like an alien.”

Those are not the words of an immigration rights attorney but rather of filmmaker Bryan Singer, whose last three films, the first two editions of “X-Men” and the upcoming “Superman Returns,” which opens on June 28 nationwide, all present parables on the current state of xenophobia pervading this country.

Of the famed Man of Steel, first introduced to comic book readers in the 1930s, Singer said, “He’s kind of the ultimate immigrant. He comes from a foreign place, adapts to the value system and has a special relationship with his heritage.”

Singer sees Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — two Jews who were sons of immigrants — as a Judeo-Christian hero, part Moses, part Jesus. Like Moses, Superman is the boy dispatched down the metaphoric river to be discovered in the cornfields, if not the reeds, of the Midwest. Like Jesus, he has a kind of doubling with his father, voiced in the new film as in the 1978 “Superman” by the late Marlon Brando, who says, “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son.”

If Superman first entered popular culture when the Nazis were beginning to assert their power in Germany, he “never cleared up the problems in Europe,” Singer said. “He handled small problems; he served by example.”

Over the decades, however, through numerous incarnations in comic strips, animated shorts, television shows and films, Superman began tackling worldwide catastrophes, as he does in Singer’s new film, though he does not rescue Jews per se.

That does not mean that Superman lacks a Jewish pedigree.

As Michael Chabon suggested in his novel, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” Siegel and Shuster, in conceptualizing Superman, may very well have been inspired by the Golem, a mythic figure in Jewish folklore, who could be built from mud and clay, according to strict rabbinic instructions, and could vanquish all evil.

Yet “Superman Returns” never implies that its protagonist, played by Brandon Routh, is of any ethnicity other than Kryptonian. If he resembles any mythological creatures, they would seem to be Greek ones. Like Atlas, Superman lifts, if not the entire planet, a huge nefarious landmass, which he hurls into space. He also catches the ornamental globe that sits atop the Daily Planet Building, a structure modeled after the art deco former home of the New York Daily News. Of course, Superman’s strength is matched by his speed as he flies through the sky like Hermes, easing a plane carrying Lois Lane, played by Kate Bosworth, into an emergency landing on a ball field.

Superman may have been in drydock for five years, as we are told in the film, but unlike Roger Clemens, he doesn’t get the benefit of a trip to the minors. He must perform at a big league level from the start, although we do see flashbacks to his youth, when he runs through the cornfields and learns how to fly, a nice touch since Superman did not fly in his early comic strips.

The 40-year-old Singer calls “Superman Returns” a “dream project” and said “it was a fantasy of mine to have Kryptonian blood,” not surprising for a man who in the 1970s loved watching reruns of the “Superman” TV show starring George Reeves. But Singer did not read the comics as a child. To this day, he suffers from dyslexia, which still impedes his efforts at reading. He likes to read short stories, but he did not even know about the “X-Men” until he was assigned to direct the first movie of that franchise.

While “X-Men” and “X2,” which came out in 2000 and 2003, respectively, predate the current illegal immigration crisis, they, like all of Singer’s films, deal with the human capacity for evil and for persecuting outsiders, whoever they may be.

Like Superman, the mutants in the “X-Men” movies are not simply stand-ins for illegal immigrants. They are heroic, if in some cases demonic, fantasies of the other — the outsider in all of us.

As a gay, adopted, agnostic Jew, Singer has always been drawn to the otherness of these superheroes, though he chuckles when asked about a recent Los Angeles Times article that highlighted Superman’s gay appeal. “If you look at my career,” he said, “I’ve probably never made a more heterosexual movie before.”

None of his previous studio movies may have had an explicit gay theme to them, but “The Usual Suspects,” his 1995 breakthrough film, which received much buzz for its plot twists, subversion of the noir genre and brilliant ensemble cast, may be best remembered for the Oscar-winning performance of Kevin Spacey, essaying Verbal Kint, a criminal mastermind of dubious sexuality.

Singer followed that with 1998’s “Apt Pupil,” in which Brad Renfro plays a high school student obsessed with the Holocaust and with a former Nazi living in his neighborhood. The film featured some baroque horror touches, such as when Ian McKellen’s Nazi tries to stuff a cat in an oven, and Singer even framed a few longing looks between the 16-year-old boy and his Nazi mentor, cut next to a shot of the boy’s indifferent response to the sexual advances of his girlfriend.

Then came “X-Men” and “X2,” McCarthyite allegories that among other provocations featured McKellen, the Nazi in “Apt Pupil,” as a Holocaust survivor, who like Darth Vader has turned to the dark side.

“X2,” in particular, showed us non-Geneva-friendly torture taking place in prison cells that but for their high-tech gadgetry might remind one of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. There are also congressional and presidential calls for mandatory mutant registration, prescient in the wake of today’s immigration legislation proposals, and, of course, a teenage son coming out to his parents that he is a mutant, prompting the altogether familiar reply from his mother, “Can’t you just not be a mutant?”

While Singer wants as broad an audience as possible to enjoy the film, he particularly wants “older people and women to have an emotional experience,” he said. Unlike his past films, “Superman Returns” is, Singer said, “a romantic picture.”

It is also a film with a long and troubled past. Over the last decade, numerous actors and directors were attached to the film, whose budget, like its superhero, seemed to know no bounds. None of that history worried Singer, who got a chance to reshape the storyline and, indeed, has a story credit on the film. It also helped that he used some of his regular repertory of actors, such as Spacey, playing yet another notable villain: Lex Luthor.

Singer’s first real understanding of evil came when, as a boy of 9 or 10, he dressed up as a Nazi one day while playing a World War II game with his German neighbors in Princeton Junction, N.J. He came home wearing a swastika.

Singer’s mother admonished him, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when his junior high school teacher, Miss Fiscarelli, taught an entire unit in social studies on the Holocaust, that he gained a greater understanding as to why his mother had been so troubled. That class changed Singer’s “whole perception of what people are capable of anywhere,” he said.

“Superman Returns” is not directly about Nazis, and its diabolical antagonist is more over-the-top than menacing, yet Singer does not discount the possibility of future genocides.

“The German culture [at the time of the Holocaust] was extremely artistic, extremely sophisticated and extremely advanced,” he said, proving that “anywhere, any place, any century, it’s possible, and any person is capable of it.”

“Superman Returns” opens nationwide on June 28.

 

A Super ‘Schmooze’ Move


The unforgettable superheroes of comic strips became the stuff of endless Hollywood big-budget sequels. But more often than not, they began in the fevered imaginations of struggling young Jewish guys, whose wildest dreams could be hemmed in only by four panels and black ink.

“In June 1938, Superman appeared,” Michael Chabon writes in his 2000 novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay.” “He had been mailed to the offices of National Periodical Publications from Cleveland, by a couple of Jewish boys who had imbued him with the power of a hundred men, of a distant world, and of the full measure of their bespectacled adolescent hopefulness and desperation.”

It’s not an insurmountable leap from those days to these, from the pioneers like “Superman’s” Joe Shuster and Jerome Siegel to masters like Art Spiegelman, to the talented Jewish comic strip artists of today.

In that spirit, we premiere this week, “Schmooze or Lose,” our first, weekly serialized comic strip. Read more about the creators, writer Jake Novak and illustrator Michael Ciccotello at www.jewishjournal.com, and follow the further adventures of their very L.A. Jewish characters in this space each week.

 

Briefs


Christopher Reeve, ‘Superman’ Star and Hero in Israel, Dies

With his death Sunday night, actor Christopher Reeve of “Superman” fame ended his valiant fight against paralysis at the age of 52.

Reeve, who became a hero to Israelis during a visit last year, fell into a coma at his New York home after going into cardiac arrest Saturday night and never regained consciousness.

After starring in four “Superman” blockbuster movies in the 1970s and ’80s, Reeve was paralyzed from the neck down in a horse riding accident in 1995. Refusing to give in, Reeve became a powerful advocate and fundraiser for medical research to aid the disabled.

His courage found a special echo in Israel, when he undertook a five-day visit to Israeli hospitals and research centers in late July and early August last year.

Coming at a time when most American celebrities avoided trips to Israel, Reeve’s visit raised the spirit of the country, especially among thousands injured and paralyzed in terrorist attacks.

“Israel is one of the leading countries in the world that is most progressive and the most compassionate about people like us,” he told injured and paralyzed patients at Tel Hashomer hospital, The Jewish Journal’s Gaby Wenig reported from Israel at the time.

Reeve’s trip to Israel was in response to an invitation by Yuval Rotem, then Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, and was sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and private Hollywood donors. – Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Lawyer Battling ADL on Christian Quote at Courthouse

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is being sued by a Christian lawyer seeking to stop its efforts to cover up a Christian quote on a wall in a Riverside County Superior Court.

Temecula attorney Richard D. Ackerman’s Oct. 1 lawsuit against the ADL, Riverside County and Riverside County Presiding Judge Douglas Miller temporarily has stopped plans to cover over Theodore Roosevelt’s quote – “The true Christian is the true citizen” – with a mahogany panel while court is in session. The quote is engraved on a courtroom wall at the century-old landmark courthouse in Riverside.

“If it [the Roosevelt quote] was in the negative, I would agree [to cover it up],” said Ackerman, who attends an Assembly of God church and runs the conservative, Christian-oriented Pro-Family Law Center. “But this happens to be a presidential quote affirming his particular world view among other presidential views.”

In July, the ADL’s Pacific Southwest office in Los Angeles received a complaint about the quote. An Oct. 5 letter sent by the ADL to its members stated, “Because the quote is presented outside of the context in which the quotation was delivered and continues to appear on the wall of a public courthouse in 2004, we were concerned that it could be seen as an express endorsement by the government of Christianity.”

It is one of several presidential wall quotes, with Roosevelt’s words excerpted from a 1900 speech he made at a YMCA convention when he was New York’s governor. Ackerman said the quote has been on the courthouse wall for decades, “with little or no dispute,” and that the ADL has not criticized as exclusionary the smaller county courthouse in Temecula and its photo collage, including a photo of Orthodox Jews – “it doesn’t show Reform Jews” – or Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “The God who gave us liberty gave us life,” being in the same courtroom as the Roosevelt quote.

The ADL declined comment on the lawsuit. After a Sept. 1 meeting with ADL officials, Miller on Sept. 29 agreed to cover over the quote. Two days later, Ackerman’s lawsuit prompted county officials to suspend those plans until a resolution of the case, which last week was moved to a San Bernardino County courtroom in Rancho Cucamonga, because Miller recused all Riverside County judges from hearing the case. No court date has been set.

Ackerman filed the lawsuit in state court, because he believed any ADL lawsuit would be filed in federal court, and that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has a liberal reputation often at odds with conservative litigators. – David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Congress Passes Bill on Monitoring Anti-Semitism

Californians were instrumental in Congress’ passing a bill to create a State Department office to monitor international anti-Semitism.

The bill, known as the Global Anti-Semitism Awareness Act (H.R. 4230), was introduced by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) in response to the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East.

The act, which awaits President Bush’s approval, requires the State Department to create an office to monitor and combat anti-Semitism and to file a report on anti-Semitic incidents around the world. The State Department also would be required to include information about anti-Semitic acts in its annual reports on human rights practices and international religious freedom.

Of the 108 signatories on a letter in support of the bill, were three prominent Southern Californians: professor Michael Berenbaum of the University of Judaism; Pierre Sauvage, president of the Chambon Foundation; and Dr. John Eibner of Christian Solidarity International in Westlake Village.

The State Department opposed the legislation, suggesting it would show favoritism toward the Jewish community in human rights reporting. – Staff Report

Two Conferences to Focus on Anti-Semitism Issues

Dueling conversations on anti-Semitism will take place at the University of Judaism in Bel Air and at Pasadena’s Fuller Theological Seminary.

Fuller will host an Oct. 18 evening dialogue on anti-Semitism between Rabbi Elliot Dorff, University of Judaism rector, and Richard Mouw, Fuller president.

The Fuller event is scheduled one year after the Protestant seminary hosted an all-day, Palestinian-driven “Peacemaking in the Middle East” conference for about 200 mainline Protestants. The conference had Palestinian flags, buttons and literature but no Israeli-branded items.

Some Fuller students were concerned enough about the event’s heavy Palestinian emphasis to host a separate screening of a pro-Israel film that same day.

Mouw said Monday night’s event was arranged partly because “many of us have been critical of some of the policies of the present Israeli government, and this is legitimate. But it is also important that we distinguish between legitimate political critique and a hatred of Jews.”

At the University of Judaism, Holocaust scholar and museum consultant Michael Berenbaum will host “Anti-Semitism and the Contemporary Jewish Condition” running Sunday through Tuesday.

The gathering will feature about 20 speakers, including several staffers from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Auschwitz survivor and “Schindler’s List” producer Branko Lustig and Commentary magazine senior editor Gabriel Schoenfeld. Topics will include Hollywood’s Holocaust imagery and the question, “Is there a ‘New’ Anti-Semitism?”

For more information on the free events go to www.fuller.edu. For more information on the UJ conference,visit www.uj.edu. Organizers ask people to preregister for each event by calling (310) 440-1534 or e-mailing rsmall@uj.edu.