The Religion that Created Comic Book Heroes

The third week of my class analyzed the early writers and artists that helped build the comic book industry. They were predominantly Jewish immigrants or first generation American Jews. Our assignment was to determine why Jewish Americans found success in comic books and how other religions influenced the industry.

During the first half of the 20th century, Jewish immigrants coming to the United States faced strong discrimination and antisemitism. As minorities and outsiders, they worked to build their own industry in places where negative attitudes of society would not have accepted them. This led to Jewish dominance in the film and banking worlds as well as the creation and increased popularity among comic books.

Comic book publishers started by reprinting backlogged Sunday comic strips, but quickly ran out of material they could use. They needed new characters and original stories. Rival publishing companies began hiring young writers to make content for the comic book marketplace; in order to compete they looked for talent who couldn’t find work elsewhere. These writers were often Jewish because of antisemitic practices in mainstream publishing and media.

The early Jewish immigrants and first generation Jewish Americans were perfectly suited to create the superheroes we still love today. Their religious heritage was filled with epic stories of men and women who were heroes of their faith. They grew up learning of Jacob wrestling with God, Joseph sold into slavery then rising into a position of power under Pharaoh’s command, Moses leading their people out of Egypt, the prostitute Rahab helping smuggle Hebrew spies out of the city of Jericho, David slaying the giant Goliath, and Esther who married a Persian King and saved the Israelites from the schemes of the King’s grand vizier. In comics, they created mythical heroes that could rival the legendary stature of the stories they were taught from the Torah and other scriptures.

Their position as an American minority also helped shape comic book characters. While most of the superheroes were not overtly Jewish characters, the culture that created them are evident. Steve Roger’s diminutive size before taking the super soldier serum played into Jewish stereotypes. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster designed Superman as an outsider who would be a champion for the American people; this showed how possible it was for culture to embrace an alien in both the literal and figurative sense. Many of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s characters embraced this dichotomy of being a hero and an outsider at the same time: Thing, Spider-Man, and The Hulk. This approach is most easily demonstrated through the X-Men – as mutants they were born different just like Jews were born into a different culture. The X-Men also portrayed a group of heroes who fought to help and protect people who feared them, much the same way most antisemitism was rooted in fear.

photo courtesy of Marvel Comics via Adherents.com

The early comic books were written by more than just Jewish immigrants. Part of the explosion and growth of the industry was due to writers coming from a multitude of religious and ethnic backgrounds. However, Christian authors had a different approach to comic books. For many of them, they saw comic books as a tool for evangelism or created books marketed solely to Christian audiences as an alternative to the more recognizable and popular heroes. These titles, like George A. Pflaum’s Treasure 'Chest of Fun & Fact' or Educational Comic’s 'Picture Stories from the Bible' couldn’t compete with bigger titles like Batman and Iron Man. Christian themed comics had a smaller share of the market and struggled in sales.

However, Christianity’s influence is seen in the world of Superheroes – even in characters created or written by Jewish authors. Batman, Nightcrawler, Daredevil, and Bruce Banner all have Catholic backgrounds. Superman’s adoptive family was Methodist. Protestant origins have been written into Spider-Man and Captain America’s stories. Regardless of whether or not Christian writers are involved in the creation of comic book heroes, their religious dominance in America will be felt in the pages of comic books as it is an art-form that largely reflects American culture.

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