Roy Schwartz. Is Superman Circumcised? McFarland, 2021. 374 pp. $45. ISBN 978-1-4766-6290-9. https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/is-superman-circumcised/
Reviewed by Leonard (“Labe”) Rifas
Despite its catchy title, Is Superman Circumcised?, Roy Schwartz’s “complete Jewish history of the World’s greatest hero,” says almost nothing about the possibility that Superman’s genitalia had been ceremonially trimmed. The title serves simply as a different way of asking whether Superman is Jewish, a question which has been raised and investigated, jokingly and seriously, briefly and at book-length, since at least 1979. (15)
Even with a question so tightly circumscribed, it would be impossible to keep up with all the pertinent literature. McFarland Press, the publisher of Schwartz’s book, currently lists another 158 books of comics scholarship in its catalog, including ten little-known titles that seem directly relevant to Superman’s possible roots in Biblical mythology, but which Schwartz does not mention. Out of that unending flood of publications, I chose to read Is Superman Circumcised? for three reasons. First, as someone who teaches and studies comics history, the topics of Superman and the superhero genre that he inaugurated seem both obligatory and inescapable. Also, as a circumcised American Jew (whose Jewish grandparents had immigrated from Russia and Poland to Chicago about a hundred years ago), I find discussions of Jewishness in relation to comic books interesting. Finally, and most importantly, when my sister alerted me to this book, I looked to see whether it mentioned anti-comic book activist Fredric Wertham (whose work I have championed), and this book elaborates on a dunderheaded theory that I was eager to look at more closely. I read the entire book because the subject of Superman’s ethnic identity raises so many important questions.
Schwartz introduces himself as an Israeli-born, lifelong Superman fan who grew up on Superman movies, television shows and comic books. Then he moved to New York to attend college and became an immigrant. After writing a senior paper on “Superman as a Christ Figure,” he was electrified to discover that Superman, rather than a Christ figure, was Jewish, and that revelation led eventually to his graduate thesis and this book. (2)
Although Schwartz’s “central thesis – that Superman is a Jewish character” seems old hat, he makes three claims to originality: that he examines evidence of Jewish content in Superman up to the present rather than stopping in 1960 (or sooner) as earlier writers had done; that he explores the Jewish parallels more deeply; and that he focuses exclusively on Superman. (3, 5) The books that he acknowledges as the foundation on which he built Is Superman Circumcised? are well-known studies by Danny Fingeroth, Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, and Arie Kaplan.
Although too much has been written about Superman to read it all, one book stands out as conspicuously missing from Schwartz’s sources: Martin Lund’s Re-Constructing the Man of Steel (2016, based on Lund’s dissertation of 2013). Lund’s scholarly, foundation-shaking research directly and cogently challenges Fingeroth, Weinstein and Kaplan’s arguments about the “so-called Jewish-Comics connection” behind Superman’s original creation. Unfortunately, Schwartz’s book repeats examples that illustrate the entire list of methodological pitfalls that Lund had catalogued.
Is Superman Circumcised? has a chapter “Superman vs. The Mad Scientist” which casts Fredric Wertham as the “mad scientist.” Understandably, Schwartz seems particularly outraged when Wertham “missed the point entirely” about Superman, and interpreted his comics as promoting fascism. Schwartz quotes Wertham’s snide expression of gratitude that at least Superman is not a member of Nazi Germany’s SS (Schutzstaffel). (191, 194) He proposes that Wertham must have been a calumniator with a defective personality who harbored an elitist scorn for comic book publishers because they were descended from East European Jews rather than German Jews like himself. (194-6)
The SS in Nazi Germany had published their own article about Superman in April 1940. It responded to the two-page story “How Superman Would End the War” which Superman’s creators had done for Look magazine. (115-118) Schwartz helpfully includes both that two-page story (as one of the book’s 85 black and white illustrations), and the SS column about it. The unnamed SS author asserts that the comic book Superman originated when the “circumcised… Israelite” Jerry Siegel heard about “the resurgence of manly virtues” in Italy and Germany, and “decided to import” these ideals “and spread them among young Americans.” (115) Then, like a nitpicky comics fan, the reviewer criticizes Siegel and Shuster for showing out-of-date military uniforms, an unconvincingly posed figure, for making the German pilot sound like “a Yid,” and for ignoring the “laws of physics, logic, and life in general.”
What I enjoyed most about reading Is Superman Circumcised? were the small discoveries that I made while studying its source materials closely and not Schwartz’s interpretations. The SS piece had quoted Superman as crying “Strength! Courage! Justice!”, but I noticed that none of these words appeared in that two-page story. The rallying cry of “strength, courage, justice” had been the motto of the “Supermen of America Club” which the early issues of Action Comics and Superman’s radio show promoted. Apparently, the SS writer had based his opinion of Superman on more than those two magazine pages.
Looking at some forgotten articles and book reviews that Fredric Wertham wrote in the years when he was also studying comic books would have revealed how deeply Wertham had been shaken by the recent Holocaust in his native land, and his fear that nothing seemed to rule out the possibility that the United States would also succumb to fascism. Seeing Wertham as centrally motivated by anti-fascism (rather than as “monomaniacally fixated” on comic books) would have brought into sharper focus how his so-called “crusade” against comic books fit with his other concerns. Comparing Superman’s methods to fascism, though, was Wertham’s least original contribution to the anti-comic book movement.
The argument that vigilante superhero comics were conditioning their young readers to prefer quick and effective fascist solutions over the slowness and imperfections of democratic law and order had been a central part of the anti-comic book movement from the moment it started with Sterling North’s May 8, 1940 column “A National Disgrace.” Schwartz quotes from North’s column, but, like other scholars, overlooks that North’s criticism of comic books grew from his response to Superman. North begins by describing comic books as “a poisonous growth of the last two years.” Two years earlier, Superman had first appeared, in Action Comics #1. North calls the comics that he criticizes “the action ‘comics’” and criticizes that genre’s “Superman heroics.” During those two years between 1938 and 1940, American newspapers had warned repeatedly against the current crop of “supermen” dictators (especially Adolf Hitler) and the Nazi ambition to build a race of “supermen.” Beginning with North’s widely republished column, American opposition to anti-democratic real-life “supermen” expanded to opposing lawless comic book supermen as well.
Schwartz interprets North’s reference to “cheap political propaganda” in that seminal column partly as a complaint against Superman’s “interventionist” support for fighting the Nazis. (165.) Last week I was surprised to discover that in March 1940, a Superman comic strip was banned from appearing in Canadian newspapers because it made war look ridiculous at a time when Canada (but not yet the United States) was at war against Nazi Germany. Superman’s first comic book stories had similarly expressed the mainstream, American resistance to getting sucked into another war. I have not found any evidence that Sterling North opposed interventionism. To the contrary, North thought that anyone foolish enough to try to appease Hitler had not read Hitler’s book Mein Kampf.
Roy Schwartz admits that the identification of Superman as a fascist has a superficial plausibility and agrees that superheroes arose out of despair with the apparent inadequacy of democracy and the rule of law. (169, 92, 175) Notwithstanding these concessions, he strenuously counter-argues that Superman was the opposite of a fascist and the enemy of the Nietzschean übermensch. For example, Superman “never kills, maims or employs [violence] beyond what is necessary to stop an aggressor – […] he’s no more a fascist than any agent of law enforcement.” (171)
Anti-comic book activists, in addition to their concerns about Superman supplanting the legal system in the manner of the Ku Klux Klan’s “hooded justice,” also occasionally expressed a worry about Superman usurping the place of religion. Schwartz celebrates the ways in which Superman “took the place of” Bible stories in American popular culture. (12-16, 23, 47, 218) He does not dwell on possible downsides of substituting a secularized commercial product (an intellectual property) for Judaism’s and Christianity’s traditional teachings. He does, though, briefly mention a few instances of Christian resistance to Superman becoming a religious figure. For example, when the Jewish writers, director and producers of the 1978 film Superman: The Movie played up Superman as a Christ allegory, the director received serious death threats for this “sacrilege.” (244-246) In 2013, when the Jewish director and Jewish writer of the Man of Steel made that film into a blatant retelling of the gospels featuring Superman in the role of Jesus, and the studio aggressively marketed the film to “the Christian faith-based demographic,” some Christians “found the equivalence of Superman and Jesus in a movie saturated with violence disconcerting.” This equivalence became especially “disconcerting” when Superman broke the neck of his adversary, Zod. (41-2)
As a source of ethical teachings, Superman has a major shortcoming. As Schwartz says, “Superman can’t be made to face the complex issues of the real world without the fantasy falling apart. Realism is his true Kryptonite.” (173) Is Superman Circumcised? describes a rare instance in which DC abandoned its editorial policy of deliberate disengagement from reality and let its superheroes comment on a real-world leader. In a 1989 comic book:
“Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini himself […] rewards the Joker by appointing him as the Iranian ambassador to the UN, under full diplomatic immunity (a twist that, given the regime, only slightly strains credulity). The Clown Prince of Crime gives a rambling speech at the General Assembly […] then predictably tries to kill everyone with his laughing gas. Superman, attending undercover, saves the day.”
Although this comic book, Batman: A Death in the Family, received major news coverage, as I remember it, no one in the mass media challenged its propaganda content. In actuality, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had invaded Iran in 1980 and began using poison gas in 1983, eventually causing tens of thousands or more Iranian deaths. Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Iran responding with its own chemical weapons, and chose instead to use diplomacy at the United Nations in an attempt to bring Iraq’s war crime to an end. A person does not have to be a fan of Khomeini’s theocratic regime to worry about the effects of this kind of twisted comic book story on young readers’ understanding of complex world events.
Like most authors of nonfiction, Schwartz keeps himself out of the picture. He never reveals his own religious background or beliefs. He does make plain, though, that he had found in Superman stories, beginning with Superman: The Movie, the kind of hope that religions have offered, and found in stories about a character with a secret identity a way of working through issues regarding his public self and private self. He explains with evident feeling how Superman expressed concerns that had been especially acute for Jewish immigrants and their children.
The main changes beginning in 1960 have been that the popularity of Superman’s comic books sank; the comic book industry became less Jewish; superheroes starred in many blockbuster films; and the indicators that linked Superman stories to specifically Jewish (and Christian) experiences, traditions, and beliefs became more overt. In this turn toward including explicitly Jewish characters, superhero comic books participated in a larger cultural shift from assimilation to identity politics.
Schwartz sees the current resurgence of anti-Semitism and White nationalism as an argument for Superman’s continuing relevance and value, as the embodiment and promoter of the values of pluralism, tolerance, co-existence, and inclusion. The superhero is “by definition a celebration of difference.” (311-2) Schwartz imagines that notwithstanding the comic book industry being “now almost entirely owned by multinational corporations,” it nevertheless has “continued to be transgressive, at the vanguard of social justice advocacy.” As evidence, the industry now includes “more women, people of color and LGBTQ readers, creators and characters, demonstrating its continued role as a tool of inclusion.” (311-2)
Even restricting our gaze to matters of inclusion, though, the superhero genre has not held a vanguard position. Fortunately, many years ago the gentile-led underground comix movement reinvented the comics medium as a personal form of artistic and literary expression. This led to works like Maus (the “pinnacle of Jewish subject matter in comics”), which in turn helped to inspire today’s thriving global market in graphic novels and webcomics, through which cartoonists from many backgrounds have been exploring the issues at the heart of Schwartz’s book: how to grow up and take part as a member of a broader society while maintaining a particular immigrant, ethnic, religious, (or gender, sexual, disability-related, body-size, or other) identity. The old, homogenized, white American society that Superman was portrayed in for the first half century of his life does not represent a historical reality that could be recovered,but an assimilationist’s fantasyland. Nevertheless, it does imagine a world that white ethnonationalists might yearn for.
For those who feel the need for an “icon” to guide us through these times of fear and despair, Superman does not seem like a particularly Jewish solution. Judaism has been anti-iconic, all the way back to when Abraham smashed the figurines in his father’s shop (Midrash Bereishit 38:13). Still, we do need some powerful story if we are to revive the American dream of a government of, by and for the people; to unite across our differences; or to get through the atomic age, the Holocene extinction and the climate crisis with the least lasting damage. In an image-saturated society, for better or worse, we want to know what that story would look like.
I did enjoy that Roy Schwartz commands a larger working vocabulary than mine, including in Yiddish, which like me, he uses one word at a time. He employs his writing skill to explain how the character of Superman incorporates some fundamental tensions, between “red” and “blue,” insider and outsider, vigilante and upholder of the law, role model and savior, which have provided raw material for eighty plus years of storytelling. As he admits, the results have often (but not always) been stiff, stodgy, tedious, dull, or corny, and yet talented writers and artists continue to rework the character of Superman as an important part of an unfinished mythology.
A version of this review will appear in IJOCA 23:2.