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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a novel that takes place during the "Golden Age" of comics, a magical era right before television when the country was at war and needed a medium that could help them coupe with these difficult times. Who was behind the creation of many of these superheroes? Who desperately needed an alter-ego? The American Jewish male; growing up in America Jewish males faced many stereotypes, most of which were concerned with the physical stature and the masculine identity. As we have discussed in class, the majority of the thoughts revolve around the idea that the Jewish male is a frail, somewhat feminine, intellect who in no way fits the description of the rugged all American male that many men strive for.
When Michael Chabon, author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, was asked what kind of superhero he most relates to he said; "There's Daredevil, who was blind; Hour Man, who had his powers for an hour; Bouncing Boy bounced into people; Matter Eater, who could eat anything, and as a nebbishy Jewish guy from Cleveland, I always identified with characters with greater frailty." This notion of relating to someone or something else is what made the comic book industry such a booming business, and this is also why it was so easy for Jews to identify with these characters. The first of these characters was and still is Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two Jews who grew up together in Cleveland and moved to New York to work for DC comics. Superman was an inspiration for many of Jewish Americans who, like Superman had been ripped from their home lands and placed in a foreign land because of war and the destruction of their people. While Jews did not have any super-human powers like Superman, they must have associated with the idea that mild-mannered Clark Kent was able to transform in to a crusader for justice, something I'm sure that each and every Jew had imagined at one point or another when thinking about the atrocities being committed in Europe during World War II. I am going to leave the topic of Jewish superheroes for a little bit but I will return to it later.
"Houdini was a hero to little men, city
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There has always been a strong connection between superheroes and Jews, superheroes always fight for good and against injustice. But are often conflicted between doing the right thing and not relinquishing there alter ego. This is a concept that we have been dealing with all semester, in almost every book we have read or movie that we have watched. This is something that Jews struggle with on a regular basis, form Ethel and Julius Rosenberg having to decide weather or not to give up one another to have a chance at raising their children, or Gregory Peck having to choose to tell his son weather or not they are Jewish in A Gentlemen's Agreement. Albeit not always directly, if we look at Louis Ironson from Angels in America we see that he struggles with the fact that his boyfriend Prior has AIDS. Louis embodies all the stereotypes of the neurotic Jew: anxious, ambivalent and perpetually guilty, but the way in which he deals with the situation is what draws connections to my argument, first abandonment, then repentance and sorrow, and finally with an awaking of responsibility. If you have ever read or seen any Batman or Spiderman movie or comic this is the exact way they respond throughout the story, first the superhero struggles with the idea that they are "super" and wants no part in any of it, then they find that there is a reason for them to take advantage of what they have been given and eventually they embrace their powers.
Joe Simon and Jack Kirby creators of Captain America, in my opinion the most "Jewish" superhero, Captain America was created just before America had entered WWII, "Captain America dates from, I [Chabon] believe, May 1941. No villain was up to Superman. Kryptonite, in a way, is a substitute for Hitler, because Hitler was the ultimate villain. They fought the Japanese and demonized them, but this was what superheroes were made for. Comic book covers from the period are superheroes punching out U-boats, and tying anti-aircraft guns into knots. You have to remember that for the first several years of the war, it wasn't going that well; it looked as though there was a good chance that the Allies might not win." Simon and Kirby who were both Jewish, and like so many from the comic book industry they were devastated about the news oversees and their lack of ability to do anything about it, so they used the character of Steve Rogers (Captain America) who was a week, blond-hair boy who, with a special secret-serum, was able to become the perfect American. Chabon recognized Jack Kirby's unspoken contribution to Kavalier & Clay in his author's note. "Finally, I want to acknowledge the deep debt I owe in this and everything else I've ever written to the work of the late Jack Kirby, the King of Comics." In my opinion, this is pretty much exactly what Jewish Americans wanted to be able to do at that time, this is the reason so many changed their names, this is the exact same reason that Al Jolson did blackface, to become more "American". It is not as if the Jews wanted to forget their heritage, but they, like so many other immigrants of the time wanted to be considered American. In another scene from Angels in America the opener, where we see Rabbi Isador Chemelwitz (Meryl Streep) talk about the life of Louis's Grandmother, the Rabbi describes to the mourners that they are not real Americans but are in fact part of a Shetel in Eastern Europe. It is that stigma that the first and second generation children of these immigrants are trying to get rid of, and through comics they had found away to assimilate.
A connection between Jewish folklore and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Interestingly, it also introduces the most insightful theme in the book, the creation, use, and dangers of golems (possibly the first Jewish superhero). This uniquely Jewish theme is used in the novel on practically every level. Golems of legend are created in times of the Jewish community's, or in the case of the novel during the protagonist greatest need. Constructed of clay and branded with a single powerful word on their foreheads, golems act in ways their creators cannot, they protect, guard, and, if needed, avenge their Jewish masters. More often than not, they are tragic heroes with limited powers and they are eventually disabled, the word of power wiped from their foreheads. Because the notion of a golem and the idea that comic books have fictional characters (golem or superhero) that are invented to fight your battles or protect the people who could not protect themselves, one could make the conclusion that the golem was the first Jewish superhero.
The most popular superhero that Sammy and Joe created was the "Escape Artist", this character was based off of the daring escape that Joe made out Nazi controlled Europe, the Escape Artist also took a page from Harry Houdini, a favorite of Sammy's while growing up. The Escape Artist was not only based off of Joe's life but I think that the character could be viewed as a metaphor that symbolized Sammys' plight to get out of the confines of Brooklyn, and also the escape from the label of being just a Jew that so many American Jews dealt with.
The sub plot runs very closely to the real life story of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel the creators of Superman. The pair who as I stated before worked at D.C. comics were given a chance to release their ideas, unfortunately, the two, like Kavalier and Clay, never saw the riches they disserved, and the two went unrecognized for several decades afterward. I think that is very crucial to the plot, it gives the story this feeling that although the duo has created something that has taken the whole United States by storm they still do not get accepted by everyone as being "American". This is something that I feel we have been trying to tackle as a class during the semester, it is this feeling that although you may have a million gentile friends, you are still considered different.
Jews and superheroes will forever be linked, not only as the creators of many of the great characters but also for the inspiration behind them. As Jews continue to become more and more accepted as real Americans, I do not think that we will see as many new "Jewish" characters, but I am very excited to see what is next. As the Golden Era of comic books faded to the background and then almost to extinction with the advent of so many other mediums that are now available, I know that we have all wished at one point or another that we had the help or the powers of a superhero ourselves. If I could become a super hero, I would have to say I would become Finals Boy, my special powers would include being able to finish papers in a single bound.