Anyone who loves American comic books knows this story: A couple of talented Jewish teenagers (Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel) created the world-famous Superman in 1933 and, after a major overhaul to their character’s personality, they debuted their hero in a comic book format in 1938.
Then, in 2000, countless men and women who’d never cracked open a comic learned the basic storyline from the best-selling The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Once Chabon’s novel won a Pulitzer and carried the basic storyline to the heights of literary attention, “it’s been a source of pride that Jews created the culture of comic book superheroes,” Lisa Keys wrote in The Forward. Of course, Keys pointed out, “Jewish superheroes themselves have been few and far between. Sure, the Fantastic Four’s The Thing has been known to daven on occasion; the X-Men’s archenemy, Magneto, is a survivor of Auschwitz, and the Golem had a brief promotion from Jewish oral tradition to the funny pages.”
Summer Movie Season 2011:
Enjoy a Pair of Links with Jewish Comic Pioneers
Now, in the summer-movie season of 2011, we’ve got a pair of these pioneering Jewish connections at neighborhood movie theaters nationwide. Whether there’s an enduring spiritual message that still makes sense—well, that’s for moviegoers to determine.
But, are you looking for some family adventure with Dad for Father’s Day 2011? You could take the whole family to “X-Men: First Class,” which features an entire subplot about the “birth” of Magneto and his subsequent life of vengeance against perpetrators of the Holocaust. In “X-Men: First Class,” the Jewish comic connections are explicit. We meet the future Magneto as a little boy when his family is torn apart in the unfolding Holocaust. He is singled out by a Nazi scientist as a powerful mutant and forced to undergo medical experiments. In his post-war life, he commits himself to hunting down war criminals—and to fighting other forms of fascism. Of course, in this Hollywood movie version, the plot is driven by a slam-bang festival of special effects and the moral and political issues get muddled along the way.
Or, the whole family also might enjoy the brand new “Green Lantern”—and, yes, “Green Lantern” also has a connection with Jewish comic pioneers. In “Green Lantern,” no moral muddling is possible. This is a crystal-clear DC comics tale of a sort of emerald-hued, cosmic titan—somewhere between a hero of Greek mythology and a Jedi knight from the Star Wars saga.
Comics Expert Kurt Kolka on “Green Lantern”
For the opening of “Green Lantern” this weekend, Kurt Kolka wrote:
Those attending the Green Lantern movie may not realize it, but Jewish writers and artists played a huge role in the creation of comic books and superheroes, including the Green Lantern. Among the most noted Jewish comic creators are Stan Lee (Spiderman, Thor, X-men, Ironman, Hulk, Fantastic Four); Joe Schuster and Jerome Siegel (Superman); Bob Kane and Bill Finger (Batman); Martin Nodell (Green Lantern); Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (Captain America); and Julius Schwartz (editor/writer who revived Green Lantern, the Flash, Batman and other characters in the ‘50s and ‘60s).
While the first costumed hero in comics was The Phantom by Lee Falk, it was Schuster and Siegel’s Superman who changed the direction of comic books two years later in 1938. The mystery men, or superheroes as they are called today, became a staple best-seller with the first appearance of the Man of Steel in Action Comics.
Martin Nodell’s original Green Lantern first appeared in All-American Comics #16 (July 1940) published by National Periodical Publication (later called DC Comics). The story was written by Bill Finger and drawn by Nodell. Nodell’s original concept for the character was a railroad engineer Alan Scott who discovers a meteorite with mystical powers which has been fashioned into a ring and lantern. He battled railroad saboteurs in the first story.
Green Lantern could use his ring to fly, to walk through solid objects, to temporarily paralyze or blind people, hypnotize them, to create rays of energy, to create solid objects and force fields. The ring’s only weakness was against wood.
In the ‘50s, Julius Schwartz revised Green Lantern, making him test pilot Hal Jordan who finds an injured, alien Green Lantern who passes the ring on to him. The new movie follows this version of Green Lantern’s origin. Jewish artist Eli Katz, aka Gill Kane, worked with Schwartz to co-create the modern Green Lantern and develop the black and green costume we recognize today.
A regular guest artist at comic conventions during the ‘90s and into the new millennium, Martin Nodell passed away at a nursing home in Muskego, Wisconsin, in 2006, at the age of 91. Fortunately, for the American public, he passed on his own “ring” to a new generation of comic creators who keep Green Lantern in the public eye through DC Comics.
Kurt J. Kolka is a religion writer for the Gaylord Herald Times in Gaylord, Mich., comic fan and creator of the comic strip, “The Cardinal,” found online at http://www.gocomics.com/thecardinal
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.