How Superman Became a Christ-FigureRoundup
tags: Jewish history, comics, Superman, popular culture
Roy Schwartz is a pop culture historian and critic. He writes for CNN.com and The Forward. His latest book is the Diagram Prize-winning Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @RealRoySchwartz and at royschwartz.com.
From America to Angola to Australia, almost everyone knows who Superman is. He’s the first superhero, the mold from which all other superheroes are cast, where they get their “super” from. Along with Jesus on the cross, Superman is among the most recognizable figures in the world.
He’s famous not just as a pulpy adventure character but as a symbol of America, embodying its idealized self-image. But somewhere along the way, he’s also come to be associated in the public conception with Jesus Christ. How this happened, and whether or not it was inevitable, is an interesting story in its own right.
Debuting in June 1938’s Action Comics #1, Superman was the brainchild of two Jewish teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Both were born to families that fled persecution in Eastern Europe and settled in Glenville, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. Neither was particularly observant, though both attended Hebrew school. When they created their hero, they borrowed different elements from their cultural orbit, including Jewish tradition and culture.
They gave him the birth name Kal-El, “El” meaning God in Hebrew. It may have been purely coincidental—first came his father’s name Jor-L, an anagram for Jerome Siegel—but for them to name their character “El,” a ubiquitous term in Judaism, and never realize it, is unlikely.
They also gave him the origin story of Moses; a baby saved from certain doom in a small vessel sent adrift from his home planet of Krypton to an unknown fate, found and raised by people not his own, who in adulthood reclaims his heritage and becomes a great savior.
Other influences, which Siegel discussed in his unpublished memoir, include Samson, the super-strong hero from the Book of Judges, and the Golem of Prague, an indestructible, indefatigable defender of the oppressed.
Despite this, and that Siegel and Shuster never mentioned Jesus in any interview or writing, Superman is widely perceived as a Christ metaphor. The parallels would seem obvious, but in truth these were added years after Superman’s creation.
comments powered by Disqus
- Josh Hawley Earns F in Early American History
- Does Germany's Holocaust Education Give Cover to Nativism?
- "Car Brain" Has Long Normalized Carnage on the Roads
- Hawley's Use of Fake Patrick Henry Quote a Revealing Error
- Health Researchers Show Segregation 100 Years Ago Harmed Black Health, and Effects Continue Today
- Nelson Lichtenstein on a Half Century of Labor History
- Can America Handle a 250th Anniversary?
- New Research Shows British Industrialization Drew Ironworking Methods from Colonized and Enslaved Jamaicans
- The American Revolution Remains a Hotly Contested Symbolic Field
- Untangling Fact and Fiction in the Story of a Nazi-Era Brothel