On paper, the NYCC panel was called "Jews and Comics: A Cottage Industry." After an hour or so of lively discussion, though, a better one might have been "Superman: So is he Jewish or What?"
Such was the kind of debate taking place in this biblically-themed discussion of the generation of artists from the golden age of comics. The ones who created the superhero, the supervillain, and as Jerry Robinson (creator of the freakin' Joker) describes, "were almost 99% Jewish."
The panel was moderated by David Hajdu, author of last year's fantastic "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America." Panel members included Arie Kaplan (From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comics), Danny Fingeroth (Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero), Simcha Weinstein (Up, Up and Oy Vey!: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comicbook Superhero) and Robinson, the resident living legend of the panel. Or as Weinstein, the biggest rabbi/fanboy I've ever met said: "I get to pray to god but Jerry IS a god."
The genesis (pun intended) of this panel was a way of paying homage to the veterans of the golden age of comic books, many of whom entered into the biz because the anti-semitism of the day prevented them joining the professions that are Jewish stereotypes today. The other stereotype, of overbearing Jewish mothers hounding their daughters about when they would settle down with a nice doctah or a lawyah would take a few more decades.
But the discussion gradually dissolved from speculating how many writers and inkers were Jewish to how many of the classic superheroes were Jewish themselves. Certainly there is the obvious parallel of Moses and Superman. Both men from noble birth whose parents shoved them into a vessel (wicker basket/rocket ship, same difference) to be raised by a foster family and eventually become the savior of mankind. "Though it would be very hard to circumsize Superman," Rabbi Weinstein noted.
Also, like a god, Superman's powers make him nearly omnipotent. It's tricky not to paint yourself into a corner writing a Superman story, probably why so many of his tales stem from the drama of people expecting too much from him.
For Jews, historically the outsiders or victims in nearly every society they have been a part of, the superhero is the ultimate symbol of assimilation. There is nothing more American than Captain America (except maybe Stephen Colbert draped in nothing but the American flag), and he was created by two nice Jewish boys from New York. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's lives were pretty far removed from Wonder Bread™ white-picket-fence Americana, so they created a living, breathing, ass-kicking embodiment of the American flag as a way to fit in. And mainstream America ate it up.
Still, the three authors on stage, all of whom interviewed many golden-age comics people during the creation of their books, said the artists they spoke to were always hesitant to admit there was a direct Jewish subtext in the comics. When Marvel sent Captain America off to battle Hitler and his Nazi goons, it was to sell lots of comic books, not to end the Holocaust.
And until recently, there were very few superheroes who could have been identified openly as Jews. DC made Batwoman Jewish as a way of diversifying their universe. Marvel outted Quicksilver as one of the chosen people in the 1993 series Infinity Crusade. Even the Thing had his very own Bar Mitzvah in 2002. And many other superheroes and villains have been identified as either practitioners of the Jewish
faith or at least having ancestry of Jewish origin, including Kitty Pryde/Shadow Cat, The Atom, Volcana and Harley Quinn.
Then of course there is Magneto, a Holocaust survivor. Perhaps no villain in all of Comicdom has more tangled motives than he. One fanboy during the Q&A following the discussion made an excellent point that Magneto may in fact be the ultimate Zionist. His dream of Avalon, a haven for mutants to live their lives free of persecution is eerily similar to the story of Israel. Only Theodor Herzl didn't have the power to manipulate metal. Though we might've seen a Jewish homeland a lot earlier if he did.
Like all symbolism-rich fiction out there, the panel members agreed that many correlations between Jews and superheroes are probably best if you don't read too much into them. Superman is not Jewish. (He's not Christ either. I'm talking to you, Bryan Singer.) He's a fictional alien with super strength and the ability to fly.
Fittingly, the only white-haired god the panel members could agree on was sitting right on stage with them. His name was Jerry Robinson.