“Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero"

Marvel Comics editor and comic book historian Danny Fingeroth on the role of Jewish writers, artists, and publishers 

PITTSFIELD – On Monday, August 16 at 6:45 p.m., the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires welcomes Danny Fingeroth, one of the preeminent writers about comics and their role in popular culture. He will present a Zoom program based on his book, Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero.

A former Marvel Comics editor and writer, Fingeroth will discuss how many of the most significant comics and graphic novel creators were 1st and 2nd generation immigrants, and how the creators’ Jewish origins may have helped make superheroes some of the most familiar popular culture icons of all time. The innovators to be covered include Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who invented major Marvel superheroes including the Avengers, Hulk, and X-Men; Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman; Bob Kane and Bill Finger, who created Batman in a Bronx apartment; and Will Eisner, who gave the world the landmark superhero, The Spirit, and pioneered the modern graphic novel.

This Jewish Federation of the Berkshires program will be presented via Zoom. Please visit our calendar of events at jewishberkshires.org for a link to this program.

Danny Fingeroth will also deliver a live version of this program on Thursday, August 19 at 6 p.m. at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts in Pittsfield, part of the Berkshire Art Association’s (BAA) comic and cartoon art show “Everyone Is a Hero: A Comic and Cartoon Art Tribute to Our Local Heroes.” 

Catching Up With Danny Fingeroth

During the pandemic, Danny Fingeroth reports that he and his family spent months in Monterey, escaping the uncertainty in his native New York City. He was back in the Berkshires for a month when the BJV caught up with him in early June. Our conversation touched on some of the themes of his upcoming programs, as well as his 2019 biography A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee and what it was like for him to work in comic book publishing as superheroes became a multimedia entertainment juggernaut in the early 21st century.

When the character of Superman was introduced in 1938, comic book publishing was dominated by Jews, both on the business and creative sides. It was among those faintly disreputable enterprises – such as movie-making, early on – that were eschewed by establishment businesspeople and therefore offered opportunities for creative and ambitious Jewish entrepreneurs. As Fingeroth explains, “the comic book business was founded largely by people who had been publishing pulp magazines” – racy men’s magazines with lurid themes and images of provocatively-posed women – “and many of them were Jewish. So they were not going to keep people from entering because they were Jewish.”

That differed from the world of mainstream newspapers, where securing a syndicated comic strip could prove extremely lucrative. “Newspaper comics were very hard for Jews to get into,” says Fingeroth. “There were a couple, but that was sort of a gentile club…unwelcoming to the Jews,” and especially to younger writers and artists who would become pioneers of the comic book industry. Fingeroth says the first comic books republished newspaper strips, and when that source of material was tapped out, publishers needed original work.

Providing that material were teenagers like Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, who created the Superman character. Says Fingeroth: “These were Jewish kids from the Glenville neighborhood of Cleveland, who were into science fiction. They were full of ideas and they had been doing work for DC Comics on other characters. When they were teenagers, they worked on some of the earliest science fiction fanzines. Much of that world was sort of a Jewish world. Before the Internet, fans would mail each other fanzines and letters, [putting out], with a primitive mimeograph technology, publications that included reviews of science fiction and [their own] short work.

“The fact that they were Jewish, I think, was incidental on a conscious level. They were young people who happened to enjoy [this work] and then it became an opportunity to actually do it for a living.” Fingeroth thinks the last thing they were interested in doing was overtly Jewish work although sometimes, as with Hollywood movies from the Studio Era, “there was stuff that we can look back at now and say, ‘oh yeah, this came from a Jewish consciousness. That's from somebody, [who brings] that traditional kind of immigrant point of view, of outsider status, of kind of being embarrassed by your parents’ funny accent, by the non-traditional religious customs and observances, as well as millennia of anti-Semitism. That all was in the background.

“But I think of the foreground, with lot of them, was poverty. It was the Great Depression and they had these abilities to make up stories, to draw stories. Maybe their skills were not polished enough –  combined with a lot of kind of unspoken or sometimes spoken anti-Semitism – for the more traditional lucrative fields like mainstream publishing or advertising.”

So comic books it was. Publishers, says Fingeroth, “were happy to have these teenagers who had worked for peanuts, but what was, for the teenagers, pretty good money. So you have a situation where you have 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds out-earning their fathers. They were contributing significantly to, or entirely supporting, their families through this new looked-down-at and or ignored medium of comic books.”

Fingeroth adds that generally speaking, “comics was not a place to aspire to” – it was a living, a stepping stone to a better career in film or advertising, or possibly a lucrative newspaper strip. The early comic book writer and artist seemed to be a more practical type of person, who (in contrast to dreamers hoping to make their marks in Hollywood) preferred the security of steady work and proximity to family. Comic book creators churned out as much work as they could, as they were paid by the page – and looked at their output as a commercial, rather than an artistic, endeavor. “Most of them took it literally page by page, day by day,” says Fingeroth – the idea that their work might have lasting artistic worth or future commercial value to collectors was virtually absent.

Although today the superhero is the character-type overarchingly associated with comic books, it took Siegel and Schuster five years to sell their Superman idea. The Man of Steel first appeared in Action Comics in the midst of the Great Depression and on the brink of global conflict, his motto “Truth, Justice, and The American Way.” Just as the Hollywood studio system, headed by Jews, developed an idealized vision of America that was internalized by their audiences, comic book creators of the Golden Age (1938-1950) imbued their superheroes with a stolid brand of patriotism. Superheroes used their powers to fight the Forces of Evil, their personalities one-dimensional and their adventures simple enough for school-age children to follow.

The popularity of superheroes waned by the 1950s, though myriad comic book genres flourished. In the 1950s, the industry was dealt a devastating blow by a campaign by church groups and family groups tying comics to juvenile delinquency. In response to public and governmental pressure, publishers implemented a “Comics Code” that sanitized much of the wild creativity, diversity, and subversiveness that emerged in the postwar years. Television further eroded the audience for comic books, and many titles were discontinued, resulting in mass layoffs of staff.

One of the survivors was Stan Lee who, starting as a teenager in the 1940s, worked as a writer and editor at Timely/Atlas publishing house owned by the Goodman family, his mother’s cousins. Timely published the Marvel group of comics, which had introduced characters like Captain America and Sub-Mariner in the Golden Age. Around 1960, superheroes were making a comeback, and Lee was charged by publisher Martin Goodman with coming up with new characters for Marvel. Over the next 11 years, Stan Lee – along with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko – would change the nature of comic books and lay the groundwork for the Marvel franchise that today rakes in billions of dollars in box office receipts, toy/merchandise sales, comic book sales, and licensing deals.

Lee and Kirby (co-creator of Fantastic Four, X-Men, and The Avengers) were in their 40s, and Ditko (co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange) just a few years younger – surprisingly mature for creative artists who so thoroughgoingly reimagined comic book storytelling and visuals. They not only connected with the contemporary youth culture of the baby boomers, they created a “universe” of characters, imaginary worlds, and storylines imbued with an enduring mythic appeal. Now, nearly 60 years after their first appearance in comic books, new generations are telling new stories about Thor, Ant-Man, and The X-Men in the way the ancients must have spun tales about their pantheons of divine beings.

Fingeroth writes that Stan Lee’s “one key insight” was

…to see that, in the early 1960s, there was an audience of adult fans who had read comics as children and were still interested in them. If the then-current kid audience for comics was being lost to TV, then maybe there was some way to reclaim some of those older readers, now in college or the work world, to get them to help spread the idea that comics were cool or even relevant, while not losing the larger audience of children. To do that would require inventing comics that could operate on multiple levels.

Says Fingeroth: “The creation myths are just that – there’s half a dozen different stories about whose idea it was for Marvel to try superheroes again. But they did, starting with the Fantastic Four. Somewhere, from the combination of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the company publisher, Martin Goodman came the idea of having characters who were – you know, the easy shorthand is ‘neurotic’ or feet of clay. But the idea is characters who were a step or two closer in their behavior to how a typical person might react given superpowers. Or coming up against Doctor Doom. Or not being fearless and not having a plan immediately. Or not having members of a team automatically get along.”

Fingeroth, in his Stan Lee biography, writes that Spider-Man is the exemplar of this type of Marvel character – in his civilian identity, Peter Parker, the hero is beset by the problems of the typical high school student, and yet boldly fights supervillains as Spider-Man. The template for this new type of superhero is that: “He was the best ‘you,’ but without losing your problems or deficiencies. He – and you – overcame (with much struggle) your problems and deficiencies. And, like you, he had to do it over and over.” He adds that Marvel heroes were always in the process of becoming in both their civilian and superhero identities – and that manner of storytelling, replete with cliffhangers that leave you wanting more, propels the recent movies about those characters, as well.

“The stories were definitely still In the realm of the fantastic,” but the world the superheroes lived in was the world the readers also lived in, Fingeroth suggests, “including the way people spoke using colloquialism, contractions, using slang, using humor. And then there were the methods Stan Lee had of bonding with his readers – he didn't condescend to them, nor did he pretend to be a hip and cool youngster himself. He knew his role as sort of a friendly, middle-aged, suburban dad.”

Children and teens remained the core audience, and when the generation that grew up on Marvel came of age, they wanted even more from comic books – and went on to create the stories that they wanted to read. Fingeroth was among the cohort who remade comic book publishing, reimagining the characters, creating stories that were more sophisticated narratively and graphically, and also becoming more creative in the ways these characters might be marketed.

After graduating from film school in the mid-1970s, Fingeroth got a job at Marvel, figuring it “might be fun to do for a couple months.” He worked with Stan Lee’s younger brother, Larry Lieber, who drew and scripted Marvel’s Western comics and went on to do the daily Spider-Man syndicated strip for 30 years. Fingeroth scripted Spider-Man stories, and rose through the ranks to edit Marvel’s entire Spider-Man line, more than 20 titles each month during the 1980s. Along the way, he scripted tales for many of Marvel’s most famous titles.

Through the 1970s, explains Fingeroth, comic books were sold at newsstands and aimed at kids, their prices kept artificially low for the youth market. By the 1980s, shops specializing in comic books began to appear, with different economic models that “changed the nature of who was reading and what they were reading, what could be profitable and what kind of experimental things could be risked.” A strong market emerged for collectors of both books and memorabilia – sales went through the roof in the late 80s and early 90s with people buying comics not to read, but to (they hoped) sell for a profit. “It was an incredible gold rush period,” he says.

But there still weren’t many movies or TV shows. “You needed a few generations of Hollywood executives to retire before you could get someone in Hollywood to say, ‘Oh yeah, Spider-Man isn’t just a dopey thing for 12-year-olds,’” says Fingeroth. “It’s got angst, it’s got backstory, it’s got melodrama.” He relates a (possibly apocryphal) story about Stan Lee pitching the character to a Hollywood exec, who responded: “I love it! But does it have to be about a spider?”

Of course, that changed. These days, it can seem like there are no movies that are not about superheroes. In Fingeroth’s opinion, this fascination will continue, as ‘superhero’ is now a movie genre in the same as ‘westerns’ and ‘musicals.’

 “If you start counting with the first X-Men movie in 2000,” he says, “then this superhero craze has gone on for 20 years, when most people thought it would be over in 2 or 3 years. Marvel did a similar thing with comics – you wouldn't make much money with romance comics, but you'd have superhero comics that were more about romance than they were about the action.

“Let me just say, by the way, oddly enough, superhero comics are not doing so well. The graphic novel and books for children and young adults, the kind Scholastic puts out, sell in the millions. Movies are the vehicle for people to get their superhero fix. I think superheroes are a permanent part of the [entertainment] landscape, but there will be sub-genres.”

He adds: “The Marvel formula seems to pervade a lot of popular adventure fiction. It has lasted longer than anybody on the inside predicted and shows no sign of slowing down. It’s a tribute to what Stan and Jack and Ditko came up with in the early 60s. It has such staying power.”

Danny Fingeroth has spoken about comics at venues including The Smithsonian Institution, Columbia University, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as on NPR’s All Things Considered and NBC’s Today Show, and has written about them for publications including The Los Angeles Times and The Baltimore Sun. He has taught at The New School, NYU, the Media Bistro, and MoCCA. He is on the Board of Directors of The Institute for Comics Studies, and on the Board of Advisors of MoCCA.