The Religious Affiliation of Comic Book Character
Denny Colt, better known as "The Spirit," is a comic book superhero created by legendary Jewish comic book creator Will Eisner in 1940. Eisner's Spirit comics are among the most influential and critically acclaimed in comics history.
We do not know the religious affiliation of the Spirit. Will Eisner has written numerous comics featuring overtly Jewish characters. The Spirit is not overtly Jewish. Did Eisner regard the character as "secretly" Jewish? Eisner himself always said "no." The Spirit was created at a time when a strong taboo existed against opently identifying the religious affiliation of star comic book characters. Many of the major comic book characters created during this era were created by Jewish writers and artists, but the characters themselves were identifably non-Jewish. This may be the case with The Spirit, as well.
From: "Tonight I'm gonna party like it's 5767", posted 22 September 2006 on "SwanShadow Thinks Out Loud" blog website (http://www.swanshadow.com/2006/09/tonight-im-gonna-party-like-its-5767.html; viewed 21 May 2007):
Happy New Year and L'Chaim to all of SSTOL's Jewish readers! (You know who you are. At least, I hope you do.)
In celebration of Rosh Hashanah - which, for the benefit of my fellow goyim, begins tonight at sunset - today's Comic Art Friday celebrates heroes and heroines of the Hebrew persuasion. If you're an SSTOL regular, you've seen both of today's artworks on previous occasions, but feel welcome to enjoy them again on this New Year's Eve/Day (depending upon what time of day you read this).
This first piece is a favorite from my ever-growing "Common Elements" series, featuring pairs of unrelated heroes who share some factor in common. On the left, one of the most influential creations in the history of comics: Denny Colt, a.k.a. The Spirit. On the right, the first mainstream superheroine to openly acknowledge her Jewish faith: Katherine "Kitty" Pryde, a.k.a. Shadowcat, of the X-Men and Excalibur.
[The Spirit and Kitty 'Shadowcat' Pryde, pencils and inks by comics artist Brian 'Briz' Ahern]
The common element I had in mind when putting Denny and Kitty together actually isn't their religion, but their code names. Early in her superheroic career, before settling on the Shadowcat identity (though she's often referred to in the comics simply by her real name) Kitty used the nom de guerre Sprite, which (not surprisingly) derives from the same linguistic root as Spirit.
When asked about The Spirit's background, his creator Will Eisner always stated that he never specifically thought of The Spirit as a Jewish character, and certainly never intended to portray him as such. However, the legendary cartoonist and comics historian Jules Feiffer, who began his career as Eisner's assistant, has written concerning the blue-suited hero, "His name may have been Denny Colt, but you knew it had been Cohen at some point."
From: Thomas Tracy, "Spidey's webs have Jewish roots", published 21 May 2007 in Fort Greene/Clinton Hill Courier (http://www.courierlife.net/site/tab10.cfm?newsid=18369761&BRD=2384&PAG=461&dept_id=552856&rfi=6; viewed 21 May 2007):
...Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, author of "Up, Up, And Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero." ...Weinstein, founder of the Jewish Student Foundation of Downtown Brooklyn and currently a rabbi for both Pratt Institute and Long Island College Hospital...
But Spider-Man is not the only comic book character to be infused with Jewish values.
Superman, Captain America, the Spirit, Batman and the Incredible Hulk (who Weinstein calls a gamma-radiated golem) all have Jewish themes woven into their masks, capes and cowls and - in the Hulk's case - loincloths.
"Up, Up and Oy Vey" is not meant to lay claim to America's favorite heroes as Jewish, but instead wishes to celebrate an open dialogue, Weinstein said.
"Superheroes are a mixture of religious beliefs and pop culture," said Weinstein. "They're a great way to break down boundaries."
From: Leah Finkelshteyn, "Thwak! To Our Enemies", published in Hadassah Magazine, June/July 2003 Vol. 84 No. 10 (http://www.hadassah.org/news/content/per_hadassah/archive/2003/03_JUN/art.htm; viewed 19 June 2007):
..."It is almost genetic in the Jewish mind and soul to deal with storytelling," says veteran comic artist and novelist Will Eisner, who revolutionized the comic book industry with his work on The Spirit, a noir-inspired series about a blue-suited vigilante-detective. And this predisposition, combined with what Eisner calls the "American culture of images," has helped create an ever evolving field that at its best entertains and informs with a visual punch that reaches straight to the subconscious and at its worst (though still entertaining) glorifies a lurid, puerile fantasy world...
For mature audiences, a number of graphic novels - a term coined by Eisner for A Contract With God (see "Setting the Standard" below) - investigate Jewish themes in depth. These book-length relatives of the comics have explored the Holocaust, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and even include a number of autobiographies by Jewish writer-artists - illustrator Marvin Friedman's initial foray into the graphic novel, Marvin Friedman, is a recent example...
Eisner, who has worked in comics since their inception ("I was there at the bris," he says), disagrees. He feels that any type of Jewish feel to comic books, at least the early ones, is largely coincidental. "Comics in the mid-30's were... the bottom of all the art forms," Eisner posits. "[They] offered an opportunity to those outside the mainstream. The daily news strips, the advertising world, were difficult for Jews to get into."
The background of those early artists and writers was deliberately hidden, says Eisner, "because they were writing what they regarded as classic American high-adventure stories and creating classic American heroes." Superman and his many imitators were meant to reflect mainstream values.
Still, many fans insist the ethnicity of these beloved characters is obvious. "They're all Jewish, superheroes," writes Michael Chabon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Random House), his Pulitzer Prize-winning fictionalized account of the people who created the Golden Age of comic books. "Superman, you don't think he's Jewish? Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself."
Similarly, says Rand of Eisner's The Spirit, "His name may be Denny Colt, but he was clearly circumcised."...
From: "Stuart Moore's A Thousand Flowers: O Deadly Night" forum discussion, started 2 December 2003 on Newsarama website (http://forum.newsarama.com/archive/index.php/t-6949.html; viewed 28 June 2007):
12-02-2003, 09:00 AM
...Which brings us to Christmas comics.
On the face of it, Christmas comics are an odd phenomenon. The whole point of the holidays is communal experience -- reunion with loved ones, families gathering together. But comics-reading -- any reading -- is an inherently solitary activity. How does this fit together?... But now we're getting awfully heavy for a column about holiday comics. Pour yourself an eggnog (ecch -- does anybody really drink that stuff?) and let's look back at some of the best, and strangest, examples of the genre from years past.
A couple of notes before we begin. First off, holiday comics stories are almost always Christmas stories, despite the number of influential Jewish creators and editors in the field. This is partly because, in earlier decades, publishers tried to cater to the Christian majority of readers (and distributors). But it's also because of the nature of Christmas itself.
First... there's no holiday like Christmas for silly smiles, treacly sentimentality, and the ability to fool yourself into thinking all's right with the world for just one night. Which, if you think about it, plays right into those teenage tendencies we were talking about up above.
Second: When it comes to sentimental Christmas stories, DC rules. There have been very few Marvel Christmas stories, and they haven't been very good. This is partly because of the serial nature of Marvel's stories, which made holiday-themed tales harder to squeeze in -- they'd tend to call attention to the fact that, for instance, the entire previous year of Avengers took place the week before Christmas...
Will Eisner was known for his annual "Christmas SPIRIT" stories, which featured the title character either in a cameo or not at all. The Spirit's motto: "On Christmas, another Spirit fights crime in its own way." These tales paved the way for some of Eisner's later, non-holiday stories, where the Spirit's presence was incidental to the story. But they're also charming in themselves, telling tales of reformed criminals, spoiled little rich girls... and, in one memorable installment, an apologetic Santa Claus who explains to the readers why some of them didn't receive gifts this year. (Santa was waylaid in Central City and spent the night in jail.)
Unlike most comics creators of the time, Eisner was very conscious that he was writing for adults as well as children. Consequently, his Christmas stories have a little more of an edge to them...
Only Eisner made it explicit, but in most of these stories the heroes are pretty powerless. They do their best, but the nature of the stories means that, in the end, things have to work out because of a higher power. Take, for instance, "Silent Night of the Batman," by Mike Friedrich and Neal Adams (Batman #219, 1969; reprinted in Christmas with the Super-Heroes and elsewhere), a short piece wherein, at Commissioner Gordon's urging, Batman reluctantly takes Christmas Eve off to go caroling all night with the Gotham City P.D. While Batman croons, a series of vignettes shows how, on this one night, crimes are thwarted, consciences awakened, and everything just works out all right. On reflection, it seems very consciously inspired by the Spirit stories...
Webpage created 21 May 2007. Last modified 28 June 2007.
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