Saturday, December 12, 2009

Hanukkah Special: The Top Ten Jewish Comic Characters

This year, Hanukkah officially started Friday night at sunset, so we thought this would be a perfect time to celebrate the many contributions Jewish creators have made to the comic book medium. Indeed, it's no exaggeration to say that if it weren't for the many Jewish creators who worked in comics during the first years of the medium's existence, comic books as we know them wouldn't exist at all. In particular, the superhero genre was dominated by and almost entirely created by Jewish comic pioneers. It's true that some of this was cultural impact from other mediums like pulp magazines and radio broadcasts of the day, but it's also true that Superman, created by the Jewish writer and artist team of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, jumpstarted both the comic industry in general and superhero comics specifically.

And Siegel and Schuster were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Jewish creators in the Golden Age. Undisputed masters like Will Eisner, Joe Simon, Juile Schwartz, Batman creator Bob Kane (okay, his master title is in some dispute) and the king of comics, Jack Kirby (real name: Jacob Kurtzberg) were just a few of the Jewish giants that created the superhero genre and powered the industry for decades. Not to mention the most famous comic creator of all, Stan "the Man" Lee, who was born Stanley Lieber and decided to work under a pen name, not to anglicize it but rather to save his real name for a planned shift to more prestigious literature.

So without further ado, let's wish all of our Jewish friends a Happy Hanukkah and celebrate together with his list of some of the great Jewish characters that have appeared in the comics that have made all of our lives more enjoyable over the past 75 years.

10. Bernie Rosenthal

Having grown up in 30's Brooklyn and fought his whole life against Nazi tyranny, it makes sense that Captain America would make some Jewish friends along the way. So when writers introduced new love interest Bernie Rosenthal (along with Cap's childhood best pal Arnie Roth) back in the 80's, it was a case of "that's so obvious, why didn't they do it before?" While a later change in writers ended up causing Bernie's departure from Cap's life, for a generation of readers, Bernie Rosenthal remains the bets choice for Mrs. Captain America. Are you listening, Marvel?

9. Colossal Boy

One of the most prominent members of the Legion of Super-Heroes, Colossal Boy was, like many of the other members of the 30th century team, given a seemingly outlandish, futuristic name: Gim Allon. Writer Paul Levitz, however, recognized Allon as an actualy Jewish surname and crafted a storyline where Allon and his new, alien wife have to deal with the realities of inter-faith (and in this case inter-species) marriage thanks in part to his Jewish heritage.

8. Songbird

Songbird, the heart and soul (and sometimes the leader) of the hero team Thunderbolts, began her existence as a pro wrestler and villainess named Screaming Mimi. Thanks to Kurt Busiek, though, she got a new lease on life as Songbird. While her Jewish background hasn't been explored (or even explicitly mentioned in the comics themselves) it has been hinted at by creators in interview2s as well as subtly referenced through her multiple Jewish surnames: her real name is Melissa Gold, while her wrestling alias was Mimi Schwartz.

7. Two-Gun Kid

Speaking of characters who are identified as Jewish entirely through their surnames (which seems to be a bit of a theme here, and for fairly good reason; for many years comic publishers were hesitant to identify characters as belonging to any specific ethnic group for fear that this would alienate readers from other groups and prevent them from being a character everyone could identify with), here's the Two-Gun Kid. Long time readers of Marvel will probably be scratching their head, since Two-Gun's name has for decades been Matt Hawk. Recently, however, the powers that be gave Matt a bit of an ethnic retcon, renaming him Matt Liebowicz, with Hawk apparently a nom de guerre. I'm not exactly sure why Marvel decided to retroactively make the Two-Gun kid Jewish, but then again, the western gunfighter was also a time-traveling member of the Avengers for a brief time. So, why not.

6. Izzy Cohen

While most characters were created to be as generic as possible, however, Stan Lee took the exact opposite approach when he created Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandoes, specifically including as many minorities as he could in the cast to make it as diverse as possible. Thus fans were treated to Irish-Americans (Dum Dum Dugon), Italian-Americans (Dino Manelli), African-Americans (Gabe Jones) and one of the earliest and most prominent Jewish-AMerican characters in comics, Izzy Cohen, a hard-nosed mechanic straight out of Brooklyn. Izzy served as a member in good standing for the entire run on Sgt. Fury, but unlike many of his teammates didn't continue a military career (of SHIELD career) after the war but instead opened his own garage and raised a large family.

5. Arthur

Right from the get-go, flabby sidekick Arthur was one of the highlights of the superhero spoof Tick, lending a touch of normalcy to the otherwise outlandish proceedings (if you can call a grown man in a moth costume "normal"). As it happens, he's also Jewish, as we discovered when he bravely tried to explain Hanukkah to Tick back in 1997. We have a feeling that went about as well as explaining anything to Tick goes.

4. Nite Owl

One of the most influential comics of all time is, of course, Watchmen, and the moral center of that book (if such a thing can be said to exist at all) is upstanding superhero Nite Owl. When he's not wearing his owl suit, though, he's the much more unassuming Dan Dreiberg; with only twelve all too short issues to work with, creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons didn't get into Dan's ethnic heritage very much, but then again, it's pretty secondary to saving (or not saving) the world, so we don't blame them.

3. Magneto

Magneto is probably the only Jewish character on the list whose ethnicity is well known outside of comic book circles. That's because Magneto's origin, which includes an internment in a concentration camp, was featured prominently in the first X-Men film. In the comics, this side of Magneto was introduced as an explanation for his mutant-centric behavior, as it was meant to be a case of "never again". In the movies, though, he comes off as little better than a vengeful lunatic who mis-attributes his suffering to humans in general rather than the Nazi regime; this is especially noticeable in the third film where he spurns Mystique upon the loss of her powers. This can be blamed more on brett Ratner than on the character of Magneto, though; issues like X-Men #199, where Magneto and Kitty Pryde attend a Holocaust survivor reunion in hopes of tracking down missing relatives, are among some of the most interesting and in-depth discussions of Magneto's character done to date.

2. Kitty Pryde

Speaking of Kitty Pryde, here she is at number two on our list. While Magneto may be th emost prominent Jewish character to the general public, Kitty Pryde is undoubtedly the most prominent Jewish character within the comics community. Her heritage and faith have been a central part of the character since her inception, with the Ultimate version even wearing a large Star of David pendant as part of her standard uniform. She's also, by the way, one of the most popular and prominent female superheroes in all of comics. Normally she would place number one on the list, but that spot we had to reserve for a certain ever-lovin' blue-eyed hero known as...

1. Thing

It was a close decision between Kitty Pryde and Thing for number one on our list, but we ended up going with the original clobberer himself. Ben Grimm's Jewish background is technically a recent addition to Marvel continuity, but in a way it's been there since the start. According to many sources, when Stan and Jack originally created the team, Jack began patterning Thing's behavior and background after his own. Thing's outwardly gruff demeanor and his rough-and-tumble past, including run-ins with his former partners in the Yancy street Gang, were based on Jack's own personality and childhood. Extrapolating off of this, then, a few years ago Fantastic Four writer Karl Kesel decided to make the connection to Jack a little more explicit by writing a story where Ben comes in contact with his old rabbi, leading to a discussion of his faith. It's an interesting tale and more than enough reason to put Thing, one of the great comics characters of all time, at the top of our list.

Happy Hanukkah, everyone!

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