Up, Up, And Oy Vey!

By | Sunday, September 02, 2007 Leave a Comment
I got around to reading Up, Up, and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero by Rabbi Simcha Weinstein.

I'm the kind of guy who likes taking in different perspectives on things I enjoy. I come to any subject with my own biases and interpretations, obviously, and I usually find it refreshing to get someone else' point of view on the topic, so that I might have a better, more comprehensive understanding of the subject. By having more background information on something, the greater and deeper my appreciation of it. For example...

Q: Why did the squirrel cross the road?
A: He was stapled to the chicken.

Granted, that's not the world's greatest joke, but you understand where the (attempt at) humor comes from. And you understand that because you already know the original with which you can compare the two. It speaks to the absurdity of the original by making the new answer even more absurd -- under what possible circumstances would a squirrel be stapled to a chicken? And not just any chicken, but the chicken -- that single, proverbial fowl that has gone back and forth across that same stretch of asphalt for generations. If, somehow, you didn't know the chicken, the squirrel joke is lost on you. You only understand the squirrel joke in the context of the chicken joke.

That's how I approach comics. The more I know about them and the more varied perspectives I can bring to the table in examining them, the more I "get it." That's how/why I came upon Up, Up, and Oy Vey!

The book is a pretty light read. I breezed through over half of it on my lunch hour the other day, and finished it this morning in the hazy mental fog of having to let the dog out earlier than I would've liked. Each chapter focuses on a different superhero or superhero group, and relates how they espouse a particular Jewish value or trait. The focus is largely on the most well-known heroes -- Superman, Batman, Captain America, Spider-Man, etc. -- with Sabra being the notable exception. In most cases, the heroes were created by Jewish men and there's a brief biography of most of them as a way of providing the background for the characters' creation.

In terms of hard information, this was pretty much all old news for me. I've known about the Jewish heritage of all the creators mentioned and how they (often subconsciously) used their heroes as allegories for their own frustrations in balancing their Jewish heritage with being accepted as "true" Americans. Even many of the quotes from creators that are used were ones I had already seen/heard elsewhere. Some of the comparisons from Jewish lore to specific comic book issues/stories were new to me, as was most of the Hebrew that's mentioned. But that was about it.

Weinstein did do a fair job of presenting the comic book stories (most of which I had personally read before) with a decidedly Jewish interpretation. But I felt that the specificity of the examples -- especially in light of other, broader examples I was already aware of -- limited the impact of the book. I could just as easily see similar books pulling out just as many examples of Buddist or Muslim teachings to much the same effect. And knowing that Siegel, Shuster, Kane, Lee, Kirby, Eisner, and Claremont were all Jewish makes the examples seem under-researched and superficial.

The book wasn't bad at all. My biggest complaint was really that it didn't have enough weight to it; I think a lot more could have been done with the subject matter. Perhaps it's because I've done so much reading on these creators and characters already that I'm far too familiar with the material. This might well be wholly new for many people and, if you didn't know that Bob Kane or Stan Lee were Jewish, this is probably an excellent book to introduce you to those ideas. But it really strikes me as a more introductory text than what I'd be looking for and I have to admit some disappointment with it because of that.
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