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Arie Kaplan

The Battle of the Atheist Jews

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Every hero needs a villain. Superman has Lex Luthor, Harry Potter has Voldemort, Holmes has Moriarty. And in all the great stories, the really mythic ones, the hero is usually disturbingly similar to the villain. It’s like the protagonist and antagonist are peering into a funhouse mirror when they look at each other…and they’re both disgusted at what they see. comicbook.jpg

I’m sure that somewhere deep down, MAD Magazine publisher William M. Gaines realized he was pretty much the same person as Dr. Frederick Wertham. The same, but – you know – different. Because Gaines was the hero, and Wertham was the villain. Only, mainstream American society saw it the other way ‘round. Sort of.

In 1952, when MAD was first created, it was just one title in Gaines’s vast comic book empire, which was called EC Comics. EC stood for Entertaining Comics, and that’s exactly what they were – grisly horror titles like Tales From the Crypt and inventive sci-fi anthols like Weird Science. Some parents and educators thought these EC comics were corrupting our children.

One of the loudest voices in the “comics are Eeeevil� chorus belonged to noted psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Wertham. Long story short, Wertham’s bestselling anti-comics diatribe Seduction of the Innocent led to a nationwide panic, with parents and teachers all over America forbidding kids from reading comic books. And the only title EC was able to keep publishing when the smoke cleared was its harmless little humor title MAD, which escaped Wertham’s wrath by not being as overtly subversive as the other EC comics (had he but known!), and which escaped censorship by morphing into a “slick� magazine.

But here’s the sad part. Wertham and Gaines were really playing on the same team. And it’s a shame that neither man realized it. Wertham, a supporter of the civil rights movement and a champion of social justice, was just trying to do right by the nation’s children. So was Gaines, by refusing to talk down to the nation’s youth. In fact, with Tales From the Crypt et al, it could be argued he was giving kids a psychologically healthy outlet for their fears and aggression.

Both men had a soft spot for the younger generation. Both were Jews. Both were avowed atheists. And both refused to back down. I’m told that towards the end of Wertham’s life, he admitted that he’s probably overreacted about the harmful effects of comic books. But it’s a shame that Gaines and Wertham couldn’t have just gotten together and had a beer, and put the whole thing behind them. In another world, perhaps an alternate Bizarro universe somewhere, maybe the Bizarro Gaines and the Bizarro Wertham are best pals. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?

Arie Kaplan is a writer for MAD Magazine who also writes for film, TV, and comics. Arie’s first book, Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed!, is in bookstores now. His second book, chronicling the history of Jews in comic books, will be published in fall 2008 from JPS. Check out his website, http://www.ariekaplan.com/.

Posted on November 16, 2007

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Why Can’t Jews Fight Crime Too?

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comicbook.jpgSo, a couple of months ago I’m visiting my parents for the High Holidays and I’m watching Letterman, and Dave asks actor/screenwriter Seth Rogen about the rumors that he’s going to be writing and starring in a Green Hornet movie. Letterman infers that Rogen is an odd choice to play the dashing radio and TV hero (basically a high-tech Lone Ranger). To which Rogen shrugs and says, “Jews hate crime too! Why can’t Jews fight crime?�

This strikes me as interesting for any number of reasons. For one thing, Seth Rogen isn’t your father’s Jewish comedian. He’s a member of the new pantheon of hip, urban, modern celebra-Jews, like Sarah Silverman and Sasha Baron Cohen. I find that refreshing. I mean, I was getting a little sick of the whole stoop-shouldered, “Can I do your taxes?� type of Jew that so many people are familiar with.

And I think it’s interesting that Seth Rogen usually plays Jewish characters, but it’s not like you know he’s Jewish because he’ll pause in the middle of a scene and say, “Oy, my prostate is killing me!� You know he’s Jewish because he’ll make a raunchy reference to touching a Hebrew school classmate’s junk (as in The Forty Year Old Virgin), or he’ll wax rhapsodically about the bad-ass Jewish action heroes in the film Munich (as he did in Knocked Up). See, this is a Jewish character I can relate to.

It’s also interesting that Seth Rogen is primed to play The Green Hornet. Because that would make him the second plus-size hipster Jewish comedian IN A ROW who was developing a comic book movie project with the word “Green� in the title. See, not too long ago, it was announced that comedian (and fellow Red Sea Pedestrian) Jack Black was going to star in a movie based on the DC comics property Green Lantern, about an interplanetary cop in emerald tights.

Supposedly, the script would’ve been an action comedy. Too bad the project was put into turnaround, because it would’ve been a really interesting choice. Some comics fans balked at the idea of Jack Black being Green Lantern, because that would have automatically made the film a comedy. But those comics fans need to really start taking their Ritalin and stop taking this stuff so damn seriously.

Now the Jack Black Green Lantern project is now relegated to that “Woulda Shoulda Coulda� pile of film projects, and it does make me wonder: If the Seth Rogen Green Hornet movie ALSO falls by the wayside, does that mean that ANOTHER zaftig Jewish comedian gets to then develop a “Green Something� superhero project? Will we see Evan Handler (Californication, Sex & the City) as Green Arrow? Will Sarah Silverman gain a hundred pounds and play Green Flame? (Look it up. Better yet, don’t.) Is this just a trend that will continue until one of these “Green� projects actually gets made? The mind boggles…

Arie Kaplan is a writer for MAD Magazine who also writes for film, TV, and comics. Arie’s first book, Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed!, is in bookstores now. His second book, chronicling the history of Jews in comic books, will be published in fall 2008 from JPS. Check out his website, www.ariekaplan.com.

Posted on November 14, 2007

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That’s Irving Spiderman to You!

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Around 2002 when the first Spider-Man movie came out, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart joked that now that Spidey was a big celebrity, he should probably make an effort to fit in more with the many Jews in Hollywood by changing his name to “Irving Spiderman.� It was a great bit, but it begs the question: Is the Amazing Spider-Man really Jewish?

comicbook.jpgAt first blush, that might seen like a stupid question: of course he isn’t! But around the time that Spider-Man 2 came out, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon (author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) stated that Spider-Man is a crypto-Jew. (And he should know; he co-wrote Spider-Man 2.)

To Chabon, the Spider-Man story is rife with Jewish signifiers. He’s from Queens, and he’s raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. I guess the implication here is that he’s very working-class Noo Yawk, in an old-school Jewish way. To me, eh, I tend to disagree…Well, I disagree and agree at the same time. Let me explain.

See, I guess my problem with Chabon’s theory is that it supposes that Jews have a monopoly on the whole working-class Noo Yawk thing. I mean, I live in Queens, and there are precious few Jews in my neighborhood. But you can’t swing a dead cat around here without hitting a Greek immigrant. So is Spidey Greek? I don’t think so.

But maybe Chabon is also responding to the fact that in his secret identity of Peter Parker, Spidey seems suspiciously like an amalgam of every Jewish stereotype; he’s studious, physically weak, and he’s really guilty all the time. But again, is that particularly a Jewish thing? I know plenty of Catholics who fit that bill.

Spider-Man’s co-creator Stan Lee has this theory as to why the web-slinger is so damn popular with so many people. Lee believes that Spidey’s universal appeal lies in the fact that his entire face is covered by a mask. So that, if you’re an African-American comics fan, you could imagine that it was your face underneath the mask. And if you were Jewish, you could envision your visage beneath the mask. Okay, makes sense, on a pretty basic psychological level.

But Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) is Jewish. Ah-ha! Maybe Lee was subconsciously layering all these Jewish signifiers into Spider-Man as a way to grapple with his feelings as a young urban Jew.

I think it’s simpler than that. I think Lee’s savvy enough to understand – on a conscious level – how much Spidey’s teenage fanbase would identify with such a flawed character. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spider-Man is the ultimate teen identification character.

So, here’s where I stand: Spider-Man isn’t a crypto-Jew, so much as he’s a crypto-minority. He’s a stand-in for Jewish people, yeah. But he’s also a stand-in for African-Americans, Asians, Latinos, women, homosexuals, nerds, teenagers, overweight people, skinny people, short people, and everyone in between. And that’s what makes him truly Amazing.

Arie Kaplan is a writer for MAD Magazine who also writes for film, TV, and comics. Arie’s first book, Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed!, is in bookstores now. His second book, chronicling the history of Jews in comic books, will be published in fall 2008 from JPS. Check out his website, www.ariekaplan.com.

Posted on November 12, 2007

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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