Larry Tye is the author of a new biography of the first great superhero, Superman: The High-flying Story of America's Most Enduring Hero. He has also written Home Lands: Portraits of the New Jewish Diaspora. Recently, he flew through Chicago to discuss his new Superman book at both comic-book stores… and also congregations, as much of the book discusses the Jewishness of its super subject.
Aside from loving comics, what is your background?
I was a journalist for 20 years, 15 of them as a medical and environmental writer at the Boston Globe. I won most every award there was in journalism for series on everything from the environmental nightmare the Soviets left behind to the end of privacy.
Did you grow up with comics or is this a recent interest?
[I] grew up a Superman fan— in comics, TV and movies— but never an over-the-top one. I was interested in Superman for what he tells us about our love of heroes, since he's our longest-lasting hero of the last century. I also wanted to be 10 again, and I was during the two years I was writing this book.
What about Judaism? What has been your experience?
I grew up in a Jewish family that was one of the most active in the Boston area, and my second book was a look at the thriving Jewish diaspora, a story I told through the stories of seven Jewish communities worldwide and that I spoke about at a dozen venues in and around Chicago. I remain a committed Jew— culturally, religiously and spiritually.
What made you first see the Jewish/Superman connections? What are some of these?
I read about it, then researched it, then couldn't resist writing about it. Here are a few:
Superman's creators were Jews (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster). So were his publishers, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz. So were many of his best writers and artists and editors over the years.
Smart Jewish kids like Jerry and Joe got into comics partly because anti-Semitism closed off other, more lucrative and esteemed writing jobs at ad agencies, magazines and elsewhere.
But my favorite connection is the fact that Superman himself was a Jew. We can see the evidence in his name on Krypton, Kal-El, which roughly translates into vessel of God. Another hint: his parents saved him by floating him in outer space, then watching him be adopted by two gentiles… who raised him as their own and discovered he was a very special boy (if that's not the Moses/Exodus story than I don't know what is).
There's lots more— from the watchwords of the Mishnah, truth, justice, peace, being nearly identical to Superman's "Truth, justice and the American Way"— to his home planet exploding at the same time Jerry and Joe's familial world in Eastern Europe was exploding at the hands of the Nazis.
Last hint: any name ending in 'MAN' is a superhero, a Jew… or, in this case, both.
Which other superheroes do you see as particularly influenced by Jewish ideas?
Batman was created by Jews, too, as were Spiderman and most of the other early comic superheroes. Many, like Stanley Lieber, saved their real name for the great American novel they dreamed of writing. In the meantime, he decided to make a living writing a few comics that happened to hit pay dirt (his pen name was Stan Lee, his heroes ranging from Spiderman to others of Marvel's best).
They all drew about what they knew, which was things Jewish, which is why their heroes are fraught (Spiderman), driven (Batman), and, to a man, intent on repairing the world.
When you speak in non-Jewish settings, like comics stores or conventions, about Superman, do you focus on the Jewish aspects of his story?
I do, always, although it's not necessarily the opening of my talk there. It's mainly a matter of emphasis and tone, but the substance is nearly identical everywhere since it's the centerpiece of the Superman story and the part most people don't know.
Of all the many, many TV and movie portrayals of Superman, which is your favorite? Which do you think is the most "Jewish"?
I'm a sucker for George Reeves, the Superman of the original Adventures of Superman TV series. That's mainly because I grew up with him. The most Jewish, to me, was Christopher Reeve, because his Clark Kent was so awkward but the Superman inside him was so convincing. He was, like me, a schlub on the outside hoping that everyone— especially the pretty girls— were smart enough to see beyond my awkward exterior.
Which Jewish actor, living or dead, would you have picked to play Superman?
Paul Newman, assuming you count him as Jewish. His dad was and he called himself a Jew. He had the strength and elegance and presence to be a very convincing superhero.
Do you have other books? What about?
Please have a look at my website to see my five other published books and the one I am working on now, which is a bio of Robert Kennedy.