A new exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Belgium traces the Jewish backgrounds of superheroes such as Superman, Batman and Captain America.
Poor Jewish immigrants to America were drawn to comics because they did not need money, education or social status, said curator Bruno Benvindo, and many of the early cartoon strips were in ‘Yinglish’ – a mixture of Yiddish and English.
The global context of the Second World War helped shape some of today’s best-known figures, with Superman – dreamt up by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – shown scooping up Hitler and Stalin before dumping them in Geneva for trial.
“It was hard [for the Jewish cartoonists] because the publishing houses were ruthless for these young and sometimes naive creators,” said Benvindo, recalling how Siegel and Shuster sold the rights to Superman for £100 in 1938.
Both men lived in abject poverty, struggling to feed themselves and their families until the 1970s, when production company Warner – which by then owned the Superman copyright – gave them a pension.
The Belgian exhibition, called Superheroes Never Die, runs until 26 April and covers cartoonists such as Harry Hershfield, Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman. The latter won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus, which tells how his father survived Auschwitz.
It also covers the life stories of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, who created Captain America and Hulk, in their later series X-Men. Both were sons of Jewish immigrants, and in X-Men, launched in 1963, mutants are victimised for their differences, in a reflection of the Jewish experience.