«Superman is a Moses Adaptation»
Four Questions to Thomas Nehrlich
Thomas Nehrlich is a literature scholar at Bern University. His current work looks at stories of heroines and heroes from the past and the present, in particular at the ways in which these stories reflect social structures and governance. Many have a Jewish reference. Naomi Lubrich asked Thomas Nehrlich about the fascination heroes and heroines exude on us, about Jewish role models and about the narrative structures of news reporting.
Naomi Lubrich: Thomas, you study heroes and heroines in literature. What interests you about them?
Thomas Nehrlich: For starters, my interest in hero literature is biographical. Like most people, I grew up with the stories of heroines and heroes, with Jim Knopf and Ronja Räubertochter, with Greek myths and adventure novels, and later with heroes from fantasy and science fiction. The superhero series also influenced me greatly. Heroism is the theme of a huge number of works of literature and popular culture. As a scholar, this narrative tradition, perhaps the longest in human history, intrigues me. Looking at heroes brings us back to ancient lore, to the roughly 4000-year-old Babylonian Gilgamesh epic, and to documents from other cultures, such as Japanese manga. Through the portrayal of heroines and heroes in literature and art, we learn a great deal about the societies and eras from which they come.
NL: Judaism plays an important role in your research. Why?
TN: Judaism produced narratives which are among the most important and best-known heroic traditions in our culture. Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, Judith, Esther – they all bear heroic traits. The Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, is full of heroes and heroines. Their travails and challenges relate in some ways to the lives of Jews in the 20th century: Persecution, diaspora, discrimination, violence. I am particularly interested in the reception and adaptation of Jewish characters in superhero stories. For instance, Samson, the warrior with superhumanly strength, is portrayed in the Bible as a superhero. His strength comes from a secret source, which is also his weakness: his hair, which Delilah cuts off. Like Achilles and Siegfried, with whom he shares many aspects, Samson was a model for superheroes.
NL: Superman, the grandfather of superheroes, was invented by two US Jews in 1938. Was that a coincidence?
TN: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were teenagers in the late 1930s when they invented Superman. They were children of Jewish immigrants who had fled Europe for the United States. They shared this background with many of the most important early superhero writers and cartoonists, such as Will Eisner, Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, who created characters like Batman, Captain America and Spider-Man. They had all experienced antisemitism personally, and they knew of their parents’ traumata. As immigrants, they also initially lived in precarious conditions in the USA. Arguably, traumatised, socially marginalised and economically disadvantaged young people who invent omnipotent hero figures and whose adventures succeed in materialising their dreams, were escaping reality, if for a moment. In the process, the new heroes also incorporated ancient Jewish storytelling traditions. Superman himself has been compared to Moses by rabbis such as Simcha Weinstein and Avichai Apel: Both heroes were abandoned by their birth parents, who wished to protect them. They were both raised by foster parents before they turned against oppression and bondage and became revered protectors of their countrymen. The superheroes’ Jewish heritage is also clear in their political message. The comics, which appeared during World War II, show them hunting down Adolf Hitler and fighting to end the Holocaust. Later, the X‑Men sensitised mainstream society to the experiences of minorities and campaigned against discrimination of all kinds. Today, we encounter superheroes in the form of a billion-dollar industry that churns out comics, movies and merchandising. But their origins are Jewish, anti-fascist and egalitarian.
NL: Does our society still need hero stories today, or have they had their day?
TN: That’s a difficult question – I’m ambivalent about it myself. On the one hand, heroes and heroines convey moral and social values. They connect people across cultural boundaries. Hero stories also have great entertainment value. Their success across millennia shows how fundamental they are to human civilization. Storytelling, art, culture, and progress are inconceivable without role models. On the other hand, heroism almost always goes hand in hand with fighting and violence. And in their elevated position of power, in which they alone decide and act on their own authority, heroes appear individualistic and undemocratic. Today, some consider these shadowy aspects of heroism obsolete, for good reasons. Political scientists and cultural studies scholars refer to this reassessment, since the mid-20th century, as «post-heroism». But I’d refute the argument that the era of heroism is over. Just take the Western coverage of Russia’s attack against Ukraine, which often portrays Ukrainian soldiers’ heroism. In this war against an autocratic regime, our democratic societies are rediscovering their admiration for heroes, even violent ones. Hero stories emerge in contexts of terror. Our world would be better if they weren’t necessary.
NL: Thomas, thank you for your comments – and also for the following reading tips:
Jens Meinrenken: Eine jüdische Geschichte der Superhelden-Comics. In: Helden, Freaks und Superrabbis. Die jüdische Farbe des Comics. Herausgegeben von Margret Kampmeyer-Käding und Cilly Kugelmann. Berlin: Jüdisches Museum Berlin 2010, S. 26–38.
Reader Superhelden. Theorie – Geschichte – Medien. Herausgegeben von Lukas Etter, Thomas Nehrlich und Joanna Nowotny. Bielefeld: transcript 2018.
verfasst am 23.02.2023