«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