Saturday 12 May 2012

Avengers Assemble!

Last night I went to see Avengers Assemble. It is, quite simply, the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen. The story was exciting, the script was excellent, the special effects were amazing (the Hulk almost looks real in this one), it conjured up the spirit of the Marvel comics of the 1960s and it didn’t take itself too seriously.

I still possess an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Marvel comics from around 1960 to 1969 and read just about every comic Marvel published in that decade. Anyone who remembers the Marvel comics of that period and has seen the Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Incredible Hulk movies will not be surprised at the release of Avengers Assemble, in which Iron Man, Thor and Cap join forces with the Hulk to save the earth from the evil machinations of the Norse god’s adopted brother Loki (a factoid that gets a laugh from the audience about halfway through).

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were the Lennon and McCartney of  American comic books. Until their combined fertile imaginations created the Fantastic Four in 1961, superhero comics were pretty moribund. Superman comics typically consisted of three short tales, in which the Man of Steel routinely saved the earth, saved his girlfriend and saved his secret identity from being revealed (not necessarily in that order), in less than fifty illustrated panels. The exceptions were the ‘Imaginary Tales,’ in which the writer and artist had Superman dying, getting married to Lois Lane, living in a parallel universe, or something like that.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, a team consisting mainly of Stan Lee (writer), Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko churned out an astonishing number of monthly horror comics that featured invincible monsters with amazingly, astonishingly, alliterated names such as Fin Fang Foom terrorising the earth before being defeated by some resourceful ordinary Joe.

All that changed in November 1961 with the appearance of the first issue of The Fantastic Four. With the FF, Lee and Kirby created three fairly unoriginal heroes: a teenager who could turn into fire at will (there had been a Human Torch in the 1940s), a girl who could become invisible (Ho humm) and a man who could stretch like an elastic band (there had been a munber of other heros with a similar power, noatbly Plastic Man) who self-effacingly took the name Mr Fantastic). The first few stories were fairly run of the mill horror comic stuff but where the FF were different from other superheroes was in the way a scientist, his girlfriend and her kid brother gained their super powers. Reed Richards, Sue Storm and her brother Johnny, along with Ben Grimm were exposed to cosmic radiation during a space flight. Living under the threat of nuclear war, as the world was back then, and knowing the gruesome mutations that could result in exposure to radiation, Lee and Kirby put science to good use. Spiderman gained his powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider, the Hulk was exposed to gamma rays, while Daredevil gained his super powers after a collision with a barrel of radioactive waste.

Ben Grimm was the one original character in the Fantastic Four. His transformation into ‘The Thing,’ a super-strong humanoid composed of orange, rock-like skin, was a curse. While Reed, Sue and Johnny retained their good looks, Ben became a monster with a bad attitude (and who could blame him?).

The first Marvel superhero comic I read was The Avengers #3 in February 1964. The team, consisting of Iron Man, Thor, and Ant Man and the Wasp (the last two were not in the film). The Hulk (a kind of green-skinned, muscle-bound, monosyllabic giant with a petulant personality and anger-management issues) had stomped out of the team in a fit of pique at the end of the previous issue to team up with the Submariner (another 1940s hero, this time resurrected as a villain) to do battle with his former chums. I had never read a comic like it. Jack Kirby’s artwork was incredibly dynamic, the storyline was brilliant and the dialogue was superior to anything I’d read before. I became an immediate fan. Captain America was resuscitated in Avengers #4, after being frozen in a block of ice for a quarter century.

What has intrigued me in recent years is the fact that almost all the superheroes who appeared in the first two decades of comic books were Jewish creations. When two Jewish teenagers, Jerry Segal and Joseph Shuster, published the first Superman story in 1938, they changed the world of literature for ever. Batman was born soon after, and during what became known as the Golden Age of Comics, hundreds of imitations were born, few of whom survived for more than a few issues.

Why should Jews have been at the forefront of the superhero genre? It is now pretty well established that Superman was a messianic figure. On his home planet Krypton, Superman made his appearance at a time the world was under threat from Nazism and Jews were being persecuted in Germany. He had a very Jewish-sounding name, Kal-El (in Hebrew Kol El is the ‘voice of God’) and was sent to earth by his father Jor-El to become the Saviour of the world. In ‘real life’ Superman’s was the wimpy Clark Kent. The surname ‘Kent’ in the early 20th century was a common Americanization of ‘Cohen,’ and Clark Kent's persona strongly resembled the stereotypical inept Yiddish schlemiel.

One of the earliest superheroes created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby – two young, secular Jews – was Captain America, a super-soldier created by science in order to defeat the Nazis. The cover of the first issue of Captain America had Cap cheerily delivering a knockout blow to Der Fuhrer.

It seems to me that even though most Jews are secular, the hope of the Messiah is hardwired in to the Jewish psyche, and that Superman, Captain America and other Jewish superheroes are, in effect, secular messiahs. The brilliant Jack Kirby had been born Jacob Kurtzberg but appears to have had no great commitment to Judaism. He and Stan Lee (born Stanley Leiber) produced the greatest comics of the 1960s but almost all their heroes were non-Jews; all except for Fantastic Four’s ‘The Thing.’

As Ben Grimm, The Thing is a Jew who lives on Yancey Street, an obvious homage to the famous Delancey Street in the predominantly Jewish Lower East Side of Manhattan. But why a Jewish monster?

Lee and Kirby were not self-loathing Jews but, as assimilated Jews, they both had a liberal education and Lee was very fond of borrowing from the Bible and Shakespeare. Thor, for example, speaks in quasi-Biblical/Shakespearean language (the source of another humorous quip in the Avengers movie) even though he is the Norse god of thunder. Stories had titles such as ‘Behold the Behemoth’ (Hulk), ‘O Wasp, Where is Thy Sting?’ (Giant Man) and ‘Armageddon!’ (Nick Fury and his Howling Commandoes). In the Tales of Asgard series, one of Thor’s companions is Volstag, a cloned caricature of Shakespeare’s Falstaff.

Co-creator Kirby claimed the cantankerous, wise-cracking, cigar-smoking Thing was an alter ego of himself but that doesn’t explain why the Thing is apparently made from rock. There is a Jewish legend that in sixteenth-century Prague, the kabbalist Rabbi Loew created a golem, a monster made of river mud to protect the Jewish community from their persecutors. A model of the golem of Prague bears a remarkable resemblance to The Thing.

In 2002, four decades after his creation, it was revealed that the Thing is Jewish. In a series of flashbacks, Ben Grimm's Jewish heritage was made clear, and The Thing even recites Kaddish over the dying Mr Sheckerberg.

In a later story, 13 years after he began his ‘second life’ as the Thing, Ben celebrates a second Bar Mitzvah with a poker tournament for every available superhero in the Marvel Universe. In another, later story The Thing is resurrected by the hand of God!

Since the end of the sixties, my interest in American comic books has waned but my memories of the triumphs of the Lee/Kirby imagination remains vivid. I know that in the last half century, the Marvel heroes and villains have multiplied and their lives have become so intertwined that there is a ‘Marvel Universe,' a kind of literary parallel cosmos. From the comics I glance at now and then I see that the artwork is far different from the work of artists such as Kirby, Ditko, Gene Colan and Don Heck; the heroes are even more muscular than in the Sixties and the heroines and villainesses all look like spray-painted Playboy models.

The Sixties Marvel pantheon of heroes all seemed to have some religious affiliation, and in the movie, as the ‘god’ Loki launches his attack on the earth, Captain America comments that there is only one God and he ‘doesn’t dress like that!’ Towards the end of the film, face to face with the Hulk, Loki sniffily stands on his dignity as a ‘god,’ refusing to submit to a primitive being such as The Hulk. The jolly green giant proceeds to pulverises him and, as he walks away, mutters, ‘Puny god!’ The best one-liner in the film.

I admire Lee and Kirby and the host of Jewish creators who gave me endless hours of reading entertainment in my teenage years, stirred my imagination and inspired me to draw and write (my teenage ambition was to draw for Marvel). Nevertheless, I find it deeply tragic to think that the people who created an alternative universe inhabited by physically perfect, morally-flawed, god-like secular messiahs did so because they were unaware that the true Messiah who was far superior to the demi gods of their fertile imaginations, and that he had defeated an infinitely great threat to the world than Loki could ever be!

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