The History of Invulnerability, the final play of the Milwaukee Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse season, could be seen simply as a memory play about Jerry Siegel, the man who created Superman, and his life before and after he sold the rights to his creation, then fought to win them back.
But it’s also a window into a bigger story — a story of young writers and artists whose Jewish identities informed their invention of superheroes and shaped the contours of their comic-book characters.
The nascent comics industry of the 1930s and ’40s attracted a large number of Jewish writers, artists and publishers, including many of the most successful. Siegel and his right-hand man Joe Schuster were two Jewish boys raised in Cleveland. Batman’s creators, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, were both Jewish as well. Marvel visionary Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the Hulk, was born Stanley Lieber; his frequent collaborator Jack Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg.
And Harry Donenfeld, the publisher who would ultimately buy Superman from Siegel and Schuster and build the DC Comics empire upon it, was a Jewish immigrant from Romania.
There’s no simple explanation for why the developing medium attracted so many Jewish creatives. Jody Hirsh, Judiaic education director at the Jewish Community Center in Milwaukee, says it’s likely that a number of different variables were at play — including the new, unestablished nature of comics and pulp magazines, as well as the rampant anti-Semitism of the period.
“There were lots of professions that were really hard for Jews to do at that time,” Hirsh says. In occupations with a defined, traditional establishment — the medical profession, for example, or certain areas of art and literature — Jews were often barred from entrance or struggled harder for success.
Although it comes as a shock to upper Midwesterners today, Mount Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis was founded in 1945 because Jewish doctors were prohibited from practicing at other area hospitals. Such barriers were typical well into the 1960s.
But comics, Hirsh says, had both a “disreputable” character and a never-ending need for writers and artists. Comics offered an appealing option for young Jews locked out of other fields.
Hirsh says there’s also something inherently Jewish about the idea of superheroes, especially at that time. With Nazism on the rise in Europe, the creation of superheroes was an unconscious way for Jewish writers to combat feelings of powerlessness. “They wished they could do something about (Nazism), and even their position in the world and their communities,” Hirsh says. “The idea of superheroes was something very compelling for Jews.”
Few of the resulting heroes were explicitly Jewish. But Hirsh says Superman in particular betrays hints of his Jewish origins, even if Siegel wasn’t aware of it. On the most basic level, Superman’s origin story is a near-direct parallel of the story of Moses. Instead of a baby in a basket floating down the Nile, he’s a baby in a capsule floating through space. Like American Jews of the period, he is a permanent exile from his destroyed home. He lives among the American people but is not one of them.
Even Superman’s Kryptonian name, Kal-El, has Jewish roots — in Hebrew, the suffix “-el” means “of God,” and one possible translation of Kal-El is “Voice of God.”
“(Siegel) didn’t want people to identify Superman as a Jewish character,” Hirsh says, “but it’s there anyway.”
Man and superman, onstage
Of course, Siegel’s Jewish heritage wasn’t the only thing that shaped Superman’s character. In The History of Invulnerability, Siegel and Superman are the play’s two leads, acting out a father-son dynamic as they traverse the dying writer’s subconscious and explore their individual origin stories.
The subconscious dimension carries the action of the play forward, says playwright David Bar Katz. “The way it’s written,” he says, “you’ve got his conscious narrative, and then his unconscious narrative as it’s expressed through Superman and the images that present themselves.”
Those images are all projections, carefully timed and calibrated by director Mark Clements and his design team. They range from Kodak Carousel-esque slideshows to comic panel sketches, fleshing out Siegel’s subconscious with quick flashes and pointed juxtapositions. Such features make the play technically challenging, but they’re vital to the depiction of Siegel and his creation, according to Bar Katz.
The History of Invulnerability jumps around in time and place, moving between the backstory of DC Comics, Siegel and Schuster’s invention of Superman and even a series of scenes from a Nazi concentration camp, which Bar Katz included as a way to show how the Holocaust impacted Siegel’s motivations for developing Superman. “That’s the thing that fires his drive, this fear-knowledge of the Holocaust,” Bar Katz says.
What fired Bar Katz’s drive to create the play was the discovery of his comic book heroes’ Jewish origins. A self-described comic book geek as a kid, Bar Katz was particularly fascinated by the fact that Stan Lee was Jewish and had chosen to change his name. When he learned about Siegel’s story years later, he knew that he eventually wanted to write about it.
Bar Katz says he didn’t write The History of Invulnerability to expound on Superman’s Jewish origins. Rather, Bar Katz wanted to pay homage to a writer who inspired, delivering the justice to Siegel that his greatest creation was always looking to deliver to humankind.
The History of Invulnerability plays at the Milwaukee Rep April 12–May 4. Tickets start at $20. Phone 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.