Proposal for a Research Paper
The Thing: the World’s Strongest Jew
Throughout history, Jews have faced adversity and discrimination from a myriad of foes. The way they have responded to these challenges differs wildly, from quiet meekness to radical activism. Of particular critical interest is the tough Jew. The tough Jew is one who responds to exigency with force and definition. They have goals and are determined to achieve these goals, even at great cost. Among tough Jews are the gangsters of the 1920s, the partisans of the Second World War, and the Sabras of Israel.
There is one person that is undeniably a tough Jew. He is stronger, tougher, and fierce than any normal man. He battles evil on a colossal scale daily. He must choose how to use his strength wisely and to live with its drawbacks. Unique among his peers, the tough Jew is the The Thing from the Fantastic Four. The Thing is a tall, hulking, muscle bound, humanoid with a skin of craggy orange rock. He was born Benjamin Jacob Grimm in New York City. An alcoholic father, absent mother, and gangster brother gave Ben a troubled upbringing and a youth of crime. After watching his brother die in a gang fight, Ben moved to live with his aunt and uncle, who helped reform him, Ben became successful academically and athletically throughout high school and college before becoming an Air Force test pilot. While a pilot, he and the other future members of the Fantastic Four were zapped with the cosmic radiation that gave them their superpowers. Benjamin was transformed into the superhero known as The Thing. His career as a superhero was the typical one of combating evil villains and saving the world. One noticeable adventure was his fighting against the Nazis during World War II. The Thing’s Jewish identity, while always intended and suggested, would not be made canon until forty one years after his creation.
Comic books are a grand American tradition beginning in the newspaper funnies of the early twentieth century and continuing to the comix and graphic novels of today. For the last seventy years, the majority of comic books being published dealt with a cast of elite superheroes. The books featured titanic battles of biblical proportions between the good of the hero and the wretched evil and treachery of the villain. The influence of superheroes extends from movies to art to politics. One thing that makes the genre so unique is the strong Jewish influence and presence. The creators of Superman, the first and greatest superhero, Jerome Siegel and Joesph Shuster were Jews as well as Stanley Lieber, the father of Spider Man and the X-Men. Rather then abandon their Jewish heritage, they allowed it to influence their art, creating characters with strong Jewish morals and ethics. Years before America entered World War II, super heroes battled Hitler and his forces.
Children are the main audience of comic books, and thusly the most familiar with the The Thing. The nature of this audience creates several unique ways for The Thing to influence their identities. First, the audience is young people who have not full chosen or accepted their identities. The malleability of their identities gives The Thing the opportunity to have great influence over them. Also, children are still developing their morality. Turning to external sources for guidance, they learn about conflict, duty, sacrifice, and more from The Thing
The Thing is the only mainstream superhero who is openly and expressly Jewish. Many others such as Superman, whose Kryptonian name translated from Hebrew means “all that is God”, or Spider Man, with his philosophy of “with great power comes great responsibility”, are influenced by Judaism but are not actually Jewish. Because of the explicit nature of The Thing’s Judaism, he becomes and expression of Jewish fantasy and identity. He can be seen as an expression of Jewish pride mixed with alienation and otherness. His strength and power come at the cost of being set apart from the rest of the world, unable to hide his rocky, orange skin. Just as the Jewish people were chosen by God to be His people, The Thing was chosen to receive the cosmic radiation that granted him both his strength and appearance.
The Thing and superheroes in general are much a combination of many Jewish characters. Visually, The Thing is related to the Golem of Prague, a clay giant who protected the Jews of the City. Judas Maccabee leading a small band of Jews to heroic victory over the Roman occupiers and Moses standing against the might of Pharaoh, calling “let my people go”, both could make admirable superheroes. The leagues and groups dedicated to the world’s good and protection that superheroes found and populate is similar to the thirty six tzaddakim, a lineage of secret and saintly people who ensure the continuation of human existence.
The Thing and his cohorts in the Fantastic Four are not the most known superheroes. However, due to his openly Jewish heritage The Thing has been the focus of some criticism. In one case, Leonard Pitts Jr. uses The Thing to discuss racism and the need to hide a controversial identity. In the English-Yiddish daily newspaper “Forward”, Max Gross examines the fear of collective guilt and stereotyping from without among Jews through The Thing’s character. The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, a novel based on the creators of Superman, won the Pulitzer Prize. Also, Maus, while a comic but not a superhero comic, is a Jewish narrative that has been the focus of much critical and academic recognition.
Criticism of The Thing and Judaism in superheroes can be extended to cover a wide range of issues. The most important and valid criticism is Jewish rhetorical identity. The superheroes are generally forces to conceal their powers to fit into society. The Jewish comic book authors express, through their creations, the need to conceal their own Judaism. The superheroes that are given the greatest powers come into them either unknowingly or unwillingly. Spider man, Daredevil, and The Thing all were recipients of a fateful accident. Superman is the last survivor of his proud race, a child of a dead planet. The authors of these comics are expressing the Jewish confusion and angst over their perceptions of being forced into being the chosen people.
Secondly, the superheroes’ duties include protecting the civilian population against evil. Similarly, because the Jews are the chosen people, their responsibility extends beyond their own borders to encompass the entire world. The dark side of this coin is that the superheroes are often accused of elitism when their good intentions are misunderstood as controlling. For the Jews the situation is comparable, with an anti-semitic fringe preaching of Jewish bankers controlling politics and finance.
The Thing is both a mainstream superhero and a Tough Jew; because of this he presents an array of opportunities for criticism. He is a Jewish creation with both strength and otherness. The Thing and other superheroes contribute to the contemporary Jewish identity through their actions and the influence they have on their audiences.
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