Here’s a joke for you:
“A priest, reverend and rabbi discover a chest of gold coins buried in a cemetery. The priest inscribes a circle in the hollowed grounds. He throws the gold pieces into the air. All the money that lands within the circle will be delivered to the bishop’s coffers; the priest will pocket the outlying coins for his own personal use. The reverend draws a line in the soil. The coins that fall on his side will remain with him; the other half will be donated to his church mission. The rabbi then tosses his coins in the air. “Whatever God wants, He’ll take.”
Humor has long been a part of the Jewish cultural identity. In their new book “Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero, from the Creators of Superman,” Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon explore Jewish humor through the little-known history of a short-lived Jewish comic book.
Their book is more of a cultural study than a history book, and an engaging read at that. The authors present a comprehensive view of the history of Jewish humor — we’re more than Jerry Seinfeld telling airline food jokes (though you will find the joke above). There’s a whole history and culture to the Jewish joke.
Jewish humor reflects more than just self-defacing laughs, according to Andrae and Gordon.
“Funnyman” traces the development from early comedic duos like Joe Weber and Lew Fields (or Moishe Weber and Moisha Schanfield), who performed jokes and slapstick routines on New York vaudeville stages around the turn of the century, through comic strips with Jewish characters, Catskill resort comedians and eventually Jews’ forays into Hollywood movies.
This intriguing study leads us to Funnyman, the character Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created shortly after they dreamt up Superman.
That Superman was infamously taken from Siegel and Shuster’s creative control by DC Comics makes the genesis of Funnyman all the more poignant — the comic book creators were paid a mere $130 for the rights to Superman, and they lost millions as that hero rose to prominence. Funnyman, though the hero’s comics saw pitifully poor sales, was almost an underdog tale for Siegel and Shuster; isn’t that just the Jewish way?
Dressed in polka-dotted pants with a long, red nose and relying on humor rather than brute strength, Funnyman wasn’t the average hero. Siegel and Shuster only produced six Funnyman comic books before resolving to stick with Sunday comic strips.
The hero provided a foil to the largely chiseled, brave heroes that comic book readers were so accustomed to — heroes that were themselves foils to their creators, who were so often Jewish and just regular folks. The dual identities of many superheroes almost mirrored that of their creators as well; Clark Kent was no suave gentleman, just as Siegel and Shuster were no bold, buff fellows.
Interestingly, many Jewish comic book creators fiercely attempted to assimilate, seemingly to avoid being like their nebbish characters: Batman creator Bob Kahn changed his name to Bob Kane. Even the famous Stan Lee, of Spiderman fame, was born Stan Leibowitz.
The book includes excerpts from both Funnyman books and strips, along with a whole mélange of early to mid-20th century comic book art, making for a lively, colorful read.
What’s lacking, though, is some modern context. Did Jewish comic characters find a more permanent home later in the century? Did they exist at all after Funnyman? We get a great view of the beginning, but we’re left wondering about the end.
Out this month, “Funnyman” will engage both history buffs and comic book fans. Just hope the book sticks around longer than Funnyman himself.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)