Truth, justice, and the American way
Comic book expert David Levin to speak about them in Teaneck
When members of the House of Representatives took office by swearing to support and defend the Constitution earlier this month, most took their oath holding a Christian Bible and a few on a Jewish Tanakh or a Muslim Quran. But freshman Democratic Congressman Robert Garcia, of Long Beach, California, chose to take his oath on a copy of the Constitution, under which he placed his citizenship certificate, a photograph of his parents, and a copy of the first issue of Superman Comics from the Library of Congress collection — a book which, for all its garishness, arguably owes as much to the Jewish tradition as do the more directly derivative Christian and Muslim holy books.
David Levin of Oradell agrees that Superman was a good, symbolic choice for the occasion. “What does Superman stand for? Truth, justice, and the American way! It works for me,” he said.
As for the Jewish origins of Superman — Mr. Levin will discuss “Jews and Comic Books” at length at a breakfast program at Teaneck’s Temple Emeth on Sunday. (See box.) By profession, Mr. Levin is a Hollywood producer and writer. But by avocation, he is a longtime comic book fan and expert in the Jewish history of the medium.
As Mr. Levin explains it, comic books began in 1933, when a Jewish newspaper advertising salesman, Max Gaines, realized that the color printing presses that printed the cartoon sections that were included with the Sunday papers were sitting idle most days. “He realized he could get them very inexpensively,” Mr. Levin said.
So he created books made of newsprint that reprinted old comic strips. They were grabbed off the newsstands.
But then he started running out of old comic strips to reprint and looked for original material he could get cheaply.
“The material came from young Jewish creators,” Mr. Levin said. “People with names like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created Superman. And Jack Kirby, whose real name was Jacob Kurtzberg.”
Between 1938 and 1941, they, along with fellow Jews Bill Finger and Bob Kane (originally Kahn), created the iconic figures Superman, Captain America, and Batman for publishing companies owned by Jews like Martin Goodman, Jack Liebowitz, and Max Gaines.
“Jewish creators basically launched the whole superhero genre,” Mr. Levin said.
And in doing so, they drew “from stories they had heard in synagogue. It wasn’t overt, but the underpinnings of it were from Jewish traditions and Jewish legends. For example, Superman’s name on the planet Krypton was Kal-El, which in Hebrew means light of God. Certainly he owed quite a bit to Samson in the Bible.”
Mr. Levin, 64, moved to Teaneck when he was 6; he lived there until he headed off to Rutgers. Back then, “They didn’t have comic book shops. There were several places in Teaneck where you could get them. Rocklins on Cedar Lane was always a good place to go. Hi and Harry’s was across the street. It’s not there any more. Mister K on The Plaza.”
The problem was that, unlike today’s comic book stores, which order issues from dedicated distributors, those stores got comic books as part of their regular magazine shipments. And no one store would order all of them. “My friends and I would make a pilgrimage from one place to another to get them all,” Mr. Levin said.
His love of comic books led him to develop an interest in broader popular culture and its history, with help from a Teaneck High School history assignment. “I decided to do a report on political cartoons,” he said. “I figured that’s history.”
So he went to the library and started going through microfilms of old newspapers. And while the political cartoons indeed were interesting, “I found what was on the side just as interesting. We know when World War II ended, but what baseball teams were playing that day? What was playing at the movies? What was on the radio besides the news?”
This led him to study with Dr. Warren Susman, a well-known Rutgers historian who wrote “Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century.”
“He basically said that if you look at any piece of pop culture, it’s a reflection of its time,” Mr. Levin said.
After college, Mr. Levin became a Hollywood writer and producer, though he never actually moved to the West Coast. He created shows about pop culture, including the series “TV Land Confidential”; MTV specials about comic book-turned-movie characters Spider-Man and the Hulk, and “When Pop Culture Saved America: A 9-11 Story,” which aired in September of 2011 and looked at how after the terrorist attack, “musicians stepped up to do concerts and comedians stepped up to help us laugh again, and get to some semblance of normal.”
It was a career turn that allowed him to respond to his mother’s complaints when he was younger that he watched too much television. “See Mom, I was doing research all this time!” he told her.
But before finding his true calling, he worked very briefly with DC Comics. He had been hired for a project that got cancelled before he started working. But for his two weeks on staff in the late 1980s, he was assigned two comic book scripts. One was for a superhero book added as a free bonus in a Justice League issue, something DC was doing to promote the work of new artists and writers at the time. (The artist on that issue, Dean Haspiel, went on to a successful comics career, though generally not for DC or Marvel superheros.)
The other arguably became the rarest Superman comic in history — and the only one created to celebrate a bar mitzvah.
Godfrey Bradman, who died this month at 86, was a London accountant turned property developer who, in the words of the Times of London, “virtually invented the modern tax avoidance industry.” Back in 1988, the bar mitzvah of his son Daniel was approaching. Daniel was a big fan of Superman, so Mr. Bradman commissioned a custom comic book that would feature Superman, Daniel, and other family members for a rumored $18,000.
The writing assignment went to Mr. Levin.
It was an eight-page story, with a longer reprint filling out the 32-page book. The exact print run is unknown, but it is believed to be around 200 copies.
“It was fun to do,” Mr. Levin said.
The art assignment was given to Curt Swan, who had drawn most of the Superman comics since before young Dan Levin picked up his first comic in 1964, but who had just been replaced by a younger artist. “It was one of the last Superman comics he drew,” Mr. Levin said.
“I got to write a Superman story drawn by one of my favorite artists. It never looks the way you imagine it in your head, but when someone like Curt Swan draws it, it looks way better.”
Mr. Levin’s most recent project also has a Jewish angle: A pandemic-era film project called “Viral Vignettes.”
“It was about a week into the lockdown. I was home, I was bored, and I said, ‘Let’s make a movie!’ I called some friends of mine who were famous actors and said what if we did short vignettes of people having scripted conversations, comedies, over Zoom or Facetime or whatever?”
Among the actors performing in the 12 vignettes were Don Most, who played Ralph on “Happy Days,” and Max Gale, who played Detective Stan “Wojo” Wojciehowicz on “Barney Miller.”
The episodes were put up on YouTube and they raised money for the Actors Fund. Now, Mr. Levin is shopping it around as a feature film.
Episode 11, “Pass the Matzoh,” featured Michelle Green, who played Abby Perkins on “L.A. Law,” a woman trying to convince her mother, played by Renée Taylor, who played Fran Drescher’s mother on “The Nanny,” that their 2020 Passover seder would be held over Zoom.
“Mom, this will be better than you think!” Michelle says. “We can get hundreds of people!”
To which Renée replies: “How am I going to feed hundreds of people?”
“It’s very uplifting and it’s very funny,” Mr. Levin said of the story.
The project “was fun, was amazing, it kept us all a little bit sane. It was a great creative outlet when there was no scripted content happening anywhere.”
Who: David Levin
What: Talk on “Jews and Comic Books”
When: 9 a.m. Sunday, January 22
Where: Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck
How much: free to attend or to take part via Zoom; to get the Zoom link, email [email protected] or call Temple Emeth at 201-833-1322.