Siegel and Shuster's Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero, from the Creators of Superman
by Thomas Andrae and Jerry Siegel
Reviewed by John Pistelli
In this fascinating hybrid work -- part cultural criticism and part comics reprint -- the sociologist Thomas Andrae and the theater scholar Mel Gordon examine an under-recognized fact in the history of U.S. comics: after Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster lost the rights in 1948 to their most famous creation, Superman, they produced a short-lived comic book (and, later, a similarly unsuccessful syndicated comic strip) called Funnyman. Eschewing the super-heroics that characterized the Man of Steel, Funnyman narrated the adventures of a "down-on-his-luck, jerky (if supremely self-assured) crime-fighter ... an 'ace comedian' who thwarted evil and 'no-goodniks' through his deadpannery, sneaky sarcasm, clownish athleticism, and glib rejoinders. He was America's First Jewish Superhero."
In the second half of their book, Andrae and Gordon reprint a number of Funnyman stories from both the comic book and comic strip, along with prose summaries of the stories they didn't have room to include. The book's first half consists of their contextualization of Funnyman in the overlapping histories of western masculinity, U.S. culture, and the cultures of the Jewish diaspora.
The first chapter, written by Gordon, is perhaps the most fascinating; it traces the origins of Jewish-American humor, exemplified by a cavalcade of distinguished comics (Danny Kaye, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman et al.) to its origins in 17th-century Eastern Europe. Jewish Elders, following a devastating wave of Cossack and Tartar pogroms, decided to rally around traditional Jewish culture and they "formally outlawed the employment of merrymakers," with one exception -- the badkhonim, or "insult artists." In so doing, they instituted the aggressive, skeptical and self-mocking comedy that, according to Gordon, constitutes the dominant tradition of Jewish humor to which Funnyman belongs.
The second and third chapters, penned by Andrae, explore the prominent Jewish-American contribution to the superhero genre that Siegel and Shuster helped to create (with Superman) and then tried to subvert (with Funnyman). Andrae argues that a Jewish super-hero tradition goes back to the Biblical Samson and the legendary Golem of Prague, but takes on special relevance in pre-World War II Jewish-American culture. Jewish men, portrayed by anti-Semitic ideology as nebbish weaklings, faced a crisis of masculinity: in order to assimilate to mainstream U.S. culture, they had to become "real men." Drawing on theorist Klaus Theweleit's psychoanalysis of fascism, Andrae notes "in masculinist psychology, body and psyche are united in erecting a psychic armor that defends against 'feminine' weakness, emotional vulnerability, and softness, modes of expression that must be controlled by the rational, dominant male."
Andrae locates this dilemma, of course, in the portrayal of Superman's dual identity, where the manly hero and his feminized alter ego co-exist in a double consciousness (though his Jewish creators nevertheless gave the masculine hero the upper hand in the pre-war era). But Funnyman, Andrae asserts, mocks and inverts the dichotomy in the postwar climate, when women's increasing social power and the carnage of the war itself called hypermasculinity into question. In Funnyman, the hero figure himself dons a prosthetic nose (thus, Andrae points out, reversing the rhinoplasty prejudicially forced on many Jewish entertainers, including Funnyman's own alter ego, Larry Davis) and revels in his badkhn-like sarcasm rather than conforming to macho and Gentile ideals.
It comes as a bit of a letdown, then, to turn from Andrae and Gordon's heady theoretical historiography to the rather slight Funnyman comics themselves, examples of which take up the remaining half of the volume. While they no doubt possess a slangy zaniness and a tart eroticism that allows us to enjoy another era's idea of fun, the comics' somewhat predictable pratfalls and cornily mock-heroic narration offer a narrow foundation for the weight of the social theory this book forces them to support.
Jerry Siegel's theatrical sense is in evidence as his hero cavorts like a crime-fighting prop comic around the dangers of the criminal underworld and even -- in a time-travel tale -- the Middle Ages, where he lands at the court of "King Artery" and upstages the magician "Schmerlin." More interesting is Siegel's bitter satire on fickle public taste and the comics creators who would pander to it, showcased in a subplot that features an unscrupulous comic-strip editor who orders his cartoonist to "dream up a new sequence which is more sickening, more gruesome, and more revolting than all past episodes" in order to get "banned in Boston" and thus increase sales. Siegel's fury at a crass industry that consistently undervalued his work burns clearly through the comedy.
The art, too, offers its own pleasures. For comics fans whose familiarity with Joe Shuster's artwork does not go beyond the blocky and primitive cartooning of the early Superman tales, the increased delicacy and intricacy of his rendering here, even in the exaggerated environs, will come as a pleasant surprise, and the comically menacing vamps that Funnyman often encounters allow Shuster to portray the buxom women of his fraught erotic imaginings unencumbered by the censorious eye of Superman's editors.
Ultimately, though, the comics' interest does not primarily go beyond the historical or archival. As many observers have noted, comedy ages more rapidly than most other genres, and Funnyman cannot be said to speak to contemporary sensibilities with any great resonance, despite the scholars' patient elucidation of its still-relevant social context. Andrae and Gordon have nevertheless produced a lucid and informative book that tells us things about masculinity, ethnicity, and U.S. pop culture that we did not know before.