It’s not often that I review scholarly books about comics rather than comic books for Kabooooom. Then again, it’s not often that I’m offered a chance to review a scholarly book about comics by the author themselves. So when Roy Schwartz, the author of Is Superman Circumcised?: The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero asked me for my thoughts, I was all too happy to answer the call to criticism.
At the time of this writing, Schwartz’s book is best known for winning the 2021 Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year. A search for the title on Google will take you to a Cracked.com article regarding Superman’s shmock before you reach its Amazon page. This is a shame, because despite the humorous name, this is one of the best books on comic book history it has ever been my pleasure to read.
The subject of Superman and his roots in Jewish culture have been the target of frequent academic analysis in the past. Previous books include Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero by Danny Fingeroth, From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books by Arie Kaplan, and Up, Up, and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero by Rabbi Simcha Weinstein. Schwartz’s book is distinguished by an exclusive focus upon the Man of Steel and the fact that he examines the whole of Superman’s history rather than focusing upon his origins.
That being said, Schwartz’s research is exhaustive and while he briefly discusses how the American comic book industry and the superhero genre are uniquely Jewish in their origins, he goes into far greater detail than many books about the Golden Age of Comics. I consider myself well read on the subject, yet I found myself learning things I never knew while reading this book. For instance, Schwartz briefly touches upon the Japanese artform Kamishibai, or “paper theater,” which was presenting tales of costumed heroes with super powers like Golden Bat and Prince of Gamma years before Superman made his public debut as the “first” superhero.
Schwartz goes into greater detail regarding Superman himself, from his origins as a science-fiction themed Moses to the modern cinematic interpretations of the Man of Tomorrow. While the recent Superman movies are packed with symbiology equating Superman to Jesus of Nazareth, Schwartz establishes that the source material owes much more to the heroic tradition of Jewish folklore that Christian iconography. Miraculously, Schwartz makes all of this easily accessible, despite some fairly heavy concepts and the language reads more like the kind of conversations fans have at the bar at a Con than a dry, scholarly text.
While some may scoff at the name, Is Superman Circumcised?: The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero is a must-read for any fan of Superman and anyone who considers themselves a scholar of comic book history. I highly recommend it for all academics and their libraries, regardless of whether or not they’re a comic book fan. It’s a super read!