Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is the Chabad campus rabbi for Downtown Brooklyn. His book “Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero,” was the recipient of the 2007 Benjamin Franklin Award for best religion book. His book on 21st century Jewish comedy will be published this fall. He can be reached via his website at www.rabbisimcha.com.
The summer wedding season is here, and even comic book characters are getting into the act. In the sure-to-be blockbuster movie opening this week, “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” the First Family of superheroes will meet their greatest challenge yet: marriage!
The Invisible Woman and Mr. Fantastic are finally about to tie the knot, but before we can say mazel tov, their new nemesis, the Silver Surfer, ruins the big day. This metallic intergalactic villain (who looks like a silver-dipped Academy Award come to life) is here to prepare planet earth for destruction. And only the Fantastic Four can stop him.
The Silver Surfer turns out to be a herald of Galactus, the devourer of planets (talk about overeating!). The Silver Surfer was once an ordinary humanoid until Galactus threatened his planet. In return for sparing his home, Galactus transforms him into the Silver Surfer, charged with seeking out planets for Galactus to destroy.
The idea for the all-powerful Galactus character apparently came about when the comic’s creator suggested having “the Fantastic Four battle God.”
How did things get so theological? The Fantastic Four were created for Marvel Comics in 1961 by the Jewish dynamic duo of writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. My book Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero reveals the fascinating Jewish motifs and values in popular comics, including the Fantastic Four. Unlike other superheroes, the Fantastic Four did not rely on double identities and disguises. In their alternative world, they were actually high-profile celebrities, headquartered on New York’s Fifth Avenue.
The family dynamic among the four characters was unmistakable from the start. Prior to The Fantastic Four, the family unit was never explored within the comic book genre. Superheroes tackled the dirty work of saving the world alone and only worked together out of necessity.
The Fantastic Four were different. In the comic, once Invisible Woman and Mr. Fantastic married the team became, quite literally, a family. Three of the four are directly related – the Human Torch is the Invisible Woman’s brother. The Thing (Ben Grimm) takes the role of crusty uncle, stubborn child, and bratty teen all rolled into one bulky package.
The family is the very heart of the Jewish community, the vessel through which moral values and spiritual practices have been handed down for thousands of years. After the destruction of the holy Temple, the traditional Jewish home took on many of its functions.
Shalom bayit is the term given to the promotion of peace and harmony within the home, and The Fantastic Four depicts this ongoing struggle for peace within a family. While they are often, quite literally, at each other’s throats, these characters are also willing to risk their lives for the safety of their “family.”
Over the years, Fantastic Four fans have felt particular affection for that misunderstood creature, The Thing. The Thing has extreme strength, is impervious to bullets, and can endure intense physical pain. He’s not, however, immune to emotional pain.
In many ways, The Thing personifies his creators’ Jewish origins. The Thing’s real name is Benjamin Jacob Grimm. Born on the “earthy” Lower East Side of Manhattan, he belonged to the Yancy Street gang in his youth. Young Jack Kirby fought street gangs on the Lower East Side, too, where Delancy is the main street.
Grimm’s youth comes back to haunt him in the famous 2002 story “Remembrance of All Things Past.” In that issue, released some forty years after his debut, the Thing’s true Semitic identity is finally revealed. He’d previously kept it a secret, explaining, sadly, “There’s enough trouble in this world without people thinking Jews are all monsters like me.”
While Judaism has its roots in the accomplishments of powerful patriarchs and matriarchs, a special emphasis is also placed upon the tribe: the synthesis of everyone’s talents for the greater good. The Hebrew word for tribes, shevatim, means “branches,” alluding to their separate yet united nature. In Lee and Kirby’s universe, not even superheroes live in a vacuum. Sometimes they have to rely on their fellow super-colleagues to assist them when the going gets tough.
In an age of terror we all – more than ever – need a return to family values, working together to combine our powers and talents for the greater good. Even a flashy Hollywood movie based on a popular comic book can be a way to convey this important message (in between onscreen explosions and corny jokes, of course).