For fun I offered a suggestion to (Jewish) comic-book scholar David L. The following exchange ensued:
Suppose that unbeknownst to Peter, his mother Mary Parker was Jewish. Technically, that would make him Jewish too. It would explain his put-upon personality, which fits the classic Jewish pattern.
Marvel's greatest hero...Jewish! What a boon to multiculturalism in comics!
This would explain why Mary Parker got involved in espionage against the Red Skull, a former Nazi. Perhaps her parents, Peter's grandparents, died in the Holocaust and she wanted revenge. Or perhaps Mary didn't know she was Jewish because she was raised a Christian. That would explain why no one's uncovered this startling fact (until now).
What do you think of my theory? Good one, eh? Try passing this one by the powers-that-be at Marvel and getting them to approve it!
P.S. This could be a good topic for a paper or a lecture at the Comic-Con. Feel free to use it.
I don't quite have the same enthusiasm here as you, but that doesn't mean that it's an invalid topic! I am just very distrustful of the them "classic Jewish pattern" and such. Certainly, there is no debate that Stan Lee, Spidey's creator, is Jewish and, undoubtably, some of his own thinking/viewpoints must have transferred to the character — but no more/less than the FF, Avengers, etc. Arguments could even be made for alien characters have religious affiliations, like Silver Surfer or Superman!
I suppose my question is not whether this argument could be made (because, hell!, you made it) nor how, but why. What's to be gained in giving Spidey a Jewish origin? Just so we can "count him" as one of "ours?" I'm not sure how I see it otherwise adding to the richness of the character, and, in fact, it could do just the opposite: it could turn him from the everyman-superhero to the categorized one, a politicized one.
I still think you should run with whatever you see fit, of course. But, due to my own viewpoints, I feel compelled to remain slightly cynical on it. Then again, though, a considerate devil's advocate voice can sometimes be helpful in shaping such an endeavor, so who knows?
Keep it up!
As a discussion topic rather than a real proposal, you wouldn't have to endorse it. You could present both sides. I.e., is this a good idea or a bad one? Could it work or is it too flawed? If you ultimately took the "con" view, that would be okay. It still would serve to stir people's thinking.
As a serious proposal, it would have several selling points. It would pay homage to all the great Jewish comic-book creators who had to subsume their ethnic identities and create whitebread characters. Look at Stan Lee's angst-ridden heroes or Jack Kirby's eclectic pantheons. It seems they were torn between expressing their ethnicity and appealing to their (publisher's) vision of mainstream America.
(Will Eisner escaped this trap by going off and doing what he wanted. In doing so, he proved he could make a living selling Jewish themes and stories to America. Are his stories not universal anyway? I'd say they are.)
This proposed move would give Peter Parker the depth he lacks, still, after 40 years of existence. What are his views on religion, for instance? Is he a Christian, an agnostic, an atheist? The best bet is agnostic because all comic-book characters seem to be agnostics. That seems to be "required" for them to appeal to whitebread America. Which is the key point.
Your point about Spidey's being an everyman is my point. Namely, that (so far) our everyman heroes have been pure WASPs. (I assume they're Protestants until proven otherwise, since that's the dominant American strain.) Why is that? Are we saying a character must be a WASP to be an everyman? Can't a Jew, a black, an Indian, or a woman be an everyman too?
If someone wants to argue that an everyman must be a WASP, I'd suggest Wolverine as a counterargument. For starters, he's Canadian, not American. His background shows strong Japanese and Native influences. Though he's not far removed from a pure WASP, he's more multicultural than Anglo icons like Superman or Spider-Man. Yet he's thrived like few other characters.
Mr. Spock is probably the best argument for multiculturalism in pop culture. Although he's white, everything about him, especially his belief system, is marked as alien. Yet he became more popular than Capt. Kirk, the nominal everyman. (That Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner are both Jewish is an added irony.)
Why did Spock become so popular? Because people don't necessarily relate to the everyman, or want to. The outsider or rebel—the person who stands in contrast to the everyman—is often whom we idolize.
Why? Because we all like to think of ourselves as different, special, unique—but society rarely recognizes these qualities. So when a character like Spock or Wolverine triumphs, we can feel good about identifying with him. His success validates the outsider in us.
Need more evidence? Let's look at the fate of whitebread characters as an argument for more diversity. The number of heroes who have been too bland and "universal" to succeed is large and growing. It's headed by DC icons of the '60s—Robin, Supergirl, Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkman, Green Arrow, Aquaman, the Legion, et al.—all of whom were too "everymanish" to succeed past the '70s without change. Even Superman needed a reboot to render him (a little) less homogenized and more interesting.
Making Spider-Man Jewish would thrust the tacit position of comics ("an everyman is a WASP") into the open. It would cause a firestorm of protest, which is why Marvel won't do it, of course. Half the people would accuse Marvel of bowing to that pseudo-demon, political correctness. The other half would get the point, which is: "Yeah, why shouldn't Spider-Man be Jewish? You got a problem with that? What does that say about you and your prejudices? It's the 21st century now—the multicultural millennium. Maybe it's time for you to get over your WASP fixation and see the complex world the way it is, with blacks, Jews, Indians, Vulcans, and everyone else mixing in a multiracial melange."
Why shouldn't any character be Jewish, for that matter? Is hard to believe the proto-Zionist Magneto would marry a Jewish woman? If he did, that would make the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver Jewish like their daddy. Is that so horrible to contemplate? How would these characters be harmed by making them Jewish? They're too minor to carry the "everyman" burden; they could be any ethnicity and still work as characters.
Since my thing is Indians, I'd give some characters Native backgrounds if I were in charge. It would be easy, since not all people with Native ancestry look or "act" like it. Kirk supposedly has Cherokee ancestors and it hasn't hurt the character. Katar Hol's mother is (was?) an Indian and it didn't hurt him. So why not Ben Grimm? Or Kyle Rayner? Or Logan, who already acts like the "noble savage" stereotype? Giving characters depth and individuality makes them better, not worse, in my humble opinion.
Anyway, I don't plan to do anything with this idea. I just thought you'd find it an entertaining topic. Maybe I'll make it a posting on my site—yet another discussion of comics from a multicultural perspective.
I still can't say that I agree, because I feel that even broaching the topic has some very strong assumptions and agendas. First, I don't feel that many of the heroes are WASPy — in fact, I think many creators have gone out of their way to make the heroes as non-denominational as possible. Second, I don't think that either Peter lacks depth or that injecting him with a Jewish background would create it — a multicultural background is not synonymous with "depth and individuality." In fact, suggesting it somewhat insults those who cannot or do not subscribe to a particular minority ethnicity or religion. Putting the shoe on the other foot, do we really think it would be so highly appreciated if we suddenly unearthed the fact that Matt Murdock is 1/8 Sioux? It would seem gimmicky (like making Northstar suddenly gay), not to mention not mesh with its absence in the character for the last 30 years. Further, there's the "so what" factor — there's a risk in categorizing a character not based on what he does, but in what his blood-mix is. Would we really want to call Ben Grimm black because one of his grandfathers was African American? Or howabout just calling him "mulatto?" Or, even worse and more technical, "octaroon"?
Sorry, Rob, but we have a solid difference of opinion here. Not only do I think the concept is flawed, but I think both the motivation and "welcoming" discussion of it is a little tasteless as well.
- A. Dave
The debate continues (12/29/04)....
I let the subject drop, but a couple years later I took it up once more:
>> First, I don't feel that many of the heroes are WASPy — in fact, I think many creators have gone out of their way to make the heroes as non-denominational as possible. <<
Culturally speaking, "Protestant" is about the same as "non-denominational" these days. People mean "plain vanilla white" when they say "WASP."
But technically, "non-denominational" is even blander than "Protestant." How is it good that "many creators have gone out of their way to make the heroes as non-denominational [bland] as possible"?
>> Second, I don't think that either Peter lacks depth or that injecting him with a Jewish background would create it <<
Do we know Peter's views on such major topics as religion or politics? No? Then he lacks a fair degree of depth.
>> a multicultural background is not synonymous with "depth and individuality." <<
They're not synonymous, but they're related. Any layers you add to a character's background help create depth and individuality. A multicultural or ethnic heritage is simply one way to do it.
>> In fact, suggesting it somewhat insults those who cannot or do not subscribe to a particular minority ethnicity or religion. <<
I suggest that people should pay more attention to Native cultures and philosophies all the time. I don't see how that insults anyone.
>> Putting the shoe on the other foot, do we really think it would be so highly appreciated if we suddenly unearthed the fact that Matt Murdock is 1/8 Sioux? <<
If if fit the character and the known facts of his history, people might appreciate and accept it. I didn't hear an uproar when Marvel made Ben Grimm Jewish, which is basically the same thing we're talking about. He seemed the type who would be quietly religious; Marvel just filled in the religion blank with Judaism.
>> It would seem gimmicky (like making Northstar suddenly gay) <<
It was a "sudden" revelation after people had speculated about it for years, as I recall.
Since it fit the character and the known facts of his history, I didn't consider it gimmicky. I thought it worked. Northstar disdained convention and hadn't shown any romantic inclination toward women. Both traits were consistent with homosexuality.
Of course, making him straight would've worked also. That's because he's another character who lacked depth.
>> Further, there's the "so what" factor — there's a risk in categorizing a character not based on what he does, but in what his blood-mix is. <<
That's a risk the writers, editors, and publishers can control. If they write a character as a Jew who happens to have superpowers, rather than a superhero who happens to be Jewish, they may make him into a stereotype. If so, they have no one to blame but themselves.
>> Would we really want to call Ben Grimm black because one of his grandfathers was African American? <<
This statement is ironic considering Ben is now officially Jewish.
This kind of revamping has been done before, you know. George Perez made Wonder Woman clearly Greek; before then she had been portrayed as Anglo-Saxon. The Martian Manhunter was made a pointy-headed alien, not a green-skinned pseudo-human, with a whole cultural history. The Flash (Barry Allen) was made a twin with all its psychological trappigns.
Heck, Hawkman (Katar Hol) was made half Thanagarian and half human with a part-Native mother. That's similar to your Matt Murdock example, but the world didn't crumble.
The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were made Gypsies and Magneto's children, neither of which they were originally. The Inhumans were made offspring of the Kree. The Vision was made a reconstruction of the original Human Torch. Wolverine was given a whole Japanese/samurai background.
I could go on. The point is, all these retcons helped rather than hurt the characters, arguably, by giving them more depth.
For all we know, Northstar and Aurora could be the children of Magneto and Meggan the elf-woman. Or Magneto and Namora the Atlantean. Twins, super-speed, white hair, pointy ears, flying...get it? I don't know if this retcon would work, but it's certainly plausible. Why should we preclude the possibility and forgo discussing it?
>> Not only do I think the concept is flawed, but I think both the motivation and "welcoming" discussion of it is a little tasteless as well. <<
Would it be tasteless to have a panel discussion on Hawkman's Thanagarian/Native American retcon? Because that change was done, not just contemplated.
The motivation is to create better and deeper characters than currently exist. Characters who have religious, cultural, political, economic, and social beliefs, unlike the majority of characters today. I'm not sure how that can be bad.
Anyway, it was just a fun idea. I'm not saying Marvel should actually do it. But I find it stimulating to consider as an intellectual exercise. There's nothing about ethnicity that should render it off-limits to discussion.
Others chime in
I shared my 2004 message with a few correspondents. Here are their thoughts and my responses. First, from Stephanie S.:
>> As for the Peter Parker discussion, I take exception to the idea that it's insulting to the majority (read, Christians) to make Peter Parker Jewish. <<
Yeah, I couldn't figure that one out...especially since the person who suggested that is Jewish himself.
>> The fact is, Stan Lee is Jewish. Spider-Man and many of comics' most enduring characters, like Superman, Batman, and even Captain America, were created by Jews. <<
Right...but he knows that. He's something of a comic-book scholar, so I'm sure he knows everything I pointed out. The question is why he'd oppose this change so adamantly after all the other changes I noted.
I forgot an obvious one, since he brought up Daredevil. Matt Murdock was always Irish and presumably Catholic, but his religion was never spelled out. Making him a lapsed Catholic with a nun for a mother is exactly the kind of retcon I was talking about with Peter Parker.
Obviously, that didn't hurt DD. Rather, it enriched his backstory immeasurably. The same would happen with most retroactive changes of this kind.
Changing Peter would be easy to do. He could discover his dead mother Mary Parker was Jewish: Mary Morgenstern or whatever. She kept it from everyone, even her husband, so no one knew it.
Voila! This would give Peter an added dimension to ponder and explore, but would do nothing to alter his basic character. Writers could use it or ignore it as they wished.
From Jeff S.:
>> Let me guess -- this guy was white? <<
He was white but Jewish. Curiously, he was all in favor of my multicultural approach as embodied in PEACE PARTY. I don't know why he turned around when I speculated about making Peter Parker Jewish. Maybe he thought Spider-Man is too iconic to change.
I wouldn't make such a change in the biggest characters—e.g., Superman, Batman, Captain America, or Wonder Woman. I just don't think this change would hurt Spidey's origin or background. If you think about it, it actually fits his character well. Except for his original haircut, he could've been Woody Allen as a teenager.
From Ron F.:
>> I seem to remember reading somewhere that John Byrne intended for Northstar to be gay from the very beginning. Or at least, from the beginning of Alpha's own title. <<
Could be. I don't recall for sure, but that sounds vaguely familiar. I'm pretty sure it wasn't as sudden as my correspondent implied.
A bit of research reveals...you're right. Byrne decided Northstar was gay well before the actual revelation (ALPHA FLIGHT #106), which was after his tenure:
The John Byrne Forum
When I decided to make NorthStar Gay, I hesitated for a while, since I had already taken pains to establish him as a fairly major a**hole. I didn't want his established personality to be read as a comment on Gays in general. Luckily, there was no negative reaction, and I have, in fact, had many homosexuals thank me for the character. Some have even said he came along at an important time in their own lives, and helped them come to terms with their own burgeoning sexuality.
>> Those are all good examples, except for the Wolverine one. He was given a background IN Japan, but he wasn't made part Japanese. <<
I meant a Japanese cultural background, not an ethnic background.
There you have it. Another innocent message turns into a longwinded debate. No wonder I never get anything done.
Religion in superhero comics
A debate on multiculturalism
Why write about Native Americans?
. . .
All material © copyright its original owners, except where noted.
Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.
Copyrighted material is posted under the Fair Use provision of the Copyright Act,
which allows copying for nonprofit educational uses including criticism and commentary.
Comments sent to the publisher become the property of Blue Corn Comics
and may be used in other postings without permission.