Monday, January 21, 2013

Number 1302: Airboy and the ancient alien invasion

Airboy doesn't need to call in the Army (there wouldn't be room in eight pages, anyway) to handle an invasion from space. He's got his wits, savvy, and a suit of wooden armor.

The tentacled monstrosity looks inspired by H.G. Wells' The War Of the Worlds, the pyramid-shaped UFO goes against the stereotype of the flying saucer, popular at the time in science fiction comics. It makes one think of ancient aliens, especially when the monster tells Airboy it's their second visit to Earth. The planet is much more developed than the first time, when “your Earth was no danger to us.” Holy Erich Von Däniken!*

From Airboy Comics Volume 9 Number 6 (1952), art by Ernie Schroeder:

*Chariots of the Gods, 1968.


Since many of the creators of comic books were Jewish, there are parallels to be drawn to a people, a religion, and superheroes. Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster certainly fit the description since Superman, above all others, lifted the comics industry “up, up and away,” and in its early years into the stratosphere of popularity. And they did it with a character who, according to Rick Bowers in his book, Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan, had Jewish attributes.

From the book:
“Jerry and Joe’s Jewish heritage deeply influenced the makeup of Superman too. The all-American superhero reflected many of the beliefs and values of Jewish immigrants of the day. Like them, Superman had come to America from a foreign world. Like them, he longed to fit into to his strange new surrounding. Superman also seemed to embody the Jewish principle of tzedakah —  a command to serve the less fortunate and to stand up for the weak and exploited – and the concept of tikkun olam, the mandate to do good works (literally to ‘repair a broken world’). Even the language of Superman had Jewish origins. Before Superman is blasted off the dying planet of Krypton, Superman’s father, Jor-El, names his son Kal-El. In ancient Hebrew the suffix El means ‘all that is God.’”
Bowers goes on to compare the Superman story to Moses, especially the “crib-shaped rocket” launched toward earth “to be raised by loving strangers.” In the Old Testament Moses’ mother, after Pharaoh’s decree that all newborn Jewish males be killed, puts Moses in a crib-shaped basket and puts him in the Nile. He is raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. Bowers ends by further comparing Superman to the story of Rabbi Maharal of Prague, “who created his own superman, called the Golem, to protect the people of the Jewish ghetto from hostile Christians.”

Superman was also a secular American product. As was the custom, obvious religion or ethnicity was avoided. Bowers mentions Siegel’s love of science fiction, reading pulps like Amazing Stories, The Shadow, Doc Savage, and the novel, Gladiator by Philip Wylie. In that book a father creates a superhuman in his son. There were a whole lot of influences on Siegel and Shuster as Superman came haltingly to life over a period of years. At one point he was even a villain.

The Superman backstory is setup to the point of the book, the story arc from The Adventures of Superman radio program of the late forties, which involved Superman fighting a Ku Klux Klan-type organization.

Bowers gives a history of the Ku Klux Klan and its political power in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.  In 1946, with the Adventures of Superman program riding high in the ratings the advertising agency for the show’s sponsor, Kellogg’s, suggested the program do shows about intolerance. (Fresh in the public minds were images from the Nazi death camps.) Producer Robert Maxwell “jumped at the chance,” according to Bowers. But it was a jump carefully taken. The producers reportedly read 25 scripts they rejected, but finally settled on former New York Times reporter, then freelancer, Ben Peter Freeman, to do the writing. He had written some very successful scripts for the program, and he was tapped to do the job on “Operation Intolerance.”

There’s some information in the book on Josette Frank, who was listed prominently for years in DC Comics as a member of the Child Study Association of America. Although such experts as Frank were dismissed as flacks by comic book critics like Fredric Wertham, Frank did have some input into what DC was doing. (She was a critic of Wonder Woman and the bondage themes of that comic, for instance.) She arranged a meeting between Bob Maxwell and anthropologist Margaret Mead who, according to Bowers, “advised Maxwell to step carefully with – as the agenda put it – ‘stories dramatizing, realistically or by allegory, the fight against threats to democracy – fascism, intolerance, mob run, vigilante movements,’” as Mead said might be “inappropriate to the building of serene attitudes.” Maxwell’s response was, “What makes you think there is any serenity in children’s programming?”

And that debate is still with us nearly 70 years later.

Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan is an interesting blend of comic book, radio, and American history of the first half of the Twentieth Century.  Bowers has done his homework. I find his tie-ins with Jewish culture and popular culture especially interesting. Run out of Europe, Jews came to the United States and founded movie studios and publishing empires. They even set the course of comedy on television. When we talk about what is “American” we include what has been assimilated, folded into American society from other cultures, now so well accepted we often forget origins.

Superman Versus the Ku Klux Klan by Rick Bowers. National Geographic Books, 2012. Hardbound, 160 pages. $18.95.

— Pappy


Brian Barnes said...

It doesn't seem like a proper Airboy script. Let's fix that.

First, make the alien a hot chick, second, make her fall in love with Airboy and betray her entire planet for a chance to be with Airboy.

Make the computer a hot female cyborg, too.

There, now that's an Airboy strip!

As for the book, while it might not have been as well known in America -- and especially back then, where there was a lot of antisemitism in the US -- it was probably best not to announce it.

The Nazi's didn't miss it, Goebbels famously called Superman a Jew.

Every time I see something like this, it reminds me how far we've come, but how long we still have to go.

Pappy said...

Jeez, Brian...too bad Airboy isn't still being published. I think your outline would have made a fine script, especially during the Eclipse Airboy revival of the '80s.

I think the anti-Semitism is kind of a given, seeing how many people of Jewish ancestry changed their names so they sounded more "American."

I can think of one comics creator, Harvey Kurtzman, who celebrated it in Mad, where many of us kids reading it were suddenly aware of words like "furshlugginer." In that way he was also even more iconoclastic in satirizing popular culture.

Interestingly, Fredric Wertham (who was Jewish, according to biographical information), thought Superman was more of a Nazi "superman," and quoting Seduction of the Innocent:

"Superman (with the big S on his uniform—we should, I suppose, be thankful that it is not an S.S.) needs an endless stream of ever new submen, criminals and 'foreign-looking' people not only to justify his existence but even to make it possible. It is this feature that engenders in children either one or the other of two attitudes: either they fantasize themselves as supermen, with the attendant prejudices against the submen, or it makes them submissive and receptive to the blandishments of strong men who will solve all their social problems for them—by force."

Goebbels and Wertham, dueling ideas about Superman!

Alicia American said...

Our managr gave us a long emale about tha Hebrew word "OLAM" & its many meenings ("World" "Eternity" "Mystery" "Everlasting" "Era" "Epoch" ect.) & sed our 3D picture book we R making now shuld B based on THAT. I thot he was crizazy but than BOOM u use tha word OLAM, Pappy. Now Im just esceered yo OMG! MayB we shuld study Qablalah like Madonna yo!♥We luv u Pappy!

Darci said...

Brian's revisions remind me of 1954's "Devil Girl from Mars". I wonder if John Mather thought similarly back then?

Pappy, like you I miss the Airboy stories. I was a big fan of Chuck Dixon's series at Eclipse too.

Also, seeing that flying pyramid immediately made me think of the Stargate film and TV series.

Pappy said...

Darci, I loved that original Stargate movie, but lost track of the TV series after Season One (short attention span, which is why I like comic book stories...I can read them in minutes).

Pappy said...

Alicia, uh oh...if you're picking up my thoughts I'd better make sure they're clean.

Let me know when you get that 3D comic out. Good luck on that.