Balloonless: Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero
For much of the still-being-written history of comics, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Funnyman has been something of a footnote, usually mentioned as one more sad detail in the sad story of the two creators who fathered the superhero genre, and the medium and industry that genre carried for a while.
Funnyman, their creator-owned follow-up to Superman after their falling out with National, the company that became DC Comics, is generally seen as an example of how hard it is to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.
Writers Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon have taken up that footnote and expanded on it like never before, focusing on an aspect of the creators’ careers that could use the focus in their 2010 book Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero.
The sub-title suggests a thesis that I’m not entirely sure the book itself supports, and I’m even less sure that’s where the ultimate value of the book lies (particularly to an audience like us).
The book is sectioned off into articles by the authors and reprints and summaries of Funnyman comic book stories and comic strip stories. Mel Gordon’s “The Farblondjet Superhero and his Cultural Origins” notes that the fourth issue of Funnyman was released the same week the state of Israel was declared in 1948, claiming the hero was a perfect one for the time of immense Jewish anxiety.
From their he launches into a relatively long history of Jewish comedy (35 pages of a 185-page book), including discussion of various out-dated theories as to why the Jewish people have come to be regarded as a more humorous people than other groups, and then a brisk but thorough recounting of their traditions of humor and their interface with pop culture through the dawn of Golden Age Hollywood.
That’s followed by Andrae’s “The Jewish Superhero,” which discusses the legend of the Golem and the popular golem films, Polish strongman Siegmund Breitbart, and, in his next chapter, the widely recognized Jewish aspects of Superman.
If one is considered to be Jewish by birth, then most of first generation of superheroes, including Superman, Batman and Captain America, are Jewish, given than one or more of their “parents” were Jewish. But if a critic or scholar wants to determine their Jewishness based on certain characteristics, well, Superman still seems just as, if not more, Jewish than Funnyman, even if the latter was patterned after Danny Kaye, spoke in Yididsh and embodied Jewish humor and confidence more than Jewish insecurities and myths the way Superman did.
Regardless, the pair’s scholarship is impressive, and delivered in an engaging enough manner to make the book into something of a breezy and substantial work.
I think a more important revelation than the fact that Siegel and Shuster’s second –man superhero character was pretty Jewish is this: Although Funnyman never caught on and eventually disappeared from the public eye, the comics are actually really, really good.
After the articles, which offer some close readings of a few Funnyman stories for clues of how the creators feel about women and National Comics and the comics industry, several Funnyman stories are reprinted, as are summaries of all six issues of the comic book, and various storylines from the newspaper comics.
The comic book stories are very much kids’ ones, aimed at the kids of the late ‘40s, and Siegel’s humor can be rather eye-rolling (there are a lot of pun names), but the plots themselves are fun and funny in the broad manner of tossed-off superhero comics. (For example, mad scientist Doc Gimmick invents a sexy robot lady to stand on street corners and drop her hankerchief, a huge mallet extended from her back to clobber any men who approach so that Doc and his accomplice can steal their wallets. Instead of, you know, just hitting them on the head with hammers themselves and taking their wallets). But this is some of Shuster’s best art that I’ve seen. It makes sense, given that this is later in his career than the Superman stories we see reprinted most often, the crudely drawn handful of first comics, and from a time when his eyesight was failing but not as badly as it would be during the period in which he produced his latest work we’ve seen published.
Funnyman himself wears exaggerated clown clothes which must have coaxed, even necessitated exaggerated lines, and his transformation from comedian Larry Davis to super-clown Funnyman was more complete and physical than the Clark Kent/Superman one—Shuster widened his eyes, lengthened his neck and changed the shape of his mouth, so the handsome leading man-like Davis became more of a cartoon character.
The exaggerated character designs and broad “acting” of the figures carries through to everyone in the comic book stories. It’s realistic art, but full of life and motion.
Also, is Shuster is free to add a few more va-va’s to the va-va-voom of his female characters. The authors share this panel from a Superman comic, noting that Shuster’s editors thought it was too sexual, and asked whey Lois looked pregnant and had to have the undersides of her breasts shaded.
Given how little Funnyman material there is—only six issues of the comic book—it’s kind of unfortunate that this book features so little of it, but it’s certainly a nice start, and perhaps a more complete collection will follow at some point.
In terms of understanding the story of Siegel, Shuster and the comics industry, though, this is an important work for providing a thus far missing chapter.
Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero by Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon, Feral House, 240 pages, $25