by Daniel Kobimbo
Superman, the most popular comic book hero, is known for a lot of things. His symbol is among the most recognisable the world over. He is known for his immense strength, his ability to leap from tall buildings or fly (depending on the writer) and his X-ray vision. But have you ever wondered what inspired the creation of the character?
Sometimes when comic book characters are created, the authors tend to draw from world-renown politicians. For example the Guardians in the Green Lantern comic books were inspired by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Other times comic book writers draw inspiration from mythological gods. A good example is Wonder Woman whose creation is inspired by the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana, who is equated with the Greek goddess Artemis. With this in mind, it makes sense that Wonder Woman’s civilian name is Diana Prince, and that she is the ambassador of the Amazon island of Themyscira.
This technique of living in the 21st century through ancient European gods and long dead Israeli politicians might not feature prominently in popular culture, but there is one character that draws from perhaps some of the most well-known historical individuals. And that character is Superman. The Superman character is inspired by historical and religious figures that are found in Jewish, Islamic and Christian texts. These characters are Adam, Moses and — perhaps most surprisingly — Jesus Christ.
But it becomes less of a surprise if you consider the factors around the creation of Superman. Superman was the first Superhero ever created, around the time of the great depression in the United States. He appeared in Action Comics Issue No. 1 in 1939 as a costumed crusader, breaking into walls, stopping thugs and bullets. He was created by two migrant Jews: Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel. They were refugees from Germany, where the holocaust was brewing, to find the new Promised Land, America, where there was the hope of better opportunities and social and economic justice. The Jews’ unwavering belief in the messianic figures like Moses isn’t, by any measure, their most obscure characteristic.
It is these ideas of ‘the migrant’, ‘the promised land’ and a score of other concepts that I will use to draw parallels between the Superman of the comic books and the Supermen of the Torah and the New Testament.
The migrant’s hope
I have already mentioned the great migration to the US during the Second World War. There were plenty of Jews that reached the United States, leaving the land of their torment to find refuge in a place that bore new hope and life. When Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster created Superman, they inadvertently built a character that mirrored the lives they had lived as well as their hopes for the new world they had come into.
In the comic books an infant Kal’El (the name Superman’s parents gave him) is sent in a spaceship from his home planet Krypton. His ship lands on earth and is found by his new adoptive parents Jonah and Martha Kent who raise him as their own. But as he grows up he sets out on a search for his true parents.
When he does find his father’s spirit, he is given this mission; that ultimately he is to become the bridge between two worlds, embracing the best of earth and krypton. He gives the people of earth an ideal to strive towards in the hope that one day they will join him in the sun. Considering his superhuman powers, one can say that he is a man and yet more than a man. A god even.
Having built that foundation it is now easier to draw parallels with Jewish and Christian tradition. Perhaps the most striking of these is that Superman, like Jesus, is a son of two worlds. In the case of Jesus, these are heaven and earth. He has two fathers, Joseph and God, just like Superman. In fact Superman’s native name Kal’El itself has Jewish underpinnings. Translated, it would literally mean ‘Kal son of God’ since El is a Hebrew name for God. In the same respect there are parallels with Moses of the Old Testament who was adopted by an Egyptian Princess but later on set out to find his true people and eventuall led the Israelites across the desert into the Promised Land.
Aside from comic books there have been attempts to pay homage to the Christian and Jewish inspiration behind the creation of Superman. In the 2013 movie ‘Man of Steel’ there is a scene that is oddly reminiscent of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. When the Earth is threatened with annihilation, the film depicts Superman in a crucifixion pose, face turned heavenward, just before he flies off to save the world.
It is also curious that just like Jesus, who began his ministerial work at the age of around 30, Superman as depicted in Man of Steel also revealed himself to the world at the age of 30. Similarly his earthly father never got to see him use his powers because he died when he was young just like Jesus’ father Joseph, who wasn’t around during his public life.
Lastly the creators of Superman are said to have wanted the character to be a meek and humble person. Joe and Jerry were themselves bullied a lot and they often wondered what it would feel like to have the kind of strength that the world would marvel at. So they purposefully willed it that Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent, be a clumsy and odd reporter that no one cared about, brought up in the corn fields of Kansas by farmer parents.
In a way this mirrors the biblical account of Jesus who was the son of a carpenter. A carpenter’s son who proved much wiser than learned religious men and philosophers at the age of only 12, and much powerful than any miracle worker the world has ever seen. Most importantly the son of a carpenter singlehandedly changed the fate of the world forever.
Sign up to receive new articles as soon as they drop.