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Role Model

by Hal Dresner

I was a kid when America entered World War II.

Everyone I knew was confident of victory. Even my father, a world-class worrier, said we would “put this thing to bed early”. But I wasn’t so sure. Those Germans looked pretty mean to me. And though we lived in a safe neighborhood on New York’s West Side, I had a regular dream of being captured by Nazi’s and tortured for information I didn’t have.

“I’m just a kid,” I’d explain, “I don’t know anything.”

“You’re Jewish,” snarled my tormentor. “You know plenty.”

I recognized that as a backhanded compliment but still felt powerless before such a merciless foe. You see, in those years, my vision of the world as from comic books. Black and white, strong and weak, good and evil. In the newsreels, even captured Germans look confident and sneeringly defiant. In contrast, our triumphant GIs appeared tired, muddy, at the edge of their resources. Since I saw Hitler as the classic, remorseless villain, my big concern was that there was no Jewish superhero to oppose him. (The only pictures of European Jews I ever saw showed them fleeing, terrified, or collapsed in grateful tears, or the horribly emaciated survivors of the camps.) Without a great Jewish leader-god, I feared for our cause.

Cut to: Six years later. The war is over. At the summer hotel my father manages, I meet Bob Kane, a famous cartoonist. He takes a liking to me because, I believe, we are both cartoonishly akin with slit eyes and razor blade noses. He sends me hand-drawn postcards which, to my lifelong shame, I found too childish to share with my sophisticated pals. Over the years, Bob and I talk occasionally, mainly about art (he aspires to be a serious satiric painter like Daumier) and literature (I want to be respected popular writer like John O’Hara). The subject of religious affiliation never comes up.

Now, however, the truth seems obvious. In the thirties and forties, when many Jews felt it necessary to hide their true identities, Jewish artists like Jerry Schuster and Joe Siegel who authored Superman and Bop Kane, who gave us Batman, cloaked their heroes as acceptable gentiles—“mild-mannered Clark Kent” and “playboy Bruce Wayne”. But beneath those bland WASP exteriors burned their real power, their Jewish souls. (And, unlike Superman, Batman was born on this planet and used scientific ingenuity rather than superhuman powers. Also, he was rich, educated, good-looking and had a great car. What more of a role model could any Jewish boy want?)

Bob Kane lived until 1998, long enough to reap the benefits of the superhero revival. I never asked him if Batman was really a landsman. However, recently, in my imagination I posed the question and, in answer, he took up pen and pad and, with quick, sure strokes, drew the caped crusader crowned by a kippah with tallis flowing. And beside him was Robin, a recent convert, brandishing a copy of the Ten Commandments.

Take that, Adolf! Pow! Bam! Whack!

A comic book image that allows the scared kid inside me to sleep easier.