Austin Jewish Book Fair: Larry Tye
'Superman' historian reveals Man of Steel's Jewish roots
By Robert Faires, 10:30AM, Tue. Nov. 5, 2013
Krypton Schmypton. Larry Tye doesn't have much use for the homeworld of Superman, with its futuristic cities full of headband-wearing, goyish super-scientists. He'll take Cleveland's gritty inner city over that exotic planet any day. That, says the author pointedly in his history of the Man of Steel, is where Superman was really born.
It was in that Ohio burg in the depths of the Great Depression that science-fiction fanatic Jerry Siegel and comics-obsessed Joe Shuster famously channeled their adolescent energies into the creation of an original adventure hero. Their strange visitor from another planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, as he came to be described on radio and TV, drew inspiration from a host of gods and heroes, both the ancient – Samson, Hercules – and the modern – John Carter, Doc Savage, the protagonist of Philip Wylie's Gladiator – but somehow these two teenagers managed to combine the familiar elements into a red and blue caped package not quite like anything the world had seen before and that seized the American imagination of the time.
In recounting the origin of this astoundingly popular pop-culture character (75 years old and still leaping tall buildings in a single bound!), Tye is covering well-trod territory. But while he doesn't break much new ground in Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero, Tye succeeds in pulling together the many threads of the story into a narrative that's colorful and entertaining in a way that does justice to the guy who's fighting that never-ending battle for it, truth, and the American way. Contrary to the claim of its subtitle, the book is earthbound, but that isn't a dig. Tye's strength is in gathering the street-level details and personal quirks of the story's subjects. We come away with vivid impressions of such figures as scotch-guzzling, womanizing publisher Harry Donenfield; boorish, bullying editor Mort Weisinger; jaded, tortured actor George Reeves; and shameless wheeling-and-dealing film producer Alexander Salkind, to name a few. Indeed, despite the decades of superheroic escapades chronicled by Tye in his history, the Big Blue Boy Scout himself is rarely as memorable in the book as the less virtuous figures who helped bring his adventures to the comics page and silver screen.
Still, there's a sense of faith driving the story of Superman, and Tye argues that it is both our faith in the character's unfailing decency and steadfastness and the Jewish faith of his creators and so many of the writers and artists who have had a hand in his fictional adventures. Tye writes persuasively of the ethnic heritage of the character, from the Hebraic roots of his Kryptonian name (Kal-El, "vessel of God") to his status as stranger and assimilator, which makes his appearance at this year's Jewish Book Fair especially appealing. Having the chance to hear him speak in person and personally about Superman's Jewish history will provide an uncommon perspective on this familiar American icon.
Larry Tye will speak on Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero Tuesday, Nov. 5, 7pm, at the Austin Jewish Community Center, 7300 Hart. For more information, visit www.shalomaustin.org/bookfair.