It’s clobberin’ time (again): The superhero fatigue of a ‘comic book rabbi’

Reflecting the demands of an audience increasingly suffering from attention-deficit disorder, the length of time between originals and reboots continues to shrink.

August 5, 2015 20:58
4 minute read.
film reel, movie, cinema

film reel, movie, cinema. (photo credit: REUTERS)

T he first family (literally) of comics is getting a reboot courtesy of director Josh Trank.

The Fantastic Four were created for Marvel Comics in 1961 by the Jewish dynamic duo of writer Stan Lee (Lieber) and artist Jack Kirby (Kurtzberg). Here’s is a quick primer on the Fantastic Four’s credentials as members of the tribe and the “first family” of comics.

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Prior to The Fantastic Four, the family unit was never explored within the comic book genre. Superheroes tackled the dirty work of saving the world alone and only worked together out of necessity.

The Fantastic Four were different. In the comic, after Invisible Woman and Mr. Fantastic married, the team became, quite literally, a family. Three of the four are directly related – the Human Torch is the Invisible Woman’s brother. The Thing (Ben Grimm) takes the role of crusty uncle, stubborn child and bratty teen all rolled into one bulky package.

In the original comics, the kvetch family dynamic had a rather Yiddish flavor; while they are often at each other’s throats, they were also willing to risk their lives for the safety of their “family.”

Over the years, Fantastic Four fans have felt particular affection for that misunderstood creature, The Thing. The Thing has extreme strength, is impervious to bullets and can endure intense physical pain. He’s not, however, immune to emotional pain.

In many ways, The Thing personifies his creators’ Jewish origins. The Thing’s real name is Benjamin Jacob Grimm. Born on the “earthy” Lower East Side of Manhattan, he belonged to the Yancy Street gang in his youth. Young Jack Kirby fought gangs on the Lower East Side, too, where Delancy is the main street.

Grimm’s youth comes back to haunt him in the famous 2002 story “Remembrance of All Things Past.” In that issue, released some 40 years after his debut, the Thing’s true Semitic identity is finally revealed. He’d previously kept it a secret, explaining, sadly, “There’s enough trouble in this world without people thinking Jews are all monsters like me.”

The original Fantastic Four movie debuted in 2005, and made respectable returns at box office, but was berated by fans. The reboot promises a younger, more “emo” gang of four. The touchstone of reboots seems to be: “serious,” “somber” and, of course “darker.” (Yes, I’m talk to you, Batman vs. Superman ).

Reflecting the demands of an audience increasingly suffering from attention-deficit disorder, the length of time between originals and reboots continues to shrink. We are already into the second reboot of “Batman” and the third reboot of “Spider Man.”

(Jewish) Fantastic Four director Josh Trank promises a more realistic, science-based approach. Co-writer and producer Simon Kinberg (guess) noted, “What hooked me was Josh’s idea of what the honest reaction would be if you suddenly didn’t have control over your body anymore – if you were uncontrollably on fire or invisible or you were a rock creature.”

Yet like these rebooted movies themselves, at times I find myself getting serious and somber. Growing up as a secular Jew, I studied Film History in Manchester Metropolitan University in England. Around the time of the first Fantastic Four incarnation, I’d been recently installed as the chairman of the religious affairs committee at trendy Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and my first book, Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero , had been released. Back then revealing the fascinating Jewish motifs and values in popular comics felt original, edgy and fresh.

As the self-proclaimed “comic book rabbi,” I have lectured across the country, clocking in more miles than Superman by speaking everywhere from Ivy League schools to Comic-Con. I recently taped a lecture for the wonderful ELI Talks that feature “inspired Jewish ideas.” (Think TED Talk, but with better food in the green room.) Whilst I have lost none of my passion for Judaism, I sometimes find myself dealing with kids’ carpooling and a receding hairline more than my rabbinic endeavors. I’ve also had to face the grim reality every Baal Teshuvah (religious returnee to the fold) faces: not every Jew in a kippah is perfect. Like reboots themselves – which are usually more mature than the originals – as I got older I realized that real life is more nuanced. But embracing the sacred untidiness of life one can come to win in life, not just the box office.

Reboots, re-imaginings and remakes have given me superhero fatigue. Maybe it’s time to reset my own shtick. After all, the one thing tackier than endless Hollywood reboots is a self-proclaimed “comic book rabbi” who reboots his articles based on rebooted movies. (Sorry.) I’m sure this article with get rebooted (again) in a few years. But remember the words of the “rebooted” Batman (and the Kabbala): “It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

The author is a rabbi and best-selling author who was voted New York’s Hippest Rabbi by PBS Channel 13. He chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at Pratt Institute and resides in Brooklyn, New York

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