Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a Jewish superhero

By Rob Boffard, November 26, 2010
Ragman, created by Joe Kubert

Ragman, created by Joe Kubert

They call him Ragman.

Once a humble pawn-shop owner in Gotham City, Rory Regan is now a costumed superhero. Clothed in the mystical patchwork "suit of souls", he patrols the rooftops, protecting his city from miscreants. His crusade has seen him encounter fellow crimebusters Batman and Green Lantern. He is also the world's leading Jewish superhero.

There have been other comic-book characters with Jewish backgrounds. Shadowcat of the X-Men has Jewish origins, and one of their major opponents, Magneto, first realised he could control metal while imprisoned in a concentration camp as a child. But right now, Ragman stands alone.

Last month, DC comics published a special "one-shot" issue, which explores Ragman's Jewish origins. The move has opened the door for other heroes like him - heroes with the potential to weave their Jewish experience into contemporary comic-book stories.

Ragman was first created in 1976 by artist Joe Kubert and writer Bob Kanigher, and slipped into obscurity in the '90s. Kubert now runs a school of graphic art in New Jersey and has not worked on the character for some time. Although both he and Kanigher came from Jewish backgrounds (Kanigher died in 2002), he says that they did not set out to create a Jewish character - indeed, in his initial incarnation, Ragman seemed more Irish than anything else, as his alter ego name of Rory Regan suggests.

"Ragman does have a Jewish background, I admit," Kubert says, "but the motivation was more to create a different kind of superhero. Kanigher came from a similar background to mine. I grew up in the late '20s, early '30s, in Brooklyn, and it was not unusual to have older men, Jews who had just come from Europe, go round with push-carts or a horse and wagon and collect old clothes. These were people who eked out a living any way they could. Frankly, I don't know what they did with those of clothes, but they collected them and made a couple of dollars."

Kubert says that in making Ragman Jewish, he and Kanigher simply wanted to ensure the character was believable, and would stand out from the rest of the superhero crowd.

"We felt it was fitting that giving him that kind of background made him more credible and made him a little bit different from all the other superheroes. I don't think Superman was Jewish! But I refuse to cloak myself as someone who was breaking boundaries by making a Jewish hero - that was not my true motivation," he says.

Joe Kubert: "The aim was to create a different kind of hero"

Joe Kubert: "The aim was to create a different kind of hero"

Nevertheless, it was a courageous move, especially given how conservative the comic-book industry was in the '70s. Religion was, if not taboo, then something comic-book writers tended not to feel able to bring into their stories.

"The position changed when comics started to be seen as more than just disposable children's entertainment," says Christos Gage, a writer who has previously worked on titles like The Authority and Avatar. It was he, along with artist Stephen Segovia, who put together the recent Ragman special issue for DC Comics.

"As the artform started to be taken more seriously and the creators wanted to begin tackling more weighty issues, religion became more acceptable," he says. "Now when a character is created, religion, and ethnicity, are more likely to be included as part of their background. At one time, these would have been seen as touchy subjects."

Religion is becoming more widely accepted within comic-book universes, so much so that the arrival of an Islamic superhero team, published by Tashkeel Comics under the title The 99, has just been announced. Other titles, like the Korean comic, Priest, and Garth Ennis's ground-breaking Preacher series, have drawn upon Christianity for their inspiration.

And although Ragman might not have been created primarily as a Jewish character, he has certainly embraced his origins. Gage and Segovia's one-shot, called Suit Of Souls, is a "retcon" or "retroactive continuity", a narrative which alters the histories of its subjects.

The book explains Ragman's origins in the Jewish community of 16th-century Prague and features a retelling of the legend of the Golem.

Gage is confident that the character will have a future beyond Suit of Souls, and understands why he is currently the only Jewish superhero on the block.

"I think the reason that there aren't more of them is the same reason that there aren't more Episcopalian or Baptist superheroes. Comic-book character have tended to be very non-specific in their religion, and I think it used to be done so that the characters would have the widest possible appeal. But it's become more acceptable to give comic-book characters more specific and varied backgrounds, and we thought it would be interesting to explore that."

He adds: "There's always a market for good comics. The Muslim world has a huge population, and I think The 99 is being aimed at people who are currently under-served. Now that I think about it, in Suicide Squad back in the late '80s, there was a group of superpowered agents of the Israeli government. It's all in the execution - good comics are good comics."

Kubert agrees, saying that above all, the goal is to create comic books that tell a compelling story. He says that he has always been given the freedom by his publishers to go in whichever direction he wanted to, as long he was able to create something new and different.

"We have found that, as both writers and artists, the more credible and believable the character is, the chances are that the reader will be able to identify with that character and want to see more.

"Aside from anything regarding the quality of the characters we're creating, we are attempting to sell the stuff."

    Last updated: 11:21am, November 26 2010