Superheroes from the Torah

By James Inverne, June 21, 2012
Follow The JC on Twitter

Time was that I was embarrassed to buy a comic book. Look, I’m 37, more or less a grown man, and old enough to start a column with the phrase “time was”.

But comic books have achieved cultural dignity, even if we call them “graphic novels” now.

As I write this, I’m still high from the live streaming of Janacek’s supreme masterpiece of life, love and death, The Cunning Little Vixen. That dramatisation of the comic strip, The Adventures Of Vixen Sharp Ears, was premiered in 1924. It is, I have come to realise, the greatest thing that its composer ever wrote — more far-reaching in its search for eternal truths than The Makropoulos Case, more subtly dramatic than Jenufa. And, meanwhile, pop art has been drawing from comics for more than half-a-century.

Elsewhere? In musical theatre, Charles Strouse gave us Annie, and It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Superman, while Julie Taymor and Bono have latterly given us Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark (still running on Broadway despite the reviews). One theatre (the Brick, in Brooklyn) even devoted a whole season last year to shows of various kinds with comic-book connections.

But the reason we’re all happily wearing Superman T-shirts now (well, OK, it may be just me, and it’s a pyjama top and I only wear it at night and I almost never pretend to be super-strong and fly, but you get the point) is because of Hollywood.

It was Bryan Singer’s The X-Men in 2000 that alerted the studios to the fact that technology had caught up with spandex-wearing ambition and CGI could finally realistically deliver what graphic panels had inspired in our collective imaginations.

The door to a parallel universe opened (that happens a lot in comics) and the supers, hero and villain alike, flooded through to a cinema near you. Where they set up residence and have never left.

In most cases, this is not a good thing. The majority of comic-book films are formulaic and lazy. But occasionally a great creative team gels and something of note emerges, be it the enormously entertaining Avengers Assemble or Christopher Nolan’s profoundly and deliberately unsettling Batman films.

There are even comic-book movies that make ironic comments on comic-book movies (Kick-Ass) and comic-book films that adopt art-house traits (Sin City, Watchmen — which, in its book form, appeared on Time Magazine’s 2005 all-time greatest novels list).

The form at its best does something extremely clever, and elusive. It paints on a grand scale, with broad brush-strokes, stories about people and about morals. By expanding the human experience to the limits of our imagination — think the Silver Surfer standing up to the planet-eating being known only as Galactus, a struggle of morality over duty (and we’ve been there, metaphorically-speaking, many times in the last century) — we can see the dilemmas, however subtle, facing us all.

It suits opera, another medium that breathes on a large scale. I’m surprised we haven’t had more comic-inspired operas (for that matter, I can think of some outsize personalities working in the opera world who might work well as a comic book). Perhaps it’s time we did.

But comic books have much in common with the Torah as well. Ever wondered why the story of Moses made such a good cartoon film (which is basically a moving comic book)? Because the Torah gives us superheroes, it gives us gateways to other dimensions, its gives us magic powers, heroic leaders saving mankind, villains determined to enslave it.

It gives that scale. And just as many of the great comics never end, recycling the same stories in different ways, the Torah stretches on for a year before renewing itself, for another cycle where its interpreters will find new aspects to notice and discuss. In the best sense, the Torah is the first great comic book. Without the pictures.

You know what I’m going to do tomorrow? I’m going to stride into my newsagent with pride, pick up a copy of Daredevil, resist saying, “it’s for my son” (I usually do), and then I might buy a Superman T-shirt for the daytime.

Maybe I’ll even wear it to shul. OK, I won’t. But in some ways, it would be appropriate.

    Last updated: 3:12pm, June 21 2012