That Time My Four Year-Old Schooled Me on Representation

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Our coverage of Marvel’s latest teaser images has brought some snarky comments about “Minority Comics.” Don’t worry, I’m not going to rant about who the real minority of comic fans are again. Instead, I’m going to make a confession: I was once one of those snarking.

I haven’t mentioned this before here, but I’m an Orthodox Jew. That means I don’t eat certain foods, don’t perform certain tasks from sundown on Friday to star-rise on Saturday night, and I do all sorts of interesting little rituals. There’s a whole history of Jews and comics (nicely detailed by Danny Fingeroth), but, in terms of representation, there aren’t many of us–particularly not in mainstream superhero comics. Which was okay, I guess. As a kid, I settled for Ragman, Kitty Pryde, Moon Knight, Nukelon, and whoever else they decided was Jewish. None of them were Jewish “like me” though. The closest I’d ever seen was New Warriors #58, by Evan Skolnick, where the hero Justice used Kaddish, the Mourner’s Prayer, to snap Sabra (an Israeli hero, named for a term that means “Native Israeli,” a bit of an eye roller) out of hypnosis.

Justice knew Kaddish because he'd murdered his father. Copyright: Marvel Comics.
Justice knew Kaddish because he’d murdered his father. In self-defense, mind you, but still…
Copyright: Marvel Comics.

But then came the biggie. In 2002, Marvel revealed The Thing was, in fact, Jewish, and had been the whole time. I got the logic behind this–The Thing is based on/associated with his creator Jack Kirby. Kirby was Jewish. Ergo, The Thing is a great character to make Jewish. Except the continuity wonk in me hated it.

"Hear o Israel, HaShem is G-d, HaShem is One", in case you were asking. Copyright: Marvel Comics. Via
“Hear o Israel, HaShem is G-d, HaShem is One,” in case you were asking.
Copyright: Marvel Comics. Via

Aside from The Thing having never shown an inkling of interest in religion in past stories and then suddenly knowing the Shema (the basic central tenet of Jewish Faith), there had been a story in the 1994 Marvel Holiday Special where Ben Grimm saves a Jewish kid on Chanukah (Hanukkah, to some), and has no idea whatsoever what Chanukah is–which is pretty tricky if you’re a New York native of any race, but basically impossible if you’re Jewish. Shema, but not Chanukah? How could Marvel expect me to accept this blatant retcon?

And the casual references? Ugh. Copyright: Marvel Comics.
Oh, and now he went to Hebrew School, too.
Copyright: Marvel Comics.

Time went on. I mellowed in my adherence to a set “canon.” Yet when Dan Slott wrote an issue of The Thing (#8) where Ben Grimm has a Bar Mitzvah (Because, you see, it’s been 13 years since he became The Thing), I shook my head. I basically did my best to ignore it, mentally stomping my foot at the idea of it.

Protip: You’re a Bar Mitzvah (Child of the Commandments) when you turn 13. No party or observance is needed. Copyright: Marvel Comics.

In time my ideas were absolutely influenced by having a daughter. I’ll never forget the day I pointed at an airplane and said it was flying like Superman and she (around five at the time) looked at me and said “Or Hawkgirl! Or Wonder Woman! Or Supergirl! Girls can fly too, y’know!” That helped me see how phallocentric things could be at times and opened my mind a wee bit more.

Still, my disdain for The Thing’s retcon continued. Then recently, my four year-old son was playing with some of his sister’s super hero toys. He picked up a Thing figure.

“Look out, it da Hulk!”
“Actually, Ben, that’s not the Hulk.”
“Den who is it?”
“That’s The Thing.”
“Da Thing?”
“Yup, and his name is Ben, just like you.”
“Oh,” he said, rather nonplussed, “Okay.”
As an afterthought, I added, “And he’s Jewish, just like you.”
My son’s head whipped around.

That’s when the last vestiges of my resistance to the idea fell. Thanks to him, I realized that The Thing’s Jewishness was not for me. Not now, nor at 25. It was for my son. He spent the last year in a school with Jews and non-Jews, where he was in the minority. Being Jewish was something unique to him and a handful of other kids, and right until that moment (barring the occasional episode of Shalom Sesame) he had no idea Jews existed in “mainstream” fiction. It was an eye-opener.

That’s what it’s about. It’s not about creating new characters as tokens (like DC’s Seraph); it’s not about preaching or being a punchline (as in Sabra’s appearance in Peter David’s Hulk or his Marvel Holiday Special Doc Samson story). It’s about a kid looking at a hero and seeing him or herself. It’s about not living in a world where parents have kids upset when someone tells them certain heroes aren’t for them. (And, wow, do I want to go to this parade.)

In short? It’s not all about me. And that’s okay.

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