In his latest adventure, Superman travels back in time to face the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand. But nowhere in this special comic-book story is the word Jew mentioned. In fact, editors at DC Comics, a division of Time Warner Entertainment Co., deleted “Jewish” from the story entirely, says Superman writer-artist Jon Bogdanove.
“They didn’t want me to use the word Jewish,” Bogdanove says. “They wanted to avoid using buzz words.”
Instead, Jewish victims are referred to euphemistically throughout the three issues of “Superman: The Man of Steel” — one of the four monthly magazines published by DC Comics featuring the world’s first superhero. The story was commissioned to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Superman’s debut in Action Comics No. 1 in June 1938.
While Superman, created by two Jewish teenagers, has battled Nazi Germany in his six-decade career, he has never before personally confronted the evils of the Holocaust, says Bogdanove.
In the current issues, the Man of Tomorrow helps dig trenches for a mass grave to bury Nazi victims.But the victims are never named as Jews. They are obliquely referred to as the “target population of the Nazis’ hate.” In another case, they are called the “murdered residents” of a bombed-out shtetl.
“It’s outrageous,” declared Emory University Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt. “You start out with a very good idea to teach comic book readers a little bit of history, then you turn it on its head by refusing to acknowledge who the victims are.”
“It’s a Judenrein rendition of the Holocaust,” said Deborah Dwork, director of Clark University’s Holocaust Studies program. “It’s the ultimate trivialization of the Holocaust.”
Bogdanove, a 40-year-old acclaimed artist and a regular Superman plotter, says at first he resisted the editors, calling it “censorship.”
He speculated that the Superman editors “didn’t want to sound preachy or too partisan.”
But Bogdanove ultimately agreed to the changes, saying that it was more important for people to see the victims as human beings. “I wanted it to be universal. In the end, I don’t think we hurt the story.”
DC Comics executive vice president and publisher Paul Levitz, a Jew who lost many relatives in the Holocaust, said he did not personally approve the deletions but was not bothered by them. He said the decision lay with the book’s immediate editor, Joey Cavalieri.
“I don’t have problem [about the deletions] if they did it in an editorially appropriate way,” Levitz said.
“It didn’t strike me as I read the material,” he said of the absence of Jews. “The reality of the Holocaust was it wasn’t just us [Jews].”
Superman comics editor Joey Cavalieri said he banned the words Jew, Catholic and German from the story because he feared they might be used derisively by young readers.
“Since this could be the first time [a reader] encounters the Jews in print, I would be heartbroken if this [story] went badly,” he said.
He said it was obvious by their names and graphic devices that they were Jewish.
Cavalieri, an industry veteran, said response to the stories has been “overwhelmingly positive, across the board.”
Lipstadt compared the omission to the Roosevelt administration, which, she said, would issue statements about Nazi persecution of Jews but they wouldn’t mention Jews.
Lipstadt said it was “just stupid” that in 1998, comic-book publishers are “trying to hide and camouflage who victims are. It’s like living in a time warp.”
In truth the current plot, which began in Man of Steel issue No. 80, dated June 1998, and runs through issue No. 82, dated August 1998, provides numerous clues as to the identity of the unnamed victims.
The story is strewn with Hebrew names and Yiddish words.
The book graphically portrays the murders committed by SS soldiers, mass graves, forced labor, starvation and disease afflicting the populace.
Superman, disguised as a shtetl resident in the Warsaw Ghetto, befriends two young boys, Moishe and Baruch, and Baruch’s grandfather. He also meets the real-life ghetto resistance leader Mordechai Anielewicz.
The Last Son of Krypton sees a skeletal woman whose newborn is dying for lack of milk that the mother can no longer provide.
Intrepid reporter Lois Lane is captured and put in a cattle car headed for Treblinka.
Bogdanove said he did intensive research to try and accurately portray the horrific events. For three months, he read Holocaust survivors’ accounts and studied pictures of the Warsaw Ghetto.
He even contacted the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington for help, receiving “mounds” of information from Holocaust Museum historian Patricia Heberer.
“I told her I wanted to compress a lot of history into it and I wanted it to be really solid,” said Bogdanove. “I tried to take as few liberties as possible and put Superman in situations that really happened.”
Bogdanove said his dedication led to “Nazi nightmares. I woke up smelling burnt flesh,” he said.
The special stories were commissioned to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the first national appearance of Superman — created by two Jewish high school kids from Cleveland, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. The Man of Steel made his debut in Action Comics No. 1 in June 1938.
“Superman has fought the Nazis before, but this is the first time he’s really battled the Holocaust,” says Bogdanove.
“While two little Jewish kids were inventing one kind of Superman, Hitler was creating another kind of Superman, and I thought for the 60th anniversary it was time for those two ideas to clash head on,” Bogdanove said.
The story finds Superman’s alter ego, newspaper reporter Clark Kent, and colleague Lois Lane sneaking into Nazi-occupied Poland to investigate the truth about German atrocities and reveal them to the world.
But before Superman can finish rescuing the ghetto survivors, he is pulled through time back to 1998.
Which leaves no superhero to save the Jews — even in the comic books.