It’s getting to be that time of year when I want to get my summer beach reading all lined up. That’s one reason why I was so eager to speak with author Roy Schwartz about his new book Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero. Here’s my five-and-a-half questions and Roy’s five-and-a-half-answers:
Ed Catto: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, Roy? And are you a comic fan?
Roy Schwartz: I’m a huge comic fan. I grew up on comics, it’s how I taught myself to read and write. My favorite has always been Captain America—and this goes way back, when people would say “who?”
I used to have a decent collection. 42 long boxes, which isn’t huge, but it was well-curated. I had a complete run of every Cap comic published from October 1964’s Tales of Suspense #58 (signed by Lee & Kirby!) to October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy destroyed my storage unit and with it my lifelong collection overnight.
I’d like to give a shout-out here to Chuck Rozanski from Mile High Comics, who heard about it and sent me a few boxes of back issues. It was the sweetest gesture. This is a guy who spends his time and money volunteering for homeless causes around Denver. He’s a real-life superhero.
I don’t collect with the same gusto anymore, but my home office looks like a comic shop. I have a framed copy of Avengers #4, Cap shield and helmet replicas, life-size bust of Christopher Reeve’s Superman, a bunch of Hot Toys and other cool stuff.
When I’m not in fanboy mode I’m disguised as a mild-mannered director of marketing & business development for a great metropolitan law firm.
EC: Your book, Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero looks fascinating. What’s the book about?
RS: Thanks. I had a lot of fun writing it, so I hope that translates into a fun reading experience.
The book explores the origins of the comic book industry and superhero genre with Jewish immigrants and their children during the Depression and WWII, then follows the development of the field over the decades from this perspective, with a focus on Superman as the archetype and the richest in Jewish signification. It’s about comic book history, literary themes of superhero comics, and Jewish culture. So, it has something for everyone.
If you’re familiar with the topic of the Jewish origins of superheroes, what’s new about this book is threefold: it explores the Jewish themes more deeply, it’s the first book to focus exclusively on Superman, and it examines the entirety of his career, from 1938 to date, not just the Golden Age. And let me tell ya—there’s so much there, I had no idea when I started research for the book.
EC: How did you come up with the premise of the book?
RS: It’s actually based on my graduate thesis, which was more about the heroic figure in Jewish folklore, tracing it from the Bible to American comics. NYU has an annual competition where masochists like me can defend their thesis on a stage in front of the entire school, and I joined on a lark with my best buddy Chris. I didn’t prepare or rehearse or anything, I just had fun with it. To my surprise, out of over 400 participants I won second place. Chris won first.
It got some press, and I was invited to write a couple of articles, but I didn’t do anything with it for a while. In the meantime, my first book got published, a middle-grade dark fantasy called The Darkness in Lee’s Closet and the Others Waiting There. A couple of years later, I was chatting with someone at a booth in New York Comic Con and told him about my thesis. He turned out to be the acquisitions editor for McFarland, he invited me to pitch him, I did, and they bought it. It took me 6.5 years to research and write the thing (I have a day job and little ones, so I’m not fast) and now it’s finally out.
EC: When I was a kid, I saw a book called The Gospel According to Superman. Are you familiar to this book and is it the opposite of what you’ve written about?
RS: Yes, I reference it in my book. It’s more of a proselytizing text, using Superman to discuss Jesus. Which is fine, but not what my book’s about. I’m not trying to preach or prove ownership or anything like that. I trace theological, folkloric, literary, and other cultural themes from superheroes, particularly Superman, back to their possible origins. None of that is to take away from the Christ parallels, mind you. They’re definitely there, I discuss them at length, and it’s all good.
My book is meant to be fun to read. It’s in plain English, it has about a hundred images, but technically it’s a scholarly work. McFarland is an academic press, and the book’s a heavily researched work. I actually received a two-year writer-in-residence fellowship at the New York Public Library to write it. It contains robust endnotes for each chapter and it’s suitable for classroom use. But again, you wouldn’t know that from just reading it. It’s casual in tone and has a fair amount of humor. And lots of Easter eggs for comic fans!
EC: What kind of reactions are you getting from all different communities about your book, Roy?
RS: The book just came out May 14 so it’s a bit early, but so far the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive. Which of course makes me very happy. I’m invited to do virtual author talks all over the country, at synagogues, churches, community centers, colleges, etc. A couple of press reviews have come out already, and more are underway.
Mayim Bialik actually sent me a nice review, which if you’ll indulge me I’d like to share; “I am floored by this deep and beautiful examination of history, liturgy, and culture. If you believe in comics as the holders of miracle, myth, and mystery, this is the book for you.”
Question 5 1/2:
EC: What’s your favorite Superman story?
RS: Oh, man. That’s a tough one. Maybe not one story, but there are two periods that are my favorite; the early Siegel & Shuster issues, which are bursting with energy and purpose and action, and in a more detached view are amazing historical documents, and the John Byrne run. He was a powerhouse at the top of his game firing on all cylinders.
EC: Thanks so much, Roy.
For more information, visit Roy’s site at : RoySchwartz.com
The latest book is currently available at bookstores and Amazon: