Celebrating Chanukah with The Thing

The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is coming up, which makes this a good time to look at one of the most famous Jewish heroes in comic books: Benjamin Jacob Grimm, the orange super-strong rock-like Thing from the Fantastic Four.

The Fantastic Four, who made their debut in August 1961, were created by two Jews, writer/editor Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber) and co-plotter/penciler Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). The Thing was never identified as any particular religion by Lee & Kirby.  However, the personality & background of Ben Grimm, a gruff-taking, street-smart, working-class Joe who grew up on the rough & tumble streets of the Lower East Side during the Great Depression, was similar to Kirby.  It was often suggested that Ben Grimm was a semi-autobiographical creation.  Interviewed in 1987, Kirby acknowledged the similarities…

“Yes, everybody I’ve talked to has compared me to Ben Grimm and perhaps I’ve got his temperament, I’ve got his stubbornness, probably, and I suppose if I had his strength, I’d be conservative with it. Ben Grimm is that way… If he uses his strength, he’ll use it in a justifiable manner– to save somebody, or to help somebody, or to see that fairness grows and evolves and helps people.”

In a 1976 Chanukah card Kirby drew the Thing as Jewish. It’s unknown if this meant that Kirby actually saw Ben Grimm as Jewish, or if it was just a humorous bit he did for a card he was sending to his family & friends.  Nonetheless, for years this fueled speculation among both comic book fans and creators that the Thing could be Jewish.

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The Thing’s faith was finally identified in Fantastic Four volume 3 #56 (August 2002). “Remembrance of Things Past” was written by Karl Kesel and drawn by Stuart Immonen & Scott Koblish.  A brooding Thing finds himself back on Yancy Street, where he grew up decades earlier.  He runs into Hiram Sheckerberg, a curmudgeonly pawn shop owner who knows Ben Grimm from way back when.  The still-cranky Sheckerberg at first mistakenly believes the Thing is part of an extortion racket that is threatening him.  However the true culprit soon turns up at the pawn shop: Powderkeg, aka “the man with the explosive aura,” a super-powered thug whose shtick is that he literally sweats nitroglycerine.

The Thing defeats Powderkeg, but during the fight Sheckerberg is knocked out. Believing the old man is dead or dying, the Thing begins say the Mourner’s Kaddish.  It turns out Sheckerberg was only stunned.  After getting to his feet, the crabby pawn shop owner addresses the Thing…

Sheckerberg: It’s good, too, to see you haven’t forgotten what you learned at Temple, Benjamin. All these years in the news, they never mentioned you’re Jewish. I thought maybe you were ashamed of it a little?

The Thing: Nah, that ain’t it. Anyone on the internet can find out, if they want. It’s just… I don’t talk it up, is all. Figure there’s enough trouble in this world without people thinkin’ Jews are all monsters like me.

Sheckerberg disagrees with the Thing’s assessment that he is a monster, reminding him of the legend of the Golem…

“He was a being made of clay — but he wasn’t a monster. He was a protector.”

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The police and paramedics soon arrive. The Thing, having wrapped up Powderkeg in a lamppost, is ready to hand over the thug to the authorities.  But first we get this little exchange…

Powderkeg: And you’re really Jewish?

The Thing: There a problem with that?

Powderkeg: No! No, it’s just… you don’t look Jewish.

In the decade and a half since that story, the Thing’s faith has been addressed by subsequent writers, usually in passing. I feel this is the best way to handle it, showing him as a super-hero who happens to be Jewish, rather than making his faith the central, defining aspect of his character.

Nevertheless, on occasion Ben Grimm’s religion has been addressed head-on, such as in the story “Last Hand” written by Dan Slott and drawn by Kieron Dwyer, in The Thing #8 (August 2006).

Sheckerberg and Rabbi Lowenthal approach Grimm about having a Bar Mitzvah. The Thing is confused, pointing out that he is much older than 13.  Sheckerberg observes that it has been 13 years since Grimm was reborn as the Thing.  A reluctant Grimm agrees, spending the next month studying with Sheckerberg and Lowenthal.  Finally the big day comes.

It’s worth nothing that Ben’s Haftorah is from the Book of Job, which is not part of the Jewish Old Testament. However this nevertheless in an appropriate choice on Slott’s part, given the struggles that Ben has been forced to endure since his transformation.

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The Thing’s faith has also been mentioned in a few Holiday Specials, with Ben being shown observing Chanukah instead of Christmas.

Truthfully, Chanukah is not a major Jewish holiday, not like Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. However, Chanukah typically falls in the month of December, around the time of Christmas.  The exact dates vary from year to year, since the Jewish faith is based around a lunar calendar rather than a solar one.  (Yeah, that’s Jews for you; we just have to be different!)  Because of its close proximity to Christmas, often Jews will exchange gifts.

“Chinese Food for Christmas” written by Jamie S. Rich and drawn by Paco Diaz appeared in the Marvel Holiday Special 2011. Playing on the idea that Jews go out for Chinese food on Christmas, the Thing is planning to attend a big Chinese buffet organized by Kitty Pryde, aka Shadowcat of the X-Men, Marvel’s other significant Jewish hero.

En route to dinner, the Thing encounters an odd creature that has been stealing Christmas decorations.  It turns out the creature was trying to put together a Christmas party for the orphans at the Yancy Street Children’s Home, which ran out of money.  Ben Grimm invites the kids and their odd benefactor to the buffet dinner, where we see Shadowcat, as well as several other Jewish heroes, namely Moon Knight, Songbird, Sasquatch and Wiccan.

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Casting my mind back to 2002, I recall that I was genuinely thrilled to find out that the Thing was Jewish. When I was a kid, I was definitely shy & insecure.  In general I didn’t feel like I fit in.  The fact that I was Jewish added to that, giving me one more thing about which to feel different.  This was especially true in December, when everywhere you turned it was Christmas all the time.

It’s worth noting that I felt this way even though I lived in New York, which has a significant Jewish population.  I can only imagine how much more of an outsider I would have felt if I had grown up in a different part of the country.

My experiences when I was younger definitely led me to appreciate the importance of representation in pop culture. When I was a kid there were very few Jewish characters in movies, television or comic books.  This left me with almost no one to identify with, which exacerbated my feelings of being different.  I was already in my mid-twenties when the Thing was revealed to be Jewish, but it nevertheless felt really significant to me that one of the most iconic Marvel Comics characters was revealed to be Jewish.

There was an excellent piece written last year by Mordechai Luchins, “That Time My Four Year-Old Schooled Me on Representation.” I definitely agree with the sentiments expressed by the author.  It is crucial to have diversity in pop culture.  Just as I really wanted, and needed, for there to be Jewish heroes in the stories I read and watched, so too do women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, the LGBT community and other groups want and need the same thing.

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I think it is very easy for some white Christian males to take for granted that the majority of the characters in movies and television and comic books and other media look & sound like them. I really hope that these people will eventually come to understand the importance of diversity, and to realize that pop culture is big enough for all of us.

Whoever you are, whatever you celebrate, I hope that you all have a very happy holiday season.

Tomorrow is today: X-Men “Days of Future Past”

It’s 2013.  Do you know where your X-Men are?

Sure, here in the real world, if you want to locate the X-Men, just head on over to the local comic book shop, where you’ll find your favorite mutants in numerous ongoing series published by Marvel Comics.  But back in the early 1980s, within the fictional world they inhabited, the X-Men had every reason to be fearful of the 21st Century.  In the now-classic two part story “Days of Future Past,” readers were given a glimpse of a horrifying dystopian future where humanity no longer ruled, and mutant-kind were hunted like animals by soulless mechanical tyrants.

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Originally appearing in Uncanny X-Men #141-142, published in late 1980, “Days of Future Past” was co-plotted by John Byrne & Chris Claremont, penciled by Byrne, scripted by Claremont, and inked by Terry Austin, under the editorship of Louise Simonson.  This two issue tale showed us the remnants of the X-Men in the year 2013 attempting to alter history.  With the aid of the telepath Rachel, the now-adult Kate Pryde’s consciousness is projected back in time into her teenage body.  She tells the skeptical present-day X-Men of 1980 of the dire future waiting on the horizon.

Kate informs the X-Men that the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants is planning to murder U.S. Senator Robert Kelly, who is advocating for the regulation of mutants.  Kate states that the Brotherhood’s actions backfire horribly; rather than serving as a warning for humanity to stay out of mutant affairs, the assassination causes a virulent wave of anti-mutant hysteria to sweep across the nation.  The “Mutant Control Act” is passed in 1984, but is struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  This merely further emboldens the paranoid elements of the federal government, and they reactivate the giant anti-mutant Sentinel robots.  The Sentinels are given “fatally broad parameters” to deal with mutants and, to humanity’s horror, decide the most logical manner in which to do so is to seize control of the country.

Over the next quarter century, nearly all superhumans in North America are exterminated by the Sentinels, with the survivors imprisoned in “internment centers.”  In 2013, the Sentinels are now preparing to spread out across the globe to fulfill their mandate to eliminate mutants.  The rest of the world, much more fearful of being conquered by the Sentinels than they are of the dangers posed by mutants, is prepared to retaliate with a full-scale nuclear strike against the former United States.

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The present-day X-Men race to Washington DC, hoping to thwart the assassination attempt on Senator Kelly by the shape-shifting Mystique and her new Mutant Brotherhood.  Meanwhile, in 2013, the remnants of the future X-Men escape from the South Bronx Mutant Internment Center.  This ragtag band heads into Manhattan and the Baxter Building, which is now the headquarters of the Sentinels, in a desperate attempt to destroy it and avert nuclear holocaust.  The X-Men of 1980 narrowly succeed in saving Kelly, and Kate’s consciousness departs back for her own time.  Unfortunately in 2013 events take a much worse turn, with the future X-Men being brutally slaughtered by the Sentinels, leaving only Rachel and Kate alive.

Back in the present, the X-Men ponder whether or not they have averted the dark future of mutant genocide.  Professor Xavier observes “Only time will tell.”  And in an ominous epilogue, Kelly, more convinced than ever that mutants are a danger, is introduced by the President to Henry Peter Gyrich.  To safeguard humanity from mutant-kind, Kelly & Gyrich are to put into place the top-secret “Project Wideawake,” and a key aspect of this program will be the reactivation of the Sentinels.

As I did not get into comic books on a semi-regular basis until the mid-1980s, I obviously did not have the opportunity to read “Days of Future Past” when it was first published.  I think the first time I ever found out about the events of the story was one summer, when I was at day camp, and a fellow comic book fan had brought along several issues of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.  One of these contained the entry for Rachel Summers aka Phoenix II, the telepath from “Days of Future Past.”  Her biography in that issue was, in part, a summation of Claremont & Byrne’s story arc, a description of the nightmarish Sentinel-controlled future.  It seriously unnerved me.  As a Jew, it really struck a chord.  Having grown up learning all about the Holocaust, to read about a fictional scenario where a minority group right here in the United States was rounded up and imprisoned in concentration camps, marked for extermination, was very disturbing.

I finally had the opportunity to read “Days of Future Past” itself in the early 1990s, when Marvel reprinted the story in a one-shot, and then several years later when it was included in Essential X-Men Vol. 2.  I found it a very powerful story.  Claremont & Byrne definitely crafted an unsettling vision of the future.  The artwork by Byrne & Austin was stunning, really driving home the impact of this dark tomorrow.  (And I am a HUGE fan of Austin’s inking on pretty much anything.  He’s an amazing artist.)  The covers for these two issues have become extremely iconic.  That image of Wolverine & Kate backed against the wall of wanted posters, drawn by Byrne & Austin, has been the subject of numerous homages over the decades, and #142, which was both penciled & inked by Austin, showcases the gruesome death of Wolverine at the hands of the Sentinels.

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It is interesting that “Days of Future Past” was only a two part story.  Nowadays, if anything like it was attempted by Marvel (or DC, for that matter) it would probably be a huge event, at least ten chapters long, and cross over with numerous other titles.  I really do not think what Claremont & Byrne achieved in those two issues, not to mention within the rest of their groundbreaking run on Uncanny X-Men, could be replicated today.  Well, not at the Big Two, at any rate.  Perhaps it could be in the arena of independent and creator-owned books?

That “Days of Future Past” reprint special ended with a brief afterword by Simonson, who noted that Claremont & Byrne’s “dual vision, their future history remains. Its seeds are in the past. Its reality flavors the present. And its future is almost upon us.”

It has often been observed that the X-Men can serve as metaphors for nearly any minority or group that has faced discrimination: African-Americans, Jews, homosexuals, etc.  I think that is true.  I also think that the themes of “Days of Future Past” are more relevant than ever.  Despite the important strides many minorities have made in gaining recognition under the law, there is still a tremendous amount of bigotry & intolerance in this country.

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Politics have become increasingly polarized, allowing the most extreme elements of society a greater voice & influence.  In the post September 11th era, there are some who advocate surveillance upon the entire Muslim community as a necessity to insure national security.  There are calls to “secure the borders” in order to prevent illegal immigrants from Latin America entering the country to steal jobs from “real Americans.”  Many still regard homosexuality as an “abomination” against God, with some even wanting to imprison gays to prevent the further spread of AIDS.  To secure votes, unscrupulous politicians pander to the racist elements of their constituents, cementing the belief that President Obama is some sort of foreign-born Muslim Socialist with a sinister agenda.

Even in a supposedly progressive city like NYC, we have seen a resurgence of gay-bashing, and many people genuinely believe that if the police do not stop & frisk every single dark-skinned teenage male in sight that crime will skyrocket.

My point is that we must remain ever vigilant in safeguarding our liberties & freedoms.  When one group is oppressed, it creates a slippery slope that could lead to others also being denied their rights, until eventually we are all under the heel of oppression.  The Sentinels are a potent symbol for intolerance.  Via their actions in “Days of Future Past,” we can see that hatred & intolerance is blind, and embracing it can lead to the destruction of all that we were claiming to be protecting in the first place.