Previously relegated to the dusty corners of comic book history, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Golden Age comedian/superhero Funnyman—a comedian who cracks jokes and dons a clown suit to fight crime—has been rescued from obscurity by authors Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon for their new book Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero, coming from Feral House in July.
Funnyman’s immediate historical relevance is as the character Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created as their follow-up to Superman, but underlying that is a point of larger cultural importance. Andrae and Gordon approach the character as the most straightforward expression of Jewishness in comics at the time, and as a springboard to a wider discussion of the history of Jewish humor, as well the ethnic origins of the Man of Steel.
“The normal thing would be just a reprint of Funnyman and that to me was the least interesting,” said Gordon. “The most interesting is to look at the story with a little more depth as it relates to Superman, and to then surround it with this cultural Jewish identity of why humor is this passion among the Jews and why Funnyman would be a natural invention of Siegel and Shuster, who were the most miserable guys possible and the most unlucky.”
Siegel and Shuster’s copyright struggles with DC Comics over Superman have been well-documented, but the creation, existence, and demise of Funnyman are much less so. The pair created the character while they were still on staff at National Periodical Publications—later to become DC Comics—churning out Superman stories after having created the icon and selling their rights away. In 1947, the creative team attempted to win back their rights in a legal case—they failed and hoped Funnyman would repeat their success, this time with them retaining ownership.
National showed interest initially but refused to allow Siegel and Shuster to retain their rights, and the pair took the property to the lesser known Magazine Enterprise Comics, which produced six issues. The character was also featured in a syndicated comic strip that lasted a year, though the final three months didn’t even feature the title character. Since the strip’s demise in fall of 1948, Funnyman has been mostly forgotten.
Andrae became aware of the comic as a graduate student researching the era after contact with the Superman creators. Gordon, meanwhile, first discovered Funnyman in the early 1990s while visiting a bookstore with actor/comedian Richard Belzer. After purchasing the black and white ash can edition, the pair became determined to adapt the character into a film. At one point in the development there was interest from Disney, but Gordon was unable to get Siegel and Shuster to speak to him about the rights. Later research indicated that Funnyman might never have been copyrighted.
“Poor Siegel and Shuster had been so ripped off that I wanted to see them get some Disney money,” Gordon said. “It wouldn’t have been a tremendous amount, but it would have been some money for the idea of the character. They were shut up in their hermit-like suburban houses in Pasadena because they had signed a contract with Warner Communications not to give any interviews about Superman or they’d lose their medical insurance,” Gordon explained. Siegel and Shuster were afraid that a meeting would turn into an interview, he said. “It was to consign and to legalize the rights of the character, and to put their names on it,” Gordon told PWCW, “but it never happened because no one in the family wanted to deal with it.”
Years later when Gordon finally returned to focus on Funnyman, it was in partnership with Andrae, who had also been pursuing issues of the comic book, as well as the very rare comic strip. Andrae had been in touch with Shuster’s sister, who was able to offer insight to the back story, setting the Funnyman book in motion.
In tracing the history of Jewish humor, Gordon’s research for Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero reaches back to the Badkhn, a Jewish performance figure that Gordon had found had been largely forgotten by modern Jewish humorists—Jackie Mason was the only other person Gordon encountered who was familiar with the term. Essentially the Badkhim is the original ancestor of the insult comic and dates back to the 1500s as a form of entertainment. Gordon believes the Badkhn is pivotal not only to the history of Jewish humor, but specifically to the creation of Funnyman.
The book also traces the Jewish origins of Superman, illustrating how Siegel and Shuster’s ethnic experience laid the groundwork for Funnyman after walking a tightrope with the Man of Steel. It has long been speculated by such figures as novelist Michael Chabon, Will Eisner and others that The Golem—the animated super-human creation from Jewish folklore—was a major influence for Superman, and Andrae found an interview with Siegel that confirmed the theories. Inspired more by the silent film than the legend, Siegel spoke in the interview about his fascination with the character and how it became a direct component in the creation of Superman.
A lesser known but perhaps an even more powerful influence was the Yiddish-speaking, Jewish strongman Breitbart, a hero to Jewish kids in the 1920s and the first person to claim the name Superman. “There are lots of posters that show these Superman-like feats that Breitbart accomplished—breaking chains and stopping locomotives and that kind of thing,” said Gordon. And unlike the mustachioed body builders that came before him, Breitbart had a wholesome, boyish look as well as a muscular body. “For all the obsession about Superman, it’s absolutely astounding that nobody has come to this obvious conclusion that this was one of probably the primary inspirations for the Superman character,” Gordon said.
Funnyman was modeled heavily on Danny Kaye, a Jewish actor who was pushed to suppress his ethnicity in his films to the point that when he began his film career, he was required to dye his hair blond. “There was this impulse for Jews to assimilate and appear like WASPs,” Andrae said, “particularly entertainers and entertainment producers who want to sell their material to large audiences. Comic book artists and writers anglicized their names, but it was a Jewish industry. There was this assimilation fantasy.”
At the same time, the character of Funnyman functions as the Jewish “schlemiel” character—someone so unaware of the dangers of the world that his naiveté gives him victory over the nastiness. For a schlemiel, the inability to recognize darkness renders the darkness powerless. “It’s one of those Jewish characteristics,” Gordon said. “The schlemiel is someone who’s totally unaware of the reality of how dangerous the world is, and that’s why he succeeds.”
Funnyman was the result of Siegel and Shuster turning a specific ethnic style into a more universal one. Funnyman might come from Jewish tradition, but in comics form he becomes any goofy guy who has to stand up against brute force of any sort. He’s far more reflective of the reading audience, as well as the creators, than Superman ever was, though Clark Kent was an attempt to rectify that. The Yiddishisms might have whispered to one audience, but the “schlemiel” is something many people can identify with.
“Funnyman fights with puns and slapstick and jokes and stuff like that, which is very atypical for a superhero,” said Andrae. “It is very Jewish to use that kind of humor directed at your enemy. It’s a weaker person fighting a more powerful, and this is a way of demeaning them, insulting them, when you’re less powerful, physically and socially.”