Letter From New York: Look, up in the sky! It’s…Menorah Man?
On a secret island somewhere in the Pacific, an army of evil androids is about to launch a massive robot missile with a chip on its shoulder - the Forget-Me-Chip - that will destroy Jewish memories and identities worldwide. The countdown has already begun. Can evil be stopped before it’s too late? This looks like a job for…
Never send an ordinary superhero to do a Jewish superhero’s job. Make that seven Jewish superheroes - members all of the Jewish Hero Corps, which is sort of like the Justice League, but with two sets of dishes in the command center kitchen.
There’s Menorah Man, who can sprout as many as eight flame-shooting arms. Magen David wields an impenetrable centuries-old shield, while the Kipa Kid keeps a belt full of trick yarmulkes. The mysterious Minyan Man can multiply into ten men whenever the need arises (such as to battle a battalion of enemy robots, or perhaps to daven mincha by himself).
Next, meet Dreidel Maidel, a gyroscopic physicist (or “spin doctor”) by day, who can revolve at mind-blowing speeds. Shabbas Queen uses her electro-magnetic wand to disable mechanical objects, giving them a “rest.” (The wand must be recharged one day in every seven.) Lastly, there’s Matza Woman, who attributes a whole host of powers - flight, invisibility, X-ray vision, super strength - to a run-in with a microwave and some unleavened bread that was also radioactive. It happens.
This whole marvelous mishpacha is the brainchild of 46-year-old Alan Oirich, a Manhattan writer and graphic designer who first dreamed up a team of kosher crusaders when he was 8. With an initial printing of 15,000 copies, Issue #1: “The Amnesia Countdown,” hit Jewish bookstores across the U.S. and Canada on November 27, and will begin arriving at comic-book shops nationwide in January. (Oirich hopes to release Issue #2 by spring, and has the next 16 already planned out.)
“I want kids to have fun, but I want them to gain a sense that being Jewish is in some ways like being a superhero in the modern world,” says Oirich, who was raised with a “traditional” upbringing and now lists his affiliation as “Kryptonian Orthodox.”
Oirich’s characters are not cartoonish stereotypes; they are classic comic heroes in all their muscle-rippling splendor, as drawn by Ron Randall, a highly-regarded illustrator who has worked on everything from Spider-Man to Wonder Woman to The Swamp Thing for Marvel and D.C. Comics. And Oirich is betting on that well-established appeal to turn Jewish Hero Corps into a franchise. On his web site (www.jewishsuperhero.com), visitors can already buy a slew of Jewish Hero Corps merchandise - T-shirts, posters, mugs, lunch boxes, Hanukkah cards, even a home version of Kipa Kid’s “Yarmarang” (a frisbee).
As a comic collector and maven, Oirich knows he is continuing a proud tradition. The early comic book creators were almost all Jewish - though, like their characters, many kept their true identities a secret. Batman creator Bob Kahn became Bob Kane; Jacob Kurtzberg, who dreamed up Captain America to fight the Nazis, transformed into Jack Kirby; and Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee (the mind behind Spider-Man, X-Men, and many others) was born Stanley Martin Lieber. Mostly sons of immigrants or immigrants themselves, shut out of publishing and commercial art by anti-Semitism, their comic-book creations took up their struggle, fighting for truth, justice and the American way.
Next month, Oirich is curating an exhibit at the JCC of Manhattan entitled “People of the (Comic) Book,” which will look back at the Jewish genesis of the industry as well as some of its not-so-subtle Jewish symbolism. (Take Superman’s origin story - a people threatened with destruction places one of its baby boys in a vessel and sends it out into the cosmos hoping strangers will find it and save him…Holy Moses! Where have we seen that before?)
Oirich is also unveiling his heroes at a time when being Jewish and proud - at least ethnically, at least in New York - has new cachet. It’s the subject of magazine cover stories, up-and-coming music acts, and silly new movies like Comedy Central’s “The Hebrew Hammer,” which opens in theaters this month.
The difference with his heroes, Oirich says, is they realize the source of their powers is their heritage, he says, just as Jews should realize it as the source of their “powers” - their values and ethics.
All the male heroes subtly keep their heads covered as part of their costumes, while all the women modestly clothe their arms and legs (albeit in flashy costumes that wouldn’t pass in Borough Park). Oirich even consulted a rabbi to see if the male characters would need tzitzit to make their capes kosher. He won a dispensation: Since the cloaks are scalloped (like Batman’s), not four-cornered, and made of a polymer, not cotton, no fringes are required.
But are they wearing them underneath?
“Presumably, they are,” Oirich says, adding that he is trying to keep the characters “centered,” so as not to offend people at either end of the religious spectrum.
“I’m happy to say I haven’t got much bad reaction,” he says. “Of course, there are always those people who don’t think women should fly in public.”
Like the Jewish community at large, the Jewish Hero Corps is a diverse assembly. Magen David is Sephardic (his shield was crafted by a Spanish ancestor). Matza Woman, we learn, actually started out as assimilated Hyper Girl, making her the comic world’s first ba’ala t’shuvah. Dreidel Maidel and Shabbas Queen are modern career women in civilian life, while Kipa Kid works in a Judaica shop. Yet all are united by a common cause, Oirich says, “fighting Jewish amnesia, because otherwise we lose our sense of right and wrong, good and evil.”
Oirich is echoing the sages of his tradition. In an interview, Spider-Man creator Stan Lee (Lieber) commented on the role of Jewish values in his work: “To me you can wrap all of Judaism up in one sentence, and that is, ‘Do not do unto others…’ All I tried to do in my stories was show that there’s some innate goodness in the human condition. And there’s always going to be evil. We should always be fighting evil.”