It was 1940 and the Jews were dying. Shot down on cobblestone streets, starved in barbed- wire enclosures, frozen in winter snows, racked with disease. All seemed lost. Then, from up in the sky, like a bird, like a plane, came Superman. With ridiculous ease, he captured the tyrants Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. ”I’d like to land a strictly non-Aryan sock on your jaw,” the Man of Steel told the FŸhrer. He settled for delivering both men to the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. It did not happen, of course, except in the pages of a short comic-book story in Look magazine in 1940. In real life, Hitler and Stalin lived for years more and consumed millions of lives. But hey, a kid can dream, can’t he? Visit the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach between now and April and you will find that Superman tale in an exhibition honoring the dreams of those kids. Of course, they’re not kids anymore. They are men long ago grown old or dead. But in the years of war and rumors of war, they were young men and boys who daydreamed. In the process, they dreamt up an icon as fully expressive of American values as baseball, jazz and a cheeseburger, side of fries, with a large Coke. He was the superhero. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive. And Jewish, too. Indeed, the first superhero, the aforementioned Superman, first published in 1938, was created by two Jewish boys from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Batman followed in 1939, brought to life by two Jewish men, Bob Kane (born Robert Kahn) and Bill Finger. Captain America, born in 1940, was the brainchild of two Jewish artists: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). In the early 1960s, Kirby, along with writer Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) reinvented the superhero genre with the Fantastic Four, the X- Men, Thor, the Hulk and (with a non-Jewish artist named Steve Ditko) Spider-Man. And so on. In fact, one could argue that had there been no Jews, there might have been no superheroes. Marcia Jo Zerivitz, founder, executive director, and chief curator of the Jewish Museum, says that pioneering role was news to her when she happened to see Zap! Pow! Bam! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books 1938-1950, at The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta a few years ago. ”When I saw it,” she says, ”I fell in love with it. First of all, I didn’t know that these [characters] were created by Jews. I figured if I didn’t know, a lot of other people aren’t going to know.” So she arranged to bring it to South Florida. Of course, the Jewish roots of the comic-book industry are an old story to comic-book aficionados. But Zerivitz says it’s a revelation for many who visit Zap!. ‘The majority of the people . . . they’re like, ˋOh, my God, this is so much fun, I had no idea.’ ” Even for those who did have an idea, there is a certain poignancy to the exhibit, particularly in those sometimes propagandistic artifacts from wartime. Page after page of superheroes, the legendary (Captain America) and the little known (London), uniformly square-jawed and righteous, pummeling Hitler, manhandling soldiers of the so-called ”master race” and easily dispatching small, vaguely apelike Japanese men with bad teeth. Given what we now know of the Holocaust, there is a certain unbearable innocence to these acts of wish fulfillment, these images of men in tights winning the war, single-handed. It’s hard to believe anyone — writers, artists, readers, America — was ever that young. But then, these aren’t history books. They are comic books, the reveries of boys and young men who have read in letters and newspapers about the terrible fate of the Jews and have no means of fighting back except with pen and ink and daydreams of fighting back. Which is the superhero mythos in a nutshell: what mild-mannered reporter or spindly guy at the beach brushing sand out of his eyes hasn’t nursed a dream of getting even? As Danny Fingeroth, author of Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero puts it, ˋˋThe superhero fantasies come from that thing of, ˋI’ll show them. If only they knew.’ ‘Then it goes to an ethnic thing of, ˋWe’re sick of being afraid.’ ” And it’s hard to imagine, in those years, that anyone was more afraid, or had more reason to be afraid, than a Jew. Stil, according to Jerry Robinson, who assembled Zap! and created Batman’s sidekick, Robin, and his nemesis, The Joker, the fact that so many Jews ended up in the business of comic books is largely happenstance. ”The place was New York, the time was the ’30s and there was a pool of talent in New York among first- and second-, third-generation Jewish creators. There was a lot of anti-Semitism at the time,” he says. Comic books became a professional ghetto of sorts for Jews. When Superman ignited the comics craze, publishers raced to get in on it before it peaked. There was no thought of longevity, much less that anything they produced might one day be deemed fit for museums. Comic books were considered the ultimate in disposable entertainment and, as such, faintly disreputable. That meant, in the mind-set of the day, it was not a field from which anyone would bother restricting Jews. So a lot of Jewish kids, handy with pen and ink, good with words, tumbled into the newborn art form. ”It was a young medium,” Robinson says. ˋˋIt was exciting. It was like the early days of the movie industry. Everything we did, we did for the first time.” The new medium, however, did not allow them unrestricted freedom. The mantra for immigrants of that era, and none more so than Jews, was to blend in, to avoid calling attention to customs or cultural artifacts the mainstream might think strange. So there were no comic-book stories growing directly out of the Jewish experience. Indeed, the very word Jewish was seldom, if ever, used. Fingeroth, a Jewish comic book editor, puts it like this: ˋˋWhat they were least about is proclaiming their ethnic identity. I think the closest it came was in directly confronting Hitler and if not directly, then indirectly advocating for American participation in the war. Aside from that, I think the whole point was to make a monthly series of comics that were all about being American and not being any one racial or ethnic group. ”Today,” adds Fingeroth, ˋˋit’s taken for granted that people will proclaim and be proud of their ethnic heritage and background. But back then . . . whatever it was that caused you to leave the old country, you wanted to get as far away from that as possible.” And yet, as Fingeroth argues persuasively in his book, those cultural imperatives had a way of surfacing despite all conscious efforts at suppression. It wasn’t just all the Hitler-bashing stories of the late ’30s and early ’40s, (including, most famously, Joe Simon’s drawing of Captain America decking the German leader). After all, you hardly had to be Jewish to hate Hitler. No, the Jewish roots also showed in subtler ways. Consider the founding myth of the whole comics industry: Superman sent by his parents to escape the dying planet Krypton. What is that but a riff on the story of Moses? Consider Captain America, turning up alive and still young decades after the war, steeped in regret over a young ally who died. What is that but a Holocaust survivor’s guilt? Consider the god of thunder Thor, forbidden by his father, Odin, to marry a human. Odin finally finds for him, as Fingeroth puts it, ”a nice, Asgardian girl,” the goddess Sif. What is that but Jewish strictures against intermarriage? At least some of the men who created those stories are skeptical of this after-the-fact notion that they subconsciously buried artifacts of Jewish culture in their work. Says Stan Lee: ˋˋIn my case and in the case of the people I know, we were just trying to come up with heroes that people would be interested in. When there was the war in Europe, we always needed villains, so we used Hitler and the Nazis as villains. When the communists were considered our enemies, we had a lot of communists as villains. Today there are a lot of terrorists as villains. I don’t know how much religion had to do with that.” Almost 70 years after Superman’s debut, Jewishness is no longer covert. For instance: the X-Men comic has borrowed liberally from the Jewish experience (also the gay and African-American experiences) in spinning its allegorical tale of prejudice against mutants, including a famous ”alternate future” story line that had mutants sentenced to concentration camps; Superman has ventured back in time to save the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto; back in the ’80s, Captain America had a Jewish girlfriend; a number of heroes — Moon Knight, Shadowcat, Colossal Boy, Sabra, the Israeli superhero team the Hayoth and, most prominently, Fantastic Four strongman the Thing — are known to be Jewish; Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his graphic novel Maus, a searing Holocaust parable, and in 2001, Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer for the novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, his loving homage to the Jewish creators of the comics industry. It is enough of a turnaround that Captain America creator Joe Simon, responding to a request for a comment on Zap!, shoots back an e-mail demanding to know what’s with the sudden interest in Jews in comics. He seems bemused. He has a right to be. Simon’s more than nine decades bridge an era where Jewishness was a vaguely shameful thing you kept to yourself to one where it is the subject of museum exhibitions. A kid can dream, yes. But who could have dreamt this? Most of the ”kids” are gone now. Jerry Siegel died in 1996, Joe Shuster in ’92, Bob Kane in ’98, Jack Kirby in ’94. But the daydreams they dreamt live on. ”All our guys would have been overwhelmed to have seen this happen,” says Simon. ˋˋPersonally, I agree that our little Jewish boys and all their co-workers richly deserve the credit that is bestowed upon them today. Thank you all.”