Jenny Caplan

Western Illinois University

Bird, Man, and Superman: animality, humanity, and superhumanity in Jewish graphic novels

One of the key factors of the Western intellectual tradition, in which Judaism certainly plays a part, is the need to categorize things and then place them in hierarchical relationship to each other. Though contemporary Jews, especially in the wake of the global climate crisis, have tried to distance the Jewish textual and ethical tradition from the old “humans have dominion over the Earth” model, and have pointed out that one of the roots of kashrut is in limiting animal suffering, the fact remains that there is a deeply ingrained “us-them” divide between humans and non-human animals. And if non-human animals are below us, what about who, or what, stands above us? Again, nothing in Jewish tradition is simple, but overall it can be said that God is considered to be a level above human, and humans are considered to be a level above other animals.

But among the many things Jewish-themed graphic novels have done in the last few decades is significantly problematize these easy categories. So this paper will argue, using Maus, The Rabbi’s Cat, and The Magneto Testament, that many contemporary artists and writers are dissatisfied with the old hierarchy and are showing the porousness of the boundaries between groups. Maus and The Rabbi’s Cat illustrate the ways in which we are too quick to consider “human” to be a level above “animal,” particularly by challenging the Aristotelian/Heideggerian notion that human beings are the only living things that have logos. The Magneto Testament, then, will allow us to bring Nietzsche, and the Ubermensch, into the conversation. Are superheroes (and super villains) our cultural attempt to move from God to a new moral code? Are Ubermenschen born, or can they be made? What does it mean to be human in a world of talking cats and mutants?


JENNY CAPLAN is a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University. She is defending her dissertation, “All Joking Aside: the role of religion in American Jewish satire,” this April. She is currently a Visiting Instructor of Religious Studies at Western Illinois University, and was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Rollins College last year. Her work primarily revolves around American religion and popular culture, specifically American Judaism in many cases. The work she is presenting at this conference represents one of the first steps towards what she hopes will become her next research project.