The History of Invulnerability, now showing at Theater J until July 8, retells the creation of the character of Superman in the mid 1930s, following the path of idea-man Jerry Siegel (David Deblinger) who dreams up the iconic superhero in his mothers basement in Cleveland. Based on a true story, author David Bar Katz unfolds the play’s narrative through the life memoir of Siegel. In his own voice, Siegel relays the backstory of the birth of Superman, dropping anecdotal and explanatory remarks as he acts out the scenes which he reminisces for the audience. Very conscious of his Jewish heritage and identity during life in WWII America, Siegel processes much of his anxiety towards the present and hope for the future through the figure of Superman. Negotiations with his panel artist, Joe Shuster (hilariously played by David Raphaely), reveal his outline for Superman’s aesthetic and behavior: “make him everything that I’m NOT.”
The History of Invulnerability is interwoven with a good deal of pithy humor commenting on the period absurdities of comic book culture and stylization, especially encouraged by the inventive set: the backdrop to the stage is a series of rectangular panels hinged at the middle, as if a very large comic book occupies the stage. Each panel is projected with images changing as the play continues, enabling the audience to see period news footage and advertisements for the original Superman comics among other illustrations. Additionally, the panels are moveable, allowing mini-scenes to be acted out in a specific panel. Especially amusing are our introductions to Superman’s parents on Krypton: their silly naiveté and overstated dramatics perfectly encapsulate the high drama and simplistic dialogue of many early comics.
Siegel himself is presented as a tragi-comic figure: his ebullient personality and vigor towards inventing Superman is undeniable, as is his sharp wit and occasionally buffoonish antics. Yet the plot of the The History of Invulnerability turns on Siegel’s lack of backbone during the events of Superman’s development from brainstorm to international media success, causing him to essentially lose ownership over his one successful idea. Siegel therefore becomes more and more of an underdog – yet one we root for till the end.
The intersection of Jewish culture and the development of WWII provides a fascinating backdrop with which to examine early comic book heros, we largely learn these connections through Siegel’s explanations to Superman himself, played by Tim Getman. Author Bar Katz places Siegel in the role of Superman’s father, as if the conversations we observe between the tall, handsome costumed hero and the short, slightly harried Siegel are analogous to the eldest child receiving the historical legacy of his family which he should then pass down to his own future children. Several emotionally poignant scenes which further underscore the intersections of Jewish culture and Superman include visits to the concentration camp at Auschwitz II – Birkenau in Poland – where Superman comics inspire an imprisoned child who is sure that Superman will save him (brilliantly played by Noah Chiet), while frustrating his adult companions who view the character as a thinly veiled “Übermensch,” the German for a super-man, associated with Arian supremacy instead of an escapist vision of strength and freedom for the persecuted and weak.
Anyone remotely interested in comic book history should check out The History of Invulnerability, the play exposes fascinating real-world gravity to a genre of entertainment literature which can easily be written off as out of touch with reality. Theater J does an excellent job of framing the production through well-written dramaturgy in the program leaflet which further fleshes out the connections between Jewish culture and comic book lore, and the play is complimented by an exhibition of comics by contemporary Jewish women artists. The Historyof Invulnerability runs at Theater J until July 8, and tickets start at $30. Check theaterj.org for more information on post-show discussions and presentations.