Son of a Smaller (Super) Hero: Ethnicity, Comic Books, and Secret Identity in Richler’s Novels of Apprenticeship


Richler’s fascination with the ethnic subtexts of popular male fantasy in his 1968 essays provides a framework for my examination of the relationship between the superhero, the boy hero, and the anti-hero in two of Richler’s earlier novels of apprenticeship, Son of a Smaller Hero (1955) and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959). What interests me particularly is the apparent difference between the essays and the novels in their deployment of superhero tropes. The essays project an epic grudge match between empowered minoritarian superheroes and the villainous forces of twentieth- century history represented by the anti-Semitic James Bond and Dr. Wertham’s comic strip double, the “boring” Rex Morgan, M.D. By contrast, the novels examine the notion of heroic Jewish “revenge figures” more cautiously and more critically. In both of these Bildungsromane the superhero is ultimately not held up as an ego-ideal for its rebellious Jewish boy-heroes, but rather as a dangerous temptation. As such, it functions as a parodic comment on the insular version of heroic Jewish masculinity that becomes the main target of Richler’s satire. This reversal is due to the fact that, unlike Richler’s essay on comic books, which concerns the interventions of Jewish artists into the metanarratives of American mass culture, the novels concentrate on the issue of self-ghettoization in Jewish Montreal: what Richler, in Son of a Smaller Hero, satirizes as a form of imbrication behind “the walls . . . [of] habit and atavism.”

This article “Son of a Smaller (Super) Hero: Ethnicity, Comic Books, and Secret Identity in Richler’s Novels of Apprenticeship” originally appeared in Mordecai Richler. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 207 (Winter 2010): 26-40.

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