Shaloman to the Rescue

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shaloman_firstIt’s a bird! It’s a plane!

It’s … Jewish superhero, Shaloman!

While theaters have been inundated with superhero movies in the past few years (looking at you, Avengers), there is one superhero that is missing. No, not Squirrel Girl. Rather, one specific superhero who hadn’t existed until 1988.

When Al Wiesner was growing up in the Parkside neighborhood of West Philadelphia, he spent his days reading comic books and noticed something that stuck with him until much later in life: There were few Jewish superheroes.

Wiesner, 86, and his friends passed the time reading Superman comics after they debuted in 1938 and later got into Batman and Spiderman and all the other men — all of whom were written by Jewish men.

“I noticed all the comic books that were out, or at least most of them, had Jewish authors, but nothing in the story itself was Jewish in its entirety,” Wiesner recalled. So he took matters into his own hands. Cape optional.

First, he created a set of stories featuring the Y-Guys after reading Stan Lee’s (or Stan Lieber’s) X-Men.

X-Men was very popular, and I thought, ‘How can I make it Jewish?’” said Wiesner, who belongs to Ohev Shalom of Bucks County. “After X comes Y, and the Y is for the YMHA where young Jewish boys grew up. So I came up with Y-Guys, as opposed to X-Men, and they were boys that had different mutant powers and they lived at the Y.”

He even met Lee at one point and gave him a copy of Y-Guys.  

By 1983, after serving in the Air Force and spending 45 years as a women’s hairdresser in Oxford Circle, Wiesner was still thinking about the lack of Jewish superheroes.

“I had said to my wife, ‘I really would like to get back to my artwork.’” The time seemed right given Israel’s place in the world. “With Israel becoming a country and a powerful country for its size, I felt that now people could envision a Jewish superhero that has strength as well as intelligence.”

After a few exchanges with a DIY comics place in Norristown, Wiesner started on the first of 42 issues that would feature his Jewish superhero: the Man of Stone, or Shaloman. He formed his own comic book publishing company, Mark 1 Comics, named for his son, and Shaloman debuted in 1988.

Wiesner created an origin story for Shaloman: A trio of men in Israel named Justice, Equity and Wisdom (or JEW) sheared the top off of a mountain with lightning and turned it into the Hebrew letter shin, the first letter of shalom.

“Something the ‘regular’ world wanted and the Jewish world wanted was peace,” he said.

Though he was inspired by Superman’s story and powers, “I wasn’t going to make [Shaloman] a man of steel,” Wiesner said, “but I thought I could make him a man of stone because stone is permanent and stone is here to stay.”

After looking at the letter shin, Wiesner noticed the top of the letter looked almost like a man flexing his muscles, which informed Shaloman’s transformation from stone to man.

And when there’s trouble afoot, one just yells “oy vey!” and Shaloman transforms from stone and comes to save the day.

Of course, Shaloman isn’t without his weaknesses. After all, “stories are boring when nothing in the world can stop them or hurt them and there’s no vulnerability to the superhero,” Wiesner said.

So when the three wise men took the lightning and created the shin out of the mountaintop, the pieces that “flew every which way” became shinite, similar to Superman’s kryptonite. When Shaloman gets too close, they drain his strength.

Wiesner took cues from the radio shows he listened to growing up and used them to create adventure stories for the Shaloman, as well as using Jewish narratives he’d learned.

There are many Shaloman stories modeled after holidays. One story takes place on a ship called Bondage and basically follows the Passover narrative; another, based on Purim, takes a musical approach as the rock King Swear (echoing the name King Ahasuerus) wants to find a rock queen, and Esther and her uncle Morty and a character modeled after Haman come into play.

In a Chanukah story, Shaloman is able to defeat terrorists by luring them out of hiding by shooting flares — one of which lasts eight minutes instead of one.

“I try to work in Jewish things with adventure stories and make it interesting,” Wiesner said. “Even someone with knowledge of Jewish history would have a jump.”

Shaloman battles terrorists and other villains — including a clone of himself created by the evil Dr. Traif in the first issue.

He later introduced other characters like Shalomboy, aka Yoni, who — after being injured in a terrorist bus explosion — receives a bionic arm and leg at Hadassah Hospital and gets his own superpowers.

Writing the comic has even earned Wiesner a trip to Israel.

When he wanted to create a Shaloman story set there, Wiesner sought advertising from a travel company in New Jersey. When they learned he hadn’t been to Israel, the company chipped in to place advertisements as well as pay for half of a trip to Israel for Wiesner so he could see it for himself.

His “crowning glory” came when he created a Shaloman story about the Holocaust, for which he interviewed survivors. In the story, Shaloman takes a Holocaust denier back in time so he can see the atrocities for himself.

Through the years of creating Shaloman and writing the comics, Wiesner has met some of his own heroes.

Ray Bradbury once praised him for being able to have a character go back in time without changing events in the future, breaking Bradbury’s golden rule of science fiction: no time travel.

In 2010, Wiesner was honored at the San Diego Comic Con with the Inkpot Award, given annually to recognize achievements in “worlds of comics, science fiction/fantasy, film, television, animation, and fandom services.” He was seated next to Jerry Robinson, the comic book artist known for his work on Batman, and nearby Nathan Fillion of Castle and Stan Freberg.

“It was a wonderful time, and the best part is they paid for all of it,” Wiesner said with a laugh.

He’s participated in other cons, such as Wizard World Philadelphia this past summer along with Joshua Stulman, creator of Israeli Defense Comics. Wiesner is working with him on writing another Shaloman story for IDC.

While the new story will run at about seven or eight pages as opposed to the 32-page stories he previously did, it will be Wiesner’s first return to Shaloman since 2012.

“If you had asked me when I first created this comic book, ‘How many would you do?’ I would have said, ‘I don’t know, three or four,’” he said. “But in all these years, I came up with all these other ones.”

He’s proud that he was able to achieve his dream of creating a Jewish superhero and is happy his stories still resonate.

Full collections of Shaloman comics are housed at the library in Hebrew Union College, Ohio State University and in some synagogue Judaica stores.

Shaloman’s biggest fans may be Wiesner’s grandchildren.

“They look forward to it when I give them each a copy when it comes out,” he said.

But Wiesner enjoys the fact that so many people and kids other than his grandchildren still care about his Jewish superhero.

“I hope that they get an interesting story of something I’ve created and managed to keep within the realm of Jewish heritage,” he said.

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740