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Superhero summer: Behind 'Green Lantern' and the rest, an American story

'Green Lantern' is just one of the comic book heroes on the big screen this summer. With their popcorn, moviegoers will be consuming tales molded by the American immigrant experience.

Actor Ryan Reynolds is shown in a scene from 'Green Lantern.' Many of this summer's movies are the result of the uniquely American immigrant experience.

Warner Bros. Pictures/AP

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By Gloria Goodale, Staff writer / June 17, 2011

Los Angeles

It’s a super-sized summer slate of comic book heroes, as movie studios scramble to launch the next, long-running franchise by exploring lesser-known names from the classic American storytelling genre. Green Lantern is just the latest to make the leap to the big screen.

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It’s also a record season of movies packed with “origin stories.” These tales fill in the hero’s background. After all, people may pay to see the latest Batman or Superman adventure, but most will need an introduction to the wider canon of Green Lantern, Captain America, or even Thor.

But while the bigger-than-life do-gooders are universal, the stories behind their creation are uniquely American.

They have evolved as the country has tackled waves of immigration, foreign wars, the threat of nuclear annihilation, civil rights, and the challenges of cultural diversity over the past 70 years.

Along with the popcorn and candy, audiences are consuming a deeply American art form. Like jazz and the Broadway musical, comic books were created by artists whose own origins mirror the national narrative of a country forged from the heartbreak and hard work of generations of immigrants and outsiders.

“Virtually all the artists who really created comic books in the ‘30s and ‘40s were Jewish and children of parents who came from places like Poland, Lithuania, and Russia,” says Stephen Fishler, comic book expert at the Manhattan auction house, Metropolis Collectibles.

“Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel’s parents were Lithuanian Jews, “Batman” creator Bob Kane was born Robert Kahn, and Stan Lee’s real name is Stanley Martin Lieber.

“There is a certain powerlessness associated with being Jewish in America, particularly in those days,” he says. Mr. Siegel’s father was killed during a nighttime robbery in his secondhand clothing store in Cleveland when Mr. Siegel was 18, he notes.

“It’s not hard to see that creating a character who falls from an alien planet and develops the power to make bullets bounce off his chest might be an artist’s way of fighting back against the chaos and anti-Semitism of that time,” he says.

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