“From the Ashes of the Warsaw ghetto to the back alleys of Gotham City… The Tatterdemalion of the Oppressed rises again…”
While their Judaism might not be particularly prominent, Jewish characters are present in comics, ranging from heavy hitters like Bruce Wayne, Hal Jordan, and Harley Quinn to underappreciated legends like Doc Samson. That shouldn’t surprise, after all, so many iconic comic characters came from the minds of Jewish artists and writers. With the sudden massive popularity of these heroes and villains through adaptations and the constant possibility that one of them gets adapted next, there’s been a lot of discussion about how important their Judaism really is to them. Is Moon Knight’s Jewishness any more to him than his Rabbi father? Could Magneto work without his Holocaust backstory?
The reason that discussions about whether separating a character from their identity entirely is feasible are being had at all is that Jewish characters are usually portrayed through subtext. Peter Parker drops Yiddish terms and implies he celebrates Jewish holidays but he’ll probably never be confirmed as such by Marvel. Ben Grimm, a character modelled after creator Jack Kirby and used by Kirby on his 1976 Hanukkah card, wasn’t formally confirmed as Jewish until 2002, four decades after his creation. Even characters who are textually Jewish are relegated to one-off mentions and holiday specials and that’s if their Judaism isn’t outright erased, Marvel’s Iceman serving as a good example of this. So, with all that in mind, is there a character that’s Jewish through-and-through, one whose identity isn’t debatable in the slightest?
When introduced in Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert’s 1976 5-issue run on Ragman, Rory Regan was an explicitly non-Jewish junker. When his father and three athlete friends sacrificed themselves to save Rory, he was hit with an electric charge passing through all four of them and gained their respective skills (an acrobat’s agility, a strongman’s strength, and a boxer’s moves). Donning a stitched-together cloak that his father had made him for a costume party, Rory became Ragman. This was a short-running series and while Ragman would make some appearances in later team-up issues, mainly working with Batman, it would take him a decade and a half to get another series.
In 1991, following a universe-shattering reboot that would reset DC’s continuity, writer-artist Keith Giffen, co-writer Robert Fleming, and artist Pat Broderick reinvented Ragman with a new 8-issue miniseries. This mini would reimagine Rory as Jewish and would provide him with new powers and lore. In this version, Rory was a veteran who worked at his family-owned pawnshop, Rags ‘n’ Tatters, along with his father, a generous man who used the shop to give back what he could to their struggling community. When his father was killed, Rory found a suit of rags in their home. The Ragman suit is capable of absorbing evil souls into it and then drawing from the individual skills and knowledge of those same souls. This suit was created in the 16th century by the same Rabbi that made the legendary Golem and with the same intent, to protect the Jewish ghetto of Prague from pogroms, organized massacres of Jews.
This makes Rory just the newest in a long line of Ragmen, a Jewish, generational line of heroes. The last of the Ragmen before Rory was Gerry Regan (born Jerzy Reganiewicz), Rory’s father, who retired as Ragman and came to Gotham City after witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust and being unable to stop it. After getting the suit and being trained by Rabbi Luria, a close friend of his father and an expert on the Ragman suit, Rory immediately set out to stop crime in his corner of Gotham City. Rory eventually ends up fighting Batman, the vigilante disliking Ragman’s lethal approach to justice. Rory won the fight when the people of his neighbourhood stood up for him against Batman, establishing Ragman as a hero of the poor and vulnerable of Gotham City.
This would influence Rory’s MO for decades, establishing him as a friend to the downtrodden. In fact, many stories focused on his positive relationship with the people of his neighbourhood, both as Ragman, where he helps out with community efforts, and Rory Regan, where he uses Rags ‘n’ Tatters to give just as much as his father did. This was portrayed by an alternate take on Ragman in the holiday issue of All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold, a comic-book continuation of the popular animated series. In this issue, Batman chases some villains into Rory’s neighbourhood, teaming up with Ragman to take them down. After the team-up, Ragman shows Batman the truth about the struggles of his neighbourhood and points out that Bruce mostly patrols Gotham’s uptown. After working together to save a synagogue from a real estate group trying to gentrify the area, Batman turns his efforts to stopping the company itself. Though it’s a one-off storyline, Rory’s position of speaking for the people of Gotham gives him a genuinely unique and interesting position in Batman’s mythology. The story also portrayed Rory struggling with his faith during Hannukah and finding renewed faith through his community. A similar story was told with the main universe’s Ragman in DC’s 2009 Holiday Special ‘09, where Ragman’s segment is used to draw a parallel between his struggle against crime and corruptness and the story of Hanukkah.
Rory had another miniseries written by Elaine Lee with art by Gabriel Morrissette in 1993 called Ragman: Cry of the Dead. This wouldn’t build on his backstory much besides establishing some of his personal past; childhood memories, lost loves, and so on. The mini was mostly focused on Rory shortly operating in New Orleans. After that Rory would join a team called Shadowpact. It’s here that we got a new, updated origin for Rory. Rory’s grandfather came to America and changed their name to Regan in an attempt to avoid antisemitism. The Ragman suit had now existed since the times of Abraham and had only first taken that form during WWII, appearing as different artifacts during the centuries before that and always being passed down through the men of Rory’s family. While this interpretation of Rory’s lore doesn’t separate him from his Judaism, something feels lost in translation, it’s lacking the borderline groundedness that was present in the character before. This change adds millennia of history to the character, feeling so grandscale that it falls flat.
In 2010’s Ragman: Suit of Souls, written by Christos Gage with art by Stephen Segovia, Rory’s story would once again get retconned, this time less drastically, and would see a return to the 1991 series version of the suit’s history. Building off the pain and guilt that Gerry Regan felt after failing to do more during the Holocaust in the earlier story, as well as his pre-established name change, Gerry would hide his Jewish identity in Gotham, presenting his family as irreligious. Rory wouldn’t find out his heritage until he was well into his teens, and the one-shot focuses on him consulting a rabbi to figure out why his father would want to hide this fact. Eventually he realizes that Gerry hadn’t been ashamed of being Jewish but rather he had felt unworthy of his own Jewishness and the title of Ragman. While this was just a one-shot, it’s a very interesting reimaging of the character as someone whose Judaism isn’t taken for granted, it’s a conclusion that he must come to and a central part of his development. Additionally, the one-shot would have the Rabbi refer to the Ragman as the “Legendary Protector of the Jews”, further tying his identity to his Jewishness.
Following the New 52 reboot of the DC universe, a new version of Rory made an appearance in the final arc of fellow Jewish hero Batwoman’s ongoing comic where his suit’s shared origins with the Golem were re-established. While not much information is given about this new Rory Regan, internal monologue does seem to point to his grandfather being the previous Ragman rather than it being his father. Though this wasn’t a long appearance, it seemed as though Rory Regan survived the destruction and recreation of the DC Universe relatively intact.
A new Ragman series was announced a few years later, with writer Ray Fawkes and artist Inaki Miranda working on a new take on the character. While no one has officially commented on how canon this story was to the core DC Universe, it fully clashes with the Rory we had been shown in Batwoman, Batwoman herself appearing in the series and meeting him for the first time (giving them two different introductions to one another). While this version would keep Rory passively Jewish, mentioning that he and his father have visited a Rabbi in the past (that’s really it), it makes some strange and borderline antisemitic changes to the character’s origin. In this version, Rory is part of a group of mercenaries attempting to raid an ancient tomb. The group gets ambushed and Rory manages to get out, though his memory of it is unclear. He begins to hear voices and eventually a suit of mummy-like wraps that had come with him from the tomb engulf him and turn him into the Ragman, pulling him to hunt demons.
He later meets the Demon, a popular DC antihero and, well, a demon, who informs Rory that the suit had been dragged up from Hell and used in the Crusades before eventually being locked away in the tomb. A lot of stuff happens after that but I pretty much checked out at that point. Drawing comparisons between the strictly Jewish magic origins of the rags before this series and satanic magic is deeply uncomfortable. Additionally, changing the history of the rags from acting as a form of justice and safety for vulnerable people and turning it into a weapon used in the Crusades is plainly wrong. This take is disrespectful to the character and the legacy of Jewish survivors and activists that he represents. On top of all of that, the change turns him into a straight-up Moon Knight ripoff (down to the mummy-based design which, even with the context of his new origin, makes no sense coming from Hell) with some flavor of Spawn and Venom. The series and its take on Ragman was boring as well as insulting.
Subsequent appearances of Rory have returned him to his earlier design from Batwoman (Miranda’s design made an appearance in a single panel of Justice League Dark, but later in that same run his classic design reappears, so this is likely an error), with Rory currently being a member of Justice League Dark, a team that has backup stories running in Justice League. Despite this, Fawkes’s take on the character seems to have left an impact, with Rory’s relationship with the suit taking on a darker overtone and Rory seeming more connected to Hell than he’d been before. Sadly, no actual confirmation for his current origin has been provided, though if this is the version from Batwoman, that would suggest that this Ragman does still have his Golem origins.
I was 15 years old when I was first introduced to Ragman in the fifth season of Arrow. While this version of Rory definitely isn’t one I would consider good anymore, it was genuinely shocking for me to see a character like Ragman. In Arrow, Ragman is a citizen of the town of Havenrock, a town that’s destroyed by a nuclear bomb in the finale of season four. Rory is left as the last survivor of the town when his family’s magical rags protect him, and he sets out to get revenge for his family and neighbours. The rags had a different origin in this version as well, coming from the time of Moses and being controlled through Hebrew prayers. While this is a large departure from the canon version of Rory, this was nevertheless without a doubt the most intrinsically Jewish character I’d ever seen on screen, particularly in comic book media. Sadly, even half a decade later, this fact holds true for the latter. I was fascinated with the character and when he was eventually written off, I finally stopped watching the show.
Despite some missteps in his history, Ragman is a truly special character that can represent something new and unique in a landscape of Jewish characters whose Judaism goes no deeper than one-off mentions. While there are several other exceptions (The Thing, Magneto, and Kitty Pryde all come to mind from the Marvel side of things, Batwoman’s costume is directly inspired in-universe by Jewish mysticism), too many characters lack depth when it comes to interacting with their identity. Jewish representation needs to improve, and Ragman is a good point of reference for where to start.
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