Sabra Returns to Marvel Comics

If you don’t know about my obsession with Sabra, the Jewish superhero, then just Google around — I’m kind of a sucker for her. I mean, typical Israeli hotheadedness + super powers + guest appearances in “The Incredible Hulk” and “Uncanny X-Men”…well, it kind of equals my dream girl, if you set aside the facts that (a) she’s fictional and (b) I’m married.

sabra, defender of israel, marvel comics Sabra’s official title is the “Defender of Israel,” which sounds like just about the cheesiest thing ever. She wears a blue-and-white uniform, sometimes with a long cape pinned together with a Star of David, of course, and half of the stuff the writers put into her mouth is gag-worthy, and half is totally, spot-on Israeli. When she’s written well, she is arrogant, good-humored, stubborn, compassionate…that mix of delicate qualities that are the quintessence of Israeli culture.

When I was on tour in Manhattan, I even wrote a poem as a pitch for an editor at Marvel Comics, imagining Sabra — who’s always been the ultimate secular Israeli — starting to dabble in being religious. Then I totally scrapped it and wrote a real pitch, which involved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the religious-secular divide, some really deep character work and some stuff about getting over traumas that “Waltz with Bashir” totally plagiarized, even if they didn’t actually see my treatment.

In the past few years, she started making guest appearances, some wonderfully understated (in the background, portrayed with Yemenite features at Darkstar’s funeral in New X-Men) and some just cool cameos (like defending Israel from the Skrulls in Secret Invasion). Last week, Marvel released a Web one-shot short story featuring Sabra — and, while it’s cool to see our favorite (and, uh, second- and third-favorite) Israeli superhero in the limelight, it wasn’t exactly the most promising of beginnings.

The story opens on Sabra at a picnic with her mother. She meets a girl, Yael, whose father fought alongside Sabra’s father in the Israeli Air Force. Sabra relates her own story of being caught by HYDRA, a Marvel-universe terrorist group, and of her father dying while saving her. It wraps up nicely with the girl confessing her fears — “I don’t know what it’s like to fly,” she confesses — and Sabra swooping her up and taking her for a little flight above the Jerusalem scenery.

sabra amazing tales


It’s a nice little sentimental story. No big whoop, no deeper meaning, and even (bonus!) an explosion. On a storytelling level, I have my complaints — the story wastes far too much time at this stupid party, which has nothing to do with the story sabra, defender of israel, marvel comics Sabra’s telling. And, if we’re supposed to care about Sabra’s father saving her and dying in the act, we should at least see what the man looks like. It also feels a little bit like the writer, Matt Yocum, got most of his information about Israel from a quick Google search. Sabra herself has as much personality as a tube of toothpaste, and the 17-year-old girl’s wide-eyed oh-you’re-so-cool-ness — while it’s also uncharacteristic of Israelis (or, for that matter, anyone) — just doesn’t seem real, or give the reader any reason to care. When Spider-Man is awed to be in a room with Captain America and Daredevil, you can tell it’s because, under his mask, he’s a teenage fanboy.

In the Marvel canon, Ruth Bat-Seraph is a national hero. Sometimes, she’s revered; sometimes, she’s mind-controlled by evil bastards and the public hates her. But she’s never been a sucker. Perhaps the worst part are the token Jewish lines — “I never felt more like David…against HYDRA’s Goliath” — which seem like they were made to be used in Hebrew Schools. And the ending, in which Sabra tells the girl, “This is what our dads lived for. This is what they died for. You’ll make the right decision…” is cringe-worthy — not because it isn’t an inspiring thought, not because it’s not what they believe in, but because, in the entire story, we haven’t heard anything about what “this” is, or what it means to either Sabra or her young fan. If Sabra loves Israel, show us Israel. Don’t give us ten pages, not of Israel, not of a cool fight scene, but of talking about abstract ideas at a party.

Please, Marvel — give us more Sabra. But not like this.

Crossposted on Mixed Multitudes

4 Responses to “Sabra Returns to Marvel Comics”

  1. The GUI for the comic reader is really clunky and requires way too many mouse-movements.

    While I get that the genre conventions require skin-tight uniforms, I’d really like to see a superhero comic where an elite female warrior doesn’t constantly arch her back or stick out her tuchis in the middle of combat.


    Ian Thal · June 2nd, 2009 at 7:22 pm
  2. The art went both ways, imo — in some way, it was really cool to see 3 Israeli women in a mainstream comic portrayed (mostly) as zaftig, hefty and healthy women. On the other…well, yeah. Nearly every shot was what the industry, I believe, terms a “money shot.” I’m all for hot women and sexy couture interpretations of the Israeli flag, but this issue definitely wavered on the border of objectification potential.


    matthue · June 3rd, 2009 at 10:21 am
  3. Point taken. American pop culture rarely portrays Jewish women (let alone Israeli) as attractive, let alone heroic– and I was definitely able to look at these characters as Jews.

    Still, I think Sabra could easily have been given the body-language of a disciplined Mossad agent who also flies with the IAF and still be sexy. I’ve seen her appear so rarely in comics, but it doesn’t appear she keeps a secret identity, so she doesn’t have to fake a civilian slouch.

    Took me a bit to figure out why Hydra would be attacking Israel until I remembered that in at least one version of Marvel Universe history, Hydra was founded after the war by fugitive Nazi war-criminals.


    Ian Thal · June 4th, 2009 at 5:48 am
  4. Sorry you didn’t like the story so much. I had hoped that she was a reflection of past Jewish heroes, a reflection of David and Samson and all the many heroes of the Jewish people.

    I live in Israel, and have for the past 3 years. And in my job, I go to diplomatic receptions almost every week, which is why Marvel and I worked out her narrating the story while at a diplomatic reception. It’s not a common setting, but is part of my world there in Israel.

    Wish I could have made the story work to your liking. It does come out in comic form the first week of July in Astonishing Tales #6.


    Matt Yocum · June 17th, 2009 at 6:53 am

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