Superfan: East Bay rabbi amasses 17,000 comic books and counting

If Rabbi Harry Manhoff ever needs someone to save him from a dastardly villain, expect to see the bat symbol in the sky.

It’s not that Manhoff, 59, a Reform rabbi who leads the congregation at Conservative Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro, doesn’t love Superman. It’s just that he doesn’t believe a man can fly.

The Superman vs. Batman debate is an old one, but it’s one Manhoff knows well. Very well. That’s because Manhoff owns every Superman comic book going back some 40 years, and every Batman comic for the past 35.

And that’s just part of his collection, which now comprises more than 17,000 comics.

Manhoff started collecting in 1992, but his love of comics goes back much further, to his many summers spent at Camp Roosevelt in Monticello, N.Y., starting at age 4.

His father was part owner of the camp, and at the end of the summer, the young Harry would help clean up the cabins after the campers were gone. That’s how he built up a stockpile of New York Yankees baseball cards (he had every Yankee card from 1958 through 1974), as well as a decent collection of comic books.

Back then, growing up in Livingston, N.J., comic books were just a pastime, but one that was treasured. When Manhoff was in the fifth grade, he and a friend used to buy comics and act them out — “I remember jumping off his bed like it was yesterday,” Manhoff says.

Comics came from the local candy shop and cost 12 cents. To earn the money, Manhoff and his friends would collect beer bottles that had been discarded in a local orchard and redeem them at the gas station.

In 1974, Manhoff married his wife, Barbara, who joined him for one last summer at Camp Roosevelt. At the end of the summer, he started rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College, and the comics were set aside.

Nearly two decades went by, during which time Manhoff became ordained, completed a doctorate and became a father to three children — daughter Rinat and sons Shai and Eitan.

Then, one day in 1992, Manhoff was reading the newspaper and came across an article saying that Superman was going to die.

“Superman was going to be killed — for real,” he says, recalling the news of the “Death of Superman” comic as if it were yesterday. “It wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t an imaginary story. It was our Superman that was going to die.”

Manhoff told his youngest son, Eitan, who was 9 at the time, that they had to get that comic book. Even before the advent of eBay, the rabbi knew it would be important someday.

So the two bought “The Death of Superman,” and the plan was to buy the next comic where Superman would come back to life — and that would be it. But instead of the Man of Steel coming back to life, the next issue was his funeral.

Rabbi Harry Manhoff’s Castro Valley home includes the “hobby room,” which holds Manhoff’s collection of 17,000 comic books. photos/cathleen maclearie

It took a year for Superman to come back to life for real. By then, the father and son were hooked on collecting comics. (Manhoff has other special connections with his other children: the Jewish community with Rinat and golf with Shai.)

Today, Manhoff’s collection takes up a full room in his Castro Valley house. Known as the “hobby room,” it has four baker’s racks holding long boxes of comic books. Each box has around 300 comics in it. Around 20 signed comics encased in plastic line one of the walls, including one book signed by all the writers of the death and rebirth of Superman series.

Both father and son read comic books daily. “He probably reads more than I do,” Eitan admits by phone from Los Angeles, where he currently lives. “I’m constantly behind, I have piles of stuff that I have yet to read. He’s always up to date.”

Manhoff buys about 1,000 comics every year — about 18 a week, and another 100 or so at comic book conventions — and sends some to his son in the mail, which Eitan reads and then returns to the collection. Father and son also have been going to Comic-Con, which is held in San Diego every summer, for 15 years.

Comic-Con weekend is sacred to the pair. Eitan missed a friend’s wedding to attend last year’s convention, and Manhoff won’t allow b’nai mitzvahs to be scheduled at Beth Sholom during the con.

Comic collecting is serious business for Manhoff. Each book he buys is scanned and catalogued in a computer program called Comicbase. Individual issues are put in plastic sleeves with cardboard backing to keep them safe.

But it’s not just about the collecting: Manhoff also delights in discussing them. Especially when they include Jewish references.

The Jewish history of comic books is well documented, from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created Superman, to Will Eisner, the godfather of graphic novels whose work included “The Plot” and “A Contract With God,” as well as Jewish comic book heroes such as Ben Grimm (The Thing), Kitty Pryde and Sabra.

But Manhoff’s love of comics has him finding Jewish themes in sometimes obscure places. His collection includes the complete oeuvre of Eisner, a comic version of Megillat Esther, Steve Sheinken’s graphic novels about a fictitious rabbi living in the Wild West, and “Homeland,” a comic book history of the State of Israel.

“If it has something to do with Judaism, I have it,” he says.

A Justice League alarm clock is one of the items in Manhoff’s collection, which includes 3,000 action figures.

One of his favorite scenes in any comic book, Manhoff says, is from “Underworld Unleashed,” a 1995 cross-over involving characters from different comics. In one of the final battle scenes against villain Neron, a minor villain at the bottom corner of one page says, “Neron — that’s gematria for 666,” referring to the method of assigning numerical values to Hebrew letters.

“It’s a throwaway line, absolutely out of nowhere,” Manhoff says, then adds gleefully, “I tell ya, sometimes these guys write these things just for me.” (He notes, however, that it’s actually “Kesar Neron” that equates with the Mark of the Beast.)

The rabbi also has been able to parlay his comics hobby into some serious teaching work.

“For 10 years I’ve had an almost academic interest in [the Jewish angle of comics],” Manhoff says. “It’s part of the reason I could justify getting involved with collecting in the first place.”

When he first moved to the Bay Area from San Luis Obispo in 1997, Manhoff was invited to discuss comics at a Jewish salon at Cal State Hayward. To prepare, he spent a year doing research. He also spoke on a panel about Jews and comics at the 2010 Wondercon in San Francisco, and recently, completed a lecture series on the topic at Temple Israel in Alameda.

Manhoff talks frequently about comics at his synagogue, including during his Shabbat sermons. He even wrote to DC recently requesting that he be made the official rabbi of the DC universe. He awaits their reply.

Manhoff is exceedingly proud that Jews have had such a presence in comic history — which is why, looking through his collection, one might notice something missing: Marvel.

“I really didn’t read Marvel comics [as a child], and I still don’t read them,” the rabbi says indignantly. “The writers that went to Marvel changed their names and pretended they weren’t Jewish.” He also notes that one of the Marvel supervillains is Jewish Holocaust survivor Magneto (aka Max Eisenhardt), while “Jews come out pretty well” in the DC Comics world.

Yes, Manhoff is a dyed-in-the-wool DC man, and his loyalty paid off after Eitan’s bar mitzvah, when Manhoff noticed that Marvel stock was selling for $3 a share. He bought 100 shares. And to be fair to his beloved DC, he bought 10 shares of stock in its parent company, Warner Bros., for $30 apiece.

Marvel ended up going bankrupt. But Warner Bros. was bought by Time, which was bought by Turner, which was bought by AOL. The stock earned enough to buy the 15-year-old Eitan a special present — a 1967 red T-top Corvette.

That was the most money Manhoff has made off comic books, though. He gets quiet at the thought of selling off his collection, even though he estimates it’s worth $50,000. “I can’t picture a day when I would sell,” he says.

Eitan used $270 of his bar mitzvah money to buy a copy of the issue in which Superman comes back to life, signed by co-creator Siegel. It’s likely the rarest piece of the collection (only a few thousand copies were printed), and the most valuable: Last time Manhoff checked on eBay, it was worth $1,500.

And then there are the action figures.

Manhoff estimates that he has 3,000 action figures in perfect condition — still sealed in their boxes. They take up more than 75 percent of his garage.

He started collecting the figures when Eitan was 10 or 11. Back then he would buy two of every toy — one for Eitan to play with, and one to keep in its box as a collectible.

Among his favorites is the set of characters from the 1997 movie “Steel,” a clunker that starred Shaquille O’Neal. “I prize those, though my son says they’re worthless,” Manhoff says. “They were so unpopular that we must have the last ones around.”

Eitan recently got married, and Manhoff hopes his son and his new bride will take the action figures off his hands and sell them online to help support his future grandchildren. “I’m ready to sell — I’m not buying anymore,” he says.

Well, at least not since last month.

In a down economy, Manhoff admits that comic collecting hasn’t been easy on the wallet. “I cut back on a lot of things, but I didn’t cut back on my comic books,” he says. “A lot of people have hobbies, things they do to relax, and this is what I do to relax.”

Manhoff says his wife, Barbara, “thinks I’m crazy” — but has been supportive of his hobby, largely because it’s something he shares with Eitan.

And about having a whole room in their house dedicated to comics?

“Well,” Manhoff says, “it’s better than having two rooms.”

For Eitan, collecting comics has given him a hobby for life, as well as a special bond with his father.

“We’re best friends, or pretty close to it,” he says. “It’s something that we have that’s just between us. We speak in almost our own language about this stuff, and it gives us this avenue to talk about things in a way that I don’t think a lot of people talk to their parents.”

As for Eitan’s wife, Melody, “she’s not into comics by any means,” he says, “but I think she appreciates it for what it is — this thing that my dad and I share that’s incredibly important to us.

“Besides,” he adds, “I don’t think we have a choice. It’s in our genes. It’s like being born Jewish — we were born comic nerds.”

Cover: photo/cathleen maclearie. Rabbi Harry Manhoff of San Leandro’s Temple Beth Sholom keeps his collection of over 17,000 comic books in the “hobby room” of his house in Castro Valley.