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From Batman to Holy Land, comics artist sees heroes on all sides

OFRA, West Bank (Reuters) – An American comic book illustrator once feted for a portfolio including Batman and Wonder Woman covers has found a new calling in the Holy Land – drawing the everyday good and bad guys he sees on all sides.

Michael Netzer’s own life is laden with drama: Born Mike Nasser to U.S.-Lebanese Druze parents, he found in art a release from childhood polio, worked for franchises including Marvel and D.C. Comics, learned he had Jewish roots and moved to Israel, ending up in a settlement in the occupied West Bank.

Fluent in Arabic as well as English and Hebrew, Netzer, 63, paints portraits or superhero reproductions on commission to a clientele that he says includes Palestinians – an unusual interaction for a religious settler.

He also takes to the road every few weeks, sketching passers-by of all stripes, for free.

“I have seen … it seems to me like nine million heroes and villains in Israel. I see them all the time,” he told Reuters in his attic studio in Ofra.

“It’s like people are the most interesting thing that there is. And I look at the face and I see, you know, God looking back at me.”

One of his subjects, Endy Jber, a 24-year-old conservative Muslim woman from the Israeli Arab village of Abu-Ghosh, seemed to agree. After she sat for him on a Jerusalem pedestrian thoroughfare, she assessed the pencil-sketch result and said: “He’s amazing. He expresses his soul through the picture.”

Netzer says he is no stranger to sectarian strife, having lived in post-1970s Lebanon. He acknowledges the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, cresting again as U.S. President Donald Trump weighs in on a long-stalled peacemaking initiative.

Trump himself has elements of a comics archetype, Netzer suggests. “He’s fighting a war with China that could be seen as a just war. So there’s something about him that’s very heroic to the people who (back him). On the other hand, look at how he’s risen to be the antithesis of a hero, of a good guy, it seems.”

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Though he left his mark on the comics canon – claiming a 1981 strip he drew as the inspiration for a famous Spider Man movie scene of the superhero kissing his girlfriend while inverted – Netzer does not seem to miss the commercial form.

In the 1980s, he created an Israeli comics superhero – “Uri Ohn”, or “Virility Uri” – whose nemeses tend to be concocted villains rather than representations of Israel’s real-life foes.

“I’ve become sensitive to the use of propaganda, my art being used to advance an idea that I may or may not be attached to,” he said. “And this is probably one of the reasons that led me to slow down … I try not to upset people.”

Writing by Dan Williams; editing by John Stonestreet

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