"Foreskin Man," a controversial comic book by one of San Francisco's anti-circumcision proponents, has driven away would-be supporters of a proposed ban on the practice of removing the foreskin of boys under 18.
The comic, which stars "Foreskin Man" as a penis-protecting hero and "Monster Mohel," an Orthodox Jew, as an evil villain, has been called anti-Semitic by religious groups. But creator Matthew Hess says it was designed to provoke and thinks it helps raise awareness of what he and other "intactivists" consider a human rights violation.
"I think it has driven some people away for sure. But I think it's also brought a lot more people in by getting more people to talk about it and look into it," said Hess, president of MGMBill.org, a group against male genital mutilation, which, in its view, includes circumcision. "People just want to ignore us and hope we'll go away. This makes us a little harder to ignore."
Intactivists believe infant boys, like girls, have the right to keep their genitals intact. And by collecting more than 12,000 signatures in support of a city-wide circumcision ban, they earned the proposed legislature a spot on San Francisco's November 2011 ballot. If the ban is enacted, doctors, mohels (who circumcise Jewish boys) and any other person who performs circumcisions could face a $1,000 fine or one year in jail.
But the anti-circumcision movement, which has been rooted in "respectful, logical and rational discussion," according to leader Lloyd Schofield, might suffer at the hands of the very super hero fighting for foreskins everywhere.
"They've gotten a tremendously negative backlash," said Nancy Appel, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco. "I think this has polarized and isolated, and that people who may have been willing to hear their side are just disgusted."
A lawsuit filed jointly by the Anti-Defamation League and other community organizations aims to preempt the ban's place on the ballot, arguing that it violates state law. The San Francisco attorney's office has supported the suit, calling the ban and the "anti-Semitic tactics" used to promote it "unconstitutional."
"Especially in light of disturbing campaign materials that evoke the ugliest kind of anti-Semitic propaganda, the City has an obligation to petition the Court to remove the measure from the ballot in its entirety if it is preempted as applied to medical professionals," Chief Deputy City Attorney Therese Stewart said in a statement.
Schofield, the man behind the ban, thinks federal law is on his side. He argues that the law, which protects girls from genital mutilation, should also stand for boys.
But Schofield decided to keep the comic out of his campaign materials, claiming "the tone didn't fit" with his initiative and that "it was a distraction at best."
Predictably, the images of beefy blond "Foreskin Man" saving 8-day-old "Glick Sacks" from "Monster Mohel" and his automatic weapon-wielding entourage have outraged rabbis nationwide.
Matthew Hess' 'Monster Mohel' has outraged religious groups.
"The best case scenario for the Intactivists would be to claim that this comic book is not representative of their true views. It is one unhinged madman," Rabbi Eliyahu Fink of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, Calif., wrote in a blog post titled, "Hey San Francisco, 1930's Germany Called – They Want Their Anti-Semitic Propaganda Back!"
"That may be true," Fink continued, "but until that is asserted or shown to be true, 'Foreskin Man' casts the entire Intactivist operation under the shadow of anti-Semitism."
But Hess insists he did not attack rabbis or the Jewish faith any more than he did doctors and medicalized circumcision.
"The first issue dealt with medicalized circumcision, and in that case the villain was a doctor," he said. "Jewish circumcision is just one part of an ongoing series."
The third issue of the series, starring an African "Vulva Girl," attacks tribal circumcision.
Even pediatricians, many of whom maintain a neutral position on the topic of circumcision, disapprove of Hess' creation.
"To use hate or anti-Semitic slurs is just inappropriate and there's no place in our society for that approach. But there's freedom of expression, so they can do what they want and I don't have to look at it," said Dr. Lawrence Baskin, chief of pediatric urology at University of California, San Francisco. "I think people who vote are smart and they'll see it for what it is."
Hess, a self-professed fan of comic books (and circumcised male), is working on the fourth installment of "Foreskin Man." He expected and accepts the backlash, the price for attracting 67,000 online visitors to his cause and craft each day.
"This is a process that has to play out," he said. "As human rights issues advance, there are lawsuits, there are bills, there are people fighting against it. I think this process had to happen eventually and the comic book just sparked it."