Jews in America: A Cartoon History/Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form

Article excerpt

Jews in Americas A Cartoon History, by David Gantz. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2006. 168 pp. $28.00.

Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form, edited by Paul Buhle. New York: The New Press, 2008. 198 pp. $29.95.

David Gantz, in Jews in America, and Paul Buhle, in Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form, present narratives of important Jewish contributions to American culture, both in the macro-historical sense and in the microcosmic world of American comics. Gantz presents a history of Jewish life in the United States in graphic novel form, while Buhle uncovers the extensive Jewish American contribution to the comic arts (and all of its mass cultural influences) through the examples of over ninety Jewishauthored comic strips. In both narratives Jewish Americans are established to be as integral and authentic to America as apple pie. Further, both Gantz and Buhle implicitly argue that Jewish American influence in the creation of the United States and its popular culture proves its earned place in history, underscoring the anxious fears of displacement that are remnants of the suffering and repeated exiles of Jewish histories.

In Buhle'sjetvi and American Comics, each chapter of textual analysis is followed by a series of Jewish American comics, permitting the reader to "witness" the narrated evolution of this particular comic art. While Buhle weaves together into his story an overview of Jewish American comic history, it is a particular type of comprehensive lens. The book mostly focuses on male comic artists, including a few, like Robert Crumb, who wrote on Jewish themes despite having been born "Gentile." Buhle, however, is not unaware of this discrepancy. He carefully notes the gender inequalities in comic publications and works to take into account women comic artists who have been included in what can be called the Jewish American comics canon.

Buhle's introduction emphasizes the importance of comic strips in the creation and reproduction of Jewish American life, in a way that even supersedes die significance of Hollywood. He concedes that "nowhere but Hollywood, and mainly behind-the-camera Hollywood, was the Jewish role so influential in a major form of popular art" (p. 9). Yet, Buhle also contends, 'just as Los Angeles would never be as Jewish as New York, the movies could never be as Jewish as comic books, which, irrespective of actual images that were almost entirely Gentile, were produced by Jews for the masses" (p. 9). He continues to establish that tracing Jewish American comics since their inception (as he does here) is a much more fruitful and illuminating endeavor in understanding the Jewish "Americanization" process than tracing Hollywood's Jewish-influenced history. He argues that Jews in America have been on an extended journey to find themselves for the last hundred years and that comics created and produced by Jewish artists grapple with the ambivalences of identity in the new world.

In this struggle for identity, Buhle finds that comic artistry worked differently for Jewish Americans who had achieved prosperity and assimilation than for those who struggled economically and culturally. He argues that "for educated, assimilated Jewish Americans" in the beginning of the twentieth century, "the comic strip provided a guilty pleasure at best, an embarrassment at worst, offering further evidence (along with "Hollywood," meaning films) of cultural philistinism, vulgarity sans the dirty words" (p. 19). However, for those "within the cultural ghetto of the Yiddish world, things looked very different" (p. 20). More-assimilated Jews at this time wrote comics for popular papers without notable radical, artistic intentions, while their unassimilated, newcomer counterparts were beginning to embark on this journey of self-definition in the cloistered world of Jewish-only readers.

As assimilation took hold and Yiddish comic strips became outmoded, the Jewish presence in comic strips, as in Hollywood, grew while the Jewish content became more covert. …