Jewish Comics; or, Visualizing Current Jewish Narrative

Article excerpt

Over the past several years, there has been rapidly growing interest in Jews and comics- not comics of the Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, and Jerry Seinfeld variety, but those as presented on the paneled pages of the newspaper funnies, comic books, and graphic novels.1 In the past four years alone, there have been no less than seven titles devoted exclusively to the history and analysis of Jews and comic art, and these books do not even include the many recent comics-related texts with substantive portions devoted to specific Jewish authors.2 Part of this interest can be read as an outgrowth, or the natural consequence, of scholarly studies in Jews and popular culture. The past decade has seen a number of significant studies that highlight the presence, and even the essential contributions, of Jews in a variety of popular media.3 Comics, the argument goes, is one of those mass outlets- along with television and Hollywood films- in which Jews could not only thrive, but also largely define according to particular ethnic themes and sensibilities. This nascent interest in Jewish comics and graphic novels can also be linked to another recent phenomenon, a broader scholarly focus on comics and the ways in which they represent ethnoracial identity.4 Many of these analyses have not only chronicled the history of racial and ethnic caricatures in American comic strips, comic books, and film animation, but they have also explored the relatively recent rise in ethnic ownership of the comic image, i.e., how traditionally marginalized writers and illustrators have become more a part of the comics industry and have thereby exerted more control over representations of their own ethnic communities.

In terms of Jewish Americans, this involvement in the industry has been in place since the comic book's inception. As comics historian Arie Kaplan points out, Maxwell "Charlie" Gaines (né Max Ginsberg) put together what many consider the first American comic book. In 1934, he, along with his friend Harry L. Wildenberg, persuaded Eastern Color Printing to collect the comic strips that had previously been published in Sunday newspapers, print them in half tabloid size and distribute them first through chain department stores, then when that proved successful, sell them on newsstands. There had been earlier attempts to collect and distribute comic strips in magazine form, but this was the first time anyone had done so on the retail level and not as a promotional giveaway.5 The result was Famous Funnies, and as critics such as Kaplan, Danny Fingeroth, and Paul Buhle have pointed out, thus began the Jewish association with comics and their shaping of the medium. Indeed, many of the early pioneers of American comics were Jews, including Jerome Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, Gil Kane, Will Eisner, Jules Feiffer, Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, and Joe Kubert. This brief list of artists and writers created, or famously illustrated, most of the memorable characters of the 1930s and 1940s, including Superman, Batman, Captain America, the Guardian, the Boy Commandos, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Green Lantern, the Spirit, and Sgt. Rock. And editors such as Stan Lee, Mort Weisinger, Julius Schwartz, William Gaines, AI Feldstein, and Harvey Kurtzman put their indelible stamp on most of the significant comic books coming out of the industry's leading publishers: DC Comics, Marvel, and EC Comics.

One of the reasons for this Jewish dominance in the comics industry is due in large part to the occupational opportunities, or lack thereof, in the first half of the twentieth century. As both Kaplan and Fingeroth have pointed out, most of the prominent and "respectable" fields where artists and writers could express their creativity- such as magazines, newspaper strips, and advertising-were closed to Jews at the time, or at least difficult to enter, due to antisemitism, both overt and subtle. …