Contemporary Scribes: Jewish American Cartoonists

By Frenkil, Helena | Shofar, October 31, 2001 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Scribes: Jewish American Cartoonists


Frenkil, Helena, Shofar


Contemporary Scribes: Jewish American Cartoonists

The list of artists who defined and shaped American cartoon art includes many Jewish names. America has offered many immigrant groups the possibilities of achievement, and Jews, coming from a strong literary tradition which nurtured both a comic and an ironic view of the world, have been drawn to this fast-developing and uniquely American art form since the beginning of the twentieth century. At every point in the history of cartoon arts in America some Jewish cartoonists were able to contribute their talents and ability to innovate. They brought the sharpened perspective and the moral anxiety of the outsider to this artistic expression, and, from Rube Goldberg to Al Capp, Will Eisner, and Art Spiegelman, to mention only several of the giants, they have strongly influenced the cartoon arts. The cartoonist at his/her drawing board brings to mind the image of the scribe, an old and revered profession in Judaism. Jewish cartoonists in their depiction of modern life have in some ways become contemporary scribes in a distinctly American form of communication that combines both written and visual expression.

The beginning of newspaper comic strips in turn-of-the-century America coincided with the great influx of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe to the United States. Jews were fleeing persecution and poverty, seeking a more promising future. The opportunities of American commerce called, but the freedom to explore and create new possibilities was also part of the landscape that greeted Jews in America. Newspaper cartoons offered a new, wide-open field that welcomed them. As Jules Feiffer observed about comics, "It was lowbrow art, devised by immigrants, or the sons of immigrants, for the entertainment of immigrants."(1) And so it was that a number of gifted children of Jewish immigrants found their way into a rapidly developing, particularly American industry. Cartooning, without long-established rules of the trade, provided an innovative art form for Jews to explore. Ambitious talent could make its mark more easily in a newly developing medium. And Jewish cartoonists, whether or not they were immigrants, also benefited from bringing the sharpened perspective of the outsider to a new artistic expression which especially valued verbal as well as visual skills.

Jews have regularly been identified with the American entertainment industry and the mass media. However, the participation of Jews in the development and growth of cartoon art in America has not been frequently noted. A brief survey of some of the more significant American cartoonists, however, reveals a large number of Jewish artists. Their work may or may not reflect their ethnic and/or religious sensibilities, but their accomplishments are noteworthy both in the context of the history of cartoon art and in American Jewish history and popular culture. According to a 1960 study of the creators of the American comic strips by Hilory Frederic Wiggin, 10 percent of the sample of cartoonists in the study were Jewish even though they made up only 3.24 percent of the U.S. population at that time.(2)

One of the ways to consider the significance of American Jewish cartoonists is to look at the recognition they have received for their work. Recipients of the Reuben Award, the National Cartoon Society (NCS) trophy for Cartoonist of the Year, and the Pulitzer Prize for Cartooning include the names of Al Capp, (Reuben 1947), Rube Goldberg (Pulitzer 1948, Reuben 1967), Otto Soglow (Reuben 1966), Mell Lazarus (Reuben 1981), Arnold Roth (Reuben 1984), Jules Feiffer (Pulitzer 1986), Art Spiegelman (Special Pulitzer 1986), Mort Drucker (Reuben 1987), Walt Handelsman (Pulitzer 1997), and Will Eisner (Reuben 1999). Looking at some of the particulars in the careers of these prize winners along with those of other important Jewish cartoonists gives some insight into the experience of American Jewish cartoonists.

Perhaps one of the first Jewish cartoonists to have a major influence on American cartooning was Frederick Burr Opper (1857-1937).

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