Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed!, by Arie Kaplan. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2006. 263 pp. $18.95.
From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books, by Arie Kaplan; forword by Harvey Pekar and J. T. Waldman. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2008. 225 pp. $25.00.
The Jewish contribution to comics in its varied forms - the traditional superhero comic (e.g., Superman), the humor magazine (e.g., MAD Magazine), alternative comics (e.g., RAW), and the graphic novel (e.g., Maus) - is vast and remarkable. Jews have been front and center in all areas of the comics genre, and Arie Kaplan chronicles this fascinating history in From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books. An earlier book, Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed!, composed of short biographies based heavily on Kaplan's interviews with prominent comics figures, does not focus exclusively on Jewish comic artists and writers. By virtue of the enormous Jewish presence in the comics industry, however, six of the eleven chronologically presented chapters feature Jews (Will Eisner, Jerry Robinson, Stan Lee, Trina Robbins, Art Spiegelman, and Neil Gaiman).
Naturally, the first interview in Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed! looks at the creator of The Spirit, the head of a seminal cartooning studio, and the father of the graphic novel: Will Eisner. As Kaplan puts it in the reverent tone that permeates much of his book, "What Ibsen was to modern drama, what Chaplin was to film, what Rodgers and Hart were to musical theater, Eisner was to comicdom" (p. 3). Tb be sure, Kaplan's position as an avid comics fan is apparent throughout, but that does not prevent him from offering criticism when warranted; he correctly critiques Eisner's posthumously published graphic work The Plot, a portrayal of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion conspiracy, for its under-attention to imagery and failure to follow the cardinal rule of comics, "show, don't tell" (p. 19), and he honestly describes the touchy subject of in-fighting over credit for comic creations between Bill Finger and Bob Kane (pp. 26-27), and Stan Lee with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, among others (pp. 68-71). Along with drawing out his interview subjects' biographical details, struggles in the field to gain recognition, and various comic influences, in the course of the interviews Kaplan sometimes elicits noteworthy anecdotes. Jerry Robinson, for instance, reveals that Batman's sidekick Robin was inspired by N. C. Wyeth's images of Robin Hood (pp. 29-30). Yet, while the book is anchored by interviews, Kaplan weaves a short history of the American comics industry, both Jewish and non-Jewish, throughout. For example, readers learn which comic makers created which characters, who worked with whom, and how comics were perceived at various times - including Frederick Wertham's infamous assertion in his 1954 study Seduction of the Innocent that comic books corrupted readers and caused juvenile delinquency.
Some of the interviews with non-Jewish comic creators are worthy of note, especially Gilbert Hernandez, but it seems as if in a few instances Kaplan aimed for diversity rather than talking with the most influential "masters of the universe"; the five gentiles he profiles are Hernandez, a Latino; Kyle Baker, Dwayne McDuffie, and Ho Che Anderson, African Americans; and Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian. It is Satrapi whose inclusion feels the most forced. Certainly Persepolis is a graphic novel milestone, but this work, published in 2003 and followed by Persepolis 2 in 2004 and two other graphic novels before Kaplans book went to press (the movie version of Persepolis had not yet been picked up by a studio), does not a mistress of the universe yet make. Highly influential figures like R. Crumb and Alan Moore, non-Jews, are absent, but perhaps they did not agree to an interview. As for Jews, Aline Kominsky-Crumb would have been an interesting artist to include, as would the writers Chris Claremont and Harvey Pekar. …