Innovation and Orthodox Comic Books: The Case of Mahrwood Press
Roth, Laurence, MELUS
How should we interpret the transnational economy of comic books produced and published by American Israelis in Israel that are distributed by American Jewish publishers in the United States? When such comic books earn haskamot--letters of approbation by religious authorities attesting to their religious merit and educational worthiness--and become religiously sanctioned Jewish books, what are the consequences for our understanding of American Jewish writing? Are Orthodox comic books a novel, albeit conservative form of Jewish oppositional culture? I asked these questions at the conclusion of an earlier essay on contemporary American Jewish comic books (Roth 17), hoping that others would see them as indicative of the issues describing and catalyzing a new area of American Jewish literary studies. In what follows I probe for answers: first, by establishing a critical and sociohistorical context for reading Mahrwood Press's Orthodox comic books as innovative but understudied cultural productions; and second, by analyzing a number of examples to show how they convey a masculinist, Jewish ethos opposed to an individualist, secular modernity while admiring ingenuity that conserves tradition. Mahrwood Press provides an exemplary case study, because its founder's biography and publishing vision, the artists and writers he commissioned, and the stories he wrote and published spotlight how issues of cultural renewal and heterogeneity complicate our understanding of networks and the flow of information across spaces, places, and times. Mahrwood also reveals a provocative strand of the contemporary religious imaginary in US and American Jewish comic books.
What constitutes innovation in comics is always under debate, but one critical perspective currently ascendant in US literary studies has recreated a kind of lowbrow-highbrow divide within comic book scholarship, the undoing of which might open up fresh perspectives in American Jewish literary studies and on literary and cultural innovation in comic books. This divide has its roots in comics studies' deep ambivalence about the popularity of the superhero genre and the mass-produced material published by large houses such as Marvel and DC Comics. As Charles Hatfield points out, the publication of Art Spiegelman's Maus in 1986 and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics in 1993 started a slow shift in the field toward a "new formalism" (369-70) and, consequently, an increasing focus among US academics within English departments on experimental and ostensibly more innovative alternative comics. (1) As with many new trends and fields that must legitimize their places within English departments, literary comic book scholarship was discovered by some as an inchoate field that needed rationalization and justification--or as Hillary Chute asserts, "The field hasn't yet grasped its object or properly posed its project" ("Comics" 452).
Chute has become the most vocal proponent within US English departments of such rationalization and of a specific understanding of comic book innovation. (2) She begins her short history of comics by electing to "not emphasize the development of the commercial comic book industry," instead formulating what is in essence a history of avant-garde, formal experimentation in the medium, her primary indicator of comic book innovation. In her timeline, comics begin as "both a mass-market product and one that influenced and was influenced by avant-garde practices, especially those of Dada and surrealism" (455), becoming fully realized as a medium only with the arrival of underground comics in the 1960s (456). For Chute, study of the graphic narrative "investigates the potential of the form at large" (457), especially in terms of "ethical representations of history" (462) that in the exemplary work of Spiegelman, Joe Sacco, and Marjane Satrapi are always self-aware and self-reflexive in the best tradition of innovative modernist and postmodernist literary art. …