If your idea of comic books is capes and tights and nefarious villains, then it's time to look again. As comic books and graphic novels have become an increasingly respected literary format in the past few decades, there's been a complementary trend in examining the Jewish connection to comics — a medium that, like the film industry, began with no small amount of help from the Jews.
In fact, the connection between Jews and comic books has spawned something of a cottage industry over the past few years, including panel discussions, blogs and several books published on the topic — the most recent of which, Arie Kaplan's From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books, was released by Philadelphia's own Jewish Publication Society.
According to Paul Buhle, senior lecturer in the history and American civilization departments at Brown University, the past decade or so has seen "a broad legitimization within Jewish studies of looking at popular culture, and thinking about popular culture and Jewish roles [in it]."
"Eighty years ago, to talk about the Jewish role in popular culture was considered to be slightly dangerous, because it raised Hollywood-like hackles of Jews controlling young minds in America," continued Buhle, who edited the collection Jews and American Comics. Now, however, "these subjects are an object of examination, both entirely positive — Jewish contributions to basketball — and not so positive — the Jewish role in organized crime.
"The field is open," added Buhle, to almost any area where Jews have made an impact, so it's only natural that comic books would be examined as well.
'The Golden Age'
While comic books began as collections of reprinted newspaper comic strips, the dearth of material soon necessitated original stories. Those tales were often penned by new immigrants to the United States, who were a cheap source of labor.
The early comic-book industry, explained Kaplan, "was largely Jewish, for socioeconomic reasons. Jews couldn't get a job in a law firm, a doctor's office or an ad agency. So what else was open to you? If you could write and draw and had a basic storytelling ability, 'the comic book industry has a job for you, my friend!' "
But the medium's first (and biggest) superstar — Superman — came not from immigrants, but from two kids in Cleveland.
The brainchild of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Man of Steel, who first popped up in the 1930s, was imbued with a number of Jewish themes: He was an outsider who changed his name and appearance to assimilate, worked in a Jewish profession and even had a Jewish name of sorts. Kal-El, his birth name, can loosely be translated from the Hebrew as "all that God is."
Despite the fact that there were some early stories that dealt with anti-Semitism, Jewish content was generally subtextual during comics' "Golden Age."
"I don't think they meant to imply that Superman is a subtext for a minority of some kind, but the subtext is there," and subsequent generations of writers and comic creators have capitalized on that, said Kaplan, citing parallels between Superman and Moses.
"They didn't want Superman to be like Moses, they wanted Superman to be mythic, and the myth to be iconic," he said.
But, noted Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, author of Up, Up, and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero, it's important not to take the parallels too far.
"Jews are not superheroes, and superheroes are not Jews," he said. "I'm into the history and the culture, and I like to draw Jewish values to the superheroes based on the Torah. It makes sense that, when Superman was being created, he would have this Moses overtone, because that's the environment [his creators] grew up in. But to somehow prescribe a religion to characters of fiction is a little bit hokey."
While World War II gave superheroes a natural enemy in the Nazis, the plight of the Jews was never directly addressed at the time.
A Generational Shift
A 1950s backlash against comic books (recently documented in David Hajdu's book The Ten-Cent Plague) caused them to be viewed as inciting juvenile delinquency, or worse, and the medium suffered for it. Though the following decade saw a rebirth of superheroes (including the beginnings of the X-Men and Fantastic Four), comics also went underground with the "comix" movement. Comix brought edgier, adult-themed fare to the genre, and launched the careers of Jewish creators like Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) and Art Spiegelman (Maus), who helped pioneer the graphic-novel movement.
Between the 1960s and '80s, Jewish content in comics became more overt, shifting away from veiled subtextual references, with the 1978 graphic novel, A Contract With God, by comics pioneer Will Eisner, along with Maus, serving as breakthroughs both for comics and Jews. Both were book-length, grown-up works that dealt with Judaism in a serious fashion — something new in a field generally thought of as the medium of masked men and derring-do.
In fact, to this day, Maus, is the only graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize.
In addition to winning awards and accolades, Spiegelman and Eisner also helped pave the way for a new generation of graphic novelists whose works have dealt with the Holocaust, including Miriam Katin's We Are on Our Own and Joe Kubert's Yossel: April 19, 1943, about the Warsaw uprising.
While comic books are still in print today (though increasingly harder to find), it's graphic novels that are in many ways the industry's lifeblood — in part because they're available in most libraries and mainstream bookstores. Many have even spawned highly lauded films, including Road to Perdition and A History of Violence. While traditional comic books often utilized long, multi-issue story arcs, graphic novels provided a venue for long-format storytelling that was edgier and more serious than 24-page comic books.
And comics of any length are a big business abroad, too, whether it's Asian manga, Neil Gaiman's Sandman series in England, or Vampire Loves and The Rabbi's Cat, from France's Joann Sfar.
These days, Jewish content in comics "comes out in small waves," said Kaplan. "It's sort of like, in other media, how Jon Stewart, Adam Sandler or Sarah Silverman will make little references to being Jewish, and it's no big deal."
Comics in the Classroom
With comics getting so much literary notice these days, it's natural that higher education would follow suit. Many colleges now offer courses covering comics and graphic novels, and the University of Pennsylvania this year is hosting "Life in Boxes: Comic Art & Artifacts" in its Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, an exhibition drawn from more than 20,000 comics, thanks to a donation by Steve Rothman.
Rothman, 54, curated the exhibit and helped select materials for inclusion, as well as wrote all the captions. He cited the (relatively) newfound academic interest in comics as something that may have spurred the trend of studying Jews and comics, but he (along with many others) also cited Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, about two young Jews who create a Superman-esque character.
Chabon's novel "woke up everyone, thinking, 'Oh, yeah, Jews and comics,' " said Rothman. "It was nothing new to anyone who cared about Jews and comics, but to the general public it was an eye-opener."
The recent boom in the study of Jews and comics isn't lost on Joshua Steinhouse.
Prior to the recent publishing boom, "no one had written extensively at all on the Jewish connection to comics," said Steinhouse. "The fact that these [books] have come out all within the last three years, and have all been publicized pretty heavily for something like this, it really shows that this type of research is coming to fruition."
That's good news for Steinhouse. The Ursinus College junior — who said he's been reading comics "probably since I was in the womb" — has latched on to many of these pop-scholarly books, and is steadily working toward producing one of his own.
But how much is too much? After all, in a medium that's barely 75 years old and still churning out new material, won't all this self-examination hit the saturation point fairly soon?
It may already have, if you ask Buhle or Rothman, though Danny Fingeroth has a slightly different perspective: "Nobody says there are too many books about the Civil War or ancient Rome … . There's a lot of topics that can be looked at from different points of view, and different people can contribute and build on other people's work."
Fingeroth is the author of Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero and, like Kaplan, he comes from a background within the comics industry.
If there is to be a continued focus on Jews and comics, it may come from an unlikely place. There was a vibrant, but short-lived, Yiddish cartoon field that, said Buhle, "remains almost unknown and unstudied, because the reading of Yiddish among scholars is pretty limited."
Aside from one-box political cartoons, comic strips in the Yiddish world were limited mostly to between 1911 and 1922, explained Buhle, and "they were takeoffs or imitations of the strips in the daily, gentile, English-language papers. But, to my mind, there's a rich vein there to be mined, which hasn't been mined yet, and I'm hoping that more people will [examine it] … because newspaper readers until now have always turned to the comics page first."