Jews and Comic Art

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November 1, 2006
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Paul Buhle

Someone once wrote that it would be easier to write a history of American theater since 1900 without Jewish secularism than with it, because Jewish immigrants and their descendents have constituted such a huge portion of its history, writers, directors, and actors – even down to makeup artists. The same can be said for considerable sections of comic art, a field only recently treated as a respectable art form.

The genre of comic books rose out of the pulp magazine industry of the 1930s; it was centered in New York, and a very high proportion of publishers as well as artists were Jewish – mostly young men from lower-class backgrounds. It would be easy and partly true to say that they did it to make a living. The publishers, indifferent to any notion of comic art, certainly had no higher purpose. The artists, their editors, inkers and scriptwriters, wanted to make art, and comics offered the available opportunity. Some, probably a majority, were happy enough to do unimaginative, artistically poor and often deeply conservative, even racist work; they would have been happier in advertising, and a fair number of them made the better-paying career adjustment. Others sought, against all odds, to lift this lowest-rated artistic form upward into serious narrative and real artistic expression.

The best-known Jewish comic artist is Will Eisner, recognized in 2005 when he died as a makherand master of the field. Back in the 1930s, he had been among the first comic book publishers, and in the 1940s he created The Spirit. Abandoning the field for decades, he returned to champion young comic artists in the 1970s as they sought to change the field, and to complete his own life’s work with the trilogy Contract With God and the book The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Another artist-editor too often easily neglected by outsiders to comic art is Harvey Kurtzman, inventor of the most successful English-language satire magazine in 50 years (and still going strong) – Mad Magazine. Product of Brooklyn and the Bronx, like Eisner, he was a brilliant artist-editor who created a new form of commercial culture – humor that was deeply indebted to characteristically Jewish insights and yet embedded realism into comics through searing commentaries on militarism and war. Young Kurtzman came out of the antifascist experience and into EC Comics at the end of the 1940s, at a moment when the huge sales to wartime audiences and the cheap Americanism that went along with them had largely dried up. He not only researched military history across the ages, but also wrote from up close, responding to the terrible personal toll of the Korean War. Mad was a new turn, his own invention; after leaving the magazine, he never found that success or satisfaction again. But his influence remains strong upon generations of social humorists, in publications, television, and film. Or consider Art Spiegelman of Mausfame. No artist has dealt more vividly, in pictures, with the Holocaust, and none has so firmly denied theological claims at understanding it.

Mostly, Jewish comic artists have dealt with the tragedies, foibles, and comedy of daily life. Comic scriptwriter Harvey Pekar, of the awardwinning film American Splendor, has spent most of his 30 or more years writing about his life in Cleveland, working at a Veterans Administration hospital as a clerk. It is not a grand story of public triumph but the opposite: a Jewish story of endurance, irony, and empathetic moral behavior toward ordinary people. Harvey Kurtzman has often said that he got his values from his mother, a near-communist storekeeper in a ghetto neighborhood grocery. Before his death, Kurtzman spoke of his mother as a “nudge”who ferreted out the “between the lines” truth from the New York Times.

Ben Katchor, whose imagined neighborhoods of mostly Jewish inhabitants have been seen in museums across the world (and continue to be seen weekly in the Forward), had an immigrant father who backed the Morgn Frayhayt. The families left the communist experience behind and the sons (as widow Adele Kurtzman quipped to me) “didn’t need that   kind of religion” or any other. They had the ideas and ethics that were common to American Jewry during the New Deal years. For these artists and many others, comics were a means of expression that could be both under the supreme artistic control of the creator (unlike film or television) and available to ordinary Americans (unlike paintings that ended up in a museum or private home).

A longer essay would be required to cover more fully the field of Jewish comic artists – to share the work of artists who came of age during the 1960s when the newspaper comic strips began fading along with press circulation, and when the breaking of censorship rules prompted a new openness about sexuality and a host of other subjects. There is Trina Robbins, daughter of a prominent Yiddish

journalist, who founded Women’s Liberation Comics in the early 1970s and became an important historian of women comic artists. And Sharon Rudahl, who was Robbins’s collaborator on several vital stories about the Jewish- American experience in social movements from old Russia to current-day America. Rudahl, now at work on a biography of Emma Goldman, documents how Jewish women fought against inequality and exploitation, in their own families and in society at large. Such work will be vital for generations to come, as younger Jews (like other young people) increasingly “read” through pictures more than through words on the printed page.

Rare have been religionists, and it is not difficult to say why. The 1930s-’40s intellectuals and artists were secularists and assimilationists, by instinct, without thinking about the details very much. The last decade or so saw a few experiments like the one-shot Hasidic comic series of the 1970s, Sholem the Golem, which expired when its funder lost interest. Or Joe Kubert, a mainstream comic artist of the most commercial variety, who has been drawn back to historical and religious themes with a recent book on Eastern Europe of the Holocaust years. In his last years, Will Eisner, too, had more affection for the religious side of Jewish life, although he was, it appears, drawn to Judaism more as a source of morality than spiritual truth.

These figures remain rare because the young Jewish artist, often an art school graduate looking to comics as one career alternative, is by nature a free spirit. The freest spirit, or perhaps only the most successful one, is Peter Kuper (artist of the “Spy vs. Spy” page in today’s Mad), the best-known editor-artist of World War 3 Illustrated, today’s outstanding political- social comic series. He actually began to think about his career as an artist growing up in Cleveland – not far from the neighborhood

where two Jewish teenagers gave birth to Superman several generations earlier.

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Paul Buhle, who teaches at Brown University, has been writing about alternative comics for more than 30 years. His books include a three volume series, Jews and American Popular Culture (Praeger, 2006).

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