Even Picasso could be found reading them
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Even Picasso could be found reading them

From box office hit Stan Lee to Pulitzer prize winner Art Spiegelman, Jews have played cutting-edge roles in the comic book industry

Knipl cover (photo credit: Courtesy Ben Katchor)
Knipl cover (photo credit: Courtesy Ben Katchor)

From its humble beginnings during the Depression when comics provided mass entertainment in the form of nickel and dime “pulps,” the Jewish sons of immigrants hailing from the Old Country found a home and thrived in the hustle — and at times hucksterism — of the United States’ comics industry.

However, despite the superior efforts of artists such as Winsor McKay and George Herriman, known to have been read and admired by Picasso, comics were considered the lowliest of art forms. Jewish families, wishing their sons to enter solid professions such as medicine or law, did not exactly warm to the idea of their eking out a living drawing cartoons in a comics sweatshop.

For their part, said offspring, who were seeking to establish careers as illustrators, often found themselves excluded from advertising agencies and newspaper syndicates due to anti-Semitic “quotas.” The comics industry, however, in part owned by Jews, welcomed them with open arms — albeit with somewhat closed fists.

Drawing comics was, and still is a tough business, involving a painstaking process that involves long hours at a drawing board. The original drawing then gets passed down a line, to be inked, colored and lettered.

'Maus' 25th anniversary edition. (photo credit: Courtesy Pantheon & Schocken Books)
‘Maus’ 25th anniversary edition. (photo credit: Courtesy Pantheon & Schocken Books)

Scholars of comics have speculated on why Jews gravitated towards the medium. One possible explanation is offered by Art Spiegelman, author of “Maus,” the only comic book to win a Pulitzer prize. “Because it was beneath contempt, it was open to Jews. [The comic book industry] was essentially part of the rag trade. Given the chance, Jews would have become painters or written novels, but here was a way for kids with an intellectual bent to express themselves.”

Whatever the reasons, the Golden Age of comics and what became known as the Marvel Age (named after the publishing company) had its fair share of Jews: Superman’s Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Stan Lee (born Stanley Leiber) creator of X-Men, Spiderman, The Hulk and The Fantastic Four, and Bob Kane (born Robert Kahn) the creator and artist of Batman, to name a few.

Mad was sophisticated and dark and the comic featured Yiddish words which eventually became a part of America’s urban slang dictionary

In the 1950s a new comic hit American news-stands, titled Mad Magazine. Created by editor and sometime writer/artist Harvey Kurtzman, with William Gaines, the comic was an instant hit whose sharp and subversive brand of humor was to prove hugely influential. Mad was sophisticated and dark, its artwork dissonant and garish, and the comic featured Yiddish words and expressions which eventually became a part of America’s urban slang dictionary.

Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Neuman. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Comics artists today still remark on the influence Mad exerted on them. Its tone of irreverence held nothing sacred; Republicans, Democrats, hippies, Vietnam, the media, big business; everything and everybody was fair game. More than once the comic landed itself in legal disputes which went as far as the Supreme Court, but Mad always seemed to have the last laugh and its mascot, the freckled, ever-grinning and instantly recognizable Alfred E. Neuman, kept smirking from the front cover.

Mad continues to be published, although its heyday waned in the early 1970s. By then, the comics industry, like most everything else, had felt the changes wrought by the Sixties and its underground culture. The “superhero” genre continued as a comics staple and its artists and writers for the most part did not stray from their chosen and proven format. There was however one notable exception, Will Eisner.

Born in 1917 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of an Austrian father and a Romanian mother, Eisner’s career in comics spanned almost seventy years. If there was such a thing as royalty in comics, Eisner was it. Not necessarily by dint of his talent, although that was undeniable, but by his unswerving dedication, belief and contribution to the medium.

Will Eisner's 'A Life Force' (photo credit: Courtesy)
Will Eisner’s ‘A Life Force’ (photo credit: Courtesy)

Eisner honed his drawing talent at school and, following this, in a succession of jobs taken on to make ends meet and contribute to the family income. These were Eisner’s teenage years, which he later acknowledged as a kind of apprenticeship; growing up and working in and around New York’s tenements and dockyards served to provide his imagination with realistic character-types and a sense of “shadow and light” that were to become hallmarks in his work.

After spending three years as co-owner of a comics business, 22-year-old Eisner sold his share and began working for a newspaper syndicate on what was to become his most famous character, The Spirit.

Eisner’s business savvy served him well and he negotiated a contract that enabled him to retain the rights to his creation. In a business full of shysters and sharks this was no mean feat; a lot of artists at that time sold the rights to their work. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold their rights to Superman early on, spent most of their lives in difficult circumstances and only received compensation in their old age. Reflecting on his decision later in life, Eisner said, “Since I knew I would be in comics for life, I felt I had every right to own what I created. It was my future, my product and my property, and by God, I was going to fight to own it.”

‘Since I knew I would be in comics for life, I felt I had every right to own what I created’

The character of the title, a masked vigilante, was essentially a foil for what Eisner really wanted to do, tell stories. Well written and featuring beautifully drawn, film noir-like landscapes, Eisner used New York as a backdrop to his plots.

The stories were a varied mix of drama, comedy and love stories, full of arch-villains, femme fatales and ordinary Joes that were later to feature in his graphic novel work. The hero, who was at times almost incidental to the story, was the very antithesis of the standard, superhero-type then in common circulation; not only having no superhuman abilities, he made a habit of being smitten and confused by women and regularly got clobbered or knocked on his tushi by the villain of the piece.

Eisner worked on The Spirit for 12 years, but it was in his next body of work, in the genre of the graphic novel, that his Jewish sensibility made its presence felt. Over the course of eight graphic novels, the best probably being “A Life Force,” Eisner wrote and drew a series of realistic and poignant stories, for the most part featuring the plight of Jewish immigrants and their families coming to terms with life in the New World.

The characters were young, middle-aged and old; everyday people, rabbis, lovers, business men, street urchins and the homeless. They grappled with the stuff of life, deliberated on its meaning and questioned the existence of God. Occasionally autobiographical, more often than not dealing with moral themes, it was Eisner’s ability for storytelling and his lovely, fluent drawing style that gave his work its strength.

As well as this body of work, Eisner wrote what has become the basic textbook for comic artists, “Comics and Sequential Art.” He also drew comics for educational purposes and was creating work up until his death in 2007, including a graphic novel based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

His death did not signal the end of an era for comics; on the contrary, his influence is still widely felt. Eisner is credited with inventing the genre of the graphic novel and his work helped in maturing comics as an art form. However, it was another Jewish artist, Art Spiegelman, who gave comics a new credibility and the feeling that no subject was too serious to be dealt with in the medium.

‘Don’t you think a comic book about Auschwitz is in bad taste?’ Spiegelman replied, ‘No, I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste’

It’s now 26 years since the initial publication of Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel “Maus.” Even today, the idea of a comic book about the Holocaust, especially one in which Jews were represented as mice and Nazis as cats, can raise eyebrows. Spiegelman was certainly sensitive to this at the time. Replying to one reporter’s question, “Don’t you think a comic book about Auschwitz is in bad taste?” Spiegelman replied, “No, I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste.”

The work itself is both powerful and moving. The story is a memoir of Spiegelman’s father and his survival, from the time the Nazis came to power, through his internment in a concentration camp. Interwoven into the narrative are scenes of Spiegelman’s fraught relationship with his father as the elder Spiegelman recounts his tale.

The artwork has a strong feel of authenticity, perhaps because of the parchment-like black and white drawings. Speigelman later commented that the early 20th Century expressionist woodcuts of Frans Masareel and Lynn Ward were an influence.

Maybe it was the gravity of the subject, or that it won the author a Pulitzer, but “Maus” set a standard for graphic novels to come. Spiegelman’s other graphic works were not in the same class as “Maus,” but he did create and co-edit, with his wife Francoise Mouly, an excellent and highly influential comics anthology titled Raw.

First published in 1980, Raw was an attempt on the part of its editors to get comics perceived as a “serious” art form. It appeared in a variety of formats, featured artists from all parts of the globe and showcased a number whose work revealed the influence of 20th Century art movements. Cubism, Minimalism, Dada, Abstract Expressionism, you name it and Raw had it.

The Cardboard Valise. (photo credit: Courtesy Ben Katchor)
The Cardboard Valise. (photo credit: Courtesy Ben Katchor)

Raw was as hip and cool as comics got. The works featured artists with strong graphic sensibilities and the stories were often edgy, philosophical and disturbing. Post-modernism had entered the world of comics and from here on in, comics would now be known as comix (sic); the moniker having first been applied to underground comics of the Sixties and was picked up on by Spiegelman and Mouly to describe avant-garde comics.

Only a few of Raw’s contributors were Jewish, but they were all significant. Ben Katchor, Kim Deitch and Drew Friedman have all done and continue to do unique and highly original work. The magazine ran for eleven issues and also published a series of books of individual artists work, titled Raw One-Shots.

Raw was significant in bringing a new aesthetic to the comics world, something akin to a high art meets punk sensibility. Themes taken up by its contributors such as the alienation of life in the modern city were later explored by artists such as Daniel Clowes in his eerie take on life in America’s middle-class suburbs. Clowes’ best known creation, “Ghost World,” was made into a film in 2001 starring Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi.

Despite new themes and drawing styles that had entered the comics realm there were still writers exploring traditional aspects of the medium, such as storytelling, in the vein of Will Eisner. One such writer was Harvey Pekar; for Pekar, drawing was obviously important as a way to illustrate his work, but the story was the thing.

Harvey Pekar's 'Cleveland' (photo credit: Top Shelf Productions)
Harvey Pekar’s ‘Cleveland’ (photo credit: Top Shelf Productions)

Born in 1939 in Cleveland, the son of Polish immigrants, Pekar began self-publishing his auto-biographical comic, “American Splendor,” in 1976. His stories chronicled the ups and down’ of his everyday life and featured a regular cast of characters from his workplace and neighborhood. Pekar worked as a file-clerk at a state hospital, a job he continued to hold even after the success, anything but immediate, of his comic, and despite several appearances on the Letterman show.

As a character in his own stories, Pekar was generally angst-ridden and would rail against the world. He kvetched, hustled and was always figuring the angles, right down to which line to take at the supermarket checkout — taking the wrong line might mean getting stuck behind an old Jewish lady who might bargain on prices. In his own words, “Life is a war of attrition. You have to stay active on all fronts.”

“American Splendor” resonated with readers. The downhome style, Pekar’s honesty and his empathy with the “common man” were all written in a highly literate and never sentimental manner. The grittiness of life and the attention to small moments and details were rendered in convincing and moving scenes in anything from one-page to full stories.

Pekar’s work left its mark on many comics artists today and autobiographical works proliferate, particularly among independent publishers. He died in 2010 and plans are afoot to erect a statue in his honor at a public library in his home city. A fitting tribute to the poet laureate of Cleveland Heights.

Comics have continued to grow and develop as an art form. As well as an increasing amount of good autobiographical work, there is also some stellar comics journalism being written and drawn, some of which has focused on Israel and the conflict.

Jews continue to make their presence felt in the comics world, although they are not quite as numerous as they once were. Artists and writers such as Eisner, Spiegelman, Pekar, et al had and have a view of comics as a form of fine art. These Jewish artists have proven that it is as legitimate a tool for storytelling as any of the traditional oral or written forms.

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