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From Superman To The Rabbi’s Cat:

Jewish Comics

The exhibition From Superman To The Rabbi’s Cat at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (MAHJ) in Paris ran from 17 October 2007 to 27 January 2008 before touring to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam between March 6th to mid-June 2008.

The melting pot of New York was abuzz around the dawn of the 20th century with the success of ‘The Funnies’. These circulation-boosting supplements came free with Sunday newspapers and were filled with larger-than-life comical pictures stories, billed as ‘eight pages of polychromatic effulgence’. What better reading material and entertainments to appeal to the diverse cultures and languages newly arrived in this expanding city than comics with their concise, simplified texts made easier still to understand thanks to the accompanying illustrated panels. As far as its American origins, writer and cartoonist Jules Feiffer observed, "[The medium] was lowbrow art, devised by immigrants, or the sons of immigrants, for the entertainment of immigrants." Jewish immigrants were among those who began contributing significantly to the innovations and successes in the mass-market cartoon arts which blossomed there, proliferating from weekly full-page broadsheets in colour to daily newspaper strips.

New York was home to the largest Jewish community in the world, but anti-semitism was rife and the field of newspaper strips, as well as advertising and illustration, tended not to hire Jews. At the lowest end of the creative industries, one new medium that opened up to them was the low-cost, lowbrow comic book, even if the publishers, many from the rag trade, brought with them the attitude that their artist employees were no more than piece-meal cutters churning out disposable product. Over the years, Jews became intimately involved in both the business and the contents of these ten-cent, four-colour novelties. DC and Marvel, today’s biggest comic book publishers, are just two of the companies founded during this period by Jewish entrepreneurs. Ever since, from magazines like MAD and the Sixties comix, underground counterculture comics for adults only, to today’s burgeoning field of graphic novels, or lengthy comics in book form, Jewish cartoonists, editors and publishers have played a key part. They have brought their own distinct perspectives to American comics and reflected more or less overtly their experiences of immigration and assimilation. After all, as the lifelong comics pioneer Will Eisner once put it, "A little Yiddishkeit never hurt."

The histories of these innovators, alongside some of their European peers, are explored in From Superman To The Rabbi’s Cat, a touring exhibition currently attracting huge audiences to the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (MAHJ) in Paris. Alongside this narrative, curator Anne Hélène Hoog sets out to show how these comic creators have reinterpreted the past and contributed to the construction of contemporary Jewish collective memory. Hoog’s choice of title for the show deliberately provokes by juxtaposing two very contrasting examples of comics separated by some seventy years, two continents and a world of difference in their creators’ fame, fortune and expressive freedom. On the one hand, most of the world came to know America’s musclebound iconic superhero first published in 1938, whereas, once their ten-year contract expired, his creators languished for years in obscurity and poverty. On the other, The Rabbi’s Cat is an ongoing series of best-selling hardback albums, rooted in Jewish traditions, which since 2002 have turned the prolific young Frenchman Joann Sfar into something of a Parisian media celebrity. With the translation of the first three episodes in one graphic novel in 2005, Sfar’s profile abroad is spreading. He won new admirers as a guest at this year’s Jewish Book Week and is directing an animated feature film adaptation which looks set to win him many more.

The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar

This may explain why for many visitors to the MAHJ exhibition, the idea that Superman, of all people, might be as Jewish as The Rabbi’s Cat comes as a surprise. It made a headline in Le Monde proclaiming "Superman, un héros juif". Whereas the Man of Steel is a gigantic global money-spinner, few know that his originators were two Jewish teenage boys named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. During the hot summer of 1934 in the booming Jewish centre of Cleveland, Ohio, these shy, bespectacled fans of science fiction channeled their adolescent fantasies of being powerful and popular with girls into the myth of a virile, impossibly invulnerable alien who disguises himself with a stoop and glasses as a mild, meek-mannered nerd like them. Superman is the ultimate orphan who can never go home again, the last survivor of an entire race which vanished when their planet Krypton exploded. Like many fresh arrivals at Ellis Island from Europe, he was a lone immigrant who has to reinvent himself to hide his otherwordly origins.

Some commentators such as Simcha Weinstein in his enlightening Up, Up & Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture, & Values Shaped The Comic Book Superhero have drawn parallels between the story of the baby Moses saved from slaughter by being sent away on the riverbanks in a floating basket to the infant Superman, spared from his homeworld’s destruction by his parents who fire him into space in a small rocketship. Weinstein proposes that this flight from fear and journey into the unknown would also resonate with the fate of the nearly 10,000 children who were rescued from Nazi Germany by the Kindertransport movement prior to World War II. Cultural historians have also pointed to Superman’s Kryptonian name, Kal-El, which resembles the Hebrew words for ‘vessel of God’.

Nevertheless, it seems that Siegel and Shuster did not conceive Superman as some Super-Jew. If anything they saw him as a Super-American, thoroughly naturalised by being raised in the midwest, America’s heartland, by kindly, childless couple Jonathan and Martha Kent. No wonder Superman comes stand for ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’. Jules Feiffer described him as "the smart Jewish boy’s American dream" but he was a dream of a great many more people. As Matt Goldish, associate professor of Jewish Studies at Ohio State University, pinpointed in his introduction to the 1999 exhibition Jewish Cartoonists & The American Experience, "Siegel and Shuster simply identify fully with American values. Superman represents the vision of American Jews who have assimilated successfully, to the point that their dreams for an American hero strike an identical chord with young people throughout the country." And with people throughout the world who aspired to those same values.

How Superman Would End The War
by Jerry Siegel & Joe Schuster

Early in their career, Siegel and Shuster became a success story celebrated in the press. For a feature on them in the weekly magazine Look dated February 27th 1940, long before America entered the fray, they created a special fifteen-panel adventure, highlighted in the MAHJ exhibit. They show "How Superman Would End The War", by destroying German fortifications on the Siegfried Line and bringing Hitler and Stalin to stand trial at the League of Nations. Perhaps via the German Embassy or German American Bund, this high-profile piece of super-powered fantasy reportedly came to the attention of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who declared angrily in a meeting that "Superman is Jewish!" Not long after, on April 25th 1940, the weekly S.S. newspaper Das schwarze Korps ran a whole page anonymous rant, probably written by Goebbels, under the title ‘Jerry Siegel greift ein!’ (‘Jerry Siegel Attacks!’), complete with a Star of David to ‘dot’ the ‘i’ in Siegel. Goebbels chooses to illustrate the article with only the first seven and the penultimate panels of the comic, left in English. Describing the story he purposefully avoids mentioning the Fuehrer’s cowardly pleas as the Man of Steel restrains himself from giving his captive "a strictly non-Aryan sock on your jaw". He also omits the League’s guilty judgement in the final panel on the charge of "unprovoked aggression against defenseless countries". Instead, Goebbels compares the "intellectually and physically circumcised" Siegel to "...a Colorado beetle", one who " in the dark, in incomprehensible ways" on American children. The German propagandist warns, "Instead of using the chance to encourage really useful virtues, [Siegel] sows hate, suspicion, evil, laziness and criminality in their young hearts."

Closer to home and a year later, another Jewish partnership in comic books, New Yorkers Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, faced anti-Semitic hostility on their doorstep, when their ultimate patriotic superhero, Captain America, garbed in the stars and stripes flag itself, finally gave Hitler that threatened sock to the jaw on their first issue’s front cover. Nearly a year before Pearl Harbour, not all Americans approved of their country entering the war in Europe. Hate mail and obscene phone calls poured into the Simon and Kirby studio and they finally reported these and the sinister types lurking outside to the cops. Then another call came in, from Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia himself. Simon recalls him saying, "You boys over there are doing a good job. The City of New York will see that no harm will come to you." From then on, round-the-clock police patrols kept them safe.

Although several of the most popular superheroes, from Batman in 1939 to The Fantastic Four in 1961, were the creations of Jews, many produced them under pen-names - Robert Kahn became Bob Kane, Jacob Kurtzberg became Jack Kirby, Stanley Lieber became Stan Lee - and they put little if any Jewish content into them. This is a far cry from contemporary American graphic novelist Ben Katchor who is overtly influenced by the Yiddish press, which his father read to him as a boy. So how truly Jewish is the superhero genre? In Katchor’s view, those Jews involved in the early comic book companies "...were intent upon embracing American popular culture. Their models were pulp magazines like Doc Savage and the newspaper strips of Alex Raymond [Flash Gordon] and Hal Foster [Prince Valiant]. They embraced the Grecian model of physical beauty without questioning it, American vigilanteism, a simplistic sense of good and evil, and a delight in the violent resolution of conflict - qualities not usually associated with Jews." Only in more recent years, with a certain sophistication of the superhero genre, has it been possible to confront characters’ previously unknown Jewish backgrounds. In 2002, for example, one member of The Fantastic Four, the orange, Golem-like rock monster The Thing, revealed his roots when he finally returned to a pawnbroker the Star of David necklace which he had stolen from him when he was the young Benjamin Jacob Grimm in the tough Yancy Street Gang. In another twist, the mutant villain Magneto in The X-Men turned out to be a concentration camp survivor.

To present clearer ethnic Jewish qualities and characters through the comics medium, the MAHJ exhibition turns to an older, little-known sector, New York’s Yiddish newspapers. These saw some of the first specifically Jewish characters to star in their own strips, such as Louis G. Miller and Shmuel Zagat’s somewhat primitive but locally beloved Gimpl Beynesh der shakhn (Gimpl-Beynesh the Matchmaker) which debuted in 1912 in Di varhayt. While these used the old-fashioned European approach of placing the text beneath the panels, Zuni Maud’s various strips in Forverts from 1915 to 1919 were more sophisticated in technique and subjects. In expert Ed Portnoy’s view, "Considering the limited number of photographs from the period, Maud’s cartoons often provide a unique visual perspective of the Lower East Side’s Jewish life."

Samuel Zagat’s Gimpl-Beynesch der shadkhn (1912)

Meawhile in the more widely read English-language press, the predominant ethnic group producing strips at the start of the 20th century was Irish. In 1915 powerful press baron William Randolph Hearst put his trusted deputy Moses Koenigsberg in charge of a revamped syndication company to provide strips and features with a consciously broad appeal to national and international papers. Hearst gave the business Koenigsberg’s name as King Features. By this time, in response to demeanjng Jewish stereotypes elsewhere in popular culture, cartoonist Harry Herschfield had sold his Abie the Agent to Hearst. Abraham ‘Abie’ Kabibble, a shrewd but good-hearted car salesman, was a comical but positive image of the acculturated Jewish immigrant: "Anyone that says ‘All is fair in love and war’ I don’t trust in business, eider!" A few other Jewish strip cartoonists joined Herschfield on the funny pages including Rube Goldberg, whose name went into the American dictionary for his absurdly elaborate contraptions, and Milt Gross, who wrote tenement conversations between Jewish mothers in hilarious phonetic dialect.

A survey by Hilory Wiggin in 1960 of the creators of American comic strips found that 10 per cent were Jewish, a larger proportion that the 3.24 per cent of Jews in the US population at the time, though probably still a minority compared to their presence and influence in the comic books. The MAHJ galleries spotlight such pivotal figures as Bernie Krigstein who uniquely visualised Master Race, Al Feldstein‘s landmark short story, the first to acknowledge fully the Holocaust in American comic books, and Harvey Kurtzman, whose irreverent demolition of the American dream in Mad warped a generation who would go on to unleash the underground comix of the Sixties and early Seventies. It was in here that cartoonists were finally liberated from publishers’ genre formulas, profit motives and censorship and empowered to express freely to their own age group their sexual, political and personal issues. The impact of these comix at home and abroad cannot be overestimated. Not only were they the first outlets for the autobiographical frankness of Art Spiegelman, telling in Maus how his father surived Auschwitz, and a wave of feminist artists like Trina Robbins, Aline Kominsky and Diane Noomin, they also directly inspired the veteran creator of moody masked man The Spirit, Will Eisner, approaching retirement in 1976, to embark on A Contract With God, the first in a long late career in graphic novels in which he could address his Jewish roots and his memories of growing up in the Bronx. Eisner and Spiegelman, in turn, stimulated still more Jewish storytellers to take up comics, resulting in the current flowering of remarkable graphic literature, examples of which range from Ben Katchor’s fanciful history lesson The Jew of New York and Joe Kubert’s alternative autobiography Yossel to We Are Not Alone, Miriam Katin’s compelling memoir of her childhood escape from Nazi persecution in Budapest.

The rebellious example of underground cartoonists taking control of their work ignited similar outbreaks in other countries, notably in France after the seismic cultural shift of May 1968. In his day, René Goscinny, the Jewish co-creator of the phenomenal Asterix and a former colleague of Harvey Kurtzman before Mad, had given many young guns their first breaks as editor of Pilote magazine. By 1972, however, he was the old guard, thwarting their ambitions to produce more experimental fare. So the rebels cut loose, founded their own magazines and ignited a very French revolution in bandes dessinées for adults. Only 36 and with over 100 books under his belt, Joann Sfar exemplifies the total creative fulfilment now possible in the medium in France, known there as ‘the Ninth Art’. Sfar is able to explore his family stories and Jewish heritage as the son of an Ashkenazi mother and Sephardic father, for example through the delightful world of a rabbi in Algiers whose cat starts to speak when it eats a parrot and decides to become a Jew. In Klezmer, Sfar, a keen player himself, imagines the travels and travails of a band of musicians wandering through pre-World War II Eastern Europe.

It has been a long road, from Superman and those before to The Rabbi’s Cat today, but this superbly realised, revelatory exhibition proves it has been a road well worth travelling and looking back on, and suggests that the way ahead is filled with still more wonders to come.

Posted: December 21, 2007

With thanks to Ilpo Lagerstedt for providing a photocopy of the Goebbels article. Exhibition photographs © L’Agence BD. The original version of this article appeared in 2007 in the pages of The Jewish Quarterly.


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Featured Books

The Rabbi’s Cat
by Joann Sfar

by Joann Sfar  

by Art Spiegelman

by Harvey Kurtzman
& others

A Contract With God
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by Joe Kubert

We Are On Our Own
by Miriam Katin

Up, Up & Oy Vey:
How Jewish History, Culture, & Values Shaped
The Comic Book Superhero

by Simcha Weinstein