How Jews Created the Four Color Fantasies
If Jews Created Comics, Are Comics, Then, Jewish?
With Joe Kubert's book, Yossel, about the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943—as with Art Spiegelman's Maus about the Holocaust and Will Eisner's Fagin the Jew about anti-Semitism (not to mention his watershed A Contract with God and his other graphic novels about Jewish life in the Bronx)—we come again, in a poetic manner of speaking, full-circle, to the Jewish presence in comics—specifically, in the creation of the comic book medium itself. A preponderance of the pace-setting persons whose names dot the landscape of the early history of comics are Jews, a fact that has recently exercised several commentators (among them, Arie Kaplan, in a three-part article in Reform Judaism, Fall 2003, “How the Jews Created the Comic Book Industry”). A reasonable question immediately arises: Why were so many comic book creators and pioneers Jewish?
One theory is that because anti-Semitism in the early decades of the century closed so many avenues of access to the mainstreet of American life, Jews got into comics because it was not yet an established industry and hadn’t, therefore, shut it doors to Jews. Kaplan quotes Mad cartoonist Al Jaffee: “We couldn’t get into newspaper strips or advertising—ad agencies wouldn’t hire a Jew ... [but] comic book publishers were Jewish.”
Much the same reasoning explains why so many of the founders of Hollywood studios were Jews, as convincingly explained by Neal Gabler in An Empire of Their Own. I submit, however, that there are other, tangential, reasons for the Jewish presence among comic book pioneers—part geographic, part demographic, and part ethnic.
The pulp magazine publishing business, in which comic books were born, was located chiefly in New York in those formative years; and New York, including its boroughs, had significant enclaves of Jewish population— mostly in neighborhoods that many Jews wanted to get out of, particularly if they were young and second generation. Proximity created opportunity—as it did for, say, Irving Berlin. It's unlikely that Irving Berlin would have become a professional song-writer if he’d grown up in a suburb of Denver rather than in New York’s lower east side, close to Tin Pan Alley.
What's more, Jewish culture probably encouraged taking advantage of the opportunity. I can’t speak with the authority of first-hand experience about Jewish culture, but from what I have gleaned from over sixty years of observing the comings and goings of the human sapiens (sic), it seems to me that immigrant Jewish culture in the years we are considering always valued art and artists, so children with ability in art or music were encouraged to follow their talents as careers (or to find or invent careers for their talents) instead of being discouraged in favor of some less intellectual or aesthetic undertaking. That encouragement might lead a kid with drawing skills into the only commercial outlet then readily open to him—namely, as Jaffee said, comic books. And we have a vivid enactment of precisely this phenomenon among the pioneers themselves: Sheldon Mayer, in both life and art, embodied the tradition.
As Max Gaines’ teenage editor, he drew a comic strip for his boss’s comic books called “Scribbly.” It was about a wildeyed, spectacled youth who wanted to be a professional cartoonist. Not only that, but in the world of Mayer’s stories, Scribbly, like Mayer himself, was a professional cartoonist: as a mere teenager, he was working on the local newspaper as a cartoonist. He thus personified both youthful artistic yearning and its realization in adult terms.
There are claims of overt evidences in comic books of embedded Jewish culture. “We are people of the Book,” Eisner observed, implying a somewhat broader interpretation of that expression than Mohammed intended. “We are storytellers, essentially, and anyone who’s exposed to Jewish culture, I think, walks away for the rest of his life with an instinct for telling stories.” Even more specifically, some critics see in Shuster and Siegel’s Superman an incarnation of the golem, the legendary super-powered creature conceived by a medieval rabbi in Prague as a protector of the community against anti-Semitic enemies.
The risk in such extrapolations is that we read too deeply into the material and find evidences of influences that never explicitly existed. I suspect, for instance, that all cultures have storytelling traditions at least as lively as the Jewish tradition. If not all cultures, at least most of them. Storytelling is a human trait, not just a Jewish one.
As for the golem, much referred to in the years following Michael Chabon's use of the myth in his Pulitzer-winning novel about the early days of comic book manufacture, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I submit that the human psyche is sufficient of itself to spawn the creation of superheroic figures without recourse to Jewish legends in antique Europe. Early comic book readers everywhere, mostly adolescents (then and in subsequent generations, the chief audience for the medium), feel enough put-upon by their parents and other authority figures to fantasize about superpowers and a heroic status that would make them immune from adult oppression.
And teenage frustrations inspire more than mere power fantasies. When Jerry Siegel concocted a dual personality for his super-powered hero, he was, again, indulging an adolescent fantasy. "As a highschool student ... I had crushes on several attractive girls who either didn't know I existed or didn't care I existed. [But] what if I had something special going for me, like jumping over buildings or throwing cars around or something like that? Then maybe they would notice me."
The creators of Superman scarcely needed the ancient golem for inspiration. Ordinary human nature is enough. But that doesn't stop us from speculating about Jewish presence in comics.
Chabon, commenting in Newsweek (June 28, 2004) on the guilt-ridden personality of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, said: "I don't think there's another comic book superhero that's as completely driven by trying to pay some debt, a debt that can't be paid, as Spider-Man is. For years people have speculated that Peter was sort of crypto-Jewish," he continued, citing Peter's living with Uncle Ben and Aunt May in Queens (Chabon's italics). Peter Parker's neighborhood aside, Freud might have found an explanation for Spider-Man's guilt in the universal human unconscious, particularly in Peter's case since he was indirectly responsible for the death of Uncle Ben, his father-figure, enacting thereby the wish of the Oedipal complex. And if killing your father won't fill you with guilt, what will? But it's not a specifically Jewish motivation any more than the Oedipus complex is Greek.
The Jewish heritage in comic books does not seem to me to be particularly distinct or obvious. Nor is it, apparently, intentional, even if it is actually there. In the summer of 2002, the current custodians of Marvel Comics revealed that the Hulk, one of the heroes invented by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, both Jews, is Jewish. Lee, now chairman emeritus of Marvel and no longer associated directly with the production of comic books, was tracked down by an inquisitive NPR reporter, Brooke Gladstone, who confronted him with the news. Lee sounded both flattered and flustered. “You know, I didn’t intend for him to be Jewish,” he laughed. “I never thought for a minute what the characters’ religions were.”
But the artist is often not the best witness on behalf of his art. He may not know, explicitly, what he's up to. I doubt, for example, that those early movie moguls realized how profoundly their Jewish aspirations were shaping America. According to Gabler, the America they portrayed in their films was the America they dreamed of belonging to. But it was not the actual America. It was, however, so compelling a portrait, so vivid an impersonation, that all movie-goers, all Americans, bought into it, and it became "the American Dream" for us all, not just first generation Jews seeking to assimilate. "What the Hollywood Jews left us," Gabler writes, "is something powerful and mysterious. What remains is a spell, a landscape of the mind, a constellation of values, attitudes, and images, a history and a mythology that is part of our culture and our consciousness. What remains is the America of our imaginations and theirs. Out of their desperation and their dreams, they gave us this America."
Comics can scarcely aspire to an influence similarly rooted in Jewish culture, but perhaps no one is suggesting that. Perhaps the influence of Jewish culture on comics and of comics on the American psyche is much less profound, much less pervasive, than that of the Hollywood Jews. Maybe without realizing it, Lee and Kirby reproduced in the squabbling Fantastic Four some long forgotten but internalized reminiscence of a radio program about a Jewish family that they must have heard while young: just as with Molly Goldberg and her brood, the familial bickering among the Fantastic Four was endemic and heated but the affection and regard that bound the participants together was the dominant fact of the relationship.
Was that the influence of Jewish culture? Or simply of eastern European immigrant culture? Or neither? Regardless, the most fondly recalled of the haunting influences of Jewish culture that can be detected in comic books remains, for me, Scribbly’s world, one in which the artistic aspirations of the young are given so much credence as to result in their being accepted, without quibble, into the professional world of adults. Moreover, in Scribbly we may have the emblem for the very development and maturation of the artform of the comics.
In the ensuing years, the Jewish cultural influence became obvious, its infusion into the medium sometimes conscious and deliberate. As Kaplan explains, Chris Claremont, a Jewish immigrant from England, revitalized Marvel's X-Men in the mid-1970s and made the connection explicit. The X-Men are superheroes because they were born with a "mutant gene" that gave them each different superpowers. They are "mutants," different from other human beings, and they are persecuted precisely because they are different. At their conception in 1963, they could have represented Jews as "outsiders" although it's my guess that they were more in step with another kind of persecution prevalent at the time: the civil rights movement was gaining momentum in those days, and the X-Men's "difference" could have been a metaphor for racial difference. And let us not forget the classical teenage psycho-drama with teenagers perpetually the "outsiders," the perennially persecuted (by their parents and all authority figures).
Then came Claremont. When he took up the writing task, he needed, as a writer, to find motivation for his characters and their stories. He remembered asking himself: "What would tie in the super-concept of the X-Men as persecuted outcasts?" His answer: "It has to be the Holocaust."
For Claremont, the emotional touchstone, the source of his creative energy, was the 20th century history of the European Jew. He even introduced a Jewish character, Kitty Pryde, whose appearance and, to some extent, demeanor were inspired by a girl Claremont had seen during the time he'd spent on a kibbutz in Israel.
As the years had ticked by, the need felt by most first- and second-generation Jews to assimilate into the prevailing culture began to wane in their children. It was no longer as important as it once seemed to deny, figuratively—even actually—one's Jewish heritage in order to be accepted (or to avoid persecution). By the time Howard Chaykin created Reuben Flagg in 1983, he could make the character explicitly Jewish, perhaps the first time for the title character of a comic book. Said Chaykin: "I'm no longer afraid, ashamed, or uninterested enough in my personal background to keep it out of the work. I'm no longer a Jew masquerading as a gentile through comics."
Comics created over the next twenty years became more and more introspective and artistically ambitious, and the issues in Jewish history and culture could be faced directly, not metaphorically, just as the issues in all ethnicities could be encountered. Jews have a huge role in the creation of the medium from the very beginning, but in my view, their influence at the beginning was as artists and creative personalities, not as Jews. Their Jewish heritage influenced them, surely, and therefore influenced what they created and how they created it. But the driving force in their work was probably their common humanity rather than their Jewish heritage. Comics are not a Jewish phenomenon, as denominating Superman a golem seems to imply. Superman was not so much golem as he was the enactment of an adolescent daydream. But for those of us who love the medium, we're lucky comics got started in New York where there were communities of Jews whose traditions of artistic enterprise nurtured the infant artform—just as surely as Max Gaines nurtured the talent he saw in Shelly Mayer and Mayer, in turn, manifested it in Scribbly, making his young protagonist an energetic participant in the entrpreneurial world around him.
Footnit: An earlier version of this essay appeared in Comic Book Marketplace, No. 116.