How Jews Transformed The Comic Book Industry, Part III: The Bronze Age (1979 - )

Arie Kaplan

Ever since the late 1970s, comics have turned more introspective and artistically ambitious. As in the Golden and Silver Ages, Jewish comics creators have been at the cutting edge, producing works that probe Jewish history, showcase Jewish characters, and comment on spiritual and social issues. These artists have ushered in what may be termed "the Bronze Age" of comics--not because it's less esteemed than the Golden or Silver Ages, but because it is free of rose-colored gloss and glitter, and reflects the realities of the world in which we live.

From Comix to Graphics

"What I wanted to make was something I'd thought about as a result of reading '60s fanzines...the Great American Novel, but in comics form."

--Art Spiegelman, on the inspiration for Maus

By the late '70s, underground comics were history, and superhero titles once again dominated the genre. Frustrated by the lack of outlets for political graphics and comics, cartoonists Peter Kuper and Seth Tobocman introduced World War 3 Illustrated (1979), a self-published magazine committed to the pursuit of social justice through comics. "My parents had marched against the Vietnam War in the early '60s," says Kuper, "so for me as a cartoonist, social commentary was a natural transition." Along with newer comic book companies like Fantagraphics Books, First Comics, Pacific Comics, and Dark Horse Publishing, World War 3 Illustrated formed the vanguard of what would come to be known as "independent comics" or the "alternative comics press." Dozens of independent publishers sprang up, some debuting works by neophytes such as Dave Sim, creator of Cerebus; others featuring the work of established Jewish comics pros like Jack Kirby--who in 1981, for the first time in his career, could create a character, Captain Victory (published by Pacific Comics), that was his alone, and not the property of Marvel or DC.

In 1980, Art Spiegelman and his wife Françoise Mouly would take the comics magazine genre to a new height. Their brainchild, RAW, a self-described "graphix" magazine (the label "comix" was then associated with drugs and sex), sought to blur the distinction between comics and fine art. In one issue, readers were instructed to peel away an acetate layer of line art on the cover to uncover layers of color underneath; and on another now highly collectible issue subtitled "The Torn Again Graphix Magazine," the top right corner of every cover was torn off by hand and clipped to the page, so that each copy would be unique, in essence an original work of art. Adding to the magazine's "high art" image was the inclusion of works by several European cartoonists (Joost Swarte of the Netherlands and Jacques Tardi of France) as well as edgy artwork from political cartoonist Sue Coe, retro stylist Charles Burns, and "King of Punk Art" painter Gary Panter. Established underground cartoonists such as Robert Crumb still made the occasional appearance, but the spotlight was on newer talent, including Jewish artists Drew Friedman, Ben Katchor, and Mark Newgarden. Typical of RAW's sharp-edged social criticism was Friedman's parody of "The Andy Griffith Show," which depicted how an African American motorist might have been treated had he driven through a real southern town in the 1950s, not the gentle, sanitized "Mayberry" depicted on TV.

RAW was an instant success. The initial print run of 5,000 copies sold out, and sales ballooned to 35,000 copies by 1987 with issue #8--an impressive record for a small-press magazine with virtually no advertising or PR budget, relying solely on word of mouth to boost sales. Well received in art and graphics circles, RAW took non-mainstream comics to a new level of artistic respectability. Eschewing the overwhelmingly political bent of World War 3 Illustrated, RAW championed personal artistic expression and inspired the creation of several critically respected comics anthology magazines, including Monte Beauchamp's Blab! and Dark Horse's Cheval Noir.

Perhaps Spiegelman's greatest achievement in RAW was publishing his refined and reworked version of "Maus," first conceived as a three-page comic strip and printed in a 1972 issue of the underground comic book Funny Aminals (misspelling intentional). Spiegelman utilized the cartooning convention of anthropomorphized animals--mice symbolizing Jews, pigs as Poles, dogs as Americans, and cats as Nazis--in telling the story of his father's Holocaust experience. "In doing that three-page strip," Spiegelman recalls, "I realized that I had a lot of unfinished business. There was much more here that I could tap into." So, starting in 1978, Spiegelman began interviewing his father Vladek, and, over the next three years, he had collected enough material to write and illustrate the story of his father's survival and its impact on his own psyche.

Working on "Maus" became a way for Spiegelman to confront his own demons. "I was interested to learn [from studies of survivors' children] that some of these children put themselves in extreme situations, like mental hospitals, to experience what their parents went through," he explained in a 1987 Reform Judaism magazine interview. "I was hospitalized in 1968, and even at the time I was aware of moving through my incarceration in ways that I felt echoed my father's experiences. It was safer to be in a state mental hospital than at Auschwitz, but nevertheless I mimicked him, collecting scraps of string, for instance, in case they would come in handy later. Drawing 'Maus' is a far more effective way of recapitulating what I need to recapitulate in order to understand my situation." And "at a certain point," Spiegelman recalls, "I went to see a therapist who had been a Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz. He helped me get past some [mental] blocks into [proceeding with] the volume."

After serializing "Maus, Volume I" in RAW, Spiegelman began looking for a publisher, a several-year quest that led to dozens of rejection letters--until, finally, Pantheon made him an unusual offer: the publisher agreed to proceed only if the completed work came out that very year. It was a curious demand, Spiegelman thought, as he had only completed the first half of the book, and that portion had taken eight years. Then he learned that an article had appeared in The New York Times Book Review which, he says, "talked about this work in progress in comics form that was the important literary achievement of our age"--astonishing coverage given the fact that "the Times Book Review never covered works in progress and certainly never comics-related material." Spiegelman would have been happy waiting until he'd finished the whole saga and collected it into one big book, but then he heard about a certain animated movie that was already in development. "I was very upset to learn about what would become An American Tale, which I'm quite sure was inspired by 'Maus,'" Spiegelman says. "I didn't want to have my book come out after some giant Spielberg-produced, feature-length animation; I didn't want to be perceived as a twisted version of Spielberg's more delightful and innocent use of mice as Jews. And so I really wanted my book to come out before this film was finished. The only way to do it would be to publish part one immediately, rather than wait till I'd finished part two, which would have been years more. At first Pantheon said, 'Forget it,' but once requests for the book started coming in as a result of the Times Book Review piece, they said yes, and then quickly put it out."

Maus's success would forever change how the world of arts and letters viewed comic books. The serious novel-length adult comic book had been attempted with varying degrees of success ever since 1978, when Will Eisner had invented the genre with his graphic novel A Contract With God. However, these works had rarely made it into chain bookstores such as Barnes and Noble; nor had any been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, as had Maus in 1992, the year after part two was published. It was the coming of age of an art form, a fact noted in U.S. News and World Report: "Remember the comic books of your youth? They've grown up.... And that's not all. The comics are also winning more respect. Literary honors, respectful reviews, museum exhibits--and even academic attention."

Maus's success would secure for graphic novels a niche in bookstores nationwide. " Maus saved non-superhero comics," says legendary feminist cartoonist and comics historian Trina Robbins (GoGirl!, Wonder Woman). Adds veteran comic book writer/editor Paul Kupperberg (Checkmate, Doom Patrol): "Suddenly comics didn't have to be guys in superhero costumes. They could be about real people, or mice pretending to be real people. It opened up the genre." Maus demonstrated what underground cartoonists like Spiegelman, Diane Noomin, and Harvey Pekar had known for decades--that autobiographical comics about everyday people were not only an art form, but one which could strike a chord with the American public.

A Comic Approach to History

"I leaned on the suitcase and my pencil danced across the yellow, creased paper. At first, I thought of my cartoon heroes. Flash Gordon. Tarzan. Jungle Jim. The Phantom. Strong and powerful. They could beat the Nazis. They could take us from this awful place."

--from Yossel: April 19, 1943 by Joe Kubert

Once graphic novels were proven a natural medium for exploring intimate, personal issues in a serious manner, Jewish comics creators increasingly utilized the format to explore Jewish history and identity. In 1986, Will Eisner published The Dreamer, a semi-autobiographical account of his early days in comics' Golden Age, peopled with characters based on his fellow cartoonists, among them Batman's creator Bob Kane ("Ken Corn"), Eisner's former partner Jerry Iger ("Jimmy Samson"), and "Billy Eyron" as Eisner himself. In his most recent graphic novel, Fagin the Jew (2003), Eisner tells the tale of Oliver Twist from the vantage point of Moses Fagin, the leader of a band of thieves in 19th-century England. "Charles Dickens contributed to the stereotyping of Jews," says Eisner. "He referred to Fagin as 'The Jew' throughout [early editions of] the book. I take exception to that." In truth, he asserts in the book's Afterword, "[Dickens] never intended to defame the Jewish people...but he abetted the prejudice against them. Oliver Twist became a staple of juvenile literature, and the stereotype was perpetuated.

"Over the years, while teaching sequential art, my lectures invariably had to confront the issues of stereotype," Eisner writes. "I concluded that there was bad stereotype and good stereotype: intention was the key. Since stereotyping is an essential tool in the language of graphic storytelling, it is incumbent on cartoonists to recognize its impact on social judgment. The memory of their awful use by the Nazis in World War II one hundred years later added evidence to the persistence of evil stereotyping. Combating it became an obsessive pursuit, and I realized that I had no choice but to undertake a truer portrait of Fagin by telling his life story in the only way I could."

Determined to humanize Fagin, Eisner crafted a backstory for the character, chronicling how a sweet child whose father is killed by antisemitic hoodlums becomes increasingly hardened as he is victimized because of his Jewish and lower-class origins. ("I am Fagin, a member of a dispersed but noble breed!" the protagonist proclaims. "Jews who are often forced by circumstance to survive in the foul frowsy dens and squalid misery of midnight London are not thieves by choice!"). Along the way, Eisner touches on issues of assimilation (Mr. Isaac D'Israeli, a leader of England's Sephardic community, decides to have his children baptized because "as a gentile, my son Benjamin could one day become Prime Minister!") and Jewish pride (young Fagin watches the great Jewish boxer Daniel Mendoza defeat Joe Ward and hears his father exclaim, "Thank God!! Now all England will know that Jews can fight back!"). Eisner also portrays Fagin, hardened criminal that he is, as somehow still retaining the Jewish values and traditions he learned as a child: at the very end of his life, knowing he will soon be hanged before a cheering mob for a crime he did not commit, Fagin reveals to Oliver the secret location of a long-buried locket, knowing that its contents will forever change the boy's life. Kneeling in prayer on a hard pavement, he recites "Shema Yisroel Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echod," and proclaims to Oliver: "I give you a future."

The cartoonist Joe Kubert (Ragman, Sgt. Rock) also confronted antisemitism in his recent graphic novel Yossel: April 19, 1943, a fictional portrayal of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. As the story unfolds, young Yossel dreams of becoming a comic book artist, but his life unravels when his parents are deported to a concentration camp and he is confined to the ghetto. Tens of thousands of Jews within the ghetto walls are killed, yet Yossel survives because he is able to amuse Nazi soldiers with his cartoon renderings of Nazi superheroes. Eventually Yossel meets up with ghetto resistance leader Mordecai (modeled on Mordecai Anielewicz) and the two learn the horrible truth about the destination of those who are deported daily from the ghetto. They relay the news to the Jewish Council, but are dismayed by its conciliatory response: "We cannot afford to antagonize them"; "we must be patient...put our trust in God." Mordecai later proclaims: "We will not give up. We can fight. We can kill some of them. We can die like human beings."

Kubert, now a 78-year-old comic book legend and founder of the only accredited school devoted solely to the art of cartoon graphics, believes that Yossel's fate could have been his own had his family not left Poland for America in 1926, when he was only two months old. "The basis of the story," he says, "is what would have happened had my parents decided not to come to the United States, but to stay in Europe. This is my 'what-if?' story, what my life would have been" as a young cartoonist in the Warsaw Ghetto, as opposed to "a 13-year-old who in 1939 was already doing professional cartooning in the United States." Compared to most comic books and graphic novels, in which the pencil drawings are inked, the pencil drawings in Yossel are laid bare with no ink overlay, so that the audience can absorb the raw power of the pencil sketches, and thus the raw power of the events unfolding before them. Explains Kubert: "It is as if I were doing the sketches in the ghetto the whole time."

Jewish comics writer Judd Winick--who received a Pulitzer nomination for the graphic novel Pedro and Me (the story of his friendship with the late Pedro Zamora, a former roommate on MTV's The Real World who died of AIDS)--also draws from history in his series, Caper, a fictionalized twelve-issue series comprised of three interlocking stories chronicling the Weiss crime family from the turn of the 20th century to the present day. In each story, a different member of the Weiss family is trying to complete a "caper" of sorts, involving a murder, hence the series' title. In the first story, "Market Street," Jacob (smart and reasonable) and Izzy (a mad-dog killer) are serving as "Toppers" for "Boss" Josef Cohen, a stern yet paternal figure who takes them into his enclave after their father, a smalltime lender, is murdered. Boss owns a big chunk of the city (as the boys explain, "Our job is mostly to hurt people who forget that"), but that doesn't stop him from putting on the trappings of being a committed Jew who chastises Jacob and Izzy for not measuring up ("You're late, boys. Bad enough that you missed shul, but you show up late for the reception of my boy's bar mitzvah. And underdressed. I pay you gentlemen enough, I'd expect you could shop at a better haberdashery"). With the passage of time, Jacob and Izzy begin to realize that Boss is manipulating them and nearly everyone else in town--and they devise a caper to stop the man who has long served as their surrogate father. "In the story there are no good guys," Winick points out; "even the protagonists aren't good guys, and for them Judaism is more their culture than their religion. And the man who is supposedly the most pious man in the community [Boss Cohen] is the worst one by far! When you look at [stories about] the Italian mafia, these are the men who are supposedly good Catholics. How often do we get to portray Jews in these stories? I don't mean in a good or bad way. When we see Jews in gangster stories, they're always miserly, they're always accountants, they're diamond merchants, lawyers. But in this case, they're the gangsters, and they don't discuss what it is to be a Jew; it's just who they are." Like Eisner's portrayal of Fagin, Winick explores the effects of poverty and prejudice upon Jews who have come to the misguided conclusion that crime is the only viable path to financial and emotional survival. But as Winick points out, "This is not [a story] about redemption; it's about revenge."

Postmodern Jewish Comics Icons

"They're all Jewish, superheroes. Superman, you don't think he's Jewish? Coming over from the old country, changing his name like that. Clark Kent, only a Jew would pick a name like that for himself."

--From The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

What was in the '70s a trickle of openly Jewish superheroes (such as Chris Claremont's X-Men character Shadowcat, aka Kitty Pryde; and Paul Kupperberg's Supergirl villain Blackstarr, aka Rachel Berkowitz) became a flood in the '80s.

Among this new generation of explicitly Jewish characters was Reuben Flagg, the protagonist of artist/writer Howard Chaykin's American Flagg (originally published by First Comics), a futuristic story centered around Flagg's mission as deputy of the Chicago branch of a law enforcement unit known as the Plexus Rangers. It is 2031, and America's politicians and corporate elite have resettled in various quadrants of outer space, leaving American cities to the mercy of vicious warlords. A former television actor, Flagg has lost his job as an adult film actor because he is deemed an "undesirable bohemian" with leftist political views; American viewers don't realize he's been replaced by a hologram. Down on his luck, he joins the Plexus Rangers, where he is respected, even revered. Chaykin's message in American Flagg is that we must guard against Nazi-style totalitarianism, which can strike at any time. He also makes a personal statement in giving his protagonist a Jewish identity. "I'm no longer afraid, ashamed, or uninterested enough in my personal background to keep it out of the work," Chaykin has stated. "I'm no longer a Jew masquerading as a gentile through comics."

Meanwhile, at DC Comics, publisher and writer Paul Levitz decided to fashion a Jewish genealogy for the company's 30th-century superhero Colossal Boy, who in Legion of Superheroes grows to a gigantic size in order to fend off evil. Knowing that Colossal Boy's real name is Gim Allon, a name that reminded him of former Israeli Cabinet member Yigal Allon, Levitz decided to expand Colossal Boy's backstory by making the outsized hero a Jew--and in so doing, Colossal Boy's mother Marthe Allon, the president of Earth, became Jewish as well. "That's how you know it's science fiction!" laughs Paul Kupperberg. Levitz also used the series to comment on the issue of interfaith relationships. In "Guess What's Coming to Dinner" (issue #308, February '84), Gim Allon introduces his alien wife Yera--an orange-skinned beauty from the planet Durla--to his parents (they'd secretly married a few issues earlier). After the young couple leaves, Marthe turns to her husband and quips, "Now, I wonder if I can find a way to convince them to bring their kids up Jewish?"--Levitz's way of saying that interfaith relationships will still be an issue in the Jewish community a thousand years from now.

In the '90s, even Superman got into the Jewish act. Comics artist/writer Jon Bogdanove (Man of Steel, Alpha Flight) joined writer Louise Simonson (Power Pack) in crafting a three-part story in the Superman title Man of Steel (issues #80-82, 1998) in which the superhero becomes a Golem who defends the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. Two of the ghetto children, Moishe and Baruch--reminiscent of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster--are mysteriously compelled to draw pictures (Baruch) and tell stories (Moishe) about an "angel" who "would save us"--an angel the Nazis fearfully refer to as a Golem and who looks like a certain Man of Steel. The story serves as a dynamic "what-if?"--what if Superman, a character not coincidentally created in 1938, had actually existed to combat Hitler? What if we'd truly had a Golem of our own?

Explicit Jewish references in mainstream comics are now the norm. In 1988, for example, the Jewish comics writer and British journalist Neil Gaiman created a new, third version of the DC character Sandman, who now took the form of the Lord of Dreams, ruling "The Land of Nod, in the East of [the biblical] Eden." Working Jewish themes into Sandman's storylines, Gaiman describes in one episode how a depressed Dream (short for Lord of Dreams) follows around his chipper sister Death (derived from the kabbalistic notion that the Angel of Death is female) as she goes about her daily chore of collecting departed souls. At one point the macabre siblings visit Harry, an old Jewish man on his deathbed. Harry begs Death not to take his soul before he can recite the Shema; she grants his final wish. The Shema also figures into a Fantastic Four story by Jewish comics writer Peter David (The Incredible Hulk, TV's Babylon 5), who revealed two years ago that The Thing, aka Benjamin Jacob Grimm, is Jewish. In the story, Grimm returns to his childhood neighborhood on the Lower East Side, and mistakenly believing his old friend Mr. Sheckerberg has been fatally wounded by the villain Powderkeg, he recites the Shema on Sheckerberg's behalf. "I always thought Ben Grimm had to be Jewish anyway, because he was Jack's alter ego," Kupperberg says about The Thing's co-creator Jack Kirby. "But when these characters were first created, antisemitism was so prevalent, even in an industry run by Jews. We finally reached a time when you stopped hiding being a Jew." Trina Robbins, co-creator of the comics series GoGirl! (a title for young girls about the heroic exploits of Jewish teenager Lindsay Goldman, aka superhero GoGirl), agrees: "When you don't make a big deal about your character being Jewish, that's real equality."

The emergence of Jewish characters in comic books has mirrored American Jewry's own struggle for acceptance in a non-Jewish world. In the Golden Age, writers, cartoonists, and editors intent on creating simple children's entertainment hid subtle Jewish metaphors behind assimilated archetypes. In the Silver Age, Jewish comics creators courted a high school and college-level crowd with tales of both metaphoric mutant "outsiders" and underground comix with occasional Jewish narratives. Now, in the Bronze Age, Jewish comics creators have transformed an industry once marketed to young boys into a well-respected art form that graces the walls of prestigious museums; wins coveted literary prizes; and influences mainstream movies (George Lucas's Star Wars sextet and the Wachowski brothers' Matrix trilogy); best-selling books (Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Jonathan Lethem's recent Fortress of Solitude); and fine artists (Roy Lichtenstein and Phillip Guston's comic book iconography). Jews who pioneered this art form, often for little material reward, are superheroes in their own right, for they have created enduring icons of popular culture known around the globe--and, perhaps, beyond.