Heroes, Freaks and Super-Rabbis – The Jewish Dimension of Comic Art

An exhibition of the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme in Paris and the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam in cooperation with the Jewish Museum Berlin.

Superman was the work of Jewish cartoonists—as were Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man and other superheroes of the era. Ever since the comic strip was invented in the immigrant neighborhoods of New York, Jewish artists have played a key role in developing the medium. The exhibition draws on the work of over forty artists to trace the history of Jewish illustrators, scriptwriters and publishers of comics throughout the twentieth century. It presents heroes and anti-heroes, hard-hitting opponents of Hitler, and neurotic petty bourgeois. With over 400 objects on display, it spans an arc from the first superhero comics of the 1930s and 1940s, through the underground scene of the 1960s, to the more challenging literary format of our time, the graphic novel. Veterans of the medium such as Rube Goldberg, Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman are represented along with contemporary artists such as Art Spiegelman, Rutu Modan, Joann Sfar and Ben Katchor by numerous original drawings, sketches, and comic books.

Early Comic Newspaper Strips – An Immigrant History from New York

The modern comic developed at the close of the nineteenth century in New York. Immigrants from all over the globe were pouring into the city, above all Irish, Germans, Italians and East European Jews. For these new arrivals, comics—which at the time comprised only 3 to 5 frames—were an entertaining way to learn about American culture. Since 1893 such comic strips had been published in color in newspapers’ Sunday supplements; as of 1912, they appeared on weekdays too, in black and white. Newspaper giants Joseph Pulitzer and William R. Hearst competed to attract the best illustrators, creating a lucrative market. Numerous immigrants—including Jewish artists such as Milt Gross and Harry Hershfield—drew comics for newspapers and played a key part in developing the medium. Some early comic figures have remained a vital part of America’s visual stockpile to this day.

The Anti-Nazi Comic Offensive

he birth of superheroes at the end of the 1930s is a reflection of Jewish cartoonists’ gradual integration in the life of metropolitan New York. The inventors of “Superman,” “Batman,” “Captain America,” and “The Spirit” were the sons of East European Jewish immigrants. They presented their flawless protagonists as paragon US-American patriots. Even before the USA entered World War II in December 1941, comic book superheroes were already successfully routing the Nazis and Japanese. Their popularity lasted only until the end of the war.

A New Generation of Jewish Superheroes

In the early 1960s Jewish illustrators and authors created a new generation of superheroes, featuring characters such as Hulk,” the “X-Men,” or “Fantastic Four.” Here, for the first time, one finds characters that play on specifically Jewish stories such as the Golem legend, but it is only in the 1970s that characters acquire an explicitly Jewish biography.

Shock, Horror and the Comics Code

As of 1950 the New York company Entertainment Comics (more commonly known as EC), grew under the direction of William (Bill) Gaines to become one of the era’s biggest comic book publishers. Gaines and most of his staff had a Jewish immigrant background. They invented the shock and horror comic genre in order to reflect the racism, anti-Semitism, and violence rife in American society.
Introduction of the censorial Comics Codes in 1954 put an abrupt end to the genre, and catapulted EC to the brink of ruin. Alone its satirical “MAD” magazine evaded censorship. This one magazine managed to keep the company afloat however, thanks to its parodies of media circles in America.

Sex, Drugs and Autobiographies

The underground comic scene of the late 1960s developed not in New York but in San Francisco. It was a part of the hippie movement that had erupted in search of free lifestyles and a boundless experience of self. Drug-induced hallucinations and sexual obsessions found their way into illustrated narratives known as “comix,” in distinction from their more commercially oriented counterparts. In the 1970s cartoonists such as Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Diane Noomin launched a new line of parody, which gave expression both to resolutely female and Jewish perspectives. In this same period, Art Spiegelman began to develop longer comic strips about psychic crisis and traumatic events.

Jewish Perspectives on History, Tradition and the Present

In 1978 Will Eisner published what is probably his most famous illustrated narrative, “A Contract With God.” To dissociate his work from commercial comic books, Eisner described it as a graphic novel. It portrays the life of a Jewish immigrant in New York, particularly his uneasy relationship with God. A second major graphic novel to rise to fame also addresses a Jewish fate. Art Spiegelman deals in “Maus with his father’s history of persecution and survival under the NS regime. Jewish history and traditions have since come to rank among the permanent arsenal of themes pursued and inscribed in the canon of comic book literature by authors such as Ben Katchor, Rutu Modan, Joann Sfar or James Sturm.

A warm up for the exhibition hosted by the Jewish Museum Berlin can be seen here in this small web comic.

For further reading here an interview with Art Spiegelman.

Heroes, Freaks and Super Rabbis

30 April—8 August 2010. Opening: 29 April 2010 at 7 p.m.
Jewish Museum Berlin, Old Building, Level 1, Berlin, Germany



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