Monday, April 14, 2008

David Kaufmann and the early comics: how Jewish are they really?

When is it more interesting to read a review of what isn’t there than what is? David Kaufmann wrote an Arts and Culture Column in the Jewish Forward in review of both Danny Fingeroth’s and David Hajdu new books on comics (Disguised as Clark Kent and The Ten Cent Plague respectively), focusing on the appropriate “jewishness” of the early comics and their creators.

Now, what has always struck me as interesting is how much of the New York sensibility was transferred in those early comics. They were, after all, produced in the urban areas with the publisher there in Manhattan, and reflected the particular energy of those who grew up there, or those who had moved there, looking for jobs and opportunities. But the creators were making the effort to invent language and storytelling on the fly in a effort to make a buck and put food on the table that week, kosher or not. Lets face it, the early comic book history is an immigrant one, perhaps one that only happened to be jewish, but didn’t need to be jewish for it to exist.

Fingeroth, a former editor at Marvel, draws direct parallels between some of the early heroes and biblical jewish heroes, and really over-reaches with the parallels. David Kaufmann, in his review, also has to do more stretching than should be necessary to “find” the jewishness of those early issues of More Fun, Action, and Detective. I would posit that he should have been writing from this point of view: why, given the creators ethnicity, is there such a lack of “jewishness” in those comics?

As anyone who has read any of the history books that relate to the early years of the comic book field (Tales to Astonish, Kirby: A Life in Comics, Meanwhile…, Steranko’s History of Comics, Cavalier and Klay), there was no money anywhere, and the business was rife with a number of shady and dishonest characters. The jews that have given us multiple lifetimes of reading pleasure with their creations: Siegel, Shuster, Kirby, Eisner, Kane, Simon as well as so many others, were true children of the American dream: work hard, follow your dreams, and you can get ahead in America. In this fledgling industry, Jacob Katzburg knew that a kid in Omaha didn’t want to read about Myron Abromowitz becoming a soldier, but Steve Rogers he might. Assimilation was the name of the game. And while it may have gotten a bad name in the last 30 years, if that was what it took to get you out of the lower East Side, then you did it.

Certainly it is easy to draw parallels to what the creation of Superman to someone with Jewish identity, but you could just as easily make the case that Superman is every 98 lb weakling’s fantasy: If they only knew how great I really am, they be singing a different story. And Captain America was punching out Hitler over a year before Pearl Harbor, but those are exceptions to the rule. Batman has pretty much nothing of jewish heritage in his past, despite Bob Kane going to a seder every year. And I don’t recall the letters “THE SPIRIT” dripping down in menorah wax on too many splash pages.

In any case, it is enough, for me, that these books are being written, since they finally focus attention on the long suffering and mostly forgotten, for many decades, early Jewish creators themselves. David quite correctly makes the point that these stories matter since they continue to saturate our culture and touch our lives, regardless of the medium. We should be paying tribute to those early pioneers, jewish or not, since they matter so much to those of us who read and grew up on the comics.


Anonymous said...

There is no stretching. Judaism is not just a religion, it's a culture of a people scattered around the world. So Judaism was ingrained in these creators' souls. The same souls that go back millennia to the people who told the story of the Golem and further back, the Torah.

The creators of Superman drew up the first Superman story on their mother's bread board - the same board she cut her homemade challah on every Shabbat.

Sure, a lot of the influence was subconscious, and these creators were desperately trying to make a buck and to assimilate in an America that was hostile to Jews and immigrants, but a lot of that Jewishness went into their work, an extension of their anxieties as immigrant Jews in a country where Jews were (and still are in some ways) outsiders.

To look back in hindsight and espouse this opinion from the comfortable armchair of the 21st century without taking into account the atmosphere of the times in which these characters were created is totally myopic. And the "New York" sensibility that you're referring to is the "Jewish-American" sensibility. There's no mistake, when you read the Lee-Kirby comics of the Silver Age, that these comics were infused with a Jewish sense of humor and sense of drama.

Some people - including, sadly, other Jews - are always trying to deny the Jewish roots and heritage as if it's something to be ashamed of when, in fact, it's something to be very proud of. As a Jewish cartoonist, when I see the incredible archtypes that the Kirbys, Eisners, Siegels, Shusters, etc. have created - an entire medium and industry almost single handedly, I'm very proud.

L'chaim! And have a great Pesach!

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

In trying to parse what David was saying in his article, allow me to make my stance clear: I deeply respect what those Jewish cartoonists did, and, being jewish myself, have no desire to take anything away from their accomplishments. I recall sitting with a friend, also Jewish, at one of what I call the oldtimer dinners that used to be held at the San Diego Con, and we marvelled at the longevity of some of the old Jewish artists. When one faltered on his way up to the podium, it was Julius Schwartz who rose to his aid, and Julius was in his '80's then!

That being said, I disagree that we can find a whole lot of Jewish archetype in Batman, or Hawkman, or the Flash (unless my golden age recollection is sorely lacking, in which case I'd love to see examples). There is such a bizarre amount of "Waspishness" in many of the creations from that time, from the girlfriends of the heroes to the names that were chosen. If we pick up a bunch of issues of Crime Does Not Pay, we see Biro reacting to the gangsters, more often than not Italian or simply "white", and making the sensationalism play in Michigan and Kansas and Ohio as well as the street of Manhattan. These artist were suffused with a Jewish ideology down to their DNA, but they knew who the audience was, even if it was solely their editor. Again, I say nothing to take away at all from the work that they did; work done for little to no money under deplorable conditions often times at a high rate of speed. Certainly Superman does work as a piece of Jewish fulfillment, but there are plenty of others that do not.

Yes, as I've said before in earlier blog posts, the history of the comics is the history of Jewish immigrants, and I am terribly proud to be involved with that, but I thought that, in this one article, there it was a stretch to focus solely on the Jewish-ness of the comics, when it is always clear that it was a very distinct period in xenophobic and reactionary American culture that sparked off the comics scare of the 1950's.

And now I'm off to pick up horseradish root for our seder plate.