Exhibits explore role of Jews in comic book genre
PROVIDENCE, R.I. In the 1930s, amid the Great Depression and Nazi Germany, Cleveland writer Jerry Siegel and Toronto artist Joe Shuster conceived an iconic superhero with rippling biceps, long-flowing cape, impeccably coifed hair and a virtuous calling to stamp out evil.
Superman may not be Jewish like his creators, but some scholars, comic book historians and rabbis see the superhero and his introverted alter ego Clark Kent as subtly influenced by the authors’ heritage and informed by themes of assimilation and conflicted cultural identities.
Two related exhibits at Brown University explore the seminal role of Jews in the comic book genre, including the founders of satirical Mad magazine and the creators of Superman, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Batman and Captain America. The displays also include contemporary illustrators such as Art Spiegelman, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his Holocaust-inspired comic Maus.
“People’s knowledge of their role is not really proportional to the actual size of their role,” said Franklin Kanin, a Brown junior who helped to curate the exhibits for a course called Jewish Americans: Film and Comics.
Jewish cartoonists practised their craft in early-20th-century Yiddish-language publications, but were largely excluded from high-paying illustration jobs and the advertising industry, said James Sturm, co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt.
They responded with their own comic strips, creating some of the most celebrated cartoon characters.
“They dreamed their dreams on paper, in comic books – which were kind of this cheap, throwaway medium that wasn’t really thought suitable for the more genteel population,” Sturm said.
One exhibit, which ran through mid-December at the John Hay Library, focused on the genre’s early years. The other, on display until later this month at the John Nicholas Brown Center’s Carriage House Gallery, shows modern artists wrestling openly with cultural stereotypes and ambivalence about religious identity.
Early Jewish American cartoonists, often the children of immigrants and toiling under pen names, created heroes of idyllic values. They possessed supreme strength, wisdom and goodness, espoused justice, helped the less fortunate and took on the Nazis and other enemies as superhuman fantasy figures.
The first Captain America issue, for instance, showed him smashing Hitler in the face.
“If somebody socked Hitler in the jaw, and many did, they had blond hair as they did it,” said Paul Buhle, a senior lecturer of American Civilization and history at Brown whose students curated the exhibit and who has written about Jews and popular culture. “There was no Jewish self-identification because it was feared this would limit the audience.”
Though blessed with exceptional powers, the superheroes were seen as outsiders, even alien, to mainstream America, which some commentators associate with the general experience of immigrants at the time.
But they had dual personas, carrying alter egos that were shy, angst-ridden earthlings – think Clark Kent or Spider-Man’s Peter Parker – who were uncertain of themselves and struggled to fit in and conform.
“They represent the nervous, nebbish immigrant who’s trying to find a place within this world,” said Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, author of Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero.
Weinstein sees parallels between Superman, who first appeared in 1938, and the Old Testament character of Moses, who was sent down the Nile in a basket, raised in a strange land and learned his heritage later in life.
One comic in the exhibit shows Doc Samson, a psychiatrist in the Incredible Hulk series, teaching children about the holiday of Hanukkah – only to have them ask what role Santa played in it.
Also included is a 1994 Mad magazine strip imagining Superman as the Jewish son of Hyman and Doris Feldstein of Brooklyn. His costume bears the Star of David and his mother celebrates the baby’s arrival by envisioning him as a future doctor.
Some of the contemporary work is more biting, such as a strip from a 2005 collection by artist Bob Fingerman of a young man spurning traditional Jewish mourning rituals at his grandmother’s funeral.
Brown senior Kaitlyn Laabs took the course to learn more about her heritage and said she came away learning to “look outside the box for other influences that can impact a genre or impact a culture.”
“I don’t think it was too contrived, I don’t think it was too far of a stretch,” Laabs said of the course. “Do I think that it can also be Christian values? Yes. I think it’s some kind of religious moral code.”
ERIC TUCKER Associated Press