How American Jews created the comic book industry.
By Arie Kaplan
Jews built the comic book industry from the ground up, and the influence of Jewish writers, artists, and editors continues to be felt to this day. But how did Jews come to have such a disproportionate influence on an industry most famous for lantern-jawed demigods clad in colorful tights?
First Comic Books
The story begins in 1933. During that year, the world experienced seismic changes in politics and pop culture. An unemployed Jewish novelty salesman named Maxwell Charles "M.C." Gaines (née Max Ginzberg) had a brilliant idea: if he enjoyed reading old comic strips like Joe Palooka, Mutt and Jeff, and Hairbredth Harry so much, maybe the rest of America would, too. Thus was born the American comic book, which in its earliest days consisted of reprinted newspaper funnies. Gaines and his colleague Harry L. Wildenberg at Eastern Color Printing soon published February 1934's Famous Funnies #1, Series 1, the first American retail comic book.
Rival comic book publishers sprang up immediately. However, by the mid-1930s publishers were already starting to exhaust the backlog of daily and Sunday strips that could be reprinted. The easiest way to fill the demand for new comic book features was for publishers to tap writers and artists who couldn't get work anywhere else, either because they were too young, too inexperienced, or Jewish--in most cases, all three. Advertising agencies had anti-Semitic quotas, and newspaper syndicates only occasionally took on a token Jewish cartoonist like Milt Gross or Rube Goldberg. But the comic book companies were mostly run by Jewish publishers like Timely Comics's Martin Goodman or DC Comics's Harry Donenfeld. It was a situation similar to that of the early motion picture industry, in which Jewish directors, producers, and studio executives who'd faced anti-Semitism in other industries built an industry of their own.
Because the comic book stories were being written and drawn largely by inexperienced teenagers, they were often crude rip-offs of the popular newspaper strips of the day, such as Tarzan or Buck Rogers. Enter writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. In 1938, DC Comics published the Man of Steel's first adventure in the pages of Action Comics #1. Superman was an instant hit. Literally dozens of Superman clones were rushed into production by rival comic book publishers, and suddenly the comic book industry had a future.
According to most comic book historians, Superman's creation heralded the beginning
of the so-called "Golden Age" of comic books, the era during which the visual grammar of the medium was established. It was also a time when many classic characters were created. There was nothing overtly Jewish about the characters created during this era. However, occasionally a comic book character would emerge that had certain Jewish signifiers. After America became involved in World War Two, Timely Comics superhero Captain America's Jewish creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby pitted their star-spangled warrior against the Nazi agent Red Skull. Captain America's alter ego Steve Rogers could be seen as a symbol for the way Jews were stereotypically depicted as frail and passive. That is, until he took a serum that transformed him into the robust Captain America. The serum was created by "Professor Reinstein," an obvious nod to famed Jewish physicist Albert Einstein. And Superman gave such a pounding to Nazi agents from 1941-45 that, according to legend, Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels jumped up in the midst of a Reichstag meeting and denounced the Man of Steel as a Jew.
A Bad Influence
After the war, however, comic sales started to drift off. One reason for this was the increasing concern that comics were a bad influence on the nation's children. In 1947, Max Gaines's ne'er-do-well son Bill Gaines assumed control of his late father's company Educational Comics, renamed it Entertaining Comics, and over the next few years phased out the wholesome titles like Picture Stories from the Bible in favor of gory, lurid titles like Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. The new EC was a hit. In 1952 an EC humor comic book created by Harvey Kurtzman often featured Yiddish words like "ganef," "feh," "oy," and "fershlugginer" in the stories. That humor title was MAD.
This anti-comic book sentiment led in the spring of 1954to the publication of The Seduction of the Innocent, based on Jewish psychologist Frederic Wertham's seven-year-long study of the effects of comic books on America's youth. Dr. Wertham condemned most of the genre--especially crime and horror comics--for having contributed to juvenile delinquency. As the outcry following the publication of Seduction of the Innocent grew, so did the call for government intervention. The Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Committee on the Judiciary opened in Manhattan federal court on April 21, 1954. Bill Gaines had to cancel his entire line, except for MAD, which became a magazine to escape censorship. Thanks to writers and cartoonists like Al Jaffee, Will Elder, Frank Jacobs, and Mort Drucker, MAD soon became well-known for a certain urban Jewish sensibility. MAD had a huge influence, helping to pave the way for modern comedy as we know it.
The Marvel Age
The comic book industry took awhile to fully recover from the damage that Wertham had wrought. That changed when Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) decided to develop a new type of superhero book. For 1961's Fantastic Four, Lee teamed with his frequent collaborator, artist Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), to create a group of superheroes who weren't sunny or optimistic like rival company DC's heroes. One member of the Fantastic Four, Ben Grimm (aka The Thing) felt like a freak because cosmic rays had transformed him into an orange, granite-skinned monster. With Ben Grimm, Lee and Kirby were using a superhero as a metaphor for Jews, African-Americans, and other minorities.
During this period of rapid growth, Martin Goodman's company, once known as Timely, would officially be named Marvel Comics, and this era would be remembered as the "Marvel Age" of Comics (roughly 1961-1970). Throughout this period, Lee and/or Kirby created or co-created many classic characters, including Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Nick Fury. Lee and Kirby would also expand the "superhero as outsider" metaphor with other creations, such as 1963's X-Men. Featuring a group of superpowered mutants who tried to help the very people who feared and loathed them for being different, X-Men was a potent allegory for being "born different." And in the late 1970s, Jewish comic book writer Chris Claremont would introduce openly Jewish characters into the X-Men like Kitty Pryde, who often wore a Star of David necklace. Claremont would also provide a new backstory for the X-Men's arch nemesis Magneto, explaining that the villain's hatred of humanity resulted from his childhood spent enduring the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.
By the mid-1980s, the novel-length comics narrative, or "graphic novel," was riding its first wave of mainstream popularity in part thanks to Art Spiegelman's groundbreaking work Maus. A memoir in comics form about Spiegelman's father's experiences during the Holocaust, the book also involved a frame story about Spiegelman's dysfunctional relationship with his father in the present day. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Maus is that the characters in the book are drawn as animals: Jews are mice, Germans are cats. In 1992, a year after part two of Maus was released, Spiegelman's work won the Pulitzer Prize, the first such honor for a graphic novel or comic book.
Of course, Spiegelman wasn't the first person to popularize the graphic novel; Will Eisner, creator of the 1940s comic strip The Spirit, created the graphic novel A Contract With God in 1978. A collection of four stories about the Bronx tenement life of Eisner's youth, A Contract With God's title story involved Frimme Hersh, a pious Jew who renounces his faith when his young daughter dies. And Harvey Pekar, an unassuming Jewish file clerk from Cleveland, has spent the past thirty years chronicling the minutiae of his life in the pages of the autobiographical comic book series American Splendor.
Today, Jewish-themed graphic novels are more common than ever before. This wealth of new work includes graphic novels such as James Sturm's The Golem's Mighty Swing, Miriam Katin's We Are On Our Own, Ben Katchor's The Jew of New York, and Joe Kubert's Yossel: April 19, 1943. We can only guess what the future has in store for Jewish comic book creators. But the proverbial writing is on the wall--and in this case, that writing is encased in a word balloon.
A Superhero Connection: Jews and Comic Books
By: Josh Blatman
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Traditionally, Jewish culture has placed a much higher value on education and wisdom than on physical strength and prowess. Of the many stories we’re raised on, Moses had a speech impediment and David slew Goliath even though his lesser size and strength made him the undisputed underdog. Because of success in education and academic pursuits while also stereotypically being physically smaller, Jews have been the brunt of others’ jokes and occasional hatred. Subsequently, many Jews turned to the creative arts to help dispel frustration. Jewish writers and artists were significant drivers behind the rise of comic books and their rapid expansion in popularity in the United States from the 1930s to the 1960s because comic books enabled Jews’ to create a superhero persona.
Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster created Superman while living in Cleveland, Ohio because, many propose, the two needed an outlet for cultural discrimination that they were suffering. They partnered with DC comics and Superman debuted in a 1938 edition of Action Comics #1. Superman was an instant, national hit and marked the legitimization of the entire comic book industry. Present day comic book historians and rabbis see Superman and his alter ego, Clark Kent, as representations of the Jewish struggle to acculturate into American society while maintaining their culture identity. Moreover, the creators, both children of immigrants, built Superman with a parallel storyline to American immigrants and their desire to fit into American society. Superman as an extraterrestrial being was equated to Siegel and Shuster as children of immigrants—foreign beings in a new land.
Once the United States joined World War Two, Timely Comics’ superhero Captain America gained popularity. This character was created by two Jewish comics: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). Captain America was storied to have been born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and then grew up as an academically gifted, scrawny, fine arts student. Similar to many Jewish stereotypes. After fighting the Nazis during World War Two, comic book enthusiasm for Captain America dwindled. He rose back into popularity in the 1960s with the back story of being lost in time, being haunted by past memories, and struggling to fit into 1960s society, which was much like the sentiments of many holocaust survivors.
Jews’ influence on comics reads like a history of Jews in America. The Superman story of children of immigrants evolved into racial trials in the 1960s. In 1961, a fantastic group of new superheroes were published: the Fantastic Four. The Fantastic Four was created by the Jewish writer Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) and artist Jack Kirby. It was published by Timely Comics (later Marvel Comics) which was run by Jewish owner Martin Goodman.
The leader of the four, “The Thing,” aka Benjamin Jacob Grimm, was a symbol for Jews, African Americans, and other American minorities that had to emotionally develop “thick skin” to tolerate the racial tribulations of the 1960s. Jack Kirby has publicly admitted that Grimm was actually an alter ego of himself, though Grimm’s religion was never discussed in print until the publication of Fantastic Four v3, #56, released in August of 2002, when Grimm had a Bar Mitzvah.
Among the many comic book characters with Jewish connections, there are a few noteworthy personalities. Throughout the 1960s, Marvel Comics produced a group of classic superheroes including: Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man and Nick Fury, but the only one with a real Jewish inspiration was the Hulk. Hulk’s creation was inspired by the Jewish story of a golem: “an animated being created entirely from inanimate matter.”
Another character, The Invisible Boy, was an Israeli creation that used his powers of invisibility to help the Israeli secret service and army defeat the Arab forces in the Six Days War. In years after, the Invisible Boy, aka Dani Din, fought Arab leaders like Saddam Hussein and Nasser. This character was created by the famous Israeli writer, Shraga Gafni, and was drawn by Israeli artist Arye Moskovitz, signing his works M. Arye. The Invisible Boy holds a similar place in Israeli society to Superman in America.
A more recent comic book character, Mothman – the alter ego of Arthur and sidekick of the Tick – was fairly open about his Judaism. He was first characterized in The Tick #4 in 1989 as a chubby ex-accountant whose white moth suit allowed him to fly. This plays on another Jewish stereotype – that Jews are good with money. Unfortunately for him, he was often mistaken for a bunny, though it added comic effect. Associating with act-first-think-later superhero (the Tick) while having poor social skills resulted in shyness and low self-esteem. Though he was annoyed with being an official sidekick, he played the roll of the Tick’s conscience, while figuring out ways to help the Tick beat villains. In other words, he was the brains behind Tick’s brawn, which plays on the Jewish stereotype of intelligence.
Jews have been deeply entrenched in the popularity of comic books. Many comic books characters arose as a creative outlet for Jewish writers to find their place in American society. Superman was an extraterrestrial being that tried to fit in with normal American society while The Thing combined strength with “thick skin.” Characters also exhibited several common Jewish storylines and stereotypes.
Captain America started as an academically gifted youngster who rose to battle Nazi leaders during World War II. Arthur’s “Mothman” character was an accountant with awkward social skills, which hints on the somewhat overused stereotype that Jews are good with money, though they aren’t very sociable. The Jewish storylines shared between these characters and the writers who created them is evident. Jews have longed for avenues to express their frustrations with anti-Semitism and prejudice and the comic book industry has helped these authors and their readers to do that.
COVER STORY: Jews and the invention of the American comic book
Friday, October 21, 2005 | by
Look up in the sky: It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s a minyan of comic book superheroes and their geeky Jewish creators.
From its inception, the modern comic book has been a friendly domain for Jews, from Marvel’s Stan Lee to Maus’ Art Spiegelman. Hawkman, the Flash, Thor, Superman and Batman were all created by overactive Jewish imaginations.
But like some dark secret held until the last cryptic panel, the Jewish connection to comics has only recently gotten any serious ink.
Why the Jews? How did the People of the Book become People of the Comic Book?
San Francisco-based writer Gerard Jones, author of “Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book,” says Jews did it by channeling “adolescent boys’ primal projections,” thus transforming a disreputable enterprise—the lowly comic—into a cornerstone of pop culture.
Most of the Jews who breathed life into the comics have origin stories worthy of a comic superhero: Depression-era teens dodging Yiddish hucksters and predatory gangsters, and displaying some superhuman chutzpah.
Says San Francisco’s Trina Robbins, a Jewish historian of women in the comics: “They either had to fight for themselves or be beaten up by the tough Irish kids. I don’t know if it’s in the genes, I don’t know if it’s the heritage, but there’s a thing about Jews and communication.”
Robbins has written comics on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, and is the author of the GoGirl! superheroine saga.
Jones offers another explanation: “Of the many immigrants coming across the Atlantic, the most literate culture was the Jews. They put the biggest emphasis on finding a job you could use your brains at.”
They came from homes where Yiddish was shouted across the dinner table, along with at least one other language — Russian, German, Polish. That — plus English outside the home and Hebrew lessons to boot — made for multilingual youngsters keen on the Sock! Zoom! Bam! power of language.
But why comic books rather than pre-approved careers like medicine, law or business?
“In 1937, it was probably not even thought of as a profession,” says Steve Leialoha, a Hawaiian Jewish artist based in San Francisco who has worked on many comics, including Spider Man and Doctor Strange. “A lot of them were still teenagers when they started. It was the height of the Depression.”
Art Spiegelman, creator of the Holocaust-themed graphic novel “Maus” and the recent “In the Shadow of No Towers,” says it was an opportunity waiting to be mined.
“Because it was beneath contempt, it was open to Jews. [The comic book industry] was essentially part of the rag trade. Given the chance, Jews would have become painters or written novels, but here was a way for kids with an intellectual bent to express themselves.”
It was also a way for kids to get paid for thinking about saving the universe from alien conquerors and rescuing curvy damsels from evil geniuses.
Not every Jew in the world of comics wanted to imagine men with wings or blue fur. Some just wanted to get filthy rich.
One of the accidental founders of the industry put his own spin on Horatio Alger and went from rags to pornography before settling on fictional crime-fighters (the riches followed later).
Born in Romania at the turn of the last century, Harry Donenfeld found himself scrambling to make sense of the Lower East Side — along with thousands of other young newly minted Jewish Americans.
As Jones says, “Harry was turning himself into a new kind of peddler, one perfectly in keeping with a rapidly changing America about to go on a superheated, advertising-driven economic binge: He was a salesman who sold himself.”
His skill at hucksterism led to the lucrative practice of hawking moonshine for gangsters during Prohibition. Smuggling booze led to a racket in the newspaper business, and then pornography. Whatever he could sell, he sold.
Jones writes in his book that “Harry saw himself as the class of the girlie pulps.” Donenfeld was willing to try anything, including an experiment called Spicy Detective Stories. According to Jones, “the first issue’s cover was adorned by a nearly naked blonde backing away in terror from a brutish rapist while a gun pokes in from a window. It was an instant hit.”
While that adventure in pseudo-porn was financially successful, community outcry caused the enterprise to crash, forcing Donenfeld and his partners to scramble for other means to keep up profits. They found success in reprints of cartoons from the funny pages, which sold even better than the nearly naked blondes.
Donenfeld found his ultimate cash cow in Cleveland.
As Jewish immigrants settled around the country, Cleveland boomed as a Jewish center. The city’s quiet neighborhoods were filled with struggling yet ambitious middle-class families.
The Man of Steel made a killing for Donenfeld, though the two creators lived in obscurity and financial hardship most of their lives. Siegel and Shuster were locked out of the vast comic book fortunes because of an ill-advised decision to sell off the rights to their creation at an early stage. It wasn’t until they were very old men that Siegel and Shuster received the financial and cultural rewards that go hand-in-hand with creating an American icon.
Robbins points out that Siegel and Shuster “didn’t consciously think, ‘Let’s make Superman Jewish.’ But they did like that ‘Moses story.’”
That’s Moses as in Exodus and Leviticus.
While the theory may not spark the heated controversy of evolution or quantum physics, the “Superman as Moses” hypothesis offers plenty to chew on.
Superman’s name on his home planet of Krypton, Kal-El, bares a strong resemblance to the Hebrew transliteration meaning “all that God is.”
Then, just before Superman’s home planet blew up, his parents placed the infant Kal-El in a spaceship that sped towards an unknown destiny.
Jones further draws the parallel, noting that Moses, too, is “sent down the river as a baby and raised by the others. But then his real self manifests later.”
Best-selling author Michael Chabon of Berkeley covered some of that territory in his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” in which one character says to the other, “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.”
Superman isn’t the only closeted Jewish superhero. Poke a shade below the bright surfaces, and other lesser-known comic creations also appear to be colored by Judaism and Jewish culture.
One of the most explicit is found in the ongoing saga of mutants in the Marvel Comics universe. A malevolent mutant named Magneto, associated with the ubiquitous X-Men, is a Holocaust survivor who helped found the nation of Genosha — intended to be a haven for mutants that have been persecuted all over the world.
Magneto originally meets the founder of the X-Men, Charles Xavier, in Israel.
Writers continue to mine the Jewish roots of Magneto and his mutant cohorts in recent issues. A spin-off from the X-Men called Excalibur chronicles how Charles Xavier collaborated with Magneto to help rebuild the war-ravaged Genosha.
And the September issue of the mini-series “Wolverine” takes place in the Sobibor concentration camp. Dedicated to the late comic book originator Will Eisner, the story by Mark Millar places the nearly invulnerable X-Men member as a kind of ghostly camp victim who won’t die. He ultimately drives the camp commander mad.
Recently, Benjamin Grimm — the orange, rock-covered member of the Fantastic Four — returned to his roots as a Jew from the Lower East Side. Robbins speculates that Grimm, aka “the Thing,” was the alter ego of creator Jack Kirby.
“The Thing was Jack,” she suggests.
In the Green Lantern comic books, the beings known as “the Guardians of the Universe” were reportedly based on the physical appearance of Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion — though the Guardians never retired to a kibbutz.
The concept of secret identity is as much a part of the superhero formula as super powers. Wonder Woman, the Martian Manhunter and Thor have secret identities that are either average or less-than-average Joes. In Thor’s case, the god of thunder dwelled among mortal men under the guise of a doctor with a lame leg.
And who are Thor’s creators? Jack Hertzberg and Stan Lieber.
Lieber is the guy who changed his name to Stan Lee and went on to found Marvel Comics. Why go from Lieber to Lee? Like countless other Jewish professionals, Lee wanted to give himself a more “mainstream”-sounding name.
A secret identity of his own?
“It’s about passing,” Robbins suggests. “All the heroes then had secret identities. And the writers had to pass as gentiles. Bruce Wayne isn’t Jewish even if Bob Kane was.”
As Jones sees it, Jewish immigrants felt “superior, but had to put on this garb and behavior that was less threatening to the goy. You were going through this centuries-long test, for whatever reason, that could have broken down your sense of self-esteem, but you also had to remember that you had a special destiny.”
Says Robbins: “Let’s face it: Jews, including me, tend to think they’re a little superior. But they don’t like to say it too much to non-Jews because that’s why they get persecuted. So here’s all these heroes and they really are superior. They all have fabulous powers but they have to keep them hidden, because if people find out they’ll persecute them.”
So maybe it was lonely to be a creative Jewish teenager back then, but it turned out to be a lot less lonely when a Siegel or Shuster or Lieber escaped into their imaginations and later found acceptance by the American masses.
“Krypton was gone,” reflects Jones, “and so was the Old Country. Not just that you’ve left it behind, but your home world is gone. The deeper analogy is that the Holy Land is gone.”
The Hebrews may have lost their Temple in Jerusalem, but the Jewish kids of comic book creation built a new temple within pop culture. Today their heroes are more visible than ever. Batman returned to the movies last summer (with huge box office), and Superman is slated to return next summer.
So when you buy a ticket to watch those Jewish-spawned icons fight the good fight on the silver screen, it’s worth remembering: These heroes wouldn’t be there if a few pimply faced kids in the 1930s hadn’t been daydreaming in synagogue and struggling to make sense of the Lower East Side.