Old shul justice

[“Shul” is the Yiddish word for synagogue.]

From publishers to creators, Jews were pioneers of the modern comics art form and the giant industry that it built. This is particularly appropriate given the emphasis that both comic books and Judaism have historically placed on the concept of justice.

There is a moral imperative in Judaism referred to as Tikkun Olam, which is Hebrew for “repair the world.” The concept of Tikkun Olam, created by 16th century Rabbi Isaac Luria, is to remake the world in accordance with the divine values of Justice (tzedek), Compassion (hesed), and Peace (shalom). Modern Jews who follow this mandate do so by working for causes promoting social justice and the protection of the environment.

For more than 70 years Jewish comic book creators have examined these issues in genres including superhero, western, crime, war, horror and romance. They have even used their unique storytelling medium to expose injustices committed against their people—some by their own employers.

People of the comic book
Arguably one of the most influential Jewish dynasties in comics was the father and son team of Max and Bill Gaines. Max Gaines was a founder of the modern comics industry in the 1930s and original publisher of EC Comics. After Max’s premature death in a boating accident, his son Bill Gaines took over EC, turning it into one of the most controversial and creative publishing houses in comics history. The most lasting Gaines legacy is Mad magazine (originally a humor comic book), which Bill created with editor Harvey Kurtzman.

But without comic book writers and artists, there would have been nothing to edit or publish. The often unsung Jewish heroes of our nation’s pop cultural heritage include Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; Batman creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger; Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jack “King” Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg); and Will Eisner, creator of the Spirit and, according to some, the graphic novel (I had the honor of meeting Will Eisner twice, once at the Small Press Expo I attend every year and once at a panel discussion held by the Library of Congress on comics created in response to 9-11). And then, of course, there’s Stanley Lieber, who, under the professional name Stan Lee, became Marvel Comics’ Chairman Emeritus after a decades-long career co-creating characters such as the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor and the X-Men (all with Jack Kirby), as well as Spider-Man and Doctor Strange (with gentile Steve Ditko).

And since the initial Golden Age of Comics, Jewish creators who’ve left a lasting mark on the art form include Joe Kubert, Gil KaneGene Colan, Howard Chaykin, Jeph LoebBrian Michael Bendis and Neil Gaiman (watch this video of Gaiman explaining the influence of his Jewish upbringing on his writing).

In the subversive and avant-garde world of underground and alternative comics, critically acclaimed and revolutionary Jewish creators include Trina Robbins, Harvey PekarArt Spiegelman, Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Daniel Clowes.

From Krypton to KrakowIf you want a more detailed account of  Jewish American contributions to comic book history, there are a number of good resources available.  Your options include works such as Paul Buhle’s Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form; Arie Kaplan’s From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books;  Danny Fingeroth’s Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero; Simcha Weinstein’s Up, Up, and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped The Comic Book Superhero; and Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book.

In keeping with the twofold theme of this site, below are some examples of comics by some of the writers and artists above that deal with issues of justice, or rather the lack of it—something with which both Jews and comic book creators have considerable experience.

Bitter with hard bondage
Comic books were originally Depression-era collections of reformatted reprints of newspaper comic strips. Eventually, when the comic strip syndicates realized how much money comic book publishers were making off their clients’ labors, they began charging more to reprint them. That led comic book publishers to hire desperate writers and artists to create all new material for very little money. In response to the demand for content, freelancers created packaging houses, virtual sweatshops where creators churned out comic book stories to order for any publisher who would pay the going rate. One of the first of these was established by Will Eisner, one of the earliest and most talented pioneers of American comics storytelling, and his partner, Jerry Iger. In 1986 Eisner published a graphic novella, The Dreamer, that presented a fictionalized history of the Eisner and Iger Studio and some of the comics luminaries who worked there, such as Bob Kane and Jack Kirby. Although the story focuses on the creative dreams that inspired many comics writers and artists, it also reveals the far from glamorous conditions under which they toiled, actually comparing them to those suffered by of Hebrew slaves.

Panels from The Dreamer

The Lone and Level SandsSpeaking of Hebrew slaves, for a modern comic book retelling of the Exodus story, I highly recommend the graphic novel, The Lone and Level Sands, written by A. David Lewis and drawn by mp Mann. Based on the Bible, the Qur’an, and historical sources, it presents the story through the eyes of Pharaoh Ramses II, who, as the publisher’s description puts it, is either the “greatest leader or worst villain” in the Book of Exodus. It shows how Ramses must deal with the “impossible demands of an alien deity,” made by his long-lost cousin Moses, while trying to “rule wisely, love his family well, and deal justly in the face of a divine wrath.”

In addition to the lack of pay and appreciation early comic book creators received while producing their work, they got even less after they turned over their finished products to their publishers. For decades, comic book writers and artists received no copyright, royalties or often even credit for the characters or stories they created. Siegel and Shuster famously sold publisher DC Comics their rights to Superman for a pittance, and then spent decades fighting in the courts to get the acknowledgment and share of profits from the Man of Steel’s multimedia and merchandising empire to which they were rightfully entitled. Jack Kirby, who was more Stan Lee’s creative collaborator than illustrator, could not get his original artwork from Marvel Comics, only to see it pilfered and sold by unscrupulous collectors at comic book conventions around the country. Writer Fred Van Lent and artist Ryan Dunlavey recently depicted these and other anti-creator injustices in the their Comic Book History of Comics.

Panels from Comic Book Comics #5

Succeeding generations of comic book creators learned from the mistreatment of their predecessors and began agitating for creator ownership of their work in the 1970s. Some even helped their aging role models get back the credit and financial rewards they deserved.

Blood libel
Antisemitism has been around almost from the moment the followers of a martyred, revolutionary rabbi created a messianic sect of Judaism in his name more than 2,000 years ago. From the Middle Ages to the present, negative stereotypes and paranoid slander —such as the heinous accusation of “blood libel” recently referenced inappropriately by Sarah Palin—have contributed to the persecution of and discrimination against Jews.

Fagin the JewAs I mentioned earlier, Will Eisner was one of the founding fathers of the comic book industry. He was also one of the first proponents of comics—or sequential art, as he called it—as a legitimate form of creative expression, and was largely responsible for popularizing the graphic novel format. In the couple years before his death in 2005, Eisner put his talents to exposing ugly truths about antisemitism. His 2003 Fagin the Jew challenged the negative Jewish stereotypes Charles Dickens perpetuated in his depiction of this character from his novel, Oliver Twist. In an interview with Time magazine, Eisner explained that although Dickens was not an anti-Semite:

. . . his Jew was an evil man and the presumed characteristics of the Jew — the money-clinging, tight-fisted, narrow-eyed character — was what he capitalized on. For example, Dickens’ depiction of another villain [in Oliver Twist], Sikes, makes no mention of nationality.

A page from The Plot

A page from The Plot, by Will Eisner, showing the ongoing harm contributed to by belief in the authenticity of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

For his last work, which was published after he died, Eisner tried to debunk once and for all one of the most persistent and powerful pieces of anti-Jewish propaganda ever created. The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, reveals the truth behind a 19th century document that was allegedly written by a cabal of Jewish leaders who were plotting—like the best comic book super villains—to take over the world. Eisner’s graphic history of The Protocols of the Elder of Zion shows that it is a forgery plagiarized from a work of fiction at the turn of the 20th century by a member of the Russian secret police to scapegoat Jews for sowing the seeds of the 1905 Russian Revolution. Car company mogul and anti-Semite Henry Ford funded the printing of 500,000 copies in the 1920s. It became a bestseller in Nazi Germany, and an inspiration to Adolf Hitler. Sadly, even though the document had already been exposed as a forgery by that time, it continues to be believed by conspiracy-minded bigots incapable of critical thought (like those people who still refute the authenticity of President Obama’s birth certificate).

Never again
Maus: Book IIOf course, the ultimate expression of antisemitism was the Holocaust, which has been the subject of several graphic novels. The most famous and critically acclaimed of these is Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, the only graphic novel ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. The story is about Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, Vladek, who, through the course of the story, vividly recounts his experiences during World War II in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Dachau. In an attempt to expose the absurdity of Aryan theories about superior and inferior races, Spiegelman chose to depict people of different ethnicities and nationalities as different species of animals: Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, the French as frogs and Americans as dogs. Most readers and critics, including me, agree that Spiegelman’s technique achieves his desired effect. (However, as I explain in my article, “Of Mice and Vermin,” published in the International Journal of Comic Artand edited by The Lone and Level Sands author A. David Lewis—Speigelman accomplished this at the cost of perpetuating negative stereotypes about animals.)

Yossel: April 19, 1943Another Holocaust tale is Yossel: April 19, 1943, in which comic book legend Joe Kubert imagines what his life might have been like if his parents hadn’t escaped Nazi-occupied Poland before his birth. Yossel, a teenaged boy with a gift for art, is sent with his family to the Warsaw ghetto. After his family is taken to a concentration camp, Yossel joins the underground resistance, eventually making an inspiring yet tragically futile stand against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Years before publishing Yossel, Kubert created another very personal graphic work about another genocide. During the 1992-95 Bosnian War, Serbian forces carried out an ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosnians and Croatians that, according to a United Nations report, employed such heinous tactics as “murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extra-judicial executions, rape and sexual assaults, confinement of civilian population in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation of civilian population, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, and wanton destruction of property.”  In Fax From Sarajevo, Kubert recreates the experiences of his European agent, Ervin Rustemagic, who spent two and a half years living in a ruined building with his family during the Siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. Rustemagic was able to share his family’s ordeals with Kubert and others in the outside world through the use of sporadically functioning fax machines.

Tragically, despite the demands of Holocaust survivors that the nations of the world ensure such an act of genocide never happen again, during the past 65 years the same hateful mob brutality has repeated itself over and over, from Bosnia, to Rwanda, to Kosovo, to Darfur.

While the International Criminal Court and non governmental organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch work to bring perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes to justice, it’s up to the rest of us to support their work and help repair the world.

Note: My intention had been to post this in May, which was Jewish American Heritage Month. Not actually getting it posted until mid-June makes this the latest in my growing “better late than never” series, which includes last minute and belated posts for Native American Heritage Month (November), Women’s History Month (March) and Black History Month (February).

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9 Responses to Old shul justice

  1. Julie says:

    I love that there’s a word for “repair the world” — a calling most animal activists and others in social justice causes share. This world needs repairing.

    Maus was my first introduction to graphic novels, and I couldn’t put it down. It’s an incredible work.

    Thanks for posting another incredibly well-written and informative article, Richard!

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