The Arty Semite

Learning To Be Jewish From MAD Magazine

By Michael Kaminer

  • Print
  • Share Share

It was a thrill to learn recently that one of my favorite Mad magazine artists, the legendary Al Jaffee, would give his personal papers to Columbia University. Among those treasures are a massive cache of Jaffee’s much-loved Mad fold-in cartoons and notebooks of ideas Jaffee never even submitted for publication.

But the most intriguing part of the story, first reported by The New York Times, was the person who sealed the deal.

Karen Green is the Columbia librarian who popped the question to Jaffee at last year’s New York Comic-Con gathering: Would he consider donating his life’s work to the school? A lifelong comics fan, Green — Columbia’s longtime librarian for ancient and medieval history and religion — took on a not-so-secret identity as the school’s first graphic-novels librarian in 2005.

Under Green’s leadership, Columbia’s graphic-novel collection has grown to 4,000 works, including the priceless personal papers of X-Men writer Chris Claremont, early Batman artist Jerry Robinson, and “comics in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Hebrew, Russian, Finnish, Dutch, and more,” Green told The Arty Semite.

Along with her day jobs, Green also serves on the board of directors of the Society of Illustrators, which now houses New York’s Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art. The Arty Semite caught up with her during a busy week that included two Comic-Con benefit events she was planning at Columbia.

Michael Kaminer: How did you hear about Al Jaffee’s archives in the first place?

I had been fortunate enough to have met Al a couple of times previous to asking. Professor Jeremy Dauber, who heads our Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, had done a four-semester lecture series with Jewish comics people, and Al had been the first invitee. Jeremy invited me to join Al and his family, along with [comics educator] Danny Fingeroth, for a pre-event dinner, and so I got to know him a little then. I capitalized on that familiarity to invite him to sit on a panel back in March 2012 at our Comic New York symposium for a session about the preponderance of cartoonists NYC produced. So we had an acquaintance, and he is just a lovely man. So when I saw him at [Comic-Con] last year, I just popped the question, so to speak, and was thrilled that he was receptive.

When Columbia acquires a collection like this, what happens to it? Does it stay in a box until someone asks to see it?

The collection will be processed by our archivists, with the materials placed in acid-free folders in acid-free boxes or, in the case of larger materials, in special boxes created to house them. As the archivists go through the material, they generate what we call a “finding aid,” which is a kind of inventory of the contents of the boxes. With the finding aid, researchers interested in the collection can get a sense of what’s there, and plan their visits, without having to pore over box after box, looking for what they want.

Some of our readers may not fully understand what a librarian does, much less a Graphic Novels librarian. Could you explain some of your day-to-day at Columbia?

In the case of Ancient and Medieval History, which is my primary area of responsibility, a lot of the titles in the collection are chosen automatically by vendors that represent various languages; they survey what’s being published by scholarly presses and send a lot of it automatically. In the case of comics and graphic novels, many of the publishers are not mainstream, and a lot of interesting material is self-published — often financed by Kickstarter campaigns. So the selection of the comics materials is much more hands-on than the history resources.

What first drew you to comics? Did the Jewish lineage of comics have anything to do with your interest?

Yes and no! The first comics I responded to, other than the newspaper strips I saw every day, were in The New Yorker 25th-Anniversary Cartoon Album, which I discovered at around age 7 or 8 and devoured just about weekly. Those weren’t particularly Jewish, but they did shed light on the waning years of Jewish immigrant New York. A year or so later, I added my older brother’s Mad magazines to the menu, and that was a sort of crash course in immigrant Jewish culture. I like to say that I learned how to be an American Jew from Mad magazine and the Marx Brothers. As I got older, and began to learn more of the history of comics in America, I became fascinated by the prominence of Jews in the business — marginalized artists in a marginalized medium. But, oh, what they did with it!

Is there a straight line you can draw between your two positions at Columbia — librarian for ancient and medieval history and librarian for graphic novels?

Many people express surprise that a medievalist would also enjoy comics, but I think it’s a natural connection: I tend to respond, “Think ‘visual culture.’” Whether you think about the panel format of the Bayeux tapestry or stained glass windows, or consider the early speech balloons known as banderoles, there’s a lot of commonality between the kinds of visual narratives common in the Middle Ages and what we know as comics today. I actually wrote a column about that around four years ago.

What does Columbia’s graphic-novels collection include?

Just about anything you can think of! We have over 4,000 titles, and counting. We have comics in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Hebrew, Russian, Finnish, Dutch and more. We have collections of mainstream superhero comics, we have independent and alternative comics, we have collections of classic newspaper strips. We have reference works and scholarly literature on the medium. We have anything from giants such as Superman and “Maus” to recent slim, self-published stories like Marguerite Dabaie’s “A Voyage to Panjikant” or Sophia Wiedeman’s “The Deformitory.” It’s a wonderfully diverse collection that reflects the wonderful diversity — in style, story, and substance — of the medium itself.

How do you determine if a cartoon or graphic novel is worthy of acquisition? What’s the acquisition process like? How often does Columbia pay to acquire collections?

Worthiness is, to a great extent, subjective. But then so is what I acquire in ancient and medieval history, for that matter! I have a set of criteria that I apply, but they might not be the same set of criteria that another librarian might apply. I look first for graphic novels that have literary or artistic merit. I supplement with those that are useful for social or cultural history, or that have pedagogical usefulness — and that doesn’t mean that they don’t also have literary or artistic merit! I don’t buy titles that are obviously and solely for a kid or YA audience, but I will buy beautiful all-ages material that is exactly that: something that can be enjoyed at any age. The most obvious example of that is Jeff Smith’s “Bone,” but I’ve added a couple of the more extraordinarily beautiful and intriguing titles from Francoise Mouly’s TOON Books, like David Nytra’s “The Secret of the Stone Frog.” Mostly I have our fantastic and tenacious Acquisitions Department handle the actual purchase, but from time to time, if something might go quickly or is only available via Kickstarter, I’ll buy it myself and give it to the library.

What’s on tap for the Graphic Novels library over the coming year?

Oh, nothing I can talk about yet! There are some collections we’re pursuing, some fund-raising to do, and an exhibition to plan. That ought to keep me out of trouble!

Columbia Libraries Acquire Archives of Mad Magazine Cartoonist Al Jaffee from ColumbiaNews on Vimeo.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Mad Magazine, Karen Green, Interviews, Comics, Al Jaffee

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.