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!
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • 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.