Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary
By Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen
Bloomsbury, 305pages, $30
No vernacular artist, and possibly no American humorist, had a bigger following during the 1940s and ‘50s than Al Capp did. That Capp had to be banned from campuses in the late 1960s after repeated sexual assault charges — and that he shifted from New Dealer to anti-peacenik rightwing Republican — almost obliterated the memory of the older satirist. This comprehensive biography recaptures the real thing.
The fiercely competitive Jewish artist was born Alfred Gerald Caplin in 1909, grew up poor, and worse, lost a leg in a streetcar accident at age 9. A quick study with a thirst for self-advancement, he faked credentials to get into art school, dropped out, and eventually headed to Manhattan with nothing but six dollars and a portfolio of drawings. Through talent and persistence he got into the comic strip racket as an assistant to Ham Fisher, the very quietly Jewish artist of “Joe Palooka.” Within a few years, Fisher and Caplin (by 1935, “Capp”) would become lifelong enemies.
But what an artist! Capp’s “Li’l Abner” was intended for a sophisticated adult audience that could appreciate social satire far beyond the mental level of “Blondie” and art less stylized and repetitive than “The Phantom” or “The Little King.” (The biographers do not say so, but those early years of “Li’l Abner” bring to mind the work of other Jewish comic strip artists like Milt Gross and Harry Hershfeld, not to mention Rube Goldberg.)
Art Spiegelman just wants to be left alone. Or, rather, he would really like it if parts of his career and biography were minimized, and others celebrated more. The central tension, both in the long conversations he had with University of Chicago professor Hillary Chute, the germ and base level of “MetaMaus” (2011), and now in Clara Kuperberg and Joelle Oosterlinck’s new documentary, “The Art of Spiegleman,” is the anxiety of success. Spiegelman is painfully self-aware that he will be forever known (and, often, only known) for the path breaking Maus (1980-1991); fearful that he will become the “Elie Wiesel of comics”; and worries that he cannot seem to escape the autobiographical voice. Somehow, some way, his career turned from the one he imagined and he’s never been able to get the old one back.
“The Art of Spiegelman,” now screening as part of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, is a medium-length documentary. At 45 minutes, it’s perfect for television. Most of the movie consists of interviews with Spiegelman, though his wife and daughter become increasingly prominent as the movie progresses. There are photographs of Spiegelman’s early years, and archival footage of Spiegelman and his wife printing Raw, the legendary little magazine of what we now call sequential art, but really should just call comics.
Non-Spiegelmans, like the illustrator Charles Burns, make appearances, but they are there to tell personal stories and to contextualize Spiegelman’s life. Learned, bespectacled academics with receding hairlines are sadly absent. This is not a critical documentary devoted to analyzing the contributions Spiegelman made to either his field or the whole of arts and letters, but one that allows him to tell his own story. It is a good, entertaining documentary, though limited by everything just mentioned. Those who already know Spiegelman’s work will wish it cut deeper, while those unfamiliar with his art will only have their interest lightly piqued.
The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song
By Frank M. Young and David Lasky
Abrams, 192 pages, $24.95
With a recent issue of Time magazine declaring “The Carter Family” to be one of the seven best comics of 2012, artist David Lasky has ascended to the top tier of Jewish-American comic artists, an august group that includes Art Spiegelman, Ben Katchor, veteran Sharon Rudahl and newcomer Dan Asher, on top of a considerable list of others. This is not exactly a surprise. Lasky’s drawings, mostly in alternative comics anthologies, have been highly regarded by comics insiders for a decade or more. With this latest subject and the four-color precision of the result, Lasky, along with his collaborating script-writer (who also did the coloring) Frank Young, have hit a big number.
The “Midwest school” of comic art, appearing in daily papers in the 1920s and ‘30s, is now long gone. At that time Sidney Smith of “The Gumps” and Frank O. King of “Gasoline Alley” as much as invented “continuity,” moving away from four-panel gag to story lines about daily life and sometimes high adventure. Within this style, “Little Orphan Annie” achieved a peak readership among countless story-line, syndicated strips. “Joe Palooka” and “Li’l Abner” apart, they had non-Jewish creators and with few exceptions, were politically conservative.
“The Carter Family” might almost be accused of returning to Al Capp’s hillbilly vintage, except that Capp specialized in ridicule, while Lasky and Young have gone in the other direction, towards a documentary look at the lives of the 20th century’s most important country music innovators.
Iconic comic book artist and writer Joe Kubert spent most of his life drawing brawny super heroes, lionhearted jungle men and rampaging dinosaurs. But at age 75, Kubert began a journey back to his roots that led him to illustrate Warsaw Ghetto fighters, Holocaust survivors, and ethical mini-lessons for the Chabad-Lubavitch hasidic movement. Kubert, who passed away August 12 in New Jersey at age 85, left behind an enormous fan base in the comic book world as well as a growing audience of admirers in the Jewish community.
“I’ve known and interviewed many older comic book artists, and I usually find that their abilities diminish after a certain age,” noted comics historian and publisher Craig Yoe. “But the amazing thing about Joe was that in his 70s and 80s he was at the top of his game, still constantly and passionately drawing new comics and graphic novels of the highest caliber.”
Kubert’s most recent phase was his immersion in his Jewish roots. While keeping up a heavy schedule of comic book illustration he began making time for a number of Jewish projects. He helped design “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust” for the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, a traveling exhibit of 1940s political cartoons from American newspapers about the Jews in Nazi Europe, and served as a judge in a student cartooning contest. For the Lubavitch magazine “Moshiach Times” he drew a series of two-page adventures with moral lessons called “The Adventures of Yaakov and Isaac.” He also wrote and illustrated “Jew Gangster,” a graphic novel about the Jewish underworld figures of yesteryear.
“Jews and comic books” is a topic that has received extensive treatment in the last 15 years. But what of the Jewish visual artists whose paintings are inspired by comic books? What of Roy Lichtenstein? Jewish studies scholars can look forward to the day when a dissertation is written about Lichtenstein as a Jewish artist, or an exhibition is curated on the same theme.
“Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective,” now on view at the Art institute of Chicago with upcoming stops at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Tate Modern in London, and the Pompidou Center in Paris, is not that exhibit. But its silence on Lichtenstein’s Jewishness offers a starting point for considering how Jewishness and art intersected for one founder of Pop Art.
Born and bred on the Upper West Side in a family of middle class German Jewish immigrants, Lichtenstein’s Jewish roots are undeniable; it is the trajectory of his career, as displayed in the current retrospective — the largest grouping of the artist’s work ever shown — that raises new questions about what it means to be a Jewish artist. Literary critics have long described the ethnic flavor of mid-20th century American Jewish writers in terms of emotional release and affront to WASP decorum, but the art world presents an almost opposite picture.
Josh Frankel is an unlikely publisher and an even more unlikely entrepreneur. Yet he’s the founder of Zip Comix, the publisher of “Cleveland” — the critically acclaimed posthumous work by underground comics legend Harvey Pekar, author of the long-running autobiographical series American Splendor.
Both Frankel and I went to Drew University, where he was a year ahead of me. At Drew, Josh was mostly known as the founder of the Comic Book Club, which boasted an impressive string of high-profile guest speakers from the comic book industry. But mostly people dismissed him as a nerd — or worse, a fanboy, that particular species of comic book nerd that can spend hours discussing an obscure inconsistency in an early issue of “Superman.”
Then Frankel surprised everyone by securing an investor and starting Zip Comix; he not only published his own one-shot comic book, which was accepted by Diamond, the comic book distributor without whom it’s nearly impossible to sell a single issue of any comic, let alone a self-published one. It was called “The Schizophrenic,” about a superhero whose adventures are really his own hallucinations come to life. When I ran into Josh at a party earlier this year he told me that he was the publisher of Pekar’s book, and he’s now contemplating a second printing. I sat down recently with Frankel to ask him about Yiddish storytelling, the industrial middle class and his relationship with Harvey Pekar.
David A.M. Wilensky: How did you end up publishing “Cleveland”?
Lost and Found: Comics 1969-2003
By Bill Griffith
Fantagraphics Books, 364 pages $35
Bill Griffith, the one prominent figure of underground comix to reach the daily comic page mainstream, has delivered again with a phone book-sized volume both odd and pleasing. It comes with a Long Island back-story.
Life (suburban life, that is), found this grandson of famed Western landscape photographer William Henry Jackson growing up in the self-satirizing environment of Levittown, Long Island. He got out as quickly as he could, and at 25 was drawing comics in Manhattan for the hipster East Village Other spinoff, Gothic Blimp Works. Thanks to Griffith, as well as to Kim Deitch, Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez and a handful of others, the comic art revolution had begun.
This wild-and-crazy development owed a lot to Mad Comics, successor to Mad Magazine, and above all to Mad founder Harvey Kurtzman, who published young artists in the short-lived Help! magazine of the early 1960s. It owed a bit more to the loosening social standards that allowed artists to express themselves in stronger political and sexual terms than had previously been imaginable. The artists of the emerging genre furthered the Kurtzman ethic of humor as social critique, a style that scholars of humor history would later come to associate with Monty Python (John Cleese actually worked on Help! for a time), Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons.
At Marvel Comics, where he spent years as a group editor on “Spider-Man,” Danny Fingeroth worked closely with the costumed character’s conceptual father — the legendary Stan Lee. Fingeroth, now senior vice president of education at New York’s Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, recently released “The Stan Lee Universe” (TwoMorrows Publishing). Part fan letter, part obsessive portrait and part research treatise, the book — co-edited with longtime Marvel writer Roy Thomas — serves as Fingeroth’s tribute to “the co-creator of some of the most significant popular culture characters in existence.” Fingeroth talked to The Arty Semite about Jews, Superheroes and the golden age of comics.
Michael Kaminer: The coverline of your book says Stan Lee “changed comics and pop culture.” How?
Danny Fingeroth: Stan and his creative collaborators invented a unique way of telling superhero stories that enabled them to develop characters and utilize humor in ways that the genre hadn’t done before. They struck a chord with the baby boom generation, and their mode of storytelling was profoundly influential not just on comics, but on action-adventure storytelling.
Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer
By Trina Robbins, Illustrated by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh
Graphic Universe, 96pp., $7.95
This is quite a remarkable little book, by quite an artist-writer duo, on quite a subject. Miriam Katin, Holocaust survivor and comic artist herself, reviewed “Lily Renee, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer” in graphic form in the October 7 Forward, but this reviewer has a bit more to say.
The daughter of a Yiddish journalist and one of the founders of Underground Comix in the late 1960s, Trina Robbins was also a central figure in the small but important genre of women’s comics of the 1970s to 1990s. A Greenwich Village hipster and proprietor of a boutique shop, she drifted into the comics of the East Village Other and then out to the West Coast with most of the other Undergrounders.
On Tuesday, Trina Robbins wrote about a Jewish woman who drew comics. Her posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite, courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Last month I flew to Seattle to attend the first GeekGirlCon (but not the last!). GeekGirlCon is for the Rest of Us; maybe not 99%, but definitely 52%, the women who have for so long been shut out of a male-dominated comics industry, and from all the related male-dominated industries, like computers and gaming. It’s for us geeky girls who spent our high school years as outsiders, never cheerleaders, never dating the members of the football team (often never dating at all!), our noses buried in science fiction or fantasy books or comics. All those geeky girls have grown up into enthusiastic and talented young women who are making great clothes and jewelry, creating wonderful new comics — and with not a superhero in the bunch. The energy level in the rooms was high and optimistic.
Instead of complaining about the insultingly gigantic-breasted women in the mainstream, male-oriented comics, the GeekGirls are drawing comics for themselves, which means for us. They’re telling stories that we GeekGirls (and as the oldest person at that convention, I’m still a GeekGirl) can read and identify with, and drawing them beautifully. I was on a panel devoted to Womanthology, a new women’s anthology project that raised their goal of $25,000 in production funds via Kickstarter in under 20 hours. By the end of the fundraising period a month later, they had raised $109,301, making Womanthology the most-funded comics project to date. I’m honored to be one of the contributors. I told the audience about my Lily Renee graphic novel, and one woman said to me after the panel that she was moved to tears just learning about Lily’s story.
Mirka Hershberg is a normal 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl. She attends school, polishes the candlesticks for Shabbat, does her homework, gives tzedakah, fights trolls and dreams of slaying dragons.
Well, maybe not your typical 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl.
Written by illustrator Barry Deutsch, “Hereville” is the story of Mirka’s quest for a dragon-slaying sword. Originally drawn as a comic strip on Girlamatic.com, Deutsch recently developed it into a graphic novel.
Raised in the remote village of Hereville, Mirka lives with her father, stepmother, and eight siblings. Though her stepmother tries to instruct her in the “womanly arts,” including knitting and crocheting, Mirka has bigger dreams for herself that don’t include domesticity.
She wants to fight dragons.
In a bid to shape which Jewish documentaries find an audience, the Foundation for Jewish Culture announced the recipients of the Lynn and Jules Kroll Fund for Documentary Film on December 15. The $140,000 grant (split between five recipients) enables filmmakers, considered to be expanding the understanding of Jewish experience, to reach a wider audience.
This year’s winners included Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s “The Law in These Parts,” a chronicle of Israel’s 43-year-long military legal system in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Nancy D. Kates’s “Regarding Susan Sontag,” an examination of a revered thinker through archival images and interviews; “Joann Sfar Draws From Memory,” Sam Ball’s portrait of the celebrated graphic novelist; “Numbered,” directed by Dana Doron and Uriel Sinai, addressing the internal and external scars of Holocaust survivors; and “The Hangman,” directed by Netalie Braun and Avigail Sperber, the story of Israel from the perspective of a marginalized Yemeni prison warden.
Fans of comic books and graphic novels are mourning the death of Harvey Pekar, who died today in his Cleveland home at the age of 70. Pekar was mainly known for authoring the autobiographical series “American Splendor,” which documented his lower-middle class Jewish upbringing in Ohio. Pekar also wrote “Our Cancer Year,” after being diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1990, and more recently, “The Beats,” a graphic history of the Beat generation.
Even after Pekar’s death, however, there are things to look forward to in the world of Jewish comic books and graphic novels. On September 25, “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women” opens at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum. The Forward is an official media sponsor for the show, which will travel in April 2011 to Toronto’s Koffler Centre for the Arts, and which features such prominent artists as Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Sarah Glidden, Miriam Katin and Ilana Zeffren.
If you liked Eli Valley’s Bucky Shvitz, you may soon be asking yourself: “Am I thrizzled?”
Among the many innovative cartoonists published by the Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books, Michael Kupperman is surely one of the most original. Kupperman popped up a decade ago as the writer and illustrator of the offbeat “Snake ‘n’ Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret” from HarperCollins, in which the two title heroes resemble one another, but not all that much.
Failed resemblances and other vague disappointments are also the hallmark of Kupperman’s illustrations for the Lemony Snicket series, also from HarperCollins. In 2005, Kupperman hit his stride with the comic book series “Tales Designed To Thrizzle,” of which No. 6 has just appeared, to the delight of Robert Smigel and other fans.
In 1947, nearly a decade after Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sold the rights to Superman — an infamously raw deal that earned the comic’s creators a paltry $130 — the duo attempted to avenge their exclusion from the franchise’s lucrative rise to the top of the comic book heap. But their new effort, Funnyman, a bizarre fusion of the archetypal American superhero and Jewish vaudevillian humorist, tanked after six issues and spelled the end of Siegel and Shuster’s partnership.
A new book to be released in July, titled “Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero,” by pop culture historian Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon, a professor of Theater Arts at the University of California, Berkeley, details the genesis, influences and demise of Funnyman.
The book, luminously printed by Feral House, reprints the original six-issue color series, which debuted in January 1948 and began appearing in newspapers later that year.
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