She’s just a 16-year-old Jersey girl “suddenly bestowed with super-human powers that send her on the adventure of a lifetime.”
But Kamala Khan’s also a Pakistani Muslim-American. And as the title character of Marvel Comics’ new “Ms. Marvel” series, she’s making history.
The team behind the series includes Eisner Award-nominated writer G. Willow Wilson — who’s also a Muslim convert. “I didn’t want to start with making her the perfect poster child for Islam,” Wilson told the AltMuslim web site. “I’ve been wearing hijab for ten years, but I wanted to make her representative of Muslim woman at large, and the majority does not wear hijab.”
Considering the heavily Jewish lineage of both superhero comics and Marvel itself — co-founder Stan Lee, ne Lieberman, was the son of Romanian immigrants — the character’s appearance represents a turning point, according to Steven Bergson, whose Jewish Comics blog offers a Hebraic spin on the comics world.
“We’re in an age where it’s not only much more acceptable but expected and highly marketable to give characters unique identities, whether it’s religious, national, sexual or physical i.e. disability),” Bergson told the Forward. “In the past, Jewish creators have written non-Jewish characters and Gentiles have written Jewish characters like Marvel’s golems, DC stories with rabbis, Marvel’s Moon Knight.
If Ms. Marvel turns out to be “an anti-Semite, that would be as unacceptable as if the character were sexist, homophobic, or racist. If she is merely critical of Israel, then she’ll join the ranks of political-minded superheroes, which includes Superman, who joined an Arab Spring protest not that long ago,” Bergson added.
But Marvel’s announcement about the series was careful to downplay political implications. “This story isn’t about what it means to be a Muslim, Pakistani or American,” series editor Sana Amarat said in a press release. “Those are just cultural touchstones that reflect the ever changing world we live in today.”
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?
On the heels of its pioneering Holocaust-themed “motion comics,” Washington D.C.’s David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies is launching a major initiative enlisting comics luminaries to educate Americans about the Shoah and other genocides.
Comics Creators for Holocaust Education is bringing together artists, writers and editors from the worlds of comic books, animation, and science fiction, according to its fundraising material. And the response — from towering figures like Stan Lee, Joe Quesada, Harlan Ellison, and Art Spiegelman — has been “overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic,” said Rafael Medoff, the Wyman Institute’s director.
The initiative will let the Wyman Institute expand its program of creating Holocaust-themed cartoons for print and online media, which have included work by Spiegelman in The Washington Post and Sal Amendola in The New Republic; artists will also explore new ways to disseminate cartoons across platforms. And Medoff plans to use Comics Creators for Holocaust Education as a platform to reach a much broader audience.
“Now that we’ve created an initial body of work — including editorial comic strips for major newspapers and the ‘They Spoke Out’ DVD with Disney — we’re going to be introducing these materials to the comics world, to teachers, and to the general public,” he said. “We’re holding workshops and panel discussions at major comic conventions, such as the recent San Diego Comic Con, which 150,000 people attended, and the upcoming New York Comic Con, which will have over 100,000. At the same time, we’re actively networking with teachers around the country to have these materials used in classrooms. And we’ll be communicating to the public as well, in the same way that the daily editorial cartoons in major newspapers use cartoon art as a vehicle for commenting on serious issues.”
The latest collaboration between Holocaust educator Rafael Medoff and comics giant Neal Adams is their most moving — literally.
“They Spoke Out: American Voices of Protest Against the Holocaust” uses “motion comics” — panels with scrolling text, voiceovers, and archival newsreel footage — to tell the stories of Americans “who raised their voices, marched in protest, or even helped smuggle Jewish refugees out of Hitler’s Europe.”
Medoff, the founding director of David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C., has written extensively on the American response to the Holocaust. He and Adams, the legendary illustrator whose portfolio includes Batman and X-Men books, teamed on an acclaimed 2009 comic about Dina Babbitt, a Warner Brothers animator and Holocaust survivor.
Educational-video giant Disney Educational Products is distributing “They Spoke Out” as a DVD series; episodes are viewable online at TheySpokeOut.com.
The Arty Semite caught up with Medoff by email from Washington, D.C., where the Wyman Institute is based.
Michael Kaminer: After “Maus,” comics by Holocaust survivors like Miriam Katin, and other graphic work that deals with the subject, what are you hoping to bring to the table with this body of work?
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… Beta-Sigma-Rho Man?
The recent discovery of a 75-year-old pencil sketch by Superman creator Joe Shuster hints that Man of Steel’s origins have roots in a Toronto fraternity.
The Ontario Jewish Archives in Toronto recently released an image of the circa-1937 drawing, which depicts a familiar caped figure with a “BSR” logo emblazoned across his chest in place of the more recognizable “S.”
“This superhero is not saving the citizens of the fictitious Metropolis from evildoers,” the OJA said in a tongue-in-cheek press release. “Rather, he is a mascot for the University of Toronto’s Beta Sigma Rho fraternity.”
While Joe Shuster wasn’t a member of the frat, whose Toronto chapter launched in 1930, his first cousin Frank, a University of Toronto student, did belong. Joe Shuster would leave Cleveland often to visit his Toronto cousin; the two would spend days watching movies in downtown theaters. Frank Shuster would go on to form the legendary Canadian comedy duo Wayne & Shuster with Johnny Wayne.
Drawn to New York: An Illustrated Chronicle of Three Decades in New York City
By Peter Kuper, Introduction by Eric Drooker
PM Press, 208 pages, $29.95
This oversized, four-color 30-year compendium of comics, magazine illustrations, painting and sketchbook work by the artist best known for his “Spy vs Spy” pages in Mad Magazine, is stunning in its variety and vividness. “Chronicle” is evidently a play on words, because Kuper is looking at his Manhattan experience — ever since he moved from Cleveland in 1977 — from all sorts of angles, including geographical, aerial, animal, and, of course, human. It’s not always a pretty sight, that’s the price of admission to the real-life Greatest Show on Earth. The Mexican and French publishers of the volume, which preceded this version, must think so, too.
We don’t see the evidence here, but Kuper started as in comics by inking “Richie Rich,” and many of the pages of “Drawn to New York” might be understood as a depiction of the world that real-life Manhattan rich people would prefer not to see. Not that Kuper, a founder of the iconoclastic “World War 3 Illustrated,” is didactic. He takes in street violence, poverty, prostitutes, ecological and architectural crimes almost casually: How would you recognize modern New York without them? He also likes to be self-indulgent: the endangered species in the city is himself, threatened by some random or still unspecified source that makes 9/11 almost a relief in its specificity.
A Jerusalem shop settled out of court with two comic book companies that charged it sells unlicensed kippahs bearing the images of Superman and Spider-Man.
Avi Binyamin, owner of the Kippa Man store on Ben Yehuda Street in central Jerusalem, will pay Marvel Comics and Warner Brothers $17,000 each for the unauthorized use of their superheroes’ images. The companies had sued for about $27,000 in damages.
Numerous shops along Ben Yehuda sell merchandise featuring Batman, Spider-Man and other characters, as well as college mascots and professional sports teams.
“They make them in China, I just bring them,” Binyamin told The Jerusalem Post in September after the Marvel Comics lawsuit was filed, adding, “There are 20 stores on this street, they all sell the same thing.”
Lawyers for the two companies told the Israeli daily Maariv that they will file lawsuits against other small stores in Israel that sell their characters’ images without authorization.
Miriam Katin appears naked in one panel of “Letting It Go,” her new graphic memoir about coming to terms with her past as a Holocaust survivor. But the rest of this novel-length confessional comic is even more revealing.
Her first full-length work since 2006’s award-winning Holocaust memoir “We Are On Our Own,” “Letting It Go” chronicles Katin’s emotionally charged visit to Berlin after her son and his girlfriend relocate there. Katin’s fury over the move mellows to resignation, and finally acceptance, though her emotions surrounding her own history remain ambiguous. The book spares no one, least of all Katin, who unflinchingly depicts her self-doubt, angst, and bodily functions. Her cartooning style is masterful, maintaining classical elements while subverting genre conventions into a singular work that’s fluid, vibrant, and potent. It’s also hilariously funny.
Katin’s work is part of the exhibit “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” which I co-curated and which the Forward is sponsoring. The traveling exhibit will open at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach in October. Katin spoke to The Arty Semite from her home in New York.
Michael Kaminer: “We Are On Our Own” was published in 2006. Why so long between books?
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.)
Corpse on the Imjin! And Other Stories
By Harvey Kurtzman, Edited by Gary Groth
Fantagraphics, 227 pages, $28.99
Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993) is today remembered as the Bronx-born genius editor who invented Mad Magazine, the most pervasive satirical influence of the 20th century.
That single claim-to-fame is hard to avoid, but Kurtzman’s larger role in the history of comics, mainly but not solely as an editor, has long been a favorite subject of aficionados. Kurtzman, a worker in the vineyards (that is to say, cramped Manhattan studios) of comics production in the late 1940s, took charge of several comic lines at EC, a small company on the verge of bankruptcy. He shunned the cash-cow horror comics that made the other work of EC possible, and the Science Fiction comics that still give goose bumps to nostalgiacs. Mad Comics essentially created a genre by brilliantly ridiculing rampant consumerism. But Kurtzman’s military and war comics were every bit as provocative — and more shocking by far.
The “Two Fisted Tales” (1950-1955) and “Frontline Combat” series (1951-1954) remain the most realistic war comics ever conceived, non-ideological but essentially antiwar by virtue of their realism. They contrasted with the chest-thumping patriotic comics of the Second World War period, and they contrasted likewise with the war comics that remained a steady feature of the genre for several generations. Kurtzman’s editorial products, which he often wrote for other artists, are best remembered for their accuracy of detail, right down to military buttons. The comics actually drawn by Kurtzman may be best remembered for their heart-breaking character.
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.
Every frame in Rachel Loube’s “Every Tuesday: A Portrait of the New Yorker Cartoonists,” now screening at the Boston Jewish Film Festival, together with “The Art of Spiegelman,” threatens to dissolve into cliché. There is the premise itself: Every Tuesday, New Yorker cartoonists, young and old, submit their work, and then go for lunch. It is a beautiful, invisible New York tradition, the kind that Gay Talese would have celebrated in luxurious prose, the kind that the media is intent on reminding us no longer exist. The restaurant is appropriately shabby. The food scenes are all set to jazz.
There is no question that if “Every Tuesday” were any longer it would become unbearably familiar and impossible to watch. But at 20 minutes, it’s perfect. The cartoonists come alive in short bursts. Zachary Kanin, a Harvard Lampoon alumnus, is legitimately hilarious. Their very different apartments and workspaces quickly tell us about their different styles and approach to the craft. We watch some cartoonists revise and edit their work on imposing Apple Monitors, and others retrace their cartoons on top of a light box. Some aim for perfection, while others have started to embrace artistic imperfection. Wouldn’t it be better if a rectangle weren’t so rectangular?
“Every Tuesday” is everything you want in a short film: It brings you into a unique world, gives you enough information to make you feel like you understand the key issues, and leaves you absolutely wanting more.
Watch a teaser for ‘Every Tuesday’:
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.
Jewish Images in the Comics: A Visual History
By Fredrik Strömberg
Fantagraphics, 304 pages, $26.99
In the epigraph to his second volume of “Maus,” the seminal graphic novel about the Shoah, Art Spiegelman quotes an anti-Semitic text: “Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed… Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal.”
At this point, 20 years after its publication, “Maus’s” contours are indelibly traced. Spiegelman’s novel is not simply a survivor’s memoir, but a visual broadside against a history of anti-Semitic images. When he chooses to depict all of his Jewish characters as mice (the Nazis show up as cats), Spiegelman is reclaiming derogatory images. That Jews were called rats, and then hunted as rats, was not simply a coincidence of history but an insight into the mechanisms of anti-Semitism.
Since “Maus’s” publication there has been an explosion of Jewish themed graphic works, a broad survey of which Fredrik Strömberg curates in his recent Fantagraphics collection, “Jewish Images in the Comics: A Visual History.” The collection, which handsomely binds together selections from hundreds of comic works with short informative essays, makes its most ambitious decisions wit what it chooses to include. Like Spiegelman (whose “Maus” is excerpted in the top triangle of the front cover’s Jewish star), Strömberg understands that any history of Jews in comics must contend with a history of defamatory images.
Crime Does Not Pay, Volumes 1 and 2
Dark Horse Archives, $49.99 per volume
Someone once quipped that a history of American theater minus Jews would be far more difficult than a history of Jewish Americans without theater. The same goes for comic books in their glory era, from the late 1930s to the early 1950s. Yes, comic superhero icons now figure in vast media merchandizing. But the moment of maximum influence takes us back three generation when comics outnumbered all other printed publications and when parents’ anxieties about war and communism were sometimes overwhelmed by fears about their children reading comics.
The strangest story of all is one easily forgotten today but treated, in the McCarthy Era, as evidence that Jewish comic publishers, editors and artists were corrupting innocent American youth. At that time “headlight” comics featuring well-endowed sweater girls were a nuisance, and perhaps worse. But “horror” comics were the real thing, proof of fears that comics-haters had been nurturing since at least Pearl Harbor.
Their rise came even before the postwar era, when superhero comics full of red, white and blue fighters had begun to bore young readers. The entrepreneurial patriarch of horror comics was indeed a suspicious character: Lev Gleason had been called to testify before congressional hearings about his support for the Spanish Republic and he had published a short-lived Popular Front magazine called “Friday” that apparently died with the Hitler-Stalin Pact.
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.
Crossposted from Haaretz
Israel — its conflict and its paradoxes — has become a source of inspiration for cartoonists from all over the world, who seek to explore this hot topic through a combination of graphics and narration. In 2008, the Quebecois comic-book author Guy Delisle moved to East Jerusalem for the year, following his wife, who worked at the time for Medecin Sans Frontiere.
“We only found out we were going there a month before we moved. We thought we were going to Japan. I had no particular interest in Israel and the conflict at the time,” Delisle said in an interview with Haaretz.
It is probably this fresh look on the conflict that has made “Chroniques de Jerusalem” — the graphic novel he would eventually publish at the end of 2011 — so appealing to the French audience, where it is now becoming a best-seller.
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.