The Arty Semite

New York According to Creator of 'Spy vs. Spy'

By Paul Buhle

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.

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America's Most Popular Poet

By Paul Buhle

Christopher Felver

Poet, publisher and bookstore maven Lawrence Ferlinghetti is, at 94, arguably the most popular living versifier, or at least author of the single most popular book of poetry — the million-selling “A Coney Island of the Mind” (1957). It’s a distinction he carries lightly in Christopher Felver’s new documentary “Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder.” The poet is rebelliously cheerful (in historic footage) while Allen Ginsberg is dour, accepting awards with surprise rather than vanity, buoyantly living his rebel life to the end.

Blame it on San Francisco, which properly occupies an oversize role in this charming film. Born in Yonkers as the son of an Italian father and a Sephardic mother, Ferlinghetti made it all the way to genteel Westchester the hard way.

When his father died six months after he was born and his mother was confined to an asylum, the boy was taken to France to live for his first years, until his aunt got a job in Bronxville and brought him there to grow up and go to school. Then came the University of North Carolina, where he began writing regularly (covering sports events for the school paper), then the Navy and back to France. And then, most decisively, to San Francisco. The bohemian city was waiting for him as he was for the city.

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Comics Great and Sexual Fiend

By Paul Buhle

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.)

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'Mad' Founder's War Comics

By Paul Buhle

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.

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Comic Books and Country Music

By Paul Buhle

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.

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Crime Comics That Shocked a Nation

By Paul Buhle

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.

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Alternative Comics From Long Island

By Paul Buhle

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.

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Yiddish Stories Not Lost in Translation

By Paul Buhle

The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories
By Bennett Muraskin
Ben Yehuda Press, 79 pages, $14.50

The title of this small but useful book might have been lengthened to include “in the English language,” but the point is taken. We are now in a veritable golden age of translation, though the “golden” is tarnished somewhat by the retreat of younger generations from reading, and the near-disappearance of the secular Yiddish writer. We are now looking back to an age when pens around the world worked furiously and productively. The Guide proves the point.

The scrupulous overview of the stories themselves, some 130 in number, cannot possibly be complete, considering how periodicals in the grand age of English-language magazines once published translated stories of all kinds. But author Bennet Muraskin covers considerable territory, and his one-sentence to one-paragraph glimpses convey what the reader needs to know. He is wonderfully painstaking in his brief recounting of publishing history, which includes references to scholarly archives. The last major section of the book provides capsule biographies of several dozen authors, and a working bibliography.

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How a Holocaust Survivor Escaped Into Comics

By Paul Buhle

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.

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The Great Media Non-Conspiracy

By Paul Buhle

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone On the Media
By Brooke Gladstone, Illustrated by Josh Neufeld
W. W. Norton & Company, 158 pages, $26.00

An icon of many a household’s Sunday listening, Brooke Gladstone and her show “On the Media,” with Bob Garfield as co-host, has for my (pledge) money the liveliest program on National Public Radio.

This book is, at any rate, the first effort to explore Gladstone’s subject in one of the most creative printed ways: comic art. It bears the stamp of comic artist Josh Neufeld, an erstwhile collaborator of the late Harvey Pekar, who has also produced a much-praised graphic novel treatment of Hurricane Katrina’s effects on New Orleans. In “The Influencing Machine,” Neufeld’s work is tinted bluish, giving it a slightly ghostly effect, offset by the directness of the caricatures. It’s a great fit.

In the advance publicity, Gladstone calls “The Influencing Machine” a “manifesto masquerading as a history.” This thought dominates the pages in more than one way. Not only does she offer her own philosophy of communication from the Stone Age onward, she also seeks to demystify the subject and to loosen the grip of conspiracy from the public’s understanding of media.

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Out and About: Palestinian National Orchestra Debuts; Allen Ginsberg's 'Kaddish' at 50

By Ezra Glinter

‘Apocalyptic Landscape,’ 1912, by Jakob Steinhardt. Courtesy of the Israel Museum.

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Bernard Zakheim's Murals for Justice

By Joel Schechter

Was Bernard Zakheim the Jewish Diego Rivera? A new exhibit, “Zakheim: The Art of Prophetic Justice,” at San Francisco’s Jazz Heritage Center and the adjacent Lush Life Gallery until December 30, celebrates the life and painting of Bernard Zakheim (1896-1985). Through panels that recount the artist’s achievements and a display of his paintings, the San Francisco show, curated by Fred Rosenbaum and Rosanna Sun, gives Zakheim the recognition and honor withheld during his lifetime for his achievements as a visionary, politically engaged Jewish muralist and sculptor.

Jazz Heritage Center
Bernard Zakheim’s controversial library scene in the Colt Tower mural. Click for larger view.

Born into a Hasidic Warsaw family, Zakheim studied art in Poland and resisted the German occupation there before immigrating to America. After arriving in San Francisco in 1921, he co-founded a leftwing Yiddish folkschule and supported his family as a furniture designer in the city’s vibrant Fillmore district (where the current exhibit is located). The painter also founded the Artists’ and Writers’ Union with bohemian poet Kenneth Rexroth, a San Francisco friend portrayed in Zakheim’s once controversial “Coit Tower” mural.

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