HOW JEWS TRANSFORMED
THE COMIC BOOK INDUSTRY
y the mid-'50s, the comic book industry was in a sorry state. Allegations that the genre was promoting juvenile delinquency and illiteracy had "done in" the popular and groundbreaking horror and crime comics, and superheroes were now bland incarnations of their former selves. Batman, once a shadowy figure of the night, was recast as a high-camp boy scout battling rainbow-colored monsters. Superman, once the nemesis of corrupt politicians and foreign dictators, now embarked on such silly misadventures as keeping himself whole after being split in two (Superman Red and Superman Blue). And Wonder Woman, once a model of female empowerment, now required an escort--her boyfriend Colonel Steve Trevor--to satisfy critics the likes of Dr. Frederick Wertham, who'd suggested she was a closeted lesbian.
Desperate to revitalize sagging sales, DC began to revamp its second-string lineup of superheroes, such as Green Lantern (now test pilot Hal Jordan) and The Flash (aka police scientist Barry Allen). Editor Julius ("Julie") Schwartz, along with writer John Broome (not Jewish) and cartoonist Gil Kane (born Eli Katz), introduced hundreds of new, identically costumed Green Lantern superheroes, each from a different planet, who patrolled the galaxy as part of an interplanetary peacekeeping force. The Green Lantern of Earth, Hal Jordan, was modeled on actor Paul Newman, and the Guardians of the Universe, little blue men who served as masters of the Green Lantern Corps, were designed by Kane to resemble Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion! Schwartz and his creative team also conceived a makeover for The Flash--a more modern crew cut and a sleeker costume--and Jewish writer Bob Kanigher cranked out more complex stories emphasizing The Flash's character development. Inaugurated in September-October 1956 in the pages of Showcase #4, the new Flash would herald the so-called "Silver Age" of comics: the first age in which comics weren't just for kids anymore.
But although these updated superheroes boosted sales for DC, the malaise gripping the industry persisted. Comic books needed a good punch in the jaw...and they were about to get it!
The Marvel Age
"When you think about it, The Incredible Hulk is a Golem."
In 1961, Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) was facing a career crisis. After twenty-one years in the business, the comic book writer, editor, and production manager at the Goodman Publishing Company was tired of being perceived as being at "the bottom of the cultural totem pole." He aspired to be "a great writer, someday." It was time, Lee decided, to consider a career change.
But before he made his move, his boss Martin Goodman called Lee into his office and ordered him to come up with a new superhero concept that would outperform DC's The Justice League of America (which combined the revamped Flash and Green Lantern with mainstays like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman to form a team of superheroes). Lee was incredulous. Sales of Superman, the gold standard of superheroes, had slumped for much of the 1950s. It would take a real-life superhero to truly revive the genre.
Lee consulted his wife, Joan, who advised him to take up Goodman's challenge. "Why not do comics the way you've always wanted to do them?" Lee remembers her saying. "After all, you're going to quit anyway."
Lee heeded her advice, and what happened next may have saved the comic book industry from extinction. In November 1961, he and Jewish artist/co-creator Jack Kirby unveiled Fantastic Four #1, a crime-fighting series with four heroes who exhibited complex human emotions and often fought with each other, a rarity in the usually chipper, ultra-friendly superhero world. Readers could empathize with such characters as Benjamin Grimm (who'd been transformed by cosmic rays into a monstrous pile of orange rocks) despite--or perhaps because of--their flaws. To his fellow superheroes, Ben could be a hotheaded jerk, but comics fans attributed Ben's bad temper to his being trapped in repulsive orange skin and empathized with him when he was rejected by the attractive Sue (the FF superhero who could turn invisible). Like many Marvel characters, the emotionally challenged Ben became a metaphor for Jews and other minority outsiders who faced discrimination because of their skin color or ethnic roots.
The Fantastic Four quickly built up a large readership, and Marvel Comics (as the Goodman line was renamed in 1963) soon introduced titles featuring physically challenged heroes, such as Daredevil (aka blind lawyer Matt Murdock) and Thor (aka crippled Doctor Don Blake). And thus began the Marvel Age of Comics, a subsection of the Silver Age that was marked by Lee and Kirby's brilliant nine-year collaboration. One of their early hits, The Incredible Hulk--a conflicted hero who could not control the rage swirling inside of him--had a metaphorical affinity to the legendary Golem of Prague, a monster who was both a powerful protector and a potential danger to everyone in his path.
Courting the College Crowd
"I just thought, what if
somebody from another planet who was a good guy came down here and saw
the terrible things we're doing to our world and to each other?"
Stan Lee was no longer thinking about leaving the comics world. He was too busy thinking up new superheroes--like Spider-Man.
Co-created by artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man was the alter ego of teen science-geek Peter Parker, who'd been bitten by a radioactive spider and suddenly found himself endowed with super-strength, agility, and the ability to scale Manhattan skyscrapers. Spider-Man was an instant hit; teenagers identified with this first-ever major teenage superhero, who pledged to use his powers for the betterment of humankind. Before Peter Parker had started wall-crawling, the only teens in comic books were comedic characters, like Archie Andrews of Archie Comics fame, or sidekicks, like Batman's Robin.
The popularity of Marvel Comics among high school and college students gave Lee and Kirby the freedom to delve into more sophisticated philosophical, spiritual, and moral themes. In Fantastic Four #48 (1966), for example, they introduced Galactus, an energy-imbibing alien giant who devours whole planets for sustenance, accompanied by his herald, the Silver Surfer, who scouts planets for his master to consume. The Silver Surfer selects Earth as his master's next meal, but after spending time here, he feels sympathy for Earthlings, whom he believes have the potential to act righteously, despite the many injustices they commit. Deciding to stay on Earth and help the Earthlings (a choice which relinquishes his freedom to roam the galaxy), he begs his master to look elsewhere. "I wanted to tell a story with a biblical subtext that was part spiritual fable and part ecological morality tale," Lee says. "I wanted Silver Surfer to convey that we live in the Garden of Eden, on the most perfect planet possible, yet people are so blind, they don't realize it. Instead of enjoying it, we spend our time hating people who are different than we are, being greedy and avaricious, and committing crimes. I wondered, what if somebody from another planet came down and saw the human race--what would he think? What would he feel about us? And that's what I tried to do with the Silver Surfer."
Silver Surfer's debut in the '60s could not have been more timely. He quickly became an ecology icon among the youth of America's burgeoning counterculture, and Marvel's sales soared.
Mutants and Metaphors
"Everything in comics, as in myths, is a hyperbolic metaphor."
The next major breakthrough for Marvel came in September 1963, when Lee and Kirby introduced The X-Men--a superhero team of five men and women born with an extra "mutant" gene that endowed each with a different superpower (telepathy, super-strength, flight, and the ability to emit deadly optic blasts). From their base at Professor Charles Xavier's "School for Gifted Youngsters" in New York's Westchester County, the five set out to fight injustice. The X-Men was a hit among '60s college students, who may have seen in pacifist Professor X's battle against the militant mutant Magneto a metaphor for the divergent ideologies of the nonviolent Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the militant Malcolm X. Whether in the minds of its Jewish creators The X-Men symbolized civil rights or, for that matter, the Jew as outsider is a matter of debate. But in the decade to come, after Stan Lee had left X-Men storytelling to others, one of the new Marvel staff writers would make the Jewish connection unmistakable.
Openly Jewish, Openly Heroic
"At its foundation, The X-Men had to be a story of hope."
By 1975, sales of The X-Men were falling fast. It was time, Marvel execs decided, to revitalize the series. Jewish comics writer Chris Claremont was picked for the job.
Claremont decided to rewrite the backstory of The X-Men's saga. "I was trying to figure out what made Magneto tick," says Claremont. "And I thought, what was the most transfiguring event of our century that would tie in the super-concept of The X-Men as persecuted outcasts? It has to be the Holocaust!" Claremont--who'd once lived for two months on a kibbutz in Israel, where he had met Holocaust survivors--eventually cast Magneto as a Holocaust survivor embittered by humanity's silence in the face of Nazi barbarity. He now had a complex villain with a motive. "And once I found that point of departure for Magneto," Claremont says, "all the rest fell into place, because it allowed me to turn him into a tragic figure who wants to save his people. Magneto was defined by all that had happened to him. So I could start from the premise that he was a good and decent man at heart. I then had the opportunity, over the course of 200 issues, to attempt to redeem him, to see if he could start over, if he could evolve in the way that Menachem Begin had evolved from a guy that the British considered 'Shoot on sight' in 1945--you know, 'you see him, you kill him! Don't bother about a trial'--to a statesman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976."
Claremont also brought new strong female characters into the series. In Uncanny X-Men #129 (1979) he introduced Katherine "Kitty" Pryde, a young Jewish girl who possessed the mutant ability to walk through walls. Kitty, he says, was modeled after an Israeli teenager wearing a miniskirt and carrying an Uzi whom he'd seen one day while walking down a street in Tel Aviv. An immigrant from England, Claremont understood "what it's like to be different, and what it's like to be Jewish. So that became my window through which I could present The X-Men universe to a broader audience."
Kirby's Fourth World
"When I first saw Darth Vader, I thought, 'Oh, it's Doctor Doom!'"
In 1970, Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzburg) shocked the comic book industry when he defected from Marvel and rejoined rival publisher DC. Simply put, he had felt unappreciated and unacknowledged for the many Marvel characters he'd helped to create.
It was at DC, where he served as editor, writer, and penciller of his own line, that Kirby would imagine the Fourth World, an interlocking series of four monthly comic book titles--The New Gods, The Forever People, Mister Miracle, and for a time Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen. The series featured typical comic book fare of the period--alien worlds, super-powered warriors, genetic experimentation--but much of its inspiration derived from a melding of classic Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology and contemporary history. In Mister Miracle #1 (March-April 1971), for example, Kirby introduced his escape-artist protagonist Scott Free, who as an infant was sent by his father, noble Highfather of the peaceful planet New Genesis, to the warlike planet Apokolips to be trained as a warrior. In exchange, Darkseid, the evil lord of Apokolips, sent his newborn son Orion to New Genesis to be trained as a peacemaker. The trade was supposed to seal a cease-fire agreement between the two planets, but because of Darkseid's treachery, the war only intensified.
The Fourth World, says Jewish writer/ cartoonist Jon Bogdanove (Alpha Flight, Power Pack), is, in part, Jack Kirby's commentary on the Holocaust. "You have a 'fuhrer' character, whose name is Darkseid [pronounced Darkside], but the 'seid' is spelled like a German word. And then there's the image of sooty Apokolips, with its open fire pits, which is evocative of the industrialized war machine of Nazi Germany. Armagetto (the slums of Apokolips whose wretchedly impoverished denizens were known as 'Hunger Dogs') was really about the ghettos in Poland and elsewhere. All these people who slave and die for Darkseid are subjected to dispiriting slogans, like 'Work Is Life, Death Is Freedom,' a clear allusion to the Nazi's 'Work Will Make You Free.' I think Kirby's experience as an American Jew fighting in World War II was particularly intense. It's not that Jack was in any way writing 'code' for his Jewish readers. He was just processing what was in his heart and head."
Comparisons have been drawn between Kirby's creations and some of America's most critically acclaimed and financially successful science-fiction movies, such as George Lucas' Star Wars trilogy. "I'd be enormously surprised if George Lucas didn't read the Fourth World series," Bogdanove says. Both stories feature a character (Highfather in the Fourth World, Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars) who won't tell the hero the truth about his father. Star Wars has the Force; the Fourth World has the Source. Star Wars refers to the "dark side" of the Force; the Fourth World includes the character literally named "Darkseid." The Star Wars character Darth Vader also bears a striking resemblance to Kirby's Fantastic Four villain Doctor Doom, clad in cloak, prosthetic armor, and iron mask. A more current film series influenced by Kirby's oeuvre is the Matrix trilogy, in which the protagonist Neo journeys to the peaceful city of Zion (safe haven from tyrannical machines which have overtaken the world), much like the peaceful city of Supertown (safe haven from the tyrannical Darkseid) in the Fourth World's Forever People title. And as the New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell recently wrote in an article discussing Kirby, Zion also bears a distinct resemblance to the Negative Zone, a "Netherworld" seen in the Fantastic Four. As Mitchell explains, "When Neo travels from the outer world of the Matrix to Zion, the world-within-worlds scenarios [like the Negative Zone] that Kirby pioneered in comics are visible."
Meanwhile, in the Underground...
"You won't find women depicted either as fabulously attired avenging
Amazonian goddesses or scantily clad silicone-injected damsels in distress.
For that matter, you won't find men portrayed as heroic, hormonally imbalanced
saviours, evil masterminds or rabid, sex-crazed perverts."
While superhero comics were undergoing a revolution in character development--the happy, friendly characters of the Golden Age having been replaced with conflicted, dark ones--the burgeoning hippie counterculture was producing a new genre of comic books. Starting in 1962, countercultural or alternative newspapers such as Yarrowstalks and the Chicago Mirror began to showcase their own underground comic strips. These often sexually charged, sometimes drug-fueled, always edgy works featured the lives of young, anti-establishment types. If superheroes showed up at all, they were parodies.
The new generation of underground comics creators--most of whom had grown up devouring Harvey Kurtzman's MAD and Will Eisner's The Spirit--took root in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, where Diane Noomin and Trina Robbins, among others, drew cartoons for newspapers like the Berkeley Barb and the San Francisco Oracle; and in New York City, where newspapers like the East Village Other and The Realist featured the works of Jewish cartoonists Art Spiegelman and Sam Gross. The comic strips soon evolved into underground comic books ("comix"), published by such alternative presses as Ron Turner's Last Gasp, Denis Kitchen's Kitchen Sink Press, and Don Donahue's Apex Novelties. Given the books' "adult" content and graphics, they were sold in "head shops" alongside psychedelic posters and drug paraphernalia.
The alternative comix world also pioneered the rise of female comic book writers and artists. In 1970, Last Gasp's It Ain't Me, Babe became the first comic book to be published with an all-female editorial and creative staff. One of its popular strips was written by a Jewish woman--Diane Noomin--about DiDi Glitz, a character who parodied the postmodern Jewish American Princess stereotype. Aline Kominsky, the future wife of legendary cartoonist Robert Crumb, soon followed with her own autobiographical underground comic strip, "Love That Bunch," in which she detailed her adventures as a self-proclaimed sex-crazed Jewish neurotic. Trina Robbins, daughter of a Yiddish newspaper journalist, moved the Jewish women's experience into political terrain with her commemoration of the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, presenting it in comic book form in Lilith, the Jewish feminist magazine.
Another comix innovation of the early '70s was the publication of Art Spiegelman's three-page version of "Maus," about his father's Holocaust experience--the villainous Germans depicted as cats and their Jewish victims as mice--in a 1972 edition of the alternative comic book Funny Aminals (misspelling intentional). Spiegelman would later expand "Maus" into a best-selling graphic novel, but at this stage of the 24-year-old's career he was busy editing his revolutionary underground comix magazine Arcade, which featured stories by fellow Jewish writers and cartoonists. In her trademark primitivist style, Diane Noomin created brutally confessional comic strips about her awkward childhood; through her "Blabette Yakowitz" comic strips, Aline Kominsky deftly lampooned the nosy, matronly "yentas" she'd grown up with in suburban Long Island.
The Splendor of Being an Ordinary American
"Serious readers have never, for the most part, looked to comics for
good literature because, in fact, there are so few good comics that are
By 1972, the underground comix market had gone into a tailspin, a victim of changing tastes and the precarious state of head shops, which everywhere faced closure by the authorities. Arcade would last a few more years, and publishers like Last Gasp several more decades, but the first wave of underground comix were history.
There were a few exceptions--and one of them was American Splendor, the self-published comic book series by Harvey Pekar, a homely Jewish file clerk in Cleveland who imagined that his "everyman" trials and tribulations might have a certain appeal. Impressed by the concept, Pekar's longtime friend, underground comix artist Robert Crumb, made an exception to his policy of drawing only his own work and illustrated many of Pekar's true-to-life tales (Pekar could draw only stick figures)--including when Harvey's wife-to-be announced on their first date that they should forget about the courtship and just get married. American Splendor would also feature such Jewish themes and characters as the Jewish rag peddlers of 1920s New York (delineated lovingly in the strip "Pa-ayper Reggs," illustrated by Crumb) and "Rabbi's Vife" (illustrated by Jewish cartoonist Drew Friedman), about an elderly Viennese Jewish doctor whose poor joke-telling skills so annoyed Pekar that he decided to taunt the physician. Prior to the release of the critically acclaimed 2003 film version (starring actor Paul Giamatti as Pekar as well as Pekar himself) American Splendor was known by only a select few: working-class readers, intellectuals sick of superheroes, and cultural critics. Nevertheless, Pekar's influence was far-reaching. His poignant portrayals of the kinds of people we encounter in our daily lives added a whole new dimension to the comic book as a medium of serious social criticism.
From Novel Graphics to Graphic Novels
"In the years since A Contract With God has been published,
the book has been translated into six languages, including, appropriately,
Yiddish--a language in which I can think but cannot read or write."
A milestone in the evolution of the comic book was reached in 1978 with the publication of the first graphic novel: Will Eisner's A Contract With God. The creator of The Spirit in the 1940s and 1950s had been rediscovered by the emergence in the 1970s of "comic book specialty stores" (also known as "direct market distribution") that sold only comic books and related merchandise, and comic book conventions nationwide. Thus did a new generation encounter Will Eisner, and they were clamoring for more.
Eisner's answer was a total departure from his earlier emphasis on superheroes. Ever since 1938, inspired by the woodcut novels of artist Lynd Ward, Eisner had toyed with the idea of developing a serious work in comics form. At that time, however, such an idea would have been derided by publishers, who considered comics "for children only." In the 1950s Eisner would begin sketching out ideas for a more serious comics work, but it wasn't until 1978, after mature underground comix had garnered critical respect, that he completed his "narrative that deal[t] with intimate themes." Utilizing a new, experimental storytelling medium which he dubbed "graphic novel," Eisner recounted, in vignettes, tenement life in the Bronx of his youth. In the title story, "A Contract With God," protagonist Frimme Hersh, a pious Jewish man who had carved on a stone tablet a "contract with God," to which he attributes his lifelong lucky streak (he had been told early on in life that "God will reward you" for acts of kindness), is furious at God for allowing his young daughter Rachele to die of a sudden illness. Accusing God of "violat[ing] our contract!" Frimme disavows the contract and, with it, his faith. A now hardened and miserly Frimme seals his own fate.
A Contract with God offered readers a rich meditation on the eternal question posed in the Book of Job--"Why do bad things happen to good people?"--and the comics press responded with glowing reviews. The media soon picked up on the term "graphic novel" to describe novel-length works of "sequential art" (Eisner's alternate term for comics), and in the years to come other cartoonists wishing to create mature works would try their hands at this new form (Jason Lutes's Jar of Fools, Joe Kubert's Fax From Sarajevo, and Art Speigelman's MAUS).
If the comics industry of the 1950s ended with a hiccup, the '60s began with a roar, as the powerhouse Jewish writer/ artist team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby revolutionized the industry by creating more complex, dark, and conflicted heroes--and thus widened the comics market from "kids only" to readers of all ages. The late '60s and early '70s saw the rise and fall of an underground comix revolution spawned in large part by Jews who brushed aside the metaphorical masks of their predecessors and portrayed openly Jewish characters. And by the decade's close, Will Eisner had taken the comic book to a new level with the invention of the graphic novel.
Thus ended the Silver Age of comics. The stage was now set for the next new development: the independent comics boom.
To Be Continued...in Spring 2004
Arie Kaplan is a writer for MAD magazine who has also written for Entertainment Weekly, Time Out New York, and the MTV series Total Request Live.
Copyright © 2003, Union of American Hebrew Congregations