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  CULTURE CURRENTS  
December 1998 Culture Currents

IN THIS ISSUE... 

  • MAD, MAUS, TWISTED SISTERS: THE WILD WORLD OF JEWISH CARTOONISTS
  • UPCOMING NFJC EVENTS 
  • FILM SCREENINGS 
  • WEBSITE OF THE MONTH 
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    Jews in Pen and Ink 

     

    Last month, Ben Shahn became the latest victim of the polarization of art and cartoons. In reviewing Shahn's retrospective at The Jewish Museum in New York, Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times reduced him to an "illustrator," while Hilton Kramer of The Observer dismissed one of his paintings as "little more than a colored political cartoon." Thus, are we to pity Ben Shahn, that brilliant eulogist of mid-century political culture, who has been bumped from the artistic firmament? Hardly, for these ignoble criticisms put Shahn safely in the company of Art Speigelman, Ben Katchor, Aline Kominsky Crumb, Diane Noomin, Harvey Pekar, Jules Feiffer, Stan Mack, and other Jewish comic artists who have forced a reassessment of the legitimacy of the cartoon form. 

    Comics and cartoons represent the id of the art world. Denigrated as a vulgar, cheap and disposable form of expression, comics are not held to the traditional standards of beauty and truth. Art Spiegelman has pointed out that this benefits both the reader, who comes to comics with an open mind, and the cartoonist, who is freed from the anxiety of influence. This is the sort of liminal cultural space in which Jewish art has thrived in America, where the traditional Jewish resistance to representational art no longer seems relevant. Though comics and animated films might not be the first place one would look for portrayals of identity, culture and history, from "MAD" to "Maus" Jews have put their lives in pen and ink. 

    Harvey Kurtzman, the mastermind of "MAD," along with feisty publisher Willaim Gaines brought a distinctively Jewish flavor to what became one of the seminal magazines of postwar American culture. The first issue, in 1952, featured a parody of gangster cartoons titled "Gonefs." No definition of the Yiddishism was supplied. Two generations of Jewish comic artists drew inspiration from Kurtzman and the witty social satire, subtle Yiddishkeit and Talmud-inspired marginalia that crammed the pages of MAD. 

    Even in the fantastical comic strip world of men and women endowed with superpowers and superphysiques, Jews have had a significant presence. Indeed, the Golem might be the world's original superhero. Jews have been Jewish American heroes (Captain Marvel, Nuklon), Israeli superheroes (the Seraph, the Sabra) and behind-the-scenes superheroes (Superman was created by two Jewish men). They have also made cameo appearances in such standards as "The Incredible Hulk," "Batman" and "The Punisher." All render the Jewish story as one consonant with truth, justice, and the American Way. 

    Emanating from the Northern California countercultural movement of the late Sixties, a new "underground" style of comics brought autobiography into the genre. The crudeness of Robert Crumb offended many, but he fostered a new confidence in self-expression and revelation. Aline Kominsky (who later married Crumb) and Diane Noomin collaborated on the comic "Twisted Sisters," recounting and critiquing their experiences of growing up in Jewish families in New York as a means of articulating a new form of feminist expression. 

    Far from the druggy West Coast underground, Ben Katchor takes his readers on another kind of trip through his laconic, existential urban world. Most famous for his series "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer," Katchor's "Cardboard Valise" is currently serialized around the country, including in the Forward, and his new book "The Jew of New York" will be published in January. All three capture the exquisite melancholy of nostalgia while portraying the subtle nuances of Jewish life and culture in America. 

    Seemingly at the center of it all is Art Speigelman, whose "Maus" series achieved unprecedented critical acclaim, culminating with a special Pulitzer Prize in 1986. In expressing the horrors of the Holocaust and its aftermath through words and pictures, he forced critics to acknowledge the power of comics as art. Starting out in the Bay Area underground scene in the early Seventies, Spiegelman is now the foremost comics historian, a ubiquitous presence for nearly thirty years in the field's avant garde. 

    Once automatic, Jewish self-representation is increasingly complicated within a multicultural America. Spiegelman understands this problem of representation. In "Maus II," he frets over how he should represent his wife, Francois, a French woman who converted to Judaism. In a world where Germans are drawn as cats and Americans as dogs, is she a mouse, like Speigelman and the other Jews, or is she a frog like the French? Visual representations of monolithic identities can provoke visceral reactions, as did Spiegelman's cover for the 1993 Valentine's Day issue of The New Yorker, a cartoon of a Hasidic man and a Black woman kissing. 

    The dialectic between word and image propels comic strips and cartoons, a vast medium that is rife with secret histories and double identities. Jewish cartoonists have helped weave the Jewish story into the mainstream American one at the same time that they have restated the uniqueness of the Jewish experience. Though not a cartoonist in the strictest sense, Ben Shahn's work is imbued with this spirit and continues to fascinate and inspire us. 

     

    MAD http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Dunes/9887
    ART SPIEGELMAN  http://students.vassar.edu/~hoschnei/maus.html                                   http://www.student.kuleuven.ac.be/~m9710832/maus/maus.html
    BEN KATCHOR http://www.spacelab.net/~bkatchor
    HARVEY PEKAR http://web.nwe.ufl.edu/~cwaldron/pekar/pekar.html
    MUSEUM OF CARTOON ART http://www.cartoon.org
    ROBERT CRUMB http://www.stat.pitt.edu/~stoffer/Crumb.html

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    EVENTS 

     

    Leon Wieseltier will kick off a series of breakfast discussions in Manhattan with major Jewish cultural figures, sponsored by the NFJC and New York Jewish Week. December 8, 8:00am, at the Park Avenue Synagogue, New York. 

     

    The NFJC's Inaugural Award in American Jewish Humor honoring Alan King, presented by Elie Wiesel and hosted by Jon Stewart. December 14 at the Pierre Hotel, New York, NY.  

     

    The NFJC is pleased to announce that "Band in Berlin" will open on Broadway in late February, 1999, at the Helen Hayes Theater. The play received a 1998 New Play Commission in Jewish Theater. 

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    FILM SCREENINGS 

     

    ARGUING THE WORLD

    • Bronfman Center, NYU, December 8 

     

    A LETTER WITHOUT WORDS 

    • Washington DC Jewish Film Festival, Dec. 6, 5:00pm 
    • Norfolk Jewish Film Festival, Virginia, Dec. 10, time TBA 
    • Toronto Human Rights Festival, Dec. 13, 2:00pm 
    • Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival, Dec. 16, 7:15pm 

     

    SILENCE

    • Washington DC Jewish Film Festival, Dec. 6, 5:00pm 

     

    TREYF

    • Washington DC Jewish Film Festival, Dec. 9, 6:30pm 
    • Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival, Dec. 17, 7:30pm 

     

     

    *These films received a grant from the Lynn and Jules Kroll Fund for Jewish Documentary Film 

    FILM FUND
    DC FESTIVAL: http://www.wjff.org

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    WEBSITE OF THE MONTH: A JEWISH COMICS BIBLIOGRAPHY 

     

    Steven M. Bergson has compiled a great bibliography of Jewish comics and cartoons. Though far from complete, it's an excellent introduction to the diverse array of both Jewish cartoonists and comics about Jews. Annotated and loaded with links for deeper exploration. 
    http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Acropolis/5756/JWISHC.HTM

     

     

     

    We welcome your feedback on any aspect of the newsletter, as well as information about interesting cultural projects. Please send e-mails to nfjc@JewishCulture.org.

     

     

     

     
     
      

    The National Foundation for Jewish Culture
    can be reached at (212) 629-0500, Fax: (212) 629-0508;
    E-mail: nfjc@jewishculture.org.


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