Cultural Affairs

Jews, It Turns Out, Are Also the People of the Comic Book

By Tracy Charlton

As a member of the Fantastic Four, a group of comic book superheroes, the Thing often leads the way--smashing down walls and tossing bad guys over his shoulder like so many rotten tomatoes.

But at the current exhibit, "People of the Comic Book," at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, visitors get to see a softer side of the Thing. In a black-and-white sketch, the Thing wears a yarmulke and holds a prayer book, a beatific expression on his face. Who knew that underneath that cracked, red-brick exterior lay the Thing's alter ego--a nice Jewish boy named Benjamin Jacob Grimm? Well, co-creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby ( ne Stanley Lieber and Jacob Kurtzberg) knew, for starters. Lee and Kirby were Jewish, and Kirby modeled the Thing much after himself.

"Kirby identified with the Thing. He was a gruff, tough guy from the Lower East Side," says Alan Oirich, the curator of the show. "The brick layer that covers the Thing, it was a way of protecting and insulating yourself from the outside world. He's not just wearing a cape. When you look at it Jewishly, it becomes more interesting."

The Thing isn't the only comic book character to have Jewish roots. Even though Jews make up only 2% of the U.S. population, they have a disproportionately large influence on comics. Most of the writers and illustrators from the 1930s, '40s and '50s were Jewish. Not only did Jews create Superman and Batman, but they also dreamed up Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America and the Silver Surfer. This phenomenon hasn't been explored much -- until now.

The exhibit, which runs through April 16, focuses on superheroes, even though Jews have made major contributions to every aspect of comic books. "There were so many Jews who were involved in the early creation of superheroes that it seemed like a natural way to go," says Karen Sander, senior director of arts and culture for the Jewish Community Center.

The first comic book was created by Max Gaines, an unemployed Jewish salesman who was toughing out the Depression at his mother's house in the Bronx, and a friend, Harry L. Wildenberg, who worked for a printer, Eastern Color Printing. Eastern was always on the lookout for jobs, and in 1934 Gaines and Wildenberg persuaded the company to do a run of "Famous Funnies #1," a compilation of reprints of Sunday comic strips. "Famous Funnies" was 32 pages long and cost a dime; it sold 35,000 copies and was an instant hit. (A near-mint copy of "Famous Funnies" is now valued at $22,500.) A few years later, Gaines introduced the first comic book superhero: Superman.

The brainchild of two Jewish kids from Chicago, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Superman is infused with Jewish symbolism. His real name is Kal-El, which is Hebrew for "All That is God." And as Arie Kaplan, who is working on a book about how Jews created the comic-book industry, points out, his story parallels one in the Bible: "Superman's planet is being destroyed, so they put him in a rocket ship and he's ferried down to earth--sort of like how Moses was put in a basket and ferried down the Nile river. In both cases they're children who are brought to safety."

Joe Kubert, who created Sgt. Rock and worked on Batman and the Flash, says that any symbolism was unintentional. "We never tried to inject that feeling into the comics. But I guess when people write or draw, all your senses go into your work."

To be sure, not all comic book aficionados feel that underlying themes or symbols are enough to qualify a comic as being Jewish. Steve Bergson, 34, a librarian who lives in Toronto and has one of the largest collections of Jewish comic books in the world - about 600 titles - does not count Superman as a Jewish comic book. "Superman was born on Krypton, not in Israel," he observes.

Almost all the comics on display at the Jewish Community Center come from Bergson's collection. Although he has been collecting comic books since he was a child, Bergson began saving Jewish comic books in 1996 because "they became more noticeable to me at that time. And I thought it was doable to put together a small collection." To meet his standard, a comic book has to have characters who are clearly Jewish--either because they are stated to be so, or because they have something that identifies them as being Jewish, such as a menorah in their home.

Superman has a spot in the exhibit, from an issue created in the early 90's in which he time-travels back to the Warsaw Ghetto and kapows Nazi thugs. But it is only the inclusion of Jewish characters in the story that allowed him to make the exhibit's cut. Not included is a 1941 cover on which Captain America slugs Hitler, though it is one of the best-known covers in history (and Captain America's creators were Jewish). Nor are there any panels devoted to the Incredible Hulk, who creator Stan Lee has said is based on the Golem, a mythical figure in Jewish folklore.

Instead the exhibit keeps its focus on comics with clearly stated Jewish characters, such as the first Israeli comic book featuring a superhero called Sabraman. (Jews born in Israel are sometimes called Sabras. The name comes from a cactus that is prickly on the outside, but tender on the inside.) Also included is an American strip about a superhero named Nuklon. Oirich takes a certain perverse pride in the fact that Nuklon "is big, strong and thuggy. He's the opposite of a Jewish stereotype - he's not accountant-guy."

Because the theme of the exhibit is superheroes, some quirky characters were left out. Krusty the Klown from "The Simpsons" (his father is Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky) isn't here. Nor is Leonard, one half of the gay couple in "Leonard & Larry," a comic that appeared for years in the national gay magazine the Advocate. Also not on display are "Maus," Art Spiegleman's depiction of the Holocaust, which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, or "Yossel, April 29, 1943" by Joe Kubert, who, at 77, is exploring new forms of cartooning with his highly praised graphic novel set during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

"We have small exhibition space, so we focused on one topic," Sander says. "But you could fill a whole museum with Jewish comic book characters."

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