This month, a special 25th anniversary edition of Art Spiegelman’s “MAUS,” the first comic book ever to win a Pulitzer Prize, is being published to much fanfare. The award and the provocative nature of the book — a story of the Holocaust told in comics — had many critics arguing then about whether the medium suited the gravity of the subject. But all the attention that debate received eclipsed another: the extent to which comics themselves are an essentially “Jewish” art form.
Like so much else Jewish, scholars and writers have since discovered the fertile soil upon which comic art grew: the culture of the immigrant experience, Yiddishkeit (or “Yiddishness”). Comic art, described by some critics as the most original contribution of Americans — along with jazz — to global popular culture, is also part Jewish, like nearly every other nook and cranny of popular culture.
Emerging at the turn of the last century from the print culture of big cities, comics would naturally be a place where immigrant-born, artistically inclined factory workers and then small-scale publishers would seize the opportunity. Legions of adoring fans were soon to be found amid a semi-literate mass society in love with stories told through pictures, and these young innovators capitalized on them.
The first major Yiddish comic strip emerged a century ago. At the time, the Forverts had a press run of 150,000 daily, but it was its chief competitor, Varhayt (“Truth”), that launched the first regular Yiddish comic strip. Artist Samuel Zagat conceived a character, Gimpel Binish, with a top hat and long beard, trying and failing repeatedly to make a living as a matchmaker. There were other Yiddish comics experiments, too, but the apex was surely “Sharlie, S’Makhste” (best translated as Charlie, Howyadoin?”) in the Labor Zionist Tsayt (“Times”) of the early 1920s. An underemployed garment worker faced with being laid off, among other problems, Charlie was closest in sensibility to the best English-language counterparts.
Gimpel and Charlie were no doubt inspired by the English-language daily strips that flourished before them. Few artists creating these strips were Jews and even fewer would advertise their Jewishness if they were. But a few definitely were Jews nonetheless: Rube Goldberg, whose very name is an Oxford English Dictionary entry for nonsensical machines, Harry Hirshfeld and Milt Gross, among them. And their comics certainly seemed as Jewish as the artists themselves, if you read between the lines.
Hirshfeld’s protagonist Abie Kabibble, in the longtime hit “Abie the Agent,” was a broken-accented salesman who must have been unmistakably Jewish to anyone encountering a Jewish immigrant. But who knows what insular, rural Americans of the 1910s through ‘40s may have thought when they read these comics? Did they, for instance, imagine that “L’il Abner,” by Al Capp, was the work of a Jew ridiculing gentile culture? Probably not. As in so many fields but especially comedy, Jewish artists managed to get inside Everyman and disguise if not escape themselves, at least in print.
To be sure, Gross and Hirshfeld did keep a hint of Yiddish accent alive, but even that faded during the 1930s. If the booming trade of comic books had a Jewish quality outside of its artists and small businesses, this quality was largely, purposefully hidden. That is until Mad Comics ushered in something of a revival. Its blatant Jewish references and Yinglish gags mocked postwar consumerism from the standpoint of former Bronx tenement dwellers, giving Yiddishkeit new life in postwar comics.
The so-called “Superhero” comic books emerged at the end of the 1930s, aimed primarily at juveniles and especially male juveniles, the perfect audience for superheroes of all types. There are many theories of why Jewish comic artists and scriptwriters would hit upon such figures — the popular legend of the Golem is a favorite — but the likeliest explanation is that lower-middle-class Jewish artists found a home in a field where Jews were not excluded or even limited. Collectively, in greater New York, young Jewish men made a career choice in comics.
I’ve left out an important part of the story so far, however. Comics were not the only newspaper art form where Jews made an impact — Jews also had an important role in cartoons. Comics, which are essentially consecutive panels, telling a story through continuity, grew up as a sister genre to the cartoon, a single image with a political or humorous message. And in cartoons, Yiddish newspapers had artists almost from the beginning doing mostly political cartoons.
The greatest success in cartoons, and in some ways the most Yiddish-flavored publication ever in the United States, was the Groyser Kundes (1909-27), a weekly humor magazine lampooning Jewish celebrities, politics, manners and morals of the day. The melancholy poet, publisher and editor Jakob Marinov made a good living out of paying low wages to the overabundance of writers who could turn out a witty line, and to the handful of artists skilled at caricature but with also an urbane and humane mind.
But Groyser Kundes closed its doors at the same time that the Yiddish theater entered its final, glorious phase, and Yiddish film was enjoying a golden moment with a worldwide audience. The reason seems to be that Groyser Kundes had been too intimate, perhaps even too highbrow, while the performing arts could be enjoyed by a much wider Jewish community here and abroad. Of course, larger factors did Groyser Kundes in as well. Yiddish as an everyday language faded in the U.S., even before it was all but eradicated in Europe by the Holocaust.
But Yiddishkeit? That’s another story. Thanks to klezmer music, revivals of a kind are on the rise. And thanks to the growth of chasidism, Yiddish as a working language may even have something of a secure future. But what about Yiddish as an artistic language — one used by comic illustrators and literary figures alike?
There is good news on this front, too: A handful of Jewish comic artists actually enjoyed a revival during the 1970s by dint of their own creative energy and a new comic audience. The so-called “Underground” comics of the 1960s and ‘70s had top-flight Jewish artists Trina Robbins, whose father was a Yiddish journalist, and Sharon Rudahl, whose favorite themes were multigenerational Jewish memories. (Both these artists, and many others of their generation, are part of a new exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum titled “Graphic Details: Comics by Jewish Women.” See accompanying story on 30.)
This uncensored, often highly sexualized and druggy genre of comic art faded as the “underground” genre of newspapers gave way to alternative newsweeklies, publications that were more commercial and less experimental. A niche market emerged for small publishers. It wasn’t a bad niche, however, since reprints of old-time comic art were now gaining a readership and cultural cachet. In addition, experiments with the comic book form itself, with hints of artistic modernism and postmodernism woven in, slammed up against the staid traditions still on view in daily papers and superhero comic books, highlighting their own artistry.
This context was the one that brought us Art Spiegelman, a seminal figure of his age. His Raw Magazine (1980-‘91) epitomized his generation’s mix of high art and pop culture. But Raw was not so much “Jewish” (let alone Yiddish) as it was a venue for a global community of artists sharing a common punk vein.
Yet two colleagues of Spiegelman did have a clear Jewish sensibility. The first was the future MacArthur Fellow Ben Katchor, whose idiosyncratic style and language has been described by many as the “most Yiddish” in generations. To be sure, this is not for his language so much as the inflection, or the state of mind he evoked. The other was Harvey Pekar, creator of a long-running series about lower-middle-class life, mainly his own, in Cleveland. By the time the biopic “American Splendor” came out in 2002, Pekar was an icon of secular, progressive Yiddishist sensibilities long on the wane. But since his death in 2010, it has been difficult to point to a successor.
Still, there are notable younger artists that give one hope. Sammy Harkham, Miriam Libicki, Vanessa Davis and Lauren Weinstein, for instance, are outstanding rising figures with styles and themes in line with a Jewish sensibility. All of them draw upon Jewish-European memories or themes of Yiddish-speaking communities, and try to give them new meaning for 21st-century Americans.
Where does the story end? It doesn’t, of course. Traditions are so rich that artistic generations far into the future will ponder how being a Jewish comic artist relates to that tradition. What they create that is both their own and simultaneously a claim upon that legacy will also likely be debated well into the future.
Paul Buhle collaborated with Harvey Pekar on five books, including “Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land,” which was published last month. He also edited “Jews and American Comics,” and the three-volume “Jews and American Popular Culture.”