The rabbi as superhero: At a recent gathering of comic book enthusiasts, such an imaginative leap wouldn’t have seemed out of place. In fact, the irony of the location of the inaugural Jewish Comic Con wasn’t lost on event curator and comic book creator Fabrice Sapolsky.
“This industry was created by secular Jews,” Sapolsky said, sitting at a table displaying his work. “Now we’re full circle — the first Jewish Comic Con is in a synagogue! We’re remembering where we came from by doing this show.”
The synagogue was the Modern Orthodox Congregation Kol Israel, a landmark shul in Crown Heights, of which Sapolsky is a member. The two-day event, which attracted about 150 aficionados Nov. 12-13, explored the unique confluence of Jewish identity and comic-book lore.
The sanctuary was outfitted with a row of tables featuring noted comic book cartoonists, including cartoonist and comics journalist Josh Neufeld, known for working with the late comic book legend Harvey Pekar, and Jordan Gorfinkel, part of the team that managed the Batman franchise at DC Comics for nearly a decade (his “Everything’s Relative” strip appears in The Jewish Week). A diverse group of attendees lingered at the tables; several wore costumes, including one Batwoman and several Supermen.
The event was the brainchild of Kol Israel’s president, Fred Polaniecki, and Sapolsky, creator of “Spider Man Noir” and “Intertwined.” According to Polaniecki, the two were at a Shabbat dinner together and Polaniecki, who knew that Sapolsky had worked for Marvel Comics, relayed the synagogue’s commitment to the arts and his hope of having some programming tied to comics. Sapolsky suggested making a Jewish Comic Con, and the event became a reality three months later.
Special guests included New York cartoonist Mort Gerberg, whose work has appeared in magazines such as the New Yorker; Emmy Award-winning comic book artist Dean Haspiel; and Julian Voloj, photographer and author of the graphic novel “Ghetto Brother: Warrior to Peacemaker.” Panels were moderated by writer and comedian Arie Kaplan and Danny Fingeroth, previous group editor of the Spider-Man books at Marvel.
One panel discussion traced “The Jewish Roots of Comics,” showing how Jewish creators often hid their heritage; instead of explicitly identifying a character as Jewish, they would hint at it with a small Star of David necklace or some other identifier, according to panelists.
“Early comic book creators sometimes changed their names and had to hide Jewish characters and content, but were still able to use their talents to progress ideas of truth and justice,” said Polaniecki.
These Jewish values are apparent in comics such as the Batman series, as a later panel on “The Mezuzah on the Batcave Door: Jewish Elements of Batman” pointed out. Gorfinkel and Sholly Fisch (also a former Batman editor at DC Comics) discussed how Batman — whose creator, Bob Kane, was Jewish — experiences tragedy yet dedicates his life to making it a better world for everyone. That ethos, they suggested, reflects the core Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world).
That comics can tackle tough subjects was evident in the event’s final panel: “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust.” Holocaust scholar Rafael Medoff and comics historian and publisher Craig Yoe, co-publishers of a book of the same title, spoke about the history of comics in bringing awareness of the Holocaust.
“Political cartoonists tried raising awareness of the Nazis and the Holocaust as it was happening,” said Medoff. And cartoons, he added, are an effective way of educating American teenagers today. “If you want them to remember something about the Holocaust, and if you want to prod them to think about the lessons that can be learned from it, a powerful graphic image such as an editorial cartoon can go a long way.”
Buoyed by the success of the event, Polaniecki is hoping to bring it back next year. Polaniecki, Sapolsky and some of the other artists involved in Jewish Comic Con also hope to take the event on the road to more Jewish communities. Several synagogues have already contacted Polaniecki to express interest in hosting a similar event, he said. “We would love to bring JCC to the Krakow Jewish Festival.”