Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book Review: "From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books" by Arie Kaplan

Text by Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

As Arie Kaplan clearly shows in his book, From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books (The Jewish Publication Society, 2008, $25; more information below), one cannot tell the story of the Jews’ role in comic books without telling the history of comics.

From the start, Kaplan illustrates how Jews, being excluded from the general graphics design business due to their heritage, created not created a means in, but fashioned an entire industry along the way.

The first official comic, published by Max “Charlie” Gains (Ginsburg), and titled Famous Funnies, was a pasted together book of newspaper comic strips that sold independently in 1933. The depression was in full swing, and people were looking for inventive ways to make a living, which was made all the harder by prejudice, be it racial or religious. As this new idea started out, as often follows, there were imitators.

Just a few short years later as the market for reprints was waning, National Comics (which would change it’s name to DC), published the first Superman story in 1938, created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, two childhood friends who had been percolating the idea since they were 12 (in their youth they were members of a Science Fiction club whose fellow clubmember and friend was the late Forrest J. Ackermann, the Jewish creator of Famous Monsters of Filmland, as Kaplan notes). It was then that comics started booming, and the era of the superhero started.

In typical Jewish fashion of the ‘30s, a time of social reform, Superman represents that idea of being a “man of the people,” and protector of the under-represented. As Kaplan also correctly points out, as his popularity rose, he became more of a symbol of the “protector of everyman,” in which he became more of a “leader of men.” [I want to acknowledge here and now that I am aware of my masculine use of the word “man” for humanity; simply, I am trying to speak in terms of the book, and the period of which I am discussing.]

In other words, if I may use the allegory of which this book is informed, Superman basically went from Golem, a symbol of protection of the weak, to rabbi, who is a representative of the entire congregation (i.e., humanity). However, due to the time period and the approaching war in Europe, Superman came across as very “Protestant,” despite his Jewish origins (such as his escape from Krypton in a Moses-like rocket/basket by a family that hoped he would be safe at the other end). This is especially true during World War II, when Superman became a symbol of Americana, to a grander purpose to protect the United States, the Allies, and the world from Nazi aggression. Despite some codified Jewish signatures, he became the icon of a (mostly) Christian nation, and the books reflected that.

The next big addition to the comics universe was by Bob Kane (Kahn) and the under-appreciated Bill Finger, the Jewish creators of my personal favorite comics character, the Bat-man (later shortened to just Batman, of course). Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and Jack Kirby (Kurtzberg) and Joe Simon’s Captain America, shortly followed. From there, it just kept exploding, including stalwarts such as Stan Lee (Leiber) and Gil Kane (Eli Katz). In fact, the field becomes so crowded with artists and writers, most of whom are from Jewish backgrounds (though excellent comic book people like Joe Orlando, obviously, are not), it is hard to tell who is Jewish and who is not, especially since so many names were changed as Jews in many fields often did up until the ‘50s. Even though there were some who sported their own birth names, such as Will Eisner, Al Jaffee, Chris Claremont (that was easy), and Joe Kubert, it was more common to have an assimilated name. By the time of the underground comix, however, it was ordinary to see names like Harvey Pekar, Trina Robbins, and Art Spiegelman.

Before the rise of comix in the late 60s, most of the “Jewishness” of the characters, Kaplan points out, are codified, such as the Superman/Moses motif mentioned earlier, or the use of the Golem, which Kaplan connects to both Superman (protector) and the Hulk (uncontrollable beast created by man), but oddly, not to Ben Grimm (Fantastic Four’s The Thing), which seems quite obvious to me (clay/stone), especially since Grimm has been “outed” as being Jewish.

One of the ironies of the whole history of the role of Jews in comics is that while the industry was essentially built by this group, it was also almost taken down by one of its own in the ‘50s, thanks to the book Seduction of the Innocent by Frederic Wertham. His was a McCarthy-istic level of attack of seeing sex in the shadows and lines of the comics (especially those put out by EC). This led to a gatekeeping intra-industry self-governance organization (similar to the Hay’s Office in film started 20 years earlier) called the Comics Code Authority, which help stifle originality and a level of social justice, turning the books more into romance and common-denominator superheroes stories. [As a sidebar: censorship is an outside influence, gatekeeping is a inter-industry watchgroup.]

Essentially, the book is broken up into three appropriate sections: The Golden Age (1933-55), The Silver Age (1956-78) and The Bronze Age (1979-present). My personal history of comics (though geek-lite; I was not as much a “collector” as a reader – and re-reader – who kept his comics) started in the Silver Age of the early ‘60s, and went through until around 2003, when my comic collecting sort of curtailed. Kaplan has pointed out much about this period that I had not only been unaware, but also not had the insight to realize. Happily, Kaplan is quite thorough on the “hidden” Jewishness of the character and plots, and about the artists who drew them. Especially enjoyable is the deeper focus on specific creators (such as Siegel and Schuster, Kane and Finger, Eisner, Kirby, Pekar, and Spiegelman).

It was quite nice to see a nod (albeit brief) to Phil Seuling, who created both the comic con, and the comic book specialty shop (the first, opened by Seuling, was in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, on the corner of 20th Avenue and 85th Street, by the way…it’s a liquor store now). He was also my high school teacher who took us to DC Comics to watch them be created, and brought some guests into the classroom like Gray Morrow and Jim Steranko. But I digress…

Another of the aspects I appreciate about From Krakow to Krypton is how Kaplan deconstructs some of the codified information about its subjects (and authors), such as the Golem connections I mentioned previously. Sometimes it felt a bit like a stretch (e.g., Spiderman having “Jewish stereotypes” of being “bespectacled, slight of build, studious, awkward”), but more often it was more of “Ohhhhhh, I get it” and “Ah-ha!” moments.

Two posits of Kaplan that I truly appreciate especially are the degree of “Jewishness” the early artists were trying to express (e.g., social justice), and how after the rise of the independent comics, mainstream characters were not only more overtly Jewish (Rory Regan in Ragman, Kitty Pryde in X-Men), but also how older characters were later revealed to be of the faith (Magneto in X-Men, Ben Grimm in The Fantastic Four). Of course, in the independents, there was more of a connection right from the start, with books like Maus, the works of Harvey Pekar, and important contributors like Will Eisner, such as the amazing A Contract With God. What I would like to see more of by Kaplan, in possible future books (or editions) is more about the writers’ and artists’ background. For example, Kaplan notes that Bill Gaines (publisher of MAD is to have been atheistic, and Eisner was secular, but I’m also interested in the religious history of the others, like Kirby, Kane, and Lee.

I do have two points of contention with the book that I must add. First, on page 107, Kaplan states that, “Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics of the 1960s were also distinct because they were written for a wider audience demographic than most comic books.” I totally disagree, in a friendly, debating kind of way. I believe that these comics were designed for a more specific and knowledgeable readership. Kaplan even states in the same paragraph that “for the first time comic books went out of their way to court high school and college students as well as young kids. Teenagers racked with adolescent neuroses and identity issues identified heavily with characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men…” Earlier comics were broad-based stories that anyone of any age could read, not just kids (this is, in my opinion, the result of the CCA, trying to make sure that everyone can be happy). The second half of the ‘60s brought back cultural relevance and social justice story lines that had been gone for a while. It had to become more focused on a specific demographic that started to be too old and too savvy, and brought them back into the fold.

My second contention is the lack of mention of one of my favorite series, Shaloman, an independent comic from the early 1990s written, drawn and produced by Al Weisner (Mark 1 Comics). It’s mostly tongue-in-cheek, but the comic also deals with the futility of in-fighting between Jewish sects (portrayed, for example, by a war between the planets Chasidiak Four and Grivenus Seven), anti-Semitism, and cultural food, all wrapped in a sharp sense of Yiddishe humor. As far as I have seen, though, the first Jewish comic book series produced by, for, and about Jews is Mendy and the Golem, created in 1982 by writer Leibel Estrin, artist Dovid Sears, and colorist Barry Grossman. Issued by publisher Yankel Pinson's Mendy Enterprises in New York City, it deals with a Chasidic family and their Golem, Sholem (whose face you never see because he's taller than the comic's frame), and tells of Ashkinaszi Jewish traditions, historical stories and scholars, and ways to live one's life. It is geared towards older children, but has a funny and corny sense of humor with liberal use of puns, and with lots of Hebrew and Yiddish thrown in (with translations, 'natch).

That being said, I want to say I also admire the format of the book. The layout is superb, with many color and black-and-white illustrations, including some full pages of stories that relate to what Kaplan has described. Even the forward, by Harvey Pekar (text) and JT Waldman (art), presented in comic form, feels right.

Russell Wolinsky, ex-singer of the seminal New York band the Sic F*cks, asked me how this book compared to Danny Fingeroth’s Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero. The answer is simple: I don’t know, as I haven’t yet read Fingeroth. Maybe another blog at another time?

An aspect about Arie Kaplan’s From Krakow to Krypton that is appealing is that while it respects the comic nerd and never talks down to him/her, this is also a cultural study that is non-exclusive, so even if one is just interested in Jewish cultural history, they can read this and not feel lost, or like an outsider. Kaplan treats all his readers equally, being that he is a mensch.

About the author (from the book jacket): Arie Kaplan is a comedian, MAD Magazine writer, and author of the new comic book miniseries Speed Racer: Chronicles of the Racer. His other comic book credits include the DC title Cartoon Network Action Pack and the Papercutz series Tales From the Crypt. Arie lectures all over the country about comic books, comedians, and popular culture. He is the author of Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed! And he’s also written for MTV, Cartoon Network, and PBS Kids.

About the publisher: The Jewish Publication Society is a nonprofit educational organization formed to enhance the Jewish culture by promoting the dissemination of religious and secular works, in the United States and abroad, to all individuals and institutions interested in past and contemporary Jewish life.


  1. Im glad you wrote about this book, I don't think I would've discovered it. Im also curious about Masters of The Comic Book Universe revealed. Anyway, really good writing.

  2. Thanks, Jason! I found out about the book when I read about Kaplan making an appearence at the Jewish Community Center in NYC this coming February 3. The book looked interesting, so I pursued it. Well worth it, too. I may try to go to that.