Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An imperfectly and incomplete annotated bibliography for Jews and Comics

In preparation for my class on Jews and Comic Books, I've been asked to share a few titles on the subject, so here goes!

First step has to be From Krakow To Krypton, Arie Kaplan's history of the role Jews played in the Comic Book industry from the birth of the Golden Age until today (well, until the early 2000s). A writer for MAD Magazine, Arie gives an insider's look, often citing hard to find resources, his own interviews with the greats (Stan Lee, Joe Kubert) as well as other primary sources.

For a thinly veiled fictional account of the Golden Age and the Jewish impact thereof, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. Chabon takes a lot of the subconscious Jewish elements of the early superhero stories and translates them into overt and intentional literary/artistic devices, all woven together with stories of loss, love, the Shoah, and American antisemitism.

Now, onto the actual comics:

Will Eisner's Contract With God trilogy: the Spirit's creator blends autobiography with a story of the immigrant experience in America over the course of 100 years in the first bona-fide "graphic novel'.

Joe Kubert's Jew Gangster explores the seedier, tough-guy side of Jewish life.

A. David Lewis, MP Mann and Jennifer Rogers' The Lone And Level Sands explores the Exodus story through a thoroughly modern Midrash. A story on faith, love, and power.

Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat series is a blend of Yiddish and Chasidic tale in graphic novel form.

Art Spiegel's Maus. 'nuff said.

Harvey Pekar's American Splendor.   An autobiographical story of being normal. Or not-so-normal. Or just grumpy and Jewish from Cleveland.

R. Crumb's The Book of Genesis. Okay, Crumb's not a Jew (just married to one, who happens to be a damn fine comic book writer herself), but it's hard to read this book without thinking of how it just oozes a certain Jewish view of God and the world.

Neil Gaiman's The Sandman took Jewish narrative elements, western fairy tale and myth, and absolutely blew the roof off what a comic book could do. Much like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and Art Spiegel, he helped push the genre and helped it gain acceptance as true art form.

"But Rabbi, where are the Superhero and mainstream titles?" I'm glad you asked!

J. Michael Straczynski is one of the best comics writers working today. Period. And he injects his yiddishkeit into his works (much as he did with Babylon 5) . His runs on Spider-Man, Superman, Wonder Woman as well as his own books have gotten rave reviews. Look for Superman: Earth One, (where he re-imagines The Man of Steel's origins) and The Brave and The Bold (where he takes the idea of Superhero teamups and blows them up) for some of his best examples (and see if you can find the dialogue that I used as an illustration for an High Holiday sermon!).

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby may have birthed the X-Men and gave them their latent Jewishness, but Chris Claremont took them out of the closet, making Magneto an Holocaust survivor, giving us a strong Jewish lady as a superheroine (Shadowcat, aka Kitty Pryde),  People-of-Color as Superheroes with depth, and brought stories about the fight against bigotry to teens and college kids. While it's considered bombastic by today's standards, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills is a good starting point for first-time readers.

Larry Hama's GI Joe Special Missions. No kidding. Hama took a kiddie book meant to sell toys in the 80s and used it to present one of the most compelling accounts of what it meant to grow up with a Holocaust Survivor as a grandparent, as well as present the idea of a Jew as an elite soldier. Lance "Clutch" Steinberg talks about his grandmother's horror while on a mission to recover a Nazi War Criminal. 

Howard Chaykin's American Flagg (sometimes also Amerikan Flagg!). Follow Reuben Flagg, former actor and stand-up comic, as he climbs from Plexus Ranger to becoming the first Jewish President of the United States in a terribly prescient dystopian future of corporate government control, corruption, graft, spiritually empty consumers, and blind idealism.

There are others, and I've left out Kirby's and Lee's autobiographies (among others) but this is a good start, especially for those who don't read and collect comics already.

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