JEWISH IMAGES IN THE COMICS: A VISUAL HISTORY
by Fredrik Strömberg
Fantagraphic Books, 2012
A most unusual book by a most unusual author in the comics world, this small-sized, thick, square volume follows in many ways upon Fredrik Strömberg’s Black Images in the Comics (2001). It also departs in so many other ways that the contrast is vastly illuminating. In Black Images, Strömberg—the president of the Swedish Comics Association as well as editor of the Scandinavian Journal of Comic Art—hit upon the format of a single comic panel or several panels, on a single page, with his commentary facing, perhaps going on two or three book pages or not going on at all. He could be accused of being scattershot, extricating a choice (his choice) item from context rather than writing a chapter or essay containing his arguments, but the range of the selection was remarkable. His own, usually clipped commentary gives us a quick take, without presumption to scholarly reference or deathless insight.
Black Images in the Comics carried a single, emphatic message: the images were not based on people of color anywhere in the world, but rather and with only recent exceptions, were projections of the (white) artists’ imagination. A perfect case of “othering,” they could be ridiculing or intentionally uplifting (from recent decades) but only in the case of a handful of African and African American artists did they bear resemblance to real life’s complexities. Jewish Images is frustratingly divided by topics so that no similar sense of progression can be found. It is also rather shy of comic strip Jews before 1930, given the available choices, and shy of outright anti-Semitic strips, while arguably overabundant in the comics of the last twenty years or so.
Admittedly, the overwhelming majority of strips written and drawn by Jews, of Jewish life and history, have been published within the recent past and the pace of production is anything but slackening. Still, the reader may find less of a sense of change in comic art than a sampling of what is out there now.
Two or three themes emerge or rather seem to dominate these physically small but numerous pages. And one large theme is nearly missing, so we can helpfully start there. The diaspora, before the rise of Nazism, scarcely exists; life in the European Pale seems mainly a prologue to the Holocaust; and the fabulously rich personal and cultural life of Jews themselves in a century and a quarter of American life makes a only a small dent.
There are some good reasons for this. Superhero comics, the overwhelming majority of all comics published to this day, would naturally attract themes of supernatural action. The golem-like stories and heroes in Captain Israel (2011) constitute a painfully combative case in point, horribly violent and nationalistic to the point of racism. Strömberg is at pains, also, to give us a fair sampling of other appearances in mainstream comics, where crypto-Jewish Peter Parker (of Spiderman) might make an entrance but doesn’t. Mainly, he features assorted characters from the 1970s to present—none of them portrayed with anti-Semitic intent, none of them very compelling to non-superhero fans. Which is to say: they are violent people in violent worlds, and there are few Jewish-style regrets for the degree of violence. The selection would have been improved by the presence of more women artists, typically if not always associated with nonviolent approaches.
Religion also looms large, from superhero figures to instructive or didactic comics produced to attract the wavering Jew back into the fold (and as the author, notes, readily on sale in many Jewish-themed bookshops). Satirical treatment of Jewishness, religious practices, and Israeli claims, is cautious here, except for the work by artists of the old underground comix and their political heirs (like Seth Tobocman and Peter Kuper of the World War 3 Illustrated group). The author thus fairly describes the ongoing comic scene, or at least a significant portion of it, worlds away from, say, the club and television worlds of Jewish stand-up comedy or Jewish characters in sitcoms. One set of stereotypes, closer to the views of secularists today, thus seems to be replaced by another, oddly closer to Jewish institutional views—oddly because the artists, with a handful of exceptions, have no apparent ties to them. I missed especially Mad Comics’ Willie Elder, with his portrayals of Yiddish-like language and Bronx mannerisms, the wellspring of Mad Magazine, the greatest satirical force in literature for a half-century (preparing the way, as it did, for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons).
Still, such generalizations may easily escape the casual reader, who is likely to flip through the book endlessly and find items of interest reading the text to get a few mental notes. It’s not only an interesting but also a valuable book, especially for a field as complex and dynamic as this.