Readers who appreciate the Bernie Sanders Comics series may be interested to know that half of the artistic contributors boosting the Jewish candidate happen also to be Jewish.
Comic art, the comic strip and the comic art book, owe less to the Jewish tradition than do film or theater (a favorite quip reads: it would be easier to write a history of American Jews without theater than American theater without Jews … because American theater without Jews would hardly be a history at all). But the tradition, continually growing and changing, still owes a lot to the Jewish tradition, and in several interesting ways.
The comic strip of the daily newspapers – the origin of modern comic art going back to the 1890s – saw giants like Rube Goldberg, Harry Hershfield, and Milt Gross, with millions of devoted readers into the 1930s and 1940s. Often, their characters were also delightfully ‘ethnic’ with the Jewish ‘look’ and language of the immigrant generation, the lively, colorful lower-middle class, malapropisms and all.
Al Capp, a rising newspaper comic strip star of the 1930s, set a different pace: he was Jewish in disguise, for life. The comic books that arose from the late 1930s and had by the middle of the 1940s as much circulation as all other American publications put together, were physically as Jewish as an industry is ever likely to be, owner (or middleman for the pulp publishers) to writer, inker, and artist, but equally invisibly so. Or perhaps more so, because the Aryan look was so common in heroes and heroines and the less white races were usually depicted as inferior or dangerous. With the rise, fall, and partial return of comic books since 1950, the comic art mainstream has remained pretty consistently non-Jewish, albeit more racially diverse and with more female heroines and villains.
A portion of the comics of the genre’s golden years were also among the best, in artistic and humane terms. Comic art in the U.S. reached an apex, perhaps never to be attained again, as mass-circulated comics in several of the series of EC Comics edited by Harvey Kurtzman. His comics about the history of military conflict, up to and including the Korean War, were fact-based, realistic, with the pain of civilians on display – thus a refutation of the heavily stylized war comics of heroic Americans and sneaky foreigners, a type never out of style.
Kurtzman’s Mad Comics proved to be even more influential. When the censorship craze drove EC out of the comics business, Mad Comics became Mad Magazine, fostering a kind of social satire borrowed successively by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, and others to follow.
The “Underground Comix” breaking loose from censorship prominently featured a relatively small handful of Jewish artists, more strongly represented among women, notably Sharon Rudahl and Trina Robbins (also destined to become the scholar of women’s comic art). The genre died with Youth Culture but resurrected in the Alternative or ‘art’ comics, ascending into the acceptance of comics as art at the end of the twentieth century. As artist and publisher, Art Spiegelman set the pace, but Ben Katchor achieved wide recognition, and with him a generation of younger artists including Eric Drooker, Peter Kuper, Seth Tobocman (members of the World War 3 Illustrated group), James Sturm, David Lasky, and Barry Deutsch among others.
Of special interest to Tikkun readers, the rise of Jewish women artists of younger generations – Nicole Schulman, Lauren Weinstein, Vanessa Davis, to name only a few – marks a new note and a new day for comic art.
This small catalogue closes with Harvey Pekar, who is broadly believed to have shown readers, not only in the U.S. or in the English language, a fresh way to “read” comic art. A comic strip writer, not an artist, Pekar nevertheless offered through his artists a host of vivid images of popular, lower class life including his own life as a Veterans Administration hospital worker in Cleveland. The film American Splendor captures, most remarkably, the artist, his milieu, and his contribution to the maturation of comic art at large.
(Managing Editor’s note: Paul Buhle is one of the foremost historians of American radicalism and the American Left. He has also edited 12 comic art books including Yiddishkeit and is the editor of the comic project at www.BernieSandersComics.com. Last week we started running a series of blog posts by Buhle on Tikkun Daily about Bernie Sanders, comics, and the 2016 presidential election. With each post we also published comic art from he and other artists involved in the www.BernieSandersComics.com project. After today, there will be one more post (will run on Tuesday). Today’s comic is from Sharon Kahn Rudahl. Tikkun does not, and cannot, endorse or oppose candidates or political parties. We have published a variety of perspectives about the 2016 election and are actively seeking articles, comics, and other publishable work in support of any and all candidates for the U.S. presidency and from any political party. The views expressed in the posts and comics are the author’s and/or artist’s alone.)
Paul Buhle, ed., Jews and American Comics (2008)
Sarah Lightman, ed., Graphic Details, Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics (2014), a book and an ongoing, traveling exhibit.
Paul Buhle has been a contributor to Tikkun for more than twenty years.
Sharon Kahn Rudahl, one of the founders of women’s underground comix in the 1970s, has published graphic biographies of Emma Goldman and Abraham Lincoln, among other works. She can be reached atPetersfirstname.lastname@example.org.
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