The Jewish Origin Story of the Comics


From its roots to its representation, the discourse surrounding comic book culture addresses the past and present of New York Jewish chronicles

Zach, a third-grade superhero fan, has his action figures on display at his mother’s apartment. Manhattan, NY. Thursday April 14, 2022. Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

As author and graphic novelist Arie Kaplan put the finishing touches on his visual props and notes for his virtual lecture”From Krakow to Krypton: Jews, Justice, and Comics” on April 12, approximately 200 attendees tuned in to learn more about the distinctly Jewish history of comics — and the impact these comics have had on culture today.

Speaking to comic book creators and their corresponding characters, Kaplan, who practices Reform Judaism, said this kind of storytelling exudes an undeniable Jewish sensibility and morality. Superman, Batman, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers and the X-Men were created by Jewish minds, Kaplan said. According to Harvard Divinity Bulletin, the Jewish people produced the first comic book, the first graphic novel, and the first comic book store. The first- and second-generation American Jews behind the designs were not only the publishers, but also the artists, writers, and illustrators who brought this fledgling industry to life.

At first, this almost homogeneous field of Jewish creators was no coincidence, Kaplan said. The origin is not, he added, any fairy tale. The comics emerged in part due to anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiment. As daily newspapers refused to accept illustrations by Jewish artists, Jewish creatives looked outside mainstream media.

“By 1938, Jewish Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel had been kicked out of the higher paying advertising field and were still living with their parents,” Kaplan said. “So it was comic books for them.”

The lecture was presented by The Workers Circle, a Manhattan-based American Jewish nonprofit organization that promotes social justice and Jewish education. With this conference, The Workers Circle aimed to contextualize the breadth of the American and Jewish immigrant experience, said its CEO Ann Toback.

Flyer for the virtual presentation, “From Krakow to Krypton: Jews, Justice, and Comics,” with keynote speaker Arie Kaplan who wrote a book of the same name. Manhattan, NY. Tuesday April 12, 2022. Graphic design by the Workers Circle.

“The United States is a stronger society because of the many experiences of immigration that have historically contributed — and continue to contribute — to its diversity,” Toback said. “It’s eye-opening to understand how much of the pop culture we value is the result of the contributions of immigrants. It is also remarkable to see that our culture reflects the overcoming of obstacles.

In their DNA and making, comics are a response to economic hardship, war and oppression, Kaplan said during the hour-long lecture. For example, Superman’s name, Kal-El, is Jewish, as it is a Hebrew name meaning “all of God”. Kaplan, who has interviewed comic book icons such as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Art Spiegelman, said storylines in comic books tend to focus on a conflict between good and evil.

“Wishing someone to help us is a powerful power fantasy,” Kaplan said. “We’ve had these fantasies for millennia as part of religion, especially in Judaism.”

Comics influence the self-esteem and character development of their young audiences, said Kaplan, who has written children’s books for Penguin Random House.

“Comic book characters made me feel like a kid because I was a very lonely kid,” he added. “I don’t think it was an accident that a lot of my favorite characters were neurotic, sickly, short and skinny like me.”

The identity in the comics of Zach, an eight-year-old child from the Upper West Side, extends beyond religious affiliation and shares a common ground with his fictional role models. Headquarters for the Fantastic Four, Avengers, Defenders, New Warriors, and Midnight Sons are located in the city, and major heroes like Spider-Man, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Moon Knight, and Doctor Strange also operate in the city. one of the five boroughs. Zach, a superhero fan since he was five, has seen every Marvel movie. Zach’s favorite superhero, Spider-Man, is from Queens.

Zach shows his sketch of Captain America. Manhattan, NY. Thursday April 14, 2022. Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

“Well, Spider-Man has to have the big buildings in the city to swing around to be Spider-Man,” Zach said.

In 1943, 95% of children ages 8 to 11 were regular comic book readers. Now, beyond the page, audiences of all ages are consuming superhero content. More than half of American adults aged 18-34 have seen at least one of Marvel’s “The Avengers” films. Four of the top 10 The highest-grossing movies of all time come from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

From the big screen to personal streaming, Marvel Entertainment is a subsidiary of entertainment industry conglomerate The Walt Disney Company. Currently being released as a Marvel miniseries on Disney+, moon knight contains a character called Marc Spector who, after many backlash and accusations about erasing Jewish aspects of the comics, will be revealed as explicitly Jewish by the end of the series. The producers also consulted an expert in Judaism for further clarification.

On March 19, Raven Karlick, a sophomore at Purchase College and a fan of humanist Jewish comics, tweeted: “All this Mou a knight The situation continued to prove to me that MCU fandoms were never safe for Jews, or really any marginalized group.

Karlick, 20, said he dealt with anti-Semitism in comic book communities. There should have been more Jews moon knight writers, Karlick argued in an interview with NY City Lens. However, in response to Karlick’s statement on Twitter, moon knight Lead director Mohamed Diab said Marc Spector’s protagonist will be Jewish, viewers just have to “wait for the show to finish”.

Zach plays with his Captain America merchandise. Captain America Comic #1 went on sale in December 1940, with this comic’s cover featuring Steve Rogers (also known as Captain America) punching Adolf Hitler – as created by New York-based Jewish Comics York Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Manhattan, NY. Thursday April 14, 2022. Riley Farrell for NY City Lens.

As indicated by many studies, representation is important. When it comes to comic media, seeing elements of one’s identity in a superhero is a psychological development. Yet blockbuster superhero movie adaptations, despite being largely imagined

by Jewish creativity, lack adequate Jewish representation, Karlick said. Intentionally or not, they added, MCU creators and fans have limited the inherent Jewishness of the comics.

“As their Jewish history shows, superheroes bring hope,” Karlick said. “Marginalized communities are no longer safe in comic book communities. It’s just sad because, you know, the original purpose was to raise marginalized Jewish voices.


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