Netherlands: Superheroes and Schlemiels

Megageek Nick Martens visits Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum’s new exhibit on the history of Jewish comics artists.

Near the end of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon offers a rousing defense of comic books through the character of Josef Kavalier, circa 1954:

Most of all, he loved [comic books] for the pictures and stories they contained, the inspirations and lucubrations of five hundred aging boys dreaming as hard as they could for fifteen years, transfiguring their insecurities and delusions, their wishes and their doubts, their public educations and their sexual perversions, into something that only the most purblind of societies would have denied the status of art.

One could, if one were so inclined, read the entirety of this 600-page Pulitzer Prize-winning novel–a novel of dying families, sexual awakenings, and abandoned love, set against a backdrop of Holocaust escape and World War II–as evidence in support of this statement. Chabon, a Jewish author, brings Kavalier, a Czech Jew, to Brooklyn from Prague in 1939, just when the Nazi’s grip begins to tighten. Kavalier, with his cousin Sammy Clay, immediately sets to work creating comics, hoping to stockpile enough money to spring his family from Europe. Though Kavalier’s superheroes wallop the Nazis nondenominationally, he uses his art to relieve the burden of being utterly powerless against Hitler’s regime. Not to delve too far into term-paper material, but Chabon seems to suggest that more went into the seemingly mindless early comic books than dull male fantasy, and that the resultant works spoke to their young readers on a deeper level than implied by muscly dudes in spandex twisting Panzer canons into knots. For creators and readers alike, comics meant more than their superficialities.

Surveying the new “Superheroes and Schlemiels” exhibit at Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum, it’s hard to disagree with this conclusion. The exhibit seeks to depict “a specific historical connection between comic strip art and Jewish culture,” but such claims are too modest. Nearly all of the most important figures in comic book history are present among the 37 artists in the show, and through their work one can see the entire evolution of the form.

Skimming past the first newspaper cartoonists (Rube Goldberg!), one lands before Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel’s foundational character: Superman. As a cultural icon, Superman has become so enshrined into Americana that considering his legacy feels more like studying mythology than entertainment. He is perhaps the most distilled expression of standard-issue American heroism: moral and physical superiority, plus white skin, and a Y chromosome. But he also embodies subtler aspects of American life like immigration and personal identity. It seems odd, though, to even consider Superman on this conscious level. How does one go about intellectualizing a figure that features prominently both in a philosophical Kill Bill monologue and as a step in the Soulja Boy dance? Perhaps Superman’s deep iconic entrenchment helps to explain the massive public sympathy towards Christopher Reeves (skip to 3:30). The idea of a perfect being is profoundly resonant, and it owes much of this power to the unambiguous ideology of early comic books.

From that prototype, comics began to branch out, if narrowly at first. Two more Jewish artists, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, created Batman, a darker, pragmatically human foil to Superman’s infallible dominance. Jack Kirby created Captain America and, later, teamed up with Stan Lee to devise the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man. Lee himself created Spiderman and Daredevil. Seeing this all-star lineup of early comic book artists exhibited one after another shows the underestimated dramatic range of superheroes, and speaks to the colossal imagination of their creators. Yes, these heroes all represent some kind of adolescent male wish-fulfillment, but each character works within a unique psychological niche, from Peter Parker’s insecurity to Bruce Banner’s rage to Tony Stark’s dependencies. This is not a medium full of generic cut-outs, but a multi-faceted depiction of a specific audience’s wide-ranging temperaments. Though the shared Jewish identity of the artists only rarely manifests itself in the comics themselves, one can see a kinship in their frequent collaborations.

At the heart of the early Jewish comics community lies, arguably, the medium’s most transformational figure, Will Eisner. Eisner co-founded the first American comics production studio, which employed many of the artists mentioned above. He also created The Spirit, a popular series featuring a hard-bitten masked detective. Most crucially, though, in 1978, Eisner published the first graphic novel, A Contract with God. This bleak, realistic book tells heart-breaking tales centered on a Jewish tenement community in 1930s New York. Contract deals with subjects ranging from poverty to adolescent sexuality to losing faith, and Eisner crafts even his most tragic characters with a sympathetic touch. It is precisely what one least expects from the stereotypical conception of comic books, and it represents a turning point in the medium’s history.

Many of the major underground artists that laid the groundwork for Eisner’s artistic breakthrough feature in the exhibit as well. Harvey Kurtzman founded Mad magazine in 1952, which skewed comics towards an adult audience. Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar turned the medium away from tights and muscles in the ’60s and ’70s, directing it instead down a more personal path that many independent comics follow to this day. Though somewhat lesser known, Bernard Krigstein and Al Feldstein’s 1955 comic short-story “Master Race” was a subversive and influential work, among the earliest portrayals of the reality of the Holocaust. Its raw, unfiltered illustrations of crowded gas chambers and piles of corpses came at a time when the public was generally unaware of the specific horrors faced by the victims of concentration camps.

“Master Race,” in part, inspired Art Spiegelman in the creation of Maus, the crown jewel of the exhibit and indeed of comics in general. The darkest words feel too light when describing the comic, which was serialized in the comics magazine RAW beginning in 1980, and eventually published as a complete volume in 1986. Maus is the story Spiegelman’s father’s experiences during the Holocaust, spun together with Spiegelman’s interactions with his father in the present day. It is simply a masterpiece of sorrow–the first comic to win a Pulitzer Prize and among the greatest works of modern literature. To reach Spiegelman’s display via Shuster, Siegel, Kirby, Lee, Crumb, Pekar and Eisner is to see a unique and potent medium bloom before your eyes. The underlying thread of Jewish culture makes this lineage feel even more alive with substance and growth. If the apex of comics history is Maus, the point after which anything becomes possible, it seems frivolous to dismiss its predecessors as shallow or trite. No, they are not pristine works of high art, but there has always been a purpose to comics beyond brute entertainment.

It would be negligent, though, to wallow in high-minded dissection without mentioning a fundamental trait of comics common to few other museum-worthy subjects: fun. It’s fun to visit the Superheroes and Schlemiels exhibit. The old Superman theme plays in the background, underscoring the ridiculous early strips featuring the Man of Steel (Superman to Hitler: “I’d like to land a strictly non-Aryan sock on your jaw”). Pre-production layouts of X-Men covers hang on the wall, revealing correction fluid, eraser smudges, and distinct graphic elements literally pasted on top of the illustrations before being shipped off to the printers. The Eisner section features unpublished sketches for A Contract with God, and one can even see the original Maus inserts from RAW. Better still, at the heart of the exhibit, next to two big couches, are bins full of comics. Any visitor can sit down to enjoy a tangible example of the work she has just seen in the exhibit. It is difficult to imagine a collection from any other medium that could so seamlessly blend together cultural history and religious identity in a way that is at once moving and enjoyable. Only the most purblind of visitors would suggest that these comics felt anything other than at home on the museum walls.

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Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.