Friday, May 13, 2022
The history of comic books and graphic novels is replete with Jewish creators, writers and characters. Among the most famous creators were two Jews from Ohio, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, who together created Superman. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, and Al Weisner are just a few of the many other Jewish creators who helped create and further both the format and genre of comic books and graphic novels. A revived interest in the history of the genre and format came after the passing of Stan Lee in 2018, who was co-creator of many of the superheroes and superhero teams for Marvel Comics.
These items are displayed at the Klau Library on our NY campus.
Many of these characters are specifically written as being Jewish, from Moon Knight who is the son of a rabbi, Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat, Ben Grimm aka The Thing, and one of the most well-known examples, Magneto. A major character in the X-Men series, Magneto is famously identified as being a survivor of the Holocaust and was featured in a run of issues regarding his experiences in 2009’s Testament series. There are also Jewish characters from DC Comics, including Kate Kane/Batwoman who is a Jewish lesbian, Seraph, and Firestorm. Many of these Jewish characters are depicted as being non-practicing, but the character Ben Grimm is shown having a Bar Mitzvah, and Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat wears a Jewish star and is shown celebrating Hanukkah.
These examples show, especially in the current cultural moment of heated debates over book censorship in libraries and elsewhere, that representation in the wider culture matters. One example of this is the debate around Art Spiegelman’s Maus. This famous series of graphic novels depicts his parents’ experiences as survivors of the Holocaust and later life. Spiegelman portrays the Nazis as cats and Jews as mice that are being hunted and persecuted. This series was removed or banned from various libraries around the country recently with school libraries in Tennessee citing the books’ instances of nudity and profanity. Spiegelman and others came out to defend his books as being critical for understanding and discussing the Holocaust through his family’s personal narrative.
This episode, and other discussions around age-appropriate materials and challenging content in schools and libraries, shows the importance of representation in the wider culture. When materials that speak to the diversity of experience in America are provided, the education of students and their communities flourishes. To that end, many comics have been reimagined, such as Black Panther and others, where new stories are being written by people from diverse backgrounds, like Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates, and similar writers from a specific community, can write more nuanced portrayals of the people and experiences of those particular communities than external writers could, making a more authentic and therefore truly educational impact on their readers, both within their own communities as well as on those seeking to learn more about the world around them.
This is one of the reasons why there are Orthodox comic books geared for the Orthodox community, such as HaGibor by Achdut Entertainment. The story chronicles a boy studying in yeshiva who becomes a hero battling the forces of evil. Each issue is written in both English and Hebrew, to enable the reader to use it as a resource to learn either language. It is explicitly sanctioned by Orthodox authorities as being “…appropriate material for approximate Bar/Bat Mitzvah age children and up, broadly fitting into the guidelines of what would be PG-13. The concepts reflected within are born from and support a mainstream orthodox Torah worldview.” (http://comick.org/, accessed 4/13/2022)
It is also the case that the Orthodox community wants to ensure that reading material, especially when in the format and genre of comic books/graphic novels, portray Orthodox Judaism in the correct way and to inculcate the correct values. This is a priority of any community that tries to pass on their values to the next generation and is why publishing stories with a diversity of voices, portrayals, and characters is of the utmost importance. If voices are silenced or censored, both the individual communities and the wider culture are impacted negatively. Defining what is and is not appropriate for a given audience will always generate controversy and discussion from multiple perspectives, which is why it so important to have as many viewpoints represented, if not celebrated. Jewish creators and their characters and books are a source of pride for the wider Jewish community, and have and continue to enrich the genre, format, and medium of comic books and graphic novels.
Contributed by Eli Lieberman, Assistant Librarian