People of the (comic) book

In Israel people know very little about comics and their Jewish roots.

I read the other day that Joe Kubert will be coming to Israel in August on a visit sponsored by the American Embassy, the Holon Municipality & Mediatheque and Mishkenot Sha’ananim. I figure most readers have no idea who Mr. Kubert is, but perhaps are more acquainted with some of his peers: Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. If those names still don’t ring a bell, then maybe some of their creations will: Superman, Batman, Robin, the Joker, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and dozens of other comic-book characters.
Kubert, now 84, is one of the last surviving members of the first generation of comic-book creators, the overwhelming majority of whom were Jewish. Indeed, the medium itself was a Jewish concept. The initial idea of the comic book came from a fellow named Max Gaines (né Ginsburg), who came up with the idea of folding tabloid-sized newsprint into a 64-page booklet which became the forerunner to the comic book. In the early days, the comics were reprints of the newspaper funnies, but when publishers ran out of material they went looking for new features, and that’s when many Jewish creators stepped in. The comic-book industry was born out of the Great Depression.
Financial woes in 1930s America brought down the pulp magazine industry, forcing publishers to look for other periodicals while creators looked for work. It was a good pairing, especially for Jewish writers and illustrators who couldn’t find work with newspaper syndicates due in part to anti- Semitism. When National Comics (later DC) published Superman by Siegel and Shuster, everything changed.
Many of the first comic-book publishers were also Jewish, and the base for the industry was New York City. These fantasy-adventure magazines were printed on cheap paper, crudely drawn, primarily aimed at young boys. Nonetheless, they sold in the millions across the United States, and creators came up with new characters on a seemingly never-ending basis.
THIS IS when a young Kubert started working in comics. Still a teen, he began his professional career during World War II. This was the Golden Age of comics, when sales went through the roof as the industry and its superheroes fought the Nazis and Japanese alongside the Allies.
Despite the overwhelming number of Jews in the industry, many were ashamed of admitting they worked in comics, as it was considered junk culture. In the 1950s, conservatives in the US blamed everything from bad eyesight to juvenile delinquency on comics, and it almost killed the industry.
Kubert established himself as the most important artist (and later editor) of the War Comics line at DC/National. He started a decades-long involvement with Sgt. Rock – a character co-created with fellow tribe member Bob Kanigher. It was at this time that he developed a visual language of his own. His innovative use of line illustration became a staple for comic artists.
You could always tell a Joe Kubert illustration by looking at it.
There have been many milestones in comics since their inception: The E.C. comics of the 1950s, the Marvel Comics of the 1960s, the pioneering of independent publishers in the 1970s. The list is too long to fit in this column, but two very interesting phenomena took place throughout the 1980s and ’90s – comic books grew up, and their culture became mainstream.
In 1978, Jewish creator Will Eisner coined the term “graphic novel” and released A Contract with God – a selection of stories about New York’s Lower East Side. It was one of the first of many mature-themed comics which dominate the market today. Most comics, even with superheroes, aren’t designed for kids anymore. They are reviewed in almost every respectable newspaper, just like any form of art.
Walk into a bookstore in the US and you’ll find a “Graphic Novels” section.
Sequential art has come a long way.
Kubert was also in on the creative burst. He created Fax from Sarajevo – a true story about his friend Ervin Rustemagic, who lived in an partially destroyed building for over two years during the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. Rustemagic communicated to the outside world via fax. Kubert took these faxes and created a seminal graphic novel.
Perhaps Kubert’s most emotional work was published in 2003. His graphic novel Yossel was an imaginary tale of what would have happened to him and his family if they hadn’t left their shtetl in Poland in 1926. The work was published from his pencil sketches, giving it an eerie feeling, without the polished inking of most works. It’s the second-most powerful Holocaust story in comics that I’ve read, the first one being Maus by Art Speigelman – the only graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Comics were once considered a domain of geeks and misfits, but are now acknowledged as a cornerstone of popular culture in the US. We keep seeing Hollywood translating these creations into blockbuster movies (including this season’s Thor, Captain America and X-Men).
Is there anyone on the planet who hasn’t heard of Superman or Batman? Kubert himself understood that it was just a matter of time before there would be a demand for new creators, and in 1976 he founded the Kubert School, which to this day is the only accredited institution in the US devoted to cartooning. Among his top students are his sons Adam and Andy Kubert, both of whom are excellent artists in their own right and who will be joining their father on his visit.
No comic-book creator or publisher could have predicted the success of the medium and its stars. They have become modern-day mythology. Many have been in continuous publication for decades, with new creators bringing their take on characters created primarily by Jews. It is a success that could happen only in America, even though the culture has spread to almost every corner of the globe.
In Israel people know very little about comics and their Jewish roots. After all, comics were practically nonexistent in our country, and it’s only recently that there have been signs of a growing community of creators and fans. All the more reason for me to commend everyone involved in bringing the Kuberts here. There is a lot to be learned, not just about the art form, but about the medium’s genesis and how it affected the entire Western world. It is something of which Israelis should be aware, just as much as the Jewish impact on theater, cinema and literature.
The writer is an independent media consultant and a former producer at the Fox News Channel in New York.