In Brooklyn, Reconnecting to the Jewish Origins of Comic Books

Congregation Kol Israel in Crown Heights is the site of a conference dubbed by its organizers as 'a love letter to the creators of the comic book medium and their heroes,' many of whom were Jewish.

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Captain America was born to fight the Nazis.
Captain America was born to fight the Nazis. Credit: Courtesy

Congregation Kol Israel in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn is hosting a conference Sunday about Jewish aspects of comic books. Dubbed Jewish Comic Con, the event website describes the gathering as "a love letter to the creators of the comic book medium and their heroes," exploring the huge Jewish influence on comics.

The Wall Street Journal described it as "one of several niche comic-book conventions in New York, from the LGBT-inflected Flame Con to the Schomburg Center’s Black Comics Festival, that reflect the changing face of the genre and its audience" and noted that "those donning masks, tights and capes for Brooklyn’s newest comic convention may want to add something extra to their costume ensembles on Sunday: a yarmulke."

Event co-founder and Marvel comics Spider-Man author Fabrice Sapolsky told the Journal: "Ninety percent of the creators of comic books are Jewish. They created that industry because they couldn’t do anything else,” he said. “It started with a young pack of kids, 18, 19, sometimes younger, who just wanted to have people give them a shot. It was important for us to honor those people.”

In fact, nearly all the great superheroes were created by Jews: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (a.k.a. Jacob Kurtzberg) created Captain America, Bob Kane (Robert Kahn) and Bill Finger invented Batman, while Kirby, together with Stan Lee (Stanley Martin Lieber) produced a particularly impressive line of heroes such as Spider-Man, The Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Ironman, the X-men, Thor and the Avengers.

What was it that led Jews to take such a prominent role in the movie and comics industries? “I don’t think that the central role played by Jews in film and comics from the outset was due to special abilities or talents in these areas,” Dr. Ben Baruch Blich, a senior lecturer in the department of history and theory at the Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem told Haaretz early this year. “What caused it was the open and latent anti-Semitism that prevailed in the United States at the time. Since daily newspapers [in the U.S.] refused to accept illustrations or comic books made by Jews, they had no other choice. For example, Siegel and Shuster, who were only young men then, could not find jobs at mainstream comic book networks, so they joined [Jewish comics publisher Charlie] Gaines. The same was true for cinema. This was a restriction that forced Jews to develop a new approach.”

Danny Fingeroth, an American writer of comics and a former editor at Marvel Comics, and who will also be speaking at the conference, said many factors account for the major role that Jews played in the early years in the comics industry. "It has to do with, it seems to me, Jews’ connection to a tradition of storytelling, as well as Talmudic analysis, plus the status of the children of Jewish immigrants – like all immigrants – having an outsider status in America. This led some of them to analyze what history and myths fueled the American imagination, and how to reflect that self-image back at Americans in stories that had universal appeal."

Another breakthrough in Jewish involvement in the genre came with Art Spiegelman's Holocaust-related illustrated novel “Maus.” In 1992, “Maus” became the first comic strip to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Sunday's conference agenda includes a panel discussion with Holocaust historian Rafael Medoff and comics historian Craig Yoe about their collection of political cartoons from the 1940s that attempted to alert the United States of the Nazi genocide of European Jewry.

With reporting by Nirit Anderman.

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