From ‘Superman’ to ‘Maus’, why Jewish creators are a fundamental part of comic book history

Jewish writers and artists have been a fundamental part of comic book creation since the early days of the industry.

Comic books used to be formatted like books or newspapers, but in 1934 Max Gaines, a Jewish New Yorker, and his colleague Harry Wildenberg, created the first half tabloid-sized comic book – the format that became the standard. Their Famous Funnies comic book sold 90 per cent of the 200,000 printed copies. This led to numerous imitators, including New Fun Comics from National Allied Publications (later renamed DC Comics), which published its first issue in 1935.

Gaines was a former schoolteacher and channelled this into his work. He named his company Educational Comics, with such titles as Picture Stories from the Bible. However, when his son William took over EC Comics in the 1940s, it became notorious as a publisher of horror comics and these were banned in the following decade.

In the 1930s, comic books reprinted comic strips that had previously appeared in newspaper humour sections. Famous Funnies, for example, included the popular serial Mutt and Jeff. But by the end of the decade, they featured entirely new content in a variety of genres, including superheroes.

The first, and most famous, of these was Superman. The character was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933 in a self-published comic. They tried to find a professional publisher to take on their character and – after Gaines took too long to reply to them – found a home for Superman at National in 1938.

Siegel and Shuster were sons of Jewish European immigrants, leading some modern comic book writers to compare Superman’s alien immigrant identity to other émigrés in America. The International Rescue Committee noted the importance of the character for the antisemitic era of the 1930s: “Superman’s story is the ultimate example of an immigrant who makes his new home better.”

Some researchers believe that Siegel and Shuster were specifically inspired by a famous Polish bodybuilder called “the Jewish Superman”, who toured America in the 1920s. Writer Roy Schwartz also sees elements of Jewish mythology in the character, as noted in his 2021 book Is Superman Circumcised?.

A year later, another iconic DC character, Batman, was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. They were also children of immigrants and were half of a quartet of famous Jewish comic creators who went to the same school in the south Bronx, including Will Eisner and Marvel’s Stan Lee. While Batman doesn’t have any obvious Jewish characteristics, Bruce Wayne’s cousin, Kate Kane (aka Batwoman) was later depicted as a Jewish woman.

Known for working with Stan Lee, another Jewish creator is considered the “greatest storyteller” of superhero comics. Artist Jack Kirby was responsible for co-creating not only some of the most memorable Marvel characters – including The Avengers and The X-Men – but also had an acclaimed run as a solo creator in the 1970s, first on Marvel’s Eternals and then on DC Comics’ Fourth World titles.

The debut of Superman. | Image credits: Wikimedia Commons.

Other genres

Alongside superheroes, Kirby was renowned for his work on comics written by Sandman’s Joe Simon. Together, they brought romance to the medium in 1947 and made memorable monster comics in the 1960s. Another popular genre was mystery comics. Will Eisner’s The Spirit (1940) included elements of superheroes and horror. The main character was an undead private detective who wore a mask.

Eisner was also the child of Jewish immigrants and towards the end of his career, turned his upbringing into semi-autobiographical comics that depicted the downtrodden existence of people in poor Hassidic communities in New York. Eisner’s works, including A Contract with God (1978) and several follow-ups in the 1980s, not only popularised the term “graphic novel”, but also added to the increasing trend of turning Jewish lives in comics.

In the 1970s, a number of notable female Jewish creators first had their work published in Underground Comix, including Trina Robbins, Diane Noomin, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb. The only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer prize – Maus – tells the story of author Art Spiegelman’s father’s experience in a concentration camp, and started to be serialised in 1980.

Modern Jewish comics

Today, many Jewish creators are making graphic novels and cartoons. Comics editor Corinne Pearlman drew a popular strip Playing the Jewish Card in the 1990s and now edits graphic novels. She and other creators were featured in the 2011 exhibition and book Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women, curated by graphic novelist Sarah Lightman. Lightman is one of the editors of a new follow-up anthology, Jewish Women in Comics: Borders and Bodies. Other British female creators include Karrie Fransman, who makes comics about refugees and victims of gender-based violence, and musician and cartoonist Danny Noble who has illustrated children’s books by Adrian Edmondson.

Until September 3, The Jewish Community Centre London in Hampstead exhibited caricatures of Jewish celebrities such as Nigella Lawson and Daniel Radcliffe by Zoom Rockman. Rockman started his career as one of the youngest published cartoonists in the UK, with his own self-published comic, before going on to draw strips for The Beano and Private Eye.

Other creators have had their autobiographical comics animated, such as cartoonist and musician Carol Isaacs’ The Wolf of Baghdad and the life of Charlotte Saloman, author of the proto-graphic novel Life? or Theatre?.

With attention being brought to the work of numerous Jewish comic creators through film adaptations, books and exhibitions like these, it seems that their contribution to the medium is finally being recognised.

Alex Fitch is a lecturer and PhD candidate in Comics and Architecture at the University of Brighton, UK.

This article first appeared in The Conversation.

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