Center for Jewish History to highlight Jewish contributions to comics with exhibit next month

One year ago, New York Comic Con, the largest pop culture event in the East Coast, rejected all panel proposals related to the Jewish history and culture of comic books, an industry birthed predominantly from the minds and pens of Jewish creators. Meanwhile, there were plenty of panels representing other marginalized groups. While some in the Jewish comics community were shocked, the move barely made a blip on the radar of the average comic fan or Jew.

This under-appreciation for the Jewish contributions to comics, from both the comics community and the Jewish community, is why Miriam Eve Mora, the director of academic and public programs at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, co-created The Jewish Comic Experience (JewCE), which will be held on Nov. 11-12 at the center. A connected exhibit is currently running at the center through December, featuring original Captain America artwork by the character’s co-creator, Joe Simon, as well as a laboratory where visitors create their own comics.  

“We’re having quite a moment in Jewish comics right now,” Mora told eJewishPhilanthropy. She spearheaded the return of Jewish comic programming to New York Comic Con (NYCC), which ran from Oct. 12 – 15, with a panel discussing the Jewish experience in comics outside of trauma, which promoted JewCE. (A spokesperson from NYCC told eJP fan demand led to the return of Jewish programming). “There’s so much wonderful stuff,” Mora said.

While there have been many comics that wrestle with the Holocaust, including Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, Maus, there are increasingly more mainstream Jewish-identifying superheroes and autobiographical comics portraying the diversity of the Jewish experience.

JewCE was inspired by Brooklyn Comic Con, which was held in 2016 and 2018 at Congregation Kol Israel. The conventions were put together by Fabrice Sapolsky, a former Marvel Comics writer and the CEO and founder of FairSquare Comics, and brought over 300 fans together and allowed creators to connect and learn from legends, including Mad Magazine’s Al Jaffee. When envisioning JewCE last October, Mora reached out to Sapolsky who became the co-planner and co-creator of the event.

“I could never have imagined that years later, we would do something even bigger, and it’s something that is clearly needed right now,” Sapolsky told eJP. “To have a base to talk about Jewish positivity and showcase Jewish creators and Jewish stories that are not related to the Holocaust or to the Israel war.”

In the week preceding the event, there will be programming including a reading of Hereville, a musical based on the graphic novel series of the same name that stars an Orthodox, troll-fighting 11-year-old heroine.

The first night of the convention will feature an awards ceremony. For JewCE’s inaugural awards, since many works from the past haven’t had a chance to be honored, they will recognize Jewish comics and creators spanning as far back as the 1980s. The second day of the event will feature the convention as well as three workshops and 12 panels, which will also air on Zoom, including ones based on queer, female and non-Ashkenazi representation, as well as how comics illuminate Jewish sacred texts.

Mora hopes that the event will inspire creators to donate their personal collections to one of the five partner agencies that make up the Center for Jewish History — the American Jewish Historical Society, American Sephardi Federation, Leo Baeck Institute New York, Yeshiva University Museum and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research — because the agencies lack comic-related content in their collections.

For the convention’s sake, it doesn’t matter if the creators are Jewish themselves, said Mora. “A lot of our guests aren’t Jewish, and [being Jewish is] certainly not a prerequisite to being there or winning any of the awards. It’s about telling Jewish stories.”

Guests include creators from both Marvel, DC Comics and independent publishers, as well as prose writers such as Arie Kaplan, the author of From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books, and Simcha Weinstein, the author of Up, Up, and Oy Vey: How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero. The guest of honor is Trina Robbins, one of first female artists in the underground “comix” movement.

The event itself will be a part of Jewish history, Mora said. “All of the panels that we run are going to be recorded and put in the institutional archive, so anyone around the world doing research on the history of Jews in comics or Jewish representation in graphic arts or in sequential art can view all of the panels that we have in perpetuity.”

While raising money for her nonprofit “would always be a plus,” Mora’s intention is to give back any money made to the creators. She also hopes sponsors will commission creators to produce work for them. The Center for Jewish History put together a JewCE Speakers Collective so schools and organizations can bring creators in to present on Jewish culture in comics. “If we ended up with hundreds or thousands more than we spent, it would be wonderful for the center to put it into a scholarship,” she said. “We could create an artist-in-residence program to support someone doing historical research for graphic narratives.”

Sponsors for the exhibit include the Jesselson Family, the Zabar Family and Marty Peretz, the former owner and editor of The New Republic. Convention sponsors include the Jewish diversity-focused nonprofit Be’Chol Lashon, Source Point Press, Maggid Comics, “Torah Smash: The Podcast of Nerdy Jews” and Kar-Ben Publishing.

Also launching at the convention will be a 24-page comic titled Hyphen created in a partnership between Be’chol Lashon and FairSquare Comics, telling autobiographical stories of three diverse Jews: one is a Jew-by-choice who grew up in Laos; another is an Ethiopian Jew who journeyed to Israel and America, bringing her culture with her along the way; and the third is a trans Jew who has both a bat and bar mitzvah. “It shows that whatever your choices or your calling or your gender is, you never stop being Jewish,” Sapolsky said.

The goal is for the comic to be a preview for a 144-page graphic novel created by Be’chol Lashon and FairSquare comics set to be released in 2024.

The partnership “seemed to be a no-brainer since [Be’chol Lashon] have been helping ethnically and racially diverse Jews to tell their own stories for over a decade,” Julian Voloj, a comic creator and interim director of Be’chol Lashon, told eJP. “With our involvement, we are ensuring that the full richness of Jewish life is experienced at the convention.”

This richness of the Jewish story needs to be told and cultivated because the themes are universal and can connect across cultures, Sapolsky said. “More than ever, and especially with everything going on right now on the other side of the world, we need to be visible. We need to talk. We need to speak.”

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