11. September 2016

The rise of the comic strips in the United States was also strongly influenced by Jewish immigration. It was Jews who invented heroes like Superman, Batman and The Spirit – and then sent them out to do battle with the Nazis.

By Alexander Jürgs

In his Pulitzer-prizewinning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay”, American author Michael Chabon recounts a tale that is both touching and comic. It is about two young, men who arrive, uncertain of themselves, as Jewish immigrants in the New York of the 1930s. Having fled from Eastern Europe, they attempt to eke out a living in the comic industry, which was booming at the time as such illustrated short stories, told in just a few pictures and printed on cheap newspaper, were becoming ever more popular and fast emerging as a mass medium.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay written by Michael Chabon, Image via wikipedia.org

One of the two men, Prague native Josef Kavalier, invents a character of his own: The Escapist, a superhero with a blue cloak who manages to escape from the trickiest of situations. Kavalier learnt the tricks he uses by watching legendary escape artist Harry Houdini. Klay sends the invented heroes to fight a very real foe: the ever stronger force of fascism.

On Krypton Superman has a Hebrew name

“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” is magnificently eccentric fiction, but is based on a true story. It was indeed two Jewish illustrators – second-generation immigrants Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster from Cleveland – who invented the Superman character, and had him appear as a fighter against the Nazis. From 1938 onwards their hero from the planet Krypton conquered the comic market (Siegel and Shuster had actually published their own magazine from 1933 and it was in this that Superman appeared). The comic strips were even banned in Nazi Germany on the order of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.

Action Comics # 1  cover, Image via dc.wikia.com

In 1940 Shuster and Siegel published the episode “How Superman Would End The War”, in which their hero succeeded in bringing the villain Hitler before a court to be tried. Superman was anti-fascist through and through. Even his birth name was Hebrew: He was born on Krypton as Kal El (meaning God is in everything). Despite this he was never fundamentally perceived as a Jewish invention. The savior of the world in his blue costume and the countless other comic characters with supernatural powers were always, first and foremost, American heroes. And this also explains why the Jewish roots of the comic genre long remained unappreciated. 

The Jewish illustrators “Americanize” their names 

After all, Siegel and Shuster had for a long time not been the only Jewish illustrators seeking success in the comic industry. Since the beginning of the 20th century, when the artists of the “Pioneers of the Comic Strip” exhibition also began putting colored pen to paper, a disproportionately high number of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe worked on the strips, which initially appeared in newspapers but from the 1930s onwards were also published in their own, purely comic-based magazines. Many of these immigrants had come to the United States virtually penniless, becoming comic illustrators not out of a great passion, but simply because they were unable to make a living as artists and because by drawing comics they could make not a good living, but a living nonetheless.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Image via screenrant.com

Cover of Captain America Comics #1, Image via wikipedia.org

Not only Superman, but also Batman, Captain America, Spiderman and the Fantastic Four were the creations of Jewish illustrators, although comic artists frequently “Americanized” their names so their roots were unrecognizable. Bob Kane, the illustrator behind Batman, was actually called Robert Khan. Comic legend Jacob Kurtzberg, who worked on the series “The Fantastic Four”, worked under the name Jack Kirby, while illustrator Stanley Lieber shortened his name to Stan Lee. Some exhibitions over the past few years, in Berlin and Paris but also in the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt (“Superman and Golem”, 2009) have now brought the stories of these illustrators back into the public limelight, and in the meantime the Jewish roots of the comic have been explored intensively by scholars too. 

Jewish illustrators continue to play a significant role in shaping the genre. Will Eisner, who died in 2005 and created the character of “The Spirit” (another character who fought against Nazi Germany – in a story from 1941 he succeeds in showing Adolf Hitler the error of his ways in New York), is considered the inventor of the graphic novel, the literary comic. Robert Crumb, Gerry Shamray and Diane Noomin became stars of the underground comic, while Harvey Kurtzman invented “Mad” magazine. Art Spiegelman powerfully relates the story of his father, a Holocaust survivor, in “Maus”, a story that takes your breath away, that haunts you, a masterpiece of the genre. One notable voice among contemporary artists is Rutu Modan: In her graphic novels the artist depicts life in Israel.

Jack Kirby, Image via wikimedia.org