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Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form (ADVANCE)

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Jews and American Comics: An Illustrated History of an American Art Form (ADVANCE)

Credits

  • Words: Paul Buhle
  • Art: Various
  • Inks: Various
  • Colors: N/A
  • Story Title: N/A
  • Publisher: The New Press
  • Price: $29.95
  • Release Date: Aug 26, 2008

Everyone knows the names Will Eisner, Art Speigelman, maybe Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb, but now comes a book to show the full breadth of how American comics have been invented, revolutionized, and constantly reinvented via the efforts of Jewish artists and publishing pioneers.  Paul Buhle, a professor of American Civilization at Brown University, and author of the multi-volume non-fiction epic Jews and American Popular Culture (amongst nearly twenty-seven other works), breaks down the influence of Jewish creators on American comics.  This influence divvies neatly into four eras, covered in four chapters: “The Dailies”, “Comic Book Heroes”, “The Underground Era”, and, ultimately, the modern era in a chapter titled “Recovering Jewishness”.

Each of the four chapters contains a brief essay written by Buhle, chronicling the names and titles and events that shaped each period, thereby threading them together into a weave that is coherent, a wearable article out of history.  Most readers may jump to the usual roll call of Jewish comic book giants, and believe themselves equipped with a fair ladle of the topic’s knowledge, but surprisingly (and pleasantly so), Jews and American Comics tackles an incredible range of comics work and historical event, so much so that casual comic book readers as well as comic-art connoisseurs and scholars of the medium will each be equally remiss not to devour what JoAC has to offer.

It begins with yiddishkayt (“yiddishness”) daily strips, published in primarily local Yiddish publications, and then the slow trickle of these strips’ slapstick, dialect play, and tone over to mainstream newspaper runs, such as the classics The Spirit, Al Capp, and Terry and the Pirates.  Then comes the super-hero era, of Siegel and Shuster and Superman, also Batman, and then the less-known history of Jewish publishers producing EC Comics, MAD, and Classics Illustrated, all of which utilize thinly-veiled qualities left over from the Yiddishkayt, only now dressed in such camouflage as Captain America’s spandex and shield combo—a skinny kid wanting to belong and take part in his country’s struggle against the Nazis?  Pure Jewishness.

The underground “comix” era followed, spinning off the power of MAD and its publisher Harvey Kurtzman, who went on to discover and freely publish the work of Robert and Aline Crumb, Art Speigelman, and more.  Women artists found their voices for the first time, creators such as Trina Robbins and Sharon Rudahl.  Comix as a near-political (and definitely social) movement collapsed before the 80’s was over and done, but it paved the way for the first true auteurs of comic book art, as comic art itself at last wiggled itself into a form that was considered, at least by those who mattered, as indeed art.  Maus, Peter Kuper, Eric Drooker and his long-running World War 3 Illustrated began the era of today, with creators at last reveling in their Jewish roots, out in the open for all the world to see and without censorship.

JaAC finishes on as up-to-date works as Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Miriam Libicki’s Jobnik!—that’s a lot of creators, and therefore a lot of comics to digest, and furthermore Buhle’s essays ensure that readers understand the chronology and sociological movement from comics work to comics work over the course of coarse time.  For all its pages devoted to illustrations, reprints, and rare examples of long-forgotten work, and no matter than Buhle’s essays lean toward the direct and concise, Jews and American Comics is a dense piece of work.  There’s more to chronicle and have said about Jewish creators in the American comics medium than most will suspect, and Buhle’s book thoroughly informs.  Not just the history of individual creators, but of the publishing world, political hurdles, and socia l movements involved as well. Insofar as the title subject matter is concerned, this is one comprehensive composition, tackling the topic from every conceivable angle.

Now, this isn’t an anthology, as most of the selected illustrations and reprints are incomplete—a handful of strips or a few pages, carefully chosen but not complete works in and of themselves.  JaAC is meant as a primer, a sampler, and an at-length collation of Jewish comics work.  It’s a perfect opportunity to sample work of creators, strips, and comics you may never come across or hear of anywhere else. Even better, the book allows a solid insight as to how American comics progressed from an infant publishing gamble to an infant art form to a full-blown pop culture and high art phenomenon. Though while the evolution of comics and their place in American culture on the a whole can be gleaned, Buhle sticks stoically to covering the Jewish side of things, the modern-most parts finding Jewish creators at last branching into their own, firmly Jewish stories. A return, of sorts, to yiddishkayt.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of JaAC is a thesis proffered between the lines. When all the Jewish books and art and publishing ventures are understood, there seems an unspoken truth: that so much of what we wield as the “American” mindset—the comic book morality,the dream of acceptance, equality, rooting for the underdog, loving the neurotic, admiring uninhibited ambition, and forever searching for a sense of place and self—while a part of any people and culture, seems quintessentially Jewish.  Almost as though, while still a country plagued by racism, America is, in its more iconic and admirable qualities, the closest approximation to a true-blue Jewish nation.  With minimal freedom and complete censorship toward their culture, Jews yet seem to have established their identity throughout, overtop and overcoming that of nearly every other.  And now, in the present, they’ve at last been able to find their own personal voices within comics as well, with works that no longer camouflage their particularly Jewish sensibilities.

Jews and American Comics is a must for anyone who prides themselves on being more than a modern mainstream super-hero comics reader, and even then, here lay exhumed the origins of the mainstream heroes, the origins you likely didn’t suspect.  Paul Buhle puts forth an entertaining, and (but of course) informative guide to “where your comics come from, kid—this Shinola didn’t form itself in a vacuum, ya know.”  I’ve read plenty of books on comics and their history, but this one covers an angle heretofore only ever glossed upon.  Now the picture comes clear, and it’s about time. This is a missing link of comics history, covered with a proper Jewish obsessiveness, at long last.

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