Masters of American Comics
September 15, 2006-January 28, 2007
The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue – at 92nd Street, New York
“Take a sock at Hitler! Sock your dough in bonds and stamps!” says one comic. Another shows Captain Marvel, Jr. defeating a Nazi and insisting, “Come on, you Nazi man, we’ve got a date with the American Embassy.” Another shows Captain America breaking into a Nazi lab to rescue a patient from an evil Nazi doctor (with a green face), who is performing unethical paralyzing experiments. A fourth one still shows Superman bending the gun of a tank with swastikas, rendering it harmless.
The Masters of American Comics at the Jewish Museum is accompanied by a show by the same name at the Newark Museum. They differ in chronology (the Jewish Museum looks at the second half of the 20th century, while the Newark Museum looks at the first half) but both show a slew of comic book artists, many of them Jewish. Some of the names are familiar, while others will only prove recognizable to comic book “junkies”: Winsor McCay, Lyonel Feininger, George Herriman, E.C. Segar, Frank King, Chester Gould, Milton Caniff, Charles M. Schulz, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, R. Crumb, Gary Panter and Chris Ware. Still others surface in the Superheroes: Good and Evil in American Comics section of the Jewish Museum show.
Jack Kirby, splash page from Fantastic Four #51 (published June 1966), comic book. Private Collection. FANTASTIC FOUR: ™ and © 2006 Marvel Characters, Inc. Used with permission. (The character depicted, The Thing, is one of several Jewish superheroes.)
Many of the artists have been reviewed in these pages, particularly Eisner, Joe Kubert and others in an exhibit on Jewish comic book artists a few years ago at the JCC in Manhattan. As I and Richard McBee have written several times, it was the children of Jewish immigrant parents that, in many ways, started comic books in this country. These teenagers created the superheroes that were mighty enough to defeat the Nazis.
But what is new with Jewish comic book art? The Jewish Museum and Newark Museum shows are to be commended for their tremendous research and ability to collect comic books and strips. There are nearly 600 objects in both museums, according to the press releases, which is remarkable – even to those who see comic books as the domain of kids. Yet, unless the exhibits can add something vital to the discussion of American comic books and superheroes, they are doomed to just be a parking garage of once-significant strips.
One strip that might offer some relevance is Still Life by Jerry Robinson. In the strip, a cannon addresses a nearby cannon ball. “What is a limited war?” the gun asks. “That’s one where the casualties don’t exceed the birthrate,” the bullet replies. Especially after the recent commemoration of the 9/11 horrors and with American troops still in Iraq and Afghanistan, this strip carries a significant message.
The way we, as Americans, measure a failure in war often involves one or two soldiers killed in battle. This attention to each and every soldier as a human casualty rather than a statistic is just the sort that arises in the battle at the city of Ai in the Book of Joshua, in which 36 Jewish soldiers are killed by the soldiers of Ai because Achan, the son of Carmi, the son of Zabdi, the son of Zerah, of the tribe of Judah, stole from the siege. Thirty-six casualties are enough to lead Joshua to fall on his face and ask how G-d could have taken the Jewish people out of Jordan “to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us?”
Charles M. Schulz, Peanuts, newspaper, Sunday page (published October 13, 1968), pen and ink. Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center. PEANUTS © United Feature Syndicate, Inc.
Joshua has not lost faith because of 36 casualties; he simply has the utmost respect for each and every one, which is why he responds to such a small number of casualties with such tragic concerns. (Consider that at war’s end, the casualties on the Ai side “both of men and women were 12,000, even all the men of Ai.”) Joshua ends up resolving the conflict in superhero fashion by catching the culprit with the use of a divinely inspired lot. But as the cannon strip ironically suggests, oftentimes the human element is overlooked at war.
There is a lot at stake in the Robinson strip, which uses a somewhat juvenile form to convey a very mature narrative. Like blogs, comic strips were and are a medium that could be used for bolder and more honest tales than novels. In the show, a Peanuts strip by Charles M. Schulz further underscores this comparison. Charlie Brown is sitting on the floor drawing, when Lucy comes up and tells him that his drawing, which he describes as “a row of trees, and I’m going to color them green,” is not art.
Disturbed, Charlie offers to add a lake in front of the trees to turn his drawing into art. “That still won’t make it art,” Lucy insists, to which Charlie offers to add a tiny log cabin beside the lake. And, so it goes, Lucy demands a waterfall, a sunset, the sun going down “sort of orangey,” some red streaks in the sky, smoke from the chimney and a forest with a deer to turn the drawing into art. “Now you have trees, a lake, a log cabin, a waterfall, a deer and a sunset That’s art!” she yells. As she walks off, Lucy mutters to herself, “Sometimes it takes a layman to set these people straight.”
George Herriman, Untitled (Krazy Kat), 1939, watercolor, inscribed with a dedication to Boyden Sparkes (in a golden Magen David). International Museum of Cartoon Art. © 2005 Reprinted with permission of King Features Syndicate.
The Jewish comic book artists who drew superheroes beating up Nazis were laymen. They had a great imagination, and they managed to bring interesting technology and complex, secret military plans into their narratives. But like Lucy, they were just offering fairly unproductive, though imaginative, criticism.
In the cover of the March, 1941, (No. 1) issue of Jack Kirby’s and Joe Simon’s Captain America,the issue is teased, “Smashing thru, Captain America came face to face with Hitler” On the cover, Captain America, while blocking Nazi shots with his red, white and blue shield, punches Hitler in the face, knocking him to the ground. In many ways, Kirby and Simon were just giving an image to their fantasies about accessing and reprimanding the Nazi regime. Many will find this immature and disrespectful to the victims.
But stories were all that the young Jewish American comic book artists had – much as they are all we have now – as we face the threats of global terrorism, with much of it specifically targeting Jews. Masters of American Comics is so important because it not only stresses that in some ways nothing has changed and we are still in danger, but also because it teaches us to hope and dream for heroes and leaders who can set things straight by defeating evil.
Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.