A Personal (Sock!) History (Pow!) of Comics


Jews and American Comic Books
By Arie Kaplan
Foreward by Harvey Pekar and JT Waldman
240 pages. Jewish Publication Society of Amerca. $25.

From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books is a fine book on an important subject. Arie Kaplan has been a Mad Magazine writer—that is to say, scriptwriter—for years, and thus is a true inheritor of the tradition, going back to the days of the early comics. History, for Kaplan, is personal, and it's rare when you are handed a complex historical narrative written by a bona fide creator of American popular culture.

In the world of comic books, from the late 1930s on, the "Jewish question" may have been on everybody's mind, but hardly ever in print, at least not openly, for Jewish artists and scriptwriters. This was the era of successful assimilation, and so Jewish comic-strip folk had real, career-based reasons to keep their ethnic flag furled. A good number of them were socialistic liberals, very much like their Hollywood counterparts, who rarely ran in circles affiliated with the Communist Party. They were happy to be in safe-but-flawed America, but they also yearned for a different America, a multi-cultural, multi-racial democracy in which melting into the common pot was not a compulsion but a choice, one not everyone had to make.

Speaking of choices: let's talk about Kaplan's narrative selection. From Krakow to Krypton is not always keen on the conflicts within the comic book industry between tight-fisted titans and overworked creative artists, many of whom were Jewish but looked at economics from different angles. But Kaplan tells the pathetic story of Superman's creators, cheated of almost everything by the industry, very effectively. The Batman story is about as bad. Outsider attacks upon the industry (on DC Comics, by Congressional witch hunters and their industry partners, and especially on the Archie Comics people) is etched in acid, properly.

Having said that, my own judgment of the superhero renewal—with DC and Marvel developing some real Jewish themes amid all the Sock!s and Pow!s and a great deal of banal dialogue—is not trustworthy because these comics have nothing for me. But Kaplan tells the story in great detail and tells it well.

By the time we scramble into the Underground Comix world, Kaplan seems to be short on pages, or perhaps most of the Jewish artists, and those drawing Jewish themes, are less compelling to him. We seem to move rather quickly to the return of Will Eisner, the emergence of Art Spiegelman as master artist, and the continuing saga of DC and Marvel characters, among others, as refiguring Jewish-style superheroes.

One of the great qualities of From Krakow to Krypton is the wealth of illustration, a large quantity of it in brilliant color. This is the kind of book to be enjoyed by flipping through, reading, flipping through some more, and reading at random, then returning to a reading-straight-through for content, but also for a glimpse of the author himself. Kaplan is as humane as he is bright and talented, and his qualities show throughout. Crabby readers who have gone through life hating comics and regarding them as dangerous to children will probably not be convinced. But the rest of us will enjoy and learn.