The Avengers, Spider-Man, Superman, Batman ... and Harvey Pekar?
Illustrators J.T. Waldman and Arlen Schumer captured the Jewish-American comic book experience as they delivered back-to-back lectures during the 47th annual Association of Jewish Libraries Convention on June 18. The eclectic discussions, eye-openers for some librarians in attendance, ranged from mainstream superheroes to alternative comics, such as Pekar’s “American Splendor.”
The convention, held June 17-20 at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, gathered local Jewish authors and nearly 200 professional librarians from Jewish institutions nationwide.
“It’s an annual celebration of the authors that we read, we review, we catalog,” said Lisa Silverman, library director at Sinai Temple, which hosted the event. “We’re delighted to meet them in person.”
Isarel in the eyes of Harvey Pekar]
During “My Pekar Years (2007-2012): Creating Comix and Exploring Judaism With ‘Our Man,’ ” Waldman chronicled how he was hired to illustrate Pekar’s last autobiographical graphic novel, “Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me” (Hill & Wang: $24.95).
Best known for his “Megillat Esther,” an intricate Arthur Szyk-style work published in 2005, Waldman befriended artist Dean Haspiel, illustrator of the 2006 Pekar graphic novel, “The Quitter,” during a Baltimore comic book convention. Haspiel advised Waldman, then a Hebrew teacher, to submit a manuscript to Pekar. Months later, on Thanksgiving Day 2007, Waldman got a call from Pekar promising “$20,000 to do a whole book.” He considered the 8:30 a.m. phone call a compliment.
“[Pekar] was always very selective with artists he chose for his comics,” Waldman said.
After two years of conversations with Waldman about the Jewish state, Pekar developed a script he tentatively titled “How I Changed My Mind About Israel.”
But just as their collaboration began to flourish, everything changed on July 12, 2010, Waldman said. “I got a text message from a friend: ‘Oh, my God! Go online!’ ”
Pekar, 70, had died.
“The reason I took the book is because I wanted to work with Harvey, and now he was gone,” said Waldman, who finished the graphic novel on his own.
The end result is a narrative that features Pekar, who grew up with Zionist parents, wrestling with the myths and realities of the Jewish state.
Waldman capped off his lecture with video of himself kibitzing with the characteristically grumpy “American Splendor” creator, pestering Pekar about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“What you do is you stay out of there,” Pekar grumbled. “You don’t go populate it with thousands of people,” opining that occupation was not good for the Jews. “Even [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon realized it.”
Where Waldman zigged with a singular look into his collaboration with Pekar, comic book historian Schumer, author of “The Silver Age of Comic Book Art,” zagged with an overview of the creation of the American superhero by Jews.
With “Super Jews: Past and Present,” Schumer presented an energetic, if well-traveled, assessment of significant Jewish visionaries and trends in the creation of the American superhero idiom — launched by the success of DC Comics’ Superman and Batman in the 1930s and rounded out at Marvel Comics in the 1960s by writer Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber) and artist Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg).
Swathed in a Superman cape, Schumer opened with a discussion about comics pioneer Max Gaines (born Maxwell Ginsburg), who in 1933 became the first publisher to “take [Sunday comic] reprints, fold them over and create the comic book.” In 1937, Detective Comics became the first comic composed of new material. And in 1938, Action Comics No. 1 changed the medium forever with the arrival of Superman.
“Superman starts out first as a comic strip, a realistic adventure-story character, [the serious] flip side of Popeye,” said Schumer, who noted how Christian and Jewish historians have co-opted Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s iconic superhero as, respectively, a Christ figure and an ersatz Moses. Superman also combines elements of David, Samson and Judah Maccabee, and Schumer traced the lineage of Superman, the Thing and Hulk to the golem myth.
Other Jewish creators of superheroes mentioned during Schumer’s talk included writer Joe Simon and artist Kirby (Captain America), writer-artist Will Eisner (the Spirit), artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger (Batman), editor Julius Schwartz (Barry Allen’s Flash), artist Martin Nodell (Alan Scott’s Green Lantern), artist Gil Kane (Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern) and writer Arnold Drake (Deadman).
By the 1960s, Jewish talent, such as DC Comics’ Schwartz and Mort Weisinger as well as Marvel’s Lee and Kirby, had built the foundations of the comics industry just as the Warners, Goldwyns, Laemmles and Mayers had built Hollywood. Through media such as film and comics, Jews created the American Dream through the prism of their respective lower-class immigrant backgrounds and the promise of freedom through democracy, Schumer said.
“That was essentially the Jewish-American assimilationist dream,” he said. “And all of them kept their Jewishness behind closed doors, many changing their names. But, looking back at history, none could keep their Jewish ideals and principles from surfacing through their works.”
Schumer and Waldman will appear at San Diego Comic-Con, July 12-15. For more information, visit this article at jewishjournal.com.
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