Jews in Comic Books

How American Jews created the comic book industry.

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Jews built the comic book industry from the ground up, and the influence of Jewish writers, artists, and editors continues to be felt to this day. But how did Jews come to have such a disproportionate influence on an industry most famous for lantern-jawed demigods clad in colorful tights?

First Comic Books

The story begins in 1933. During that year, the world experienced seismic changes in politics and pop culture. An unemployed Jewish novelty salesman named Maxwell Charles "M.C." Gaines (née Max Ginzberg) had a brilliant idea: if he enjoyed reading old comic strips like Joe Palooka, Mutt and Jeff, and Hairbredth Harry so much, maybe the rest of America would, too. Thus was born the American comic book, which a contract with god, jewish comic bookssin its earliest days consisted of reprinted newspaper funnies. Gaines and his colleague Harry L. Wildenberg at Eastern Color Printing soon published February 1934's Famous Funnies #1, Series 1, the first American retail comic book. 

Rival comic book publishers sprang up immediately. However, by the mid-1930s publishers were already starting to exhaust the backlog of daily and Sunday strips that could be reprinted. The easiest way to fill the demand for new comic book features was for publishers to tap writers and artists who couldn't get work anywhere else, either because they were too young, too inexperienced, or  Jewish--in most cases, all three. Advertising agencies had anti-Semitic quotas, and newspaper syndicates only occasionally took on a token Jewish cartoonist like Milt Gross or Rube Goldberg. But the comic book companies were mostly run by Jewish publishers like Timely Comics's Martin Goodman or DC Comics's Harry Donenfeld. It was a situation similar to that of the early motion picture industry, in which Jewish directors, producers, and studio executives who'd faced anti-Semitism in other industries built an industry of their own.

Because the comic book stories were being written and drawn largely by inexperienced teenagers, they were often crude rip-offs of the popular newspaper strips of the day, such as Tarzan or Buck Rogers. Enter writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. In 1938, DC Comics published the Man of Steel's first adventure in the pages of Action Comics #1. Superman was an instant hit. Literally dozens of Superman clones were rushed into production by rival comic book publishers, and suddenly the comic book industry had a future.

According to most comic book historians, Superman's creation heralded the beginning
of the so-called "Golden Age" of comic books, the era during which the visual grammar of the medium was established. It was also a time when many classic characters were created. There was nothing overtly Jewish about the characters created during this era. However, occasionally a comic book character would emerge that had certain Jewish signifiers. After America became involved in World War Two, Timely Comics superhero Captain America's Jewish creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby pitted their star-spangled warrior against the Nazi agent Red Skull. Captain America's alter ego Steve Rogers could be seen as a symbol for the way Jews were stereotypically depicted as frail and passive. That is, until he took a serum that transformed him into the robust Captain America. The serum was created by "Professor Reinstein," an obvious nod to famed Jewish physicist Albert Einstein. And Superman gave such a pounding to Nazi agents from 1941-45 that, according to legend, Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels jumped up in the midst of a Reichstag meeting and denounced the Man of Steel as a Jew.

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Arie Kaplan

Arie Kaplan is the author of the critically-acclaimed nonfiction book From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books (JPS). He's also a comic book writer and a screenwriter. Recently, Arie wrote the story and dialogue for the upcoming House M.D. videogame. Please check out his website, www.ariekaplan.com.