Jews in Comic Books

How American Jews created the comic book industry.

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A Bad Influence

After the war, however, comic sales started to drift off. One reason for this was the increasing concern that comics were a bad influence on the nation's children. In 1947, Max Gaines's ne'er-do-well son Bill Gaines assumed control of his late father's company Educational Comics, renamed it Entertaining Comics, and over the next few years phased out the wholesome titles like Picture Stories from the Bible in favor of gory, lurid titles like Tales From the Crypt and The Vault of Horror. The new EC was a hit. In 1952 an EC humor comic book created by Harvey Kurtzman often featured Yiddish words like "ganef," "feh," "oy," and "fershlugginer" in the stories. That humor title was MAD.

This anti-comic book sentiment led in the spring of 1954to the publication of The Seduction of the Innocent, based on Jewish psychologist Frederic Wertham's seven-year-long study of the effects of comic books on America's youth. Dr. Wertham condemned most of the genre--especially crime and horror comics--for having contributed to juvenile delinquency. As the outcry following the publication of Seduction of the Innocent grew, so did the call for government intervention. The Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Committee on the Judiciary opened in Manhattan federal court on April 21, 1954. Bill Gaines had to cancel his entire line, except for MAD, which became a magazine to escape censorship. Thanks to writers and cartoonists like Al Jaffee, Will Elder, Frank Jacobs, and Mort Drucker, MAD soon became well-known for a certain urban Jewish sensibility. MAD had a huge influence, helping to pave the way for modern comedy as we know it.

The Marvel Age

The comic book industry took awhile to fully recover from the damage that Wertham had wrought. That changed when Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) decided to develop a new type of superhero book. For 1961's Fantastic Four, Lee teamed with his frequent collaborator, artist Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), to create a group of superheroes who weren't sunny or optimistic like rival company DC's heroes. One member of the Fantastic Four, Ben Grimm (aka The Thing) felt like a freak because cosmic rays had transformed him into an orange, granite-skinned monster. With Ben Grimm, Lee and Kirby were using a superhero as a metaphor for Jews, African-Americans, and other minorities.

The Thing, Ben Grimm, is JewishDuring this period of rapid growth, Martin Goodman's company, once known as Timely, would officially be named Marvel Comics, and this era would be remembered as the "Marvel Age" of Comics (roughly 1961-1970). Throughout this period, Lee and/or Kirby created or co-created many classic characters, including Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Nick Fury. Lee and Kirby would also expand the "superhero as outsider" metaphor with other creations, such as 1963's X-Men. Featuring a group of superpowered mutants who tried to help the very people who feared and loathed them for being different, X-Men was a potent allegory for being "born different." And in the late 1970s, Jewish comic book writer Chris Claremont would introduce openly Jewish characters into the X-Men like Kitty Pryde, who often wore a Star of David necklace. Claremont would also provide a new backstory for the X-Men's arch nemesis Magneto, explaining that the villain's hatred of humanity resulted from his childhood spent enduring the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.

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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.